Social media in distance learning
Sotunki Distance Learning Center is an upper secondary school for adults. The students study via internet, and as a group they are very heterogenic: they are from 16 to 70 years old, some of them have families and children, some of them are retired and some are teenagers doing dual qualification in vocational schools. There are very few lessons held in Sotunki Distance Learning Center and attending them is not obligatory, which means that our student do not meet each other or their teachers very often, if not at all.
The teachers in the Distance Learning Center are always trying to find new ways to teach and, as the students do not meet each other, give students opportunities to study together, to work as a group. To add more social dimensions to studying in Distance Learning Center, a Second Life project was launched in the autumn 2009 under the name of Learning by experience in virtual surroundings (financed and approved by Finnish National Board of Education). With the help of social media Distance Learning Center’s students could meet each other and also their teachers and study together for the first time.
Real world versus imagination
After buying an island in Second Life and hiring an experienced SL-builder, the first dilemma the teachers faced was whether to copy a real world school building with classrooms and black boards or whether to do something completely different. Many things that are impossible in real world are completely possible in virtual world and vice versa. After some pondering, all teachers agreed that it would be better to use imagination and Second Life’s many possibilities. Why copy the real world when one can create something new? School buildings are really not that interesting, so why build one? If the project is about learning by experiences, why not make the experiences interesting as well as educating?
In the end it was decided that the island should be a jungle, waiting for eager explorers. Adventure was to be one of the most important themes. Teachers would need to think new ways of approaching their subjects as the old ones would not work in virtual surroundings.
The first pioneers
In virtual world, all teachers become students. Distance Learning Center offered teachers some Second Life training and there was a lot to learn at first. It took some time to learn how to function in Second Life and to understand the nature of a virtual world, to know what is possible and what is not. Ordinary things can be challenging and extraordinary things can come easily: for instance it is a lot easier to sit than to fly in the real world but that is not the case in the virtual world.
The best way to get ideas for the work ahead was to walk – or sometimes fly, run or teleport – from one place to another, to get to know the world, to see what has been built before. It was also very useful to talk to other avatars, to people who had been in Second Life longer and knew how to function there. Most people we met in Second Life seemed very eager to share their knowledge and know-how and were pleased to answer our questions.
After three months learning and careful planning it was time to start building. It took our professional builder two months to build settings for the three subjects that were taught in Sotunki island during that first year: literature history, biology and study guidance. The builder (avatar Yolanda Hirvi) built a literature history pathway with different historical and fictional settings for Finnish and literature, a greenhouse for biology and an observatory and a skybox for private tutoring high up the sky for study guidance.
An example: the literature pathway
My own part in this project was creating the pathway of the history of Western literature. I chose literary history as my project, as the course topics were perfect for virtual surroundings – in Second Life I could actually have a Mount Olympus or an amphitheater where the students could learn about literature in the antiquities or Frankenstein’s lab for Romanticism. The course of literature history is also one of the most challenging courses in upper secondary school, as it covers about 2800 years of Western history with all the different stylistic eras. The course becomes especially challenging if the student is not interested in literature or in history. I wanted to do something to make the course easier to digest for those who find it challenging.
I wanted to create a very concrete timeline that students could actually walk on, so building pathway was a natural choice. There are many stylistic periods and I could not include them all, so I chose eight of them and placed them on the timeline, in chronological order. That way the pathway has eight information points along the way and the students start their journey at the antiquities and end up in Postmodernism, hopefully remembering the order of different stylistic periods after walking through them.
As adventure was one of our main themes, I decided to do all this in the form of a treasure hunt – the treasure being knowledge. I did not like the idea of classrooms, so I chose to do different settings that have something in common with the stylistic period they represent:
- Ancient Greece (amphitheater and Mount Olympus, a joined project with history teacher)
- Middle Ages (a tavern, doubles as a social place)
- Renaissance (Midsummer Night’s fairy cave, dedicated to Shakespeare)
- Enlightenment (Robinson Crusoe’s island)
- Romanticism (cemetery and crypt, plus a mad scientist’s lab)
- Realism (a poor cottage)
- Modernism (a lighthouse, as in Virginia Woolf’s book)
- Postmodernism (a hobbit’s house)
The pathway is easy to find and even easier to follow: it is made from red bricks and it starts at the amphitheater. The path is circular: it starts at the amphitheater, takes the student around Sotunki island and finally ends next to the amphitheater. One cannot see from one information point to another: there is an element of adventure in following the pathway through our colorful, jungle-like island.
In every information point, there is a big information board with a torch attached to it. There is also a red apple under the board and a red mailbox. Students receive a notecard with questions on it by clicking the apple. Then students are to walk around the information point, read information boards and click different objects where information is hidden. In Second Life, it is possible to put a script into an object and thus one can make the object interactive. There are many interactive objects on the pathway: if a student clicks such an object, the object sends him a chat-message. I have also used Power Point slides and recorded a voice file. The voice file is situated in the lighthouse of Modernism. First the students read a Modernistic poem and then they click a gramophone to listen to their teacher analyzing the poem.
Students write their answers under the questions, save the changes and return their filled notecards to the red mailbox before moving on to the next information point.
As some of my students, especially mothers with young children, can only study at night, I have built the pathway so that it works independently 24 hours a day and seven days a week without teacher’s presence. Each information point is also independent from other points, so a student can visit just one or two information points, is he is busy, or all of them, if he has more time. Walking the pathway and doing the exercises takes about 75 minutes.
I sent my students the map of Sotunki island and short instructions for moving, speaking and functioning in Second Life. Both the map and the instructions turned out to be very useful. Virtual world is a big, unknown territory for most of the students, so it pays to plan ahead.
It is also a good idea to make it two lessons instead of just one. During the first lesson students learn how to function in Second Life. After that, when it is time for the second lesson, the students are prepared and able to concentrate on the subject.
As a learning environment, Second Life seems to create a short concentration span, and I have noticed many times that less is more. There should not be too much text or too many things to learn in one place. For instance all the information points along the pathway are all pretty concise and compact, and answering the questions should not take students that long, and after that they will continue walking again.
“So much cooler than sitting at school!”
I asked my students to fill out a questionnaire about their experiences in Second Life. The first question was: “What was studying in the virtual world like?” Students answered that studying in Second Life was “different”, “entertaining”, “modern”, “fun”, “interesting”, “a nice, welcome change from studying in traditional ways”, “a bit tricky at times”, “educating” and “easy”.
When I asked what was hard, it seemed that most difficulties lay with computers: they lagged and it wasn’t easy to move one’s avatar. Some had difficulties in using the Second Life program or finding their way to Sotunki island. If there were many avatars in the same place, everything slowed down considerably.
Some of the students did not remember that Second Life is not a game but a residential area for living, working and socializing, and she commented that the game got a bit boring at the end. It is important to make a distinction between virtual world games and virtual world schools and work places, otherwise the students may get confused.
All students felt that studying in the virtual world had been a good experience and that they would recommend it to their friends as well. Most of them would gladly do more exercises in Second Life and they felt that they had learned what they were meant to learn.
There were also questions about teacher’s role. The students felt that they got to know their teacher better than they had on the courses before this. I got to know my students better as I taught them how to walk and sit and teleport. It is easy to have a discussion about anything in a virtual world, and teacher and student meet on a more equal ground as virtual world is an unfamiliar place for both and both are learning how to function there. Finnish people are also notoriously shy, so maybe via avatars it is easier to start talking. I also asked the students how important teacher’s role was when they visited the virtual world for the first time. All the girls answered “very important” and most of the boys “pretty important”. There was also one “not that important”. For the teacher it was a busy evening, as working with students meant teaching both literature and computer science at the same time.
All except one replied that they had searched for the answers together, working as a group. I had given them a date and time when to meet me and the other students in Second Life, but as they are adults and lead very different lives and there is no obligatory attendance in any course, I was not expecting most of them to show up, but they did. The student who did everything alone wrote me an explanation: “I started early and just got so enthusiastic about finding the answers and I did all the exercises at one sitting! Sorry.” It is not every day a teacher hears that a student gets enthusiastic about literature exercises. That student in question also stayed behind to help other students, as he felt very confident of his skills and seemed to enjoy tutoring. There is very little tutoring among students in Distance Learning Center. I was very pleased to see that happening.
Obstacles and victories
It is not obligatory for our students to enter Second Life and it cannot be made obligatory, unless things change considerably. Using Second Life presents many challenges for students’ computers and we cannot assume that our students will buy more efficient computers just so they could do exercises in Second Life. We also had some problems ourselves as the City of Vantaa has strong firewalls around schools’ computers. It took a long struggle to get permission to open channels through firewalls so we could enter Second Life from our school. While struggling and waiting we actually went as far as arranging a separate phone line that we could use while on school premises to get into Second Life.
When the project started, Distance Learning Centre decided to use some of the project money for new, more efficient computers. It was a very wise decision. Second Life is a colorful and inspiring working environment but if the program lags, working there becomes hard and tiresome.
One of the biggest problems we still have are the constant updates Linden Lab sends out. At school only one or two people are allowed to download new updates or programs on school’s computers, and when a new version on Second Life comes, the old version stops working. That way the teachers cannot enter Second Life and they are not able to download the new version. The new version must also be downloaded to all computers, which takes a lot of time, as there is usually a new version of Second Life in every two weeks.
The second year: new ideas
During the second year the number of teachers interested in Second Life increased: it tripled from five to fifteen. Training system evolved and the first pioneers taught the newcomers. More training was offered to all teachers and the project coordinator started organizing weekly expeditions in Second Life so the teachers could gather ideas and get to know the surrounding world better.
Teachers were offered more training: it is important for them to understand how the virtual world works.
Several teachers started creating their own settings on several subjects: English, French, Swedish, physics, chemistry and history. Biology teacher built a huge, colorful world of genetics high on Sotunki island’s sky and student guidance got a beautiful beach with a career information hut.
English and French teachers wanted a hotel for languages, so our builder built Dolphin Bay Hotel. Students can practice their communication skills both in groups and alone in hotel’s restaurant and bar where there are several exercises hidden on tables. There are also two language robots that are interactive (the receptionist speaks English and the restaurant’s waiter speaks French) and students can test their vocabulary while speaking with them. There are also exercises for creative writing upstairs and a travel exhibition next to the language disco downstairs. In Sotunki 2 island, there is also a big red house for studying Swedish language and culture.
Physics teachers created a Radiation Research Center where students can learn about atoms, different kinds of radiation and nuclear energy. The center is visited by both comprehensive school students and upper secondary school students.
Right next to the Radiation Center is the Research Center for Organic Chemistry. The 3D-environment was useful when we started building models of different chemical compounds.
History teachers wanted a winter setting high up on the sky, as they are planning on staging scenes from the Finnish-Russian Winter War (1939–1940). The other skylevel is Mont Olympus, where students can learn things about the ancient Greek gods and literature history.
Virtually a teacher
Working in Second Life has given teachers a chance to be creative, to use their imagination, to learn new skills and to challenge themselves. It has also given a whole new point of view to their work: many times it is not possible to teach things in the same way in Second Life and in real life, and most of the times it is just not sensible to do so. Second Life is a useful pedagogical tool, although it means breaking free from one’s old patterns and having to think things in a different, more creative, way. Using social media, such as Second Life, does not make teacher’s role smaller – in fact the teacher’s role becomes even more important: teacher does not just teach her subject, she teaches how to function in the different worlds we live in.Löytöretkillä toisessa maailmassa, vol 1Lauri Pirkkalainen & Petri Lounaskorpi (toim.),5/2013, 16.5.2013