Gentle reader, let me tell you a story. Stories have their place in education after all. Not as data in a scientific sense, but if you consider teaching as an art, then stories about students make up the fabric of what goes in a classroom. We all have stories about the student who found it too difficult, but managed to pass with some extra help, or the student who handed something in at the last moment but got an A, or the student who was doing well but inexplicably vanished. These sorts of stories make up your experience of teaching a particular class, and often are the impetus for replanning your teaching for next time. Unless you have the time to gather proper data and do the analysis, which I will do at a future point. For now, I will tell you this story about how one student changed his mind about Second Life.
Our story begins with a hardworking, clever first year student on my Interactive Systems module. He emailed me to ask if an entry on his learning log was acceptable. It was an article against Second Life in which he wrote about how he thought it was for people with problems, and that he was ethically opposed to it in the same way as he would be opposed to being made to work in a cigarette factory. He also wrote some fairly damning technical comments, which had some truth to them. Now, our student is not native to the UK and wasn't sure whether he was "allowed" to criticise a module in this way so he wanted to check with me first. "Sure", I said, "express your opinion, but make sure your argument is well constructed". I identified a couple of flaws in his argument and he corrected them.
During the module our student came to lab classes, lectures and made sure he kept up with the work. Sometimes he would go home to work at lab times because he got tired of the lag on the island when so many people were working on it. He turned out to be a good programmer. At some point during this period, maybe gradually, his initial prejudice against Second Life changed into a pride in his work.I met him on the island the other night, and he showed me his starfish pet. It was an amazingly imaginative and technically well constructed piece of work which took some lecture material as a starting off point for exploring emergent behaviour. The star fish wanders about the island looking for people to talk to. It also tries to find water to swim in. You can feed it burgers, and it digests them(!). You can play noughts and crosses with it (he has implemented simple game playing AI). It also shows you a movie with little star fish characters, and generates text as Second Life prims. In doing this, the student has discovered some limits of SL and bugs in Linden Script, and written so much error handling code that he has exceeded the max file size in SL. He told me yesterday that he has enjoyed working on the pet and he thinks he has learned a lot from it. Today he won a class prize for his achievements.
So what does this story mean? You could take many meanings from it, but here are some observations. My sense is that when the student gained mastery over the technical environment, he began to look at SL in a different way. Instead of an instrument of social evil, it became a programming environment which, like others of its kind, has various limitations which need to be overcome. In fact, if you stand back for a bit from the everyday annoyances of working in SL, and consider the ambitiousness of what Linden Labs are trying to do, you can see it as an interesting set of technical challenges and evaluate their solutions in a more objective way.
Perhaps you saw the Guardian article about Second Life yesterday. It was a bit fluffy (like I can talk :-) ) but it did say "While students reacted positively to the experience [of taking a module in SL], getting them into the virtual world can prove difficult, she [Gilly Salmon] says. A recent Jisc/Mori report indicated that Second Life remained the least popular technological pursuit among students." Indeed, only 38% of my students who completed an online survey said they liked Second Life. On the other hand, their rating for the module itself and lab classes were exceptionally good. (More of that in another post). This isn't necessarily what you might expect from reading the literature. You might expect it to be a more stongly motivating environment. I suspect there is a feeling among students that Second Life is sad. They may feel self concious about using it, or worry that they are wasting their time. In fact, after just quickly casting my eye over the module feedback forms there are some comments that the students don't see how it helps them for employment. They may be prejudiced against it. But if they make the effort to engage with it, then they can change their opinions and really benefit. In short, there is not a straightforward effect for motivation here, and I look forward to picking it apart with some heavy duty data analysis. First the story, then the research.