12. Sotunki: An island of education and adventure

Heidi Heikkilä, project coordinator, teacher of Finnish language and literature

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:

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.

Most stu­dents, es­pe­cially the boys, pre­fer an an­i­mal avatar.

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