The Boston Phoenix has a well-written article on education in Second Life, entitled "Right-click to Learn." Nice quotes from several prominent SL educators and students including Pathﬁnder Linden, Rebecca Nesson, Lori Bell, Jeremy Kemp and Sarah "Intellagirl Tully" Robbins. I like how the journalist Kate Cohen focuses on the community interaction aspects of the virtual environment rather than the whiz-bang graphics and animation.
On facilitating student-teacher and student-student interactions:
For those accustomed to traditional forms of online learning, the possibilities presented by a 3-D teaching environment make correspondence courses seem antiquated. “Distance students have a very disconnected feeling,” says Harvard Extension School instructor Rebecca Nesson, who will be teaching her ﬁrst class in Second Life this fall. For the extension school’s typical Web-based courses, a student might check in with an instructor from time to time, but interaction among peers can be iffy, with no set protocol for making it happen. Nesson chose to offer her course in Second Life “to make a distance-education experience feel like a more substantial, more connected experience so that they would have someplace where they could come and actually get to interact directly with each other and with the instructors.”
Which reminds me of my girlfriend Cindy's incredibly frustrating experience with a web-enabled course she took at Pace University last semester. It was a disaster from beginning to end. While ostensibly the class facilitated discussions by providing an online forum, Cindy felt that she had no connection with the other students in the class and that her teacher was rarely if ever available to help her with difficult assignments. She ended up barely passing, even though the actual subject matter wasn't that difficult.
The idea of an online course has obvious appeal -- no long commutes to campus, work at your own schedule, keeping your day job, cheaper tuition, etc. The reality is that they can offer all of the work of higher education with none of the perks -- i.e. the stimulation of deep conversations with other people equally engaged in intellectual inquiry, the excitement of shared discovery, the social pressures to produce good scholarship.
Instead you are slogging away, alone, at your laptop in your bedroom trying to finish an assignment with no real direction or drive.
Second Life retains a good measure of the collegiality, social cues, inter-group dynamics and peer pressure of an academic environment while also offering new possibilities for group collaboration beyond what a traditional classroom can provide. And the 3D graphiclal modelling tools can present educational material in dramatic and often entertaining ways, such as the Spaceflight Museum and the Svarga eco-system.
You can of course still multi-task, check your MySpace page, and chat with your buddies when you should be taking notes in your virtual class. But if you goof off too long you run the risk of your avatar going into "idle" status, slumping forward like a puppet without strings, which your prof is likely to note in her digital attendance sheet.