I’m wondering why I haven’t heard more about innovative cost-sharing in Second Life.  When I ask people about it, they usually tell me that cost sharing is accomplished through subletting land at a reasonable price.  This is often seen as a solution for  institutions who are new to Second Life,  it allows them to explore their options with little long-term commitment.  The New Media Consortium does this; their rates aren’t the lowest, but they do provide a lot of extras (auditoriums, sandboxes, orientation spaces). Gavin Dudeney has sublet land for years now at the Edunation Archipelago.   He rents to institutions and individuals, providing the newcomers with a home base, as well as a community of supportive neighbours .  There are quite a number of other people who do this, too.

Subletting is a good idea if you are new and like the community support, but it’s not the only model for cost sharing.  Ellie Brewster, my avatar, was wandering around Second Life the other day, and she stumbled upon Island 18 & The Strand, which is a good example of what I’m talking about.  Ellie, as you may know, is a somewhat reckless and foolhardy avatar. She probably should have asked for an invitation, as this project is under construction,  but she poked around these sims anyway.  It looks like a great project, a collaboration between the University of Adelaide, Murdoch University and Illinois State University.  There’s a lot of good building, particularly the 18th century town that’s at the centre of Island 18.

What is so completely brilliant about this project is the idea of sharing with someone from a radically different time zone.  Your students are using it while theirs are sleeping, and it’s really easy for students to work on collaborative projects during the “twilight times.”  Unlike most educational sims, which must concern themselves with publicizing the university that paid for the sim (we’ve all got to please the Administration), this sim is themed to the discipline, which makes it eminently shareable. If you know anyone else who is doing this kind of cost-sharing, let me know.

A third strategy for cost sharing is to utilize the open nature of virtual worlds.  When we first arrive in Second Life, teachers often dream of doing something really ambitious, but we soon learn that a faithful reproduction of the Great Wall of China or a full-cast roleplay of the Wars of the Roses is going to cost us a lot of time, to say nothing of the institutional cash we’ll have to win with grant proposals. That’s why it’s wonderful that there are so many generous teachers in SL who allow their work to be used by others.  Ellie has found a lot in Second Life that connects with her Women’s Studies teaching.  She’s taken her students dancing at the Cotton Club in Virtual Harlem, where they explored issues in women’s history, her classes have toured virtual art galleries and museums to critique the way gender is presented, they’ve seen presentations on gender and identity by students at other universities, and they’ve visited the Virtual Hallucinations Lab and partied at Wheelies to learn about inclusiveness.  All of this was possible because builders generously leave their sims open to visitors.

Leaving our work open to students from other universities costs us nothing, and if our work is useful to others it can give our reputation a boost.  It also promotes social learning among students and allows them to communicate across disciplines and political boundaries.  Seems to be a win-win situation.

There is another strategy that Ellie’s beginning to see in Second Life, and she’s undecided about whether it’s a positive one.   An example is the Theatron project, an archipelago of theatrical sims associated with The Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College, London.

Ellie had mixed views about Theatron.  Some of it is incredibly primmy, with too much focus on detail and little attention to how avatars will really use the space.  But there are also some really well-made replicas and historical stage sets, with lots of room for avatar actors.  The sets are reserved ahead of time, and  called up by a holo-rezzer.  A teacher could just bring her class, rez the stage, and jump right into her lesson.  There would be no time spent on design, and reserving time on the sim would mean no waste in a teacher’s budget.

The advantages of a system like this are obvious, but there may be a downside.  If this model of sim usage becomes widespread, do we risk teaching in a standardized Second Life, producing a standardized educational product?   Will there be fewer quirky, individualist approaches to educational building?

Ellie likes quirky.  Individualist is OK with her.  So she’s not so sure she’s happy about this new approach to content.  On the one hand, many teachers either can’t build, they don’t want to, or they just don’t have the time.  On the other hand, the ability to create content in Second Life not only enriches what we teach, but can also provoke new insights for both teacher and student.  There is probably a middle ground to be found here, but isn’t there a danger that the increasing interest in virtual worlds will encourage for-profit content creators, and establish a less varied educational landscape?