Exploring the virtual classroom

Online education and the metaverse

Alanna Recreant (transcript)

Uthango Social Investments

Alanagh Recreant / Dorette Steencamp
November 21, 2009

These are the speaker’s notes for the presentation, which were pasted into text chat for those who could not hear. They reflect only a part of what was said at the conference. Part of this talk was transcribed from speech; the transcription has been edited for clarity.

Website: www.slafrica.wordpress.com
Twitter: metaMeerkat
Facebook: Uthango
Virtual Africa: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Virtual%20Africa/145/53/22
African Marketplace in Second Life:

Alanagh Recreant: It is truly an honour for me to be here today and say a few words about our work in Southern Africa as a national civil society organisation. In South Africa it is now 10.30 and I just left a gala event to recognise the work of another organisation, Orion. I come to you humbled and inspired.

Uthango operates at meso-level – linking government /companies and development agencies at one end with communities on the other end. We facilitate information-sharing between stakeholders to create solutions together.

(transcription begins)

The representation of Africa we saw in SL in the beginning was of a very few people, running around naked, sitting in front of a pot; it was an area of concern for us. We saw a need to focus on creating an African platform of sorts — Virtual Africa.

To begin with, there was little available in Second Life that could be used in creating Virtual Africa. We needed help in creating flora and fauna, which we commissioned – baobabs, meerkats, elephants, etc. We were concerned with bringing in the voices of African people, and we wanted to inspire visitors with the beauty of African scenery.

Virtual Africa, elephants grazing

We are at the edge of learning how social networks can be used for Africa. Less than 2 percent of the population in virtual worlds are African. We are truly on the “bleeding edge” of adopting this technology; it costs us dearly to be here.

Alanagh Recreant: We have developed an integrated communications plan to share our learning with a broader audience. We sincerely believe that there is much best practice in Africa, but that information poverty is a barrier to many communities and to many organisations in Africa. Not always the LACK of information (that too), but rather, the mechanisms of sharing such information. This is an opportunity to also thank many individuals and academic institutions that have recognised the contribution that Africans can make.

(transcription begins)

We have started at the back end, really. I first got exposed to the whole notion of social networks through virtual worlds. Then we went to twitter, facebook, etc. The whole idea of hyperlinking can bring people together across the “noise” of online media. We can link up the information that’s out there, using all these tools.

The definition of virtual worlds: a sense of presence with others at the same time and in the same place ( with an ability to grow/adapt to community needs)

Alanagh Recreant: I would like to share with you today three perspectives on our vision for virtual worlds.

Uthango has experimented since 2007 with the value of this environment for our beneficiaries and for the clients of other organisations and African-based businesses.

(transcription begins)

It’s not appropriate to say that Second Life is a game. We use it in such a different way, to collaborate. Our vision for virtual worlds — its’ really been quite an experiment — a risk — we are a relatively unknown organization. We were recognized by MIT, Harvard, and two or three universities in Africa and we have grassroots links.

We had to come into Second Life and build a reputation. We had to build trust. Some of the experiments we tackled we had to discuss as a team, had to get clients and team together. We can still only afford for me (Alanagh) to be here. I have to be very careful of how I use this avatar.

This is research done recently on the Kzero website. The age group in this time period 2009+ shows high population of younger people exposed to virtual worlds. This is not seen in Africa. Africa is in danger of falling behind. We have Asians, Americans, Europeans taking up these tools; African youth could be participating, if given the infrastructure. A new generation is growing up without the opportunity to talk to each other; we need to work to get this conversation going.

Alanagh Recreant: The first angle is EDUCATION. I am sure you all agree that there is enormous benefit in using virtual worlds and Second Life for educational benefit. We had the opportunity to collaborate with Kingston University and the College of Delaware. Uthango also shared a platform this past week with other advocates for virtual worlds at the UN Internet Governance Forum in Egypt.


We started late, and we’re mostly using the SL platform. We have invested in SL as an organization – two small projects, and we were part of a third.

Kingston University, UK – we gave content to assist students to develop specific things for Virtual Africa. The result was not enough direct benefit for our clients in Africa, but it was a good try.

The second project was with Delaware College – their first-year students drew house plans for clients living in the townships. Clients are typically a mother of three or four children, living in a shack, with no flooring — not healthy conditions. Students had the opportunity to look at that piece of land and draw up a social housing plan for that woman in 3-D format, with a choice of houses. Clients could give input.

If we can take this a little further, get more participation from clients and students, we can see how a college in the USA could help with community planning at a fraction of the cost. Typically, our cients would pay about a thousand U.S. dollars

The third project was the presidential visit to Ghana. The goal was to share information about the 53 countries of Africa.

Alanagh Recreant: Secondly, we had the opportunity for ENTERPRISE or BUSINESS collaboration. Uthango is a firm believer in social enterprise and we had the opportunity to develop and sell virtual African bicycles in support of raising finance for real life bikes at a school in South Africa.


We have considered some projects with IBM, and we are looking at the great amount of money available in micro donations in Second Life. We did little fundraising at the beginning, we built substantial relationships before we began any fundraising.

We developed a bicycle, linked it directly with a Flickr campaign on how bicycles are being used in Africa. We sold scripted bicycles, bought real bicycles for an African schools. We contacted the schools here in Africa, asking for an appropriate school to give the bicycles to, but the project was delayed, because security has to be improved at the school.

Ellie Brewster: I have one, I’ll demonstrate it

Ellie Brewster rides the Uthango fundraiser bike

Lesson learned: yes, fundraising is possible, but for virtual worlds you need a project that can be implemented quickly. You have to be able to spend your funds quickly & give feedback. We will get there, eventually.

Alanagh Recreant: If you look at where virtual worlds are on Gartner’s recentlypublished “hype cycle,” you can see that mainstream adoption of public virtual worlds is not far away.

Thirdly, there is the wonderful chance to celebrate African diversity – and we were able to do so by launching the first annual African Day inSL last year on the Orange Islands. Uthango brings in African artists and promotes musicians from Africa, but mostly encourages dialogue between people based on African events. We had the Mandela Day and the Miriam Makeba Memorial this year.


There is a need for global intercultural dialogue. Networking, music, artists — but we don’t have enough African contributions. Second Life is fun and flexible, we’d like to do so much more; we’d like to bring more development practice onto this platform, but it is expensive.

For me to be in SL is about $10 a DAY just in bandwith cost: almost two staff members’ salaries. We don’t have enough submarine cables coming to S. Africa. More cable is coming, but it is still incredibly expensive.

As far as we know, we are one of two companies that has an active presence in SL. Every week I have to weigh our participation here. We believe in this cause, we need people to believe with us, but it is getting expensive.

The perception of virtual worlds as a “game” is something we all battle. In Africa, people don’t understand, but this is changing. The technology is growing exponentially. There is now more good than bad press. I am very hopeful for the future.

Addendum: About Virtual Africa

We have a four-sim region celebrating a bit of Africa – fauna, flora and cultures. If you land at VIRTUAL AFRICA you will get a notecard with ALL the SLurls for the best hang-out points.

Africa is a massive continent with 54 independent countries – each having its own challenges and opportunities. Uthango seeks to strengthen the network between Africans and pro-Africa people in virtual worlds. We believe engagement lead to understanding, which in turn creates opportunities for growth and social justice.

Emerging markets open and development in Africa is speeding up, and yet there are considerable problems facing the people of the continent still. Being in Second Life offers the chance to get together and connect for a common cause whilst enjoying other the diversity between people.

We thank you for your interest. The direct cost (excluding human resources, e.g my time) for our participation in Second Life can be broken down as follows PER MONTH:

Connectivity: ADSL Line (telephone company) > R650,00 (87 USD)
Bandwidth: Data Down/Upload via Satellite > R2100,00 (280 USD) or (9.33 USD a day!)
Tier for the 4 Sims: R3210,00 (428 USD) or (2568 USD over 6 months)
Estate Management: R0,00 (Pro Bono)

TOTAL MONTHLY Costs: R5 960,00 or 795 USD or 214 560 Linden Dollar

The Uthango team is in a process of reviewing our virtual worlds plans. It has become very expensive for us to maintain a presence inSL. We need to make some plans 🙂

Three corporates/firms got cold feet for Second Life and abandoned us together with some others that changed direction after the initial hype phase of virtual worlds. In this light, we are proud to announce to this intimate group the fact that HIPPO TECHNOLOGIES (Andy Enfield inSL) has agreed to come on board as one of our supporters and partners. We are truly grateful and will keep you up to date.

We believe the investment to date was worth it and it is important to be here, but any assistance really DOES help us directly. We LOVE Second Life and it is an extention of our work in South Africa. Visit the project: www.slafrica.wordpress.com

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