Teaching on Cornwall College Island (in Second Life)

It took eleven months of building, tweaking, re-building and planning, months of weekly meetings, discussions, trips to other sims, even other virtual worlds and then more building, more tweaking, more re-building until, on the 1st of February, Cornwall College’s island on the Second Life grid finally sprung into action.In the afternoon a dozen arts and media students started work on individual building and sculpting projects. Their tutor, as well as providing tuition and guidance, is also midway through his own build – a beautiful art deco-esque art gallery (in which I guess he will display the students’ work) which currently sits at the bottom of a lake (whether it will stay there or not remains to be seen!)

The City & Guilds Level 3 Award in Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector is an accredited Initial Teacher Training qualification available to anyone who wishes to teach in Post Compulsory Education. Cornwall College has been running the course successfully for a number of years, and 3 years ago developed a “fast track” version, predominantly for anyone already teaching without a formal qualification, with the bulk of the course delivered online and only four of the 12 sessions it consists of delivered in a traditional classroom setting. Having written developed, delivered and assessed this online version, one thing I am certainly proud of in my career is the success to date of this “blended learning” model, so it seemed a logical step to offer the course internationally, with classroom-based sessions delivered in Second Life and a range of web 2.0 applications such as flickr, Twitter, moodle, PBwiki, Skype and Posterous forming a rich and diverse setting for asynchronous tasks and reflective content.So, on the evening of the 1st February, a group of avatars from around Europe gathered on Cornwall College Island to start what I think (and hope!) is the world’s first Initial Teacher Training course to be delivered using Second Life as the only form of class and group-based delivery.

I have only taught in Second Life on two previous occasions – both sessions as part of my studies on the “muvenation” course of 2009 – a course that trained educators to teach specifically in Multi User Virtual Environments such as Second Life. Both sessions looked at how to build a simple object and took little under an hour each to deliver (though they took days to plan), and both sessions were carried out almost a year ago. As a result, I grew increasingly nervous in the days before the lesson was due to start, and I arrived at the island an hour early – just in case there were any last minute bits that needed to be worked on, or any technical issues with audio, graphics, lag or logging in. I was really grateful that one of my bestest buddies, the island’s co-builder and an elearning developer of some repute (henceforth known as “Julala”) had also arrived early to offer her assistance and talk me through any nerves I had.As it transpired, I needn’t have been nervous. The group (who also arrived early!) were a really great bunch of enthusiastic people, all genuinely happy and excited to be a part of this new venture, and all gave 100% to the activities that made up the session. I really enjoyed the lesson and was buzzing but incredibly tired by the end.

Managing the session involved juggling live speech with several text-based chat windows, furiously scribbling notes on bits of paper as we went along, making sure everyone was happy and able to take part in the sessions and that everyone was getting a chance to participate actively, dropping landmarks and notecards on avatars’ heads, writing and sending group notices and trying to stick to my lesson plan and timings of each activity. I was told by one of my unofficial observers afterwards that teaching in Second Life is more tiring than real world practice, and that it was common to feel so completely wiped out afterwards. This is something I will have to bear in mind for next time!Yesterday I got some feedback from one of my students via Skype. She told me that she had really enjoyed the session and was excited by the course and what is to follow. She also said that she would like to meet with the group more often than the schedule currently allows. Julala had mentioned this only a few hours earlier – that she had felt that the group had bonded really well, and that it would be an idea to maybe add more group activities in the schedule that could be carried out on a voluntary basis inworld. To this end I am planning on holding regular, low key discussions looking at some of the key concepts the course covers.

So, one session in and already I am learning that there are certain elements that need to be put in place to ensure sessions run smoothly:* Encourage students to turn up half an hour before the lesson starts so that any technical issues can be addressed before kick-off
* Have a colleague on standby as technical support. There were a couple of minor issues with microphones that were addressed quickly and smoothly because avatars with issues simply IMd Julala if they had issues, rather than interrupting the flow of the session by contacting me. As well as providing this support, she also kept an eye on any other visitors to the island – because though anyone is welcome to visit and even observe our sessions, I really would not want any X Rated behaviour or “griefing” to happen whilst teaching!
* If possible, film the session and watch retrospectively to see what worked well and what didn’t.
* I was also lucky enough to have another friend who has far more experience teaching in Second Life who sat in on the session so she could give me feedback afterwards. If this can be arranged, do – it’s really useful!