Making the virtual transition

I recently had an enjoyable discussion about Second Life with someone who I can only describe as a ‘deep thinker’. For me, a deep thinker is someone who leaves slow-burning embers of intellectual curiosity upon which to cogitate, and that subsequently engage my usual goldfish-worthy attention span.

DT was explaining how, in an environment such as Second Life, users will reach a point where they stop questioning the unreality – albeit virtual – of interaction, movement and appearance. And this transition to acceptance is usually very sudden.

(This brought to mind another comment I’d mentally filed, from a learning technologist at a different institution as it happens: “There’s nothing that Second Life offers that I can’t achieve in real life.”)

So through your SL avatar, you can fly, breathe underwater and of course you cannot hurt yourself. You can even choose to appear in outlandish human forms or as a non-human. And not surprisingly, these are things upon which newbies initially concentrate.

But what happens at the point at which these things are no longer so fascinating and become merely functional?

For me, an analogy would be learning to drive. At the beginning, driving is made up of a number of separate actions, each of which require (or at least seem to) an independent thought process. Take pulling off from a parked position, which requires the following (presented in no particular order):  engaging the clutch, slipping into gear, checking the mirrors, indicating, turning the wheel, pressing the accelerator, etc.

There comes a point for most people (my sister, thankfully no longer driving, being one the exceptions) when this series of movements becomes one action, thereby requiring one thought process. So before you know it, the student driver who not long ago nervously ‘kangaroo-ed’ around the estate is today thrashing a Skoda down the M1 to London. Operating the car is merely a functional means of getting to that club in the West End.

In my experience, this transition is also very rapid.

In SL, once this transition happens and the experience is completely immersive for the user – when the unusual environment is no longer being questioned – learning can take place. And then the opportunities offered by the learning environment of MUVEs such as Second Life really become apparent.

I realise I am saying nothing new. And I’ve avoided introducing terms such as routines and sub-routines. But DT encouraged me to think a bit harder – never a bad thing – and of course I realised I’d  seen this sudden transition in action in the Media Zoo.

And to SL sceptics, I’d say this: make sure the transition happens first, and then make the judgement.

Simon Kear

The Post-Google Generation

Last April I attended E for Enhancement 2009, an all-Wales e-Learning conference in Cardiff. During his very inspiring keynote, Prof Stephen Heppell related some facts about the online behaviour of the very young. In one of his projects, Prof Heppell, in perhaps an excessive burst of trustful enthusiasm, handed out iPhones to young teens and set them to work on a series of tasks which took several weeks to complete. At the end of the project, the students reported that they had used every feature of the iPhone “except this one button which has something to do with work” — email. Prof Heppell also stated that for children younger than 10, the search engine of choice is YouTube. Indeed, as of January 2009, the number two search engine, after Google of course, is YouTube.

I don’t recall whether Prof Heppell used the term “the post-Google Generation” in his keynote, but it is most appropriate for the age group (probably those born after 1990) which does not even recognise the need to use the all-pervasive Google to find things on the web. Marc Prensky gave us the term “digital natives.” The “Google generation” has been used to refer generally to those who seem to know no other way of finding information than to “Google it.” But I find it fascinating that very young people, who have never known a world not just without the internet but without full multi-media, go directly to the multi-media offerings of YouTube. Indeed, until I heard Prof Heppell quote this statistic, I did not even consider YouTube to be a search engine.

But of course it is a search engine. Need a recipe for macaroni cheese? YouTube not only displays the recipe but shows just how the butter should look when it’s time to stir in the flour to make the sauce. Just getting started in Second Life? There are innumerable “Beginning Second Life” tutorials on YouTube, some posted by higher education instructors for their own university students.

The truly fascinating question for me is: why is it that very young people who grow up with digital multi-media seem to think differently about how to search, how to learn, and how to do just about everything? Why do they skip Google when older surfers can’t live without it?

My post-Google-Generation daughter decided to learn to play the piano – well, the digital keyboard. We were ready with a piano teacher and the traditional regime of “one lesson per week, then nag daughter to practice.” Daughter had other plans. “I’ll just teach myself from YouTube,” she announced. As a child, I learnt piano the traditional way, and after one or two years of lessons, I could still only play fairly boring pieces. Yet after only a couple of months of YouTube, Daughter can play a handful of fairly impressive pieces. Perhaps her relative success can be attributed to the fact she chose exactly what she wanted to learn to play, then just learnt it, and enjoyed it, and therefore got results more quickly. The downside is that Daughter has not learnt to read much music from YouTube. But in a very post-Google way, she achieved what she wanted: musical enjoyment for herself and her listeners through playing the piano.

In “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” Marc Prensky suggests that prolonged exposure to immersive digital multi-media actually results in fundamentally different thinking processes. The onus is on the educator, therefore, to be prepared with learning tools suited for the post-Google Generation, as well as with the research to inform and support the use of such tools.

Terese Bird

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