by Alphaville Herald on 29/01/10 at 10:51 am
by Idoru Wellman, Herald Education Desk
On January 28, in what may be the first instance of a university course held inside Facebook, Northwestern University Philosophy Professor Peter Ludlow (known to Herald readers as Urizenus Sklar) recently attempted to hold his class, Conceptual Issues in Virtual Worlds, inside the Island Life application on Facebook. The results were mixed.
Island Life is a fantasy farming game inside Facebook that is somewhat similar to Farmville. The twist is that that Island Life (currently in beta) is the creation of game developer legend Raph Koster (Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies) and it allows people to visit each other and chat on their “islands”. The game is a bit of a throwback to 2D graphical social platforms like The Sims Online and Habbo Hotel.
Koster’s most recent project had been Metaplace, an attempt to bring virtual world creation to the masses by providing a platform in which people could develop flash based virtual worlds. The project recently closed down but the bulk of the development team moved with Koster to his Island Life project.
Reached for comment, Ludlow explained that his course is a freshman seminar designed to encourage writing skills, but as Ludlow explains “I couldn’t just assign papers to them; they need to become literate in new communications technologies. Hence, they will be called on to develop projects in virtual worlds, record those projects with machinima, blog about their experiences, give power point presentations about their projects, and write traditional papers.”
According to Ludlow, this particular class session on Island Life was principally used for resolving technical issues such as testing whether his island in Island Life could take the load of 13 students, to get students familiar with Ventrilo (the voice communications program they are using) and to determine whether meaningful conversations are possible in Island Life (in its current form). In this instance, the topic of conversation was the comparative advantages of Second Life and Island Life with respect to the classroom experience. Students used a combination of in game chat and Ventrilo voice communication.
Students saw different advantages for Island Life and Second Life (where they had previously held some classes). On the one hand, Island Life was less “laggy” and less distracting. On the other hand, students found the chat program in Island Life to be primitive.
One problem was that the chat bubbles tended to occlude each other. Freshman Hanna Golanka, however, saw an advantage to this: “Although the blocking-each-other-out thing wasn't the greatest, the short lifespan of each text bubble meant that in order to pay attention to class, you had to really pay attention every second. I'll be honest – in Second Life there were times I wasn't reading the chat at all, and then would scroll back up and read anything that sounded important.”
Golanka also noted that there was a problem of overstimulation in Second Life – particularly in Ludlow’s classroom, which is a mushroom cave under his castle. She felt that a traditional classroom architecture might be more apt. “I think the actual atmosphere of Island Life was a better setting. Our characters sat on the logs while in Second Life they danced on mushrooms or built things. In this case, it's actually a negative that Second Life has so many more… options. It would probably be more effective to have class in an empty room or something like a classroom setting, but still, there are just so many possibilities in Second Life that it's hard to sit still (I guess that's what real classes would be like if we weren't taught that we were supposed to stay in our seats).”
While Golanka found Second Life to be the superior platform overall, she chalked up much of this to the fact that Island Life is in early beta. Indeed according to developer Raph Koster, his development team is just scratching the surface of what can be done with Island Life from a technical point of view.
According to Ludlow, the interesting feature of Island Life lies in its potential to usher in a new generation of virtual world users. “Island Life, by taking advantage of the Facebook platform, may well be the application that brings robust custom virtual worlds to the masses. It is flash based and is thus “of the web” and not a foreign body like Second Life, which requires a large client download. It also piggybacks on the Facebook so it can rapidly acquire users via social networking rather than traditional advertising methods.”
For Ludlow, the real potential of virtual worlds is not really in the classroom experience, but in providing new ways of communicating ideas by immersing people inside of stories and virtual places. In the future, virtual worlds will be used to communicate messages in a more experiential way. His goal is to get students started on learning to develop these online experiences to communicate their ideas. Facebook is important in this equation because it can bring these experiential messages closer to the typical internet user.
And not for nothing, Ludlow notes that having class inside Facebook brings the classroom closer to the students. “My students are on Facebook during class anyway. I might as well move the class into Facebook. If you can’t beat them, join them.”