Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Virtual Classrooms at Harvard

I'm both intrigued by and skeptical about using SL as a virtual classroom. There are certainly a significant and growing number institutions holding classes partly or entirely in SL. Several of the Library and Information Science classes I have taken at Wayne have had a significant online component, using Blackboard, as well as synchronous and asynchronous broadcasts of lectures. While grateful for the convenience, it's difficult for me to develop a sense of involvement with either the instructor or the students, and for me, that's central to a good class. So a well conducted class in SL could create a compelling online classroom. What would that look like?

Harvard Law School has boldly pioneered in this area. The Harvard Extension School is offering a class in SL this fall, Virtual Worlds, and here's the course description. Wish I could take it!

The instructor is Rebecca Nesson, who was one of the instructors for Harvard Law School's first SL based class, Cyberone. Ian Lamont publishes an interview about teaching in SL on Terranova (Teaching in SecondLife). Several things she mentioned didn't surprise me; at first the environment was chaotic. There was "culture shock" at first for those new to the environment.

The surprises? "a text-based environment has a whole lot of advantages over the face-to-face environment that I just hadn't anticipated." Rebecca found that "problem of students not participating in class discussions just totally disappeared". And that "we didn't have any trouble with students who dominate the discussion". Chaos was not a lasting condition as people developed new classroom norms. Who had the hardest time? Those who were "comfortable writing traditional response papers" who were not comfortable with the spontaneity of the SL classroom. She actually says "So for me the idea that I would actually end up almost preferring to run a class in a text-based environment to a voice-based environment, that was a huge surprise."

Read the interview here.

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