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Sophia’s last day

November 15, 2011

Sophia was only four years old but she had a good life. Don’t be alarmed – I’m referring to an island in a virtual world. At around noon Eastern time yesterday, Notre Dame’s proof-of-concept project in Second Life came to an end. The company’s logo (at right) now seems to be waving goodbye. Before everything disappeared I logged in and made a series of short videos as part of a multimedia archive of the project. Below is the first one (see the others here).

The island, named for the Greek goddess of wisdom and learning, was purchased in November 2007 as part of a faculty learning community. Our mission was to identify the opportunities and challenges which virtual worlds pose for teaching and learning. Over the course of four years we pursued several projects to varying degrees of completion; a few classes even spent significant time on Spohia. The Learning Technology Lab invested hundreds of hours of development time and created a few impressive artifacts on the way, including interactive games and mockups experimental learning spaces.

I experienced a tinge of sadness as I literally said goodbye to the island in the final video. At first this surprised me, but I was reminded that there is no denying the captivating potential of this technology. For Notre Dame faculty, however, there were too many barriers in the way of moving a virtual world off the leading edge and into their curricula. Here are a few of the more salient points:

  • Second Life is hard for faculty to learn – most of them are not gamers
  • Students are unfamiliar with it
  • Some people dislike its slowness and lack of realism (compared to video games)
  • Basic accounts are free, but it’s expensive to own land
  • There are pockets of excellent content, but many subject areas are not represented

SometimesĀ it’s okay to fail. I went into this project hoping to find a faculty collaborator interested in designing a game with Second Life as the infrastructure. That didn’t happen, but no matter. I believe part of my job is to explore new technologies and make the early mistakes on behalf of my faculty.

You never know when the lessons you learn will pay off. Eight years ago we conducted an initiative that explored use of tablet PCs in the classroom. While that technology was never widely adopted, it recently evolved into a smaller format with the introduction of the iPad. We have been able to apply much of what we learned in the earlier initiative as iPads and Android tablets begin to spread like wildfire.

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