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Case Study: Teen Second Life at Suffern Intermediate School with Peggy Sheehy

Scroll down for the actual video footage, folks.

STOP PRESS: My school have now followed in the steps of Suffern - see our experience with our own 3D Virtual World click here for news, video, advice, and reflections on our own experience.

On the last day of our visit to the USA, I caught a train up from New York to Suffern Intermediate School, in Suffern.

There, Peggy Sheehy was the first educator in the world to pioneer the use of Second Life for teenage student. Second Life is a 3D Virtual World which you can walk around in, and interact with other people who are simultaneously in the same environment. Amazingly, the 3D environment itself is created by the users themselves. I must mention the world has voice chat, so the social dynamics of interactions are surprisingly like real life. For instance at a party in Second Life you can hear the music coming from the stereo and might need to talk loud to talk over it. If you walk away from someone your voice is fainter to them, so you might walk up to someone to converse with them. You can text chat too, of course.

Now, obviously, you can't let teens run around the unregulated environment of Second Life. In fact Linden Lab will not allow teens into Second Life.

However, the company Linden Lab also offers 'Teen Second Life' for teens aged 13 to 17 (very strictly).

Still not good enough for structured, systematic use by a school. But wait! Educators can purchase a "Private Estate" - a piece of virtual land over which they have complete control. Bingo! A locked-down piece of virtual land!

I first heard Peggy Sheehy talk at a conference held in the adult Second Life environment. Second Life is great for conferences! No registration costs, no travel expenses, no organising for cover for your classes. Just log in and get the wisdom of colleagues, and offer your own wisdom.

As Peggy started speaking I quickly warmed to her and she won my confidence. SO MANY TIMES I have felt like gnawing my own elbow off in a conference presentation. But I immediately had the impression with Peggy that...
- she had common sense and a strong grip on reality / real life practice
- er, frankly, she was smart
- she could tell the difference between the important bits, and the irrelevant bits.
- she was relaxed and could roll with punches (you have to hear her anecdote about the time a pigeon flew into her classroom). This certainly proved true during my visit, when I arrived an hour late (thanks to the bloody New York taxi system - anyone with a car can be a taxi, is what I observed in NY). Peggy offered to be my taxi back and was entirely relaxed about juggling her schedule for this!

Peggy started planning to use SL in 2005 and launched in 2006.

It was such a delight to meet her. She is relaxed, but manic. Her manner with the students, as you'll see is assertive, but relational, with lots of space for the students' initiative (she gets through the 'official bits' as quick as possible!).

If there is one thing that has stood out to me from her observations on the educational value of a 3D virtual world, it's the notion of a "Psychosocial Moratorium" - a term coined by Erik Erikson. The idea is that the social space of a 3D virtual online world is particularly 'safe', and therefore particularly beneficial for nurturing the confidence of adolescents trying to figure out who they are, what they are good at, what they stand for and what they are are known for. As someone who has spent countless hours in the safety of online environments, I know exactly what she means. As of November 2008 I am seeking to set up Teen Second Life for my school, and can't wait to see how the students respond. Peggy has many anecdotes of students who have 'found themselves' through what is essentially a scaffold to constructing social identity (my wording there).

Now, when I visited Suffern, I had my little Dell netbook and webcam, and 'taped' some conversation with Peggy. I also recorded a conversation with some students, and a short, intense, and fascinating first session where a class experienced TSL for the first time!

The following footage is not brilliant quality, and is lengthy, but I found 'being there' very rewarding and have cut out very little from what I recorded. My intended audience is educators keen to explore the real life detail of a case study in the use of Second Life for students.

Let me start with the students and we can go from there to my interview with Peggy. Here are some random students who came into the library and whom I quizzed:

Here is Part 1 of the session introducing a new class to SL. The moment when the students realise you can fly in Second Life is priceless. They've been grabbed, hook, line and sinker. This moment is so significant. It is the moment where a simulated environment becomes interesting and of value to young people who are, themselves, at their age, at an age where their key challenge is to begin to define the parameters of who they are as independent beings in a complex reality. Again I think - Second Life appears to have the potential to be a scaffold.

Here is Part 2 of the session introducing a new class to SL. Some intriguing moments for those who have the time to watch it all. The noise level slowly lessens. The students are at times confounded, at times confident, at all times utterly engaged.

Now let's take a step back from practice and hear from Peggy. My big question is "What's the point?" She announced 3 thoughts and gets distracted after #2.

But we do come back to #3!

Now, if the Second Life environment is built by users, who builds the locked down private estate 3D world used by any particular school?

The answer appears to be:
- the students, students, students (such a good sign!)
- third party developers (Peggy highly recommends a gifted developer - Eloise Pasteur who is efficient and practical with her quotes. There is a funny moment in the recording where I don't understand the surname!)
- third party companies, e.g. NASA and many others, more than willing to make available their 3D Stuff (e.g. a simulated rocket ship) available for installation in a school's virtual space.
- noticeably absent - the classroom teacher. i.e. you do not need expertise!

And finally, some more casual chatting, and Peggy shows me the security system they set up to prevent students from using SL when there was no teacher present in the world. (The teacher can flick a switch in the virtual world that glues anyone who logs in, to the one spot so they can't move.)

My thanks to Peggy Sheehy for being such a wonderful, flexible, energetic host, and so willing to share, so able to remain relaxed while cramming in an extraordinary amount into what was basically less than 3 hours, AND I had 3 cups of coffee! Peggy's twitter ID is www.twitter.com/maggiemarat. Her blog is http://metaversedltd.com/ . She also administrates a school blog at http://rampoislands.blogspot.com/ which says it has been relocated to http://ramapoislands.edublogs.com , although this website seems not to exist. (Peggy - you are sure to read this, where is the new website?)

All this the day after US election day. I was at Times Square that evening... but that is another blog post.

To follow my school's adventures of using Second Life, subscribe using the box on the right hand side. I am committed to posting material I believe will be useful to classroom teachers myself interested in the potential of technology to empower students and thereby transform education. On twitter I am www.twitter.com/steve_collis and on YouTube I am www.youtube.com/lestep. You can see my non-professional blog at http://stevecollis.blogspot.com . I have so much more to post about what I saw in American schools! Fingers crossed I find the time to publish!