Spring 2010 is well underway. As you know, last semester, I taught one WRIT 121 hybrid course using Second Life. This semester, I'm teaching two WRIT 121 courses (combined as one in Angel LMS) fully online and with Second Life. I'm also teaching a WRIT 260: Creative Writing I course online and inworld.
So what's different this time through?
Well, first off, with fully online courses, we couldn't do an orientation all at the same time (both because there is no scheduled time when we would all meet, and there were potentially 55 students!). So instead, I gave instructions to do the orientation on their own on Virtual Ability Island, and then later in the second week, to come chat with me at Angel learning Isle.
I also put together a walk through, signing up through Virtual Ability, and then starting the orientation.
Overall, orientations/chats went well, though some students seemed to get lost on VA Island. And a good number seemed surprised that we were using SL, not realizing we were going to do so, even though it was announced in the schedule book. I had so many in their intros expressing ignorance we were going to use SL, I asked our lead instructional support, Brett, to check to make sure the notice was presented online when students registered (it was). Consequently, there were a good number who didn't have sufficient computers to deal with SL effectively.
But for those who jumped in and did the orientation, and met with me that first time on Angel Learning Isle, they seemed to enjoy themselves.
Week 3 in the WRIT 121 class, we had a chat, and then an SL field trip. Their first essay is about a particular toy, and its value to children (or adults, if they choose to explore) so they brought to the chat notes about three of their favorite toys as children. After the chat, they would search about their toys, and then decide to go to one sim that deals with the toy in some way.
Last semester, the student searches were hit or miss. Some sessions the students couldn't really find anything of value, so I realized I needed to have some possibilities in my back pocket in case that happened.
Come to find out, it didn't need them. Students had no problem finding interesting places to visit, in a very short amount of time, from bike trails to mechanical toy factories to baby dolls and furniture. It seems that Linden Labs has improved their search engine quite a bit, and/or more intriguing content is being built in SL.
Also, I had an experience that really surprised me during one of the WRIT 121 chats. After the chat, we went to Kool-Stop Country where we picked up some free bikes to explore the island.
One student found a dance ball to practice a little tai chi.
After the field trip, I went back to Angel to change out a notecard in the in the notecard dispenser. One of my students was on the office roof (where I have an oriental rug). She mentioned how pretty the sunset was.
So I jumped up to the roof, and she was lounging, enjoying the view. I sat, and we just started to talk. She told me about her husband and his family overseas, asked me about why we were using SL, and whether I'd done much traveling. In other words, we were just relaxing on the roof, and talking. After about a half hour, she said she had to go to work early the next morning, so needed to go, but thanked me and said, "This was nice." She then left, I finished my work, and left as well.
Now--I've done small talk with students f2f, and with online students, in chat. But the sense of presence, the connection, that took place in this online class, was very different than anything I've experienced before, and it solidifies the value I see in working in a MUVE.
Very simple, but I find very profound the spontaneous exchange we had during a sunset on a roof at Angel Learning Isle. If this doesn't exemplify the fact that SL is a place, I don't know what does.
In fact, I'm beginning to think that the power of SL with online education is that when students don't have f2f interaction with you, such as with a hybrid class, they rely more on avatar interaction, and hence it becomes much richer in creating a sense of presence.
Last semester we had SL field trips; I had students take snapshots; they posted them in Writer's Cafe. Same this semester. But this semester, students not only took pictures--they wanted to take a picture of the chat group posing. And not just one group suggested such. Again, not something that was ever suggested in the hybrid class. Could it be that when students never meet f2f, they make a much stronger connection with their avatar classmates and professor than takes place with a hybrid class? The hybrid class need not rely on SL avatars to have a connection with the prof and class members. They can enjoy the experience, but it's secondary. But with online classes, the 3D avatar interaction, possibly, becomes the primary connection, with the 2D interaction in the learning management system becoming secondary.
Of course, this is all tentative, and preliminary, but certainly promising.