I've been reading Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life, an anthropologist's look at the most popular of the virtual worlds. I now know what AFK means ("away from keyboard") and a lot of other things, too, about this complex online environment and its cultures and mores.
I've spent a number of hours exploring Second Life, flying my avatar across digital landscapes that materialize as my bandwidth catches up. I've strolled through the arcades, been a bit puzzled by the Halloween party feeling of all the tricked out avatars and people typing to each other. I even used some of my free Linden dollars (the currency there) to buy a necklace for my avatar. I don't wear necklaces in real life, so this was stepping out a bit for me. I have been reluctant to engage in this demi-monde. Once, I landed on an idyllic little spot and strolled through a lovely house beside a stream. A woman avatar typed/shouted at me to get out. This was her land. What was I doing there? I didn't know. A bit embarrassed, and frustrated at not being able to figure how to create objects and buildings (that obviously so many have become so adept at), I left Second Life. I haven't been back for a long time.
But in keeping close watch on the educational technology space, it's become apparent that Second Life is indeed coming of age for educators and for education. See, for example, the community of educators discussing its use for professional development and for student learning on Classroom 2.0. This is all very fascinating, but I'm not gambling on a lot of uptake for Second Life in higher education any time soon -- even though I'm convinced that the prospect of 3D learning, data visualization, and Second Life's unique community-creating characteristics could enhance and potentially replace some college classes or scholarly conferences.
It's just that a virtual world requires a higher learning curve than other electronic tools. It's more than a tool (like using a wiki or even producing a video). It's an experience, an immersive digital environment. And frankly, it's just hard to take the plunge, even for people who like to think of themselves as digital enthusiasts. And there is a seedy side to Second Life that can scare one away, too.
I do think that this virtual world is still largely in its "let's play with this thing and think about what we might do with it" stage. However, enough people are making serious use of Second Life for educational purposes that I think it should at least be on the radar for teachers and learners of all ages. It appears to me that it's the K-12 educators who are really doing serious play with Second Life. But those of us in higher education should not be ignoring it. I can imagine forward-thinking online universities gaining some ground in this space, since students at Capella or Walden universities are already principally online.
The slideshare presentation below shows several viable categories for the academic use of Second Life. It is followed by a 5 minute video in which Bill Freese talks about his positive experience in the AECT sponsored space on Second Life (The Association for Educational Communications and Technology). You should take a look. Suddenly, I'm starting to think that virtual academia could be more than a sandbox experiment; it could be a major draw and a major boon for higher education. I'm going to be looking into it further. I hope you will, too.