Cynthia Davidson, Stony Brook University
Burn2 exhibits use a full range of embedded literacies to convey stories and arguments--such as this environmental installation
Burn2 takes place only once a year, but I think that it provides the best model of new literacy practice that Second Life can offer. The level of virtuosity required to create at Burn2 is not limited to those with years of training and developed skill—beginners are welcome. It’s possible to see builds that are technically simple yet engaging and witty, as well as stunning works that require considerable practice with building and scripting. As well, the variety of projects engages visitors who can interview their creators or provide their own interpretative analysis of what the compositions say to them. It’s tempting to say that the best use of Second Life for educators might be to open up a series of flat, blank landmasses with building rights and turn classes loose there, but I doubt that this would have the same effect. The showcase effect is important; Burn2 is a special event and there are time constraints. One must do the build in a week and then take it down. That’s part of the engagement of video games, too—that there are constraints and obstacles that a player willingly takes on.
What we might consider, instead, is a system that evolves from the current trend toward electronic portfolios (note 1). As stated by Kathleen Blake Yancey in her retrospective on ePortfolio use on campuses for curricular and assessment contexts, “At the heart of this work in electronic portfolios is what was first a hope and then an assumption, and now a research-based claim: that creating, evidencing, connecting, and reflecting involved in electronic portfolios engage students in new and beneficial ways—especially when the portfolio provides a space for student-informed participation….In other words, when the e-portfolio is designed by the student as much as by the institution, implementation efforts are more likely to succeed” (28). While there is still a high degree of uncertainty about how ePortfolios contribute to heightened effects of student retention and success in college, it seems clear that students’ involvement in the design of their space accounts for some of that success. If the use of Second Life were to emerge in a similar fashion, students would create their own networked spaces in Second Life rather than inhabit spaces built by others that replicate traditional classrooms or campuses.
There are several kinds of ePortfolios that have been shown to be effective learning environments—there are personal, assessment, and showcase ePortfolios as well as hybrids (as stated in this definition from Regis University). Suppose a student could be set up with a plot of land that would constitute the platform for her virtual portfolio? The virtual portfolio could evolve over the course of a semester, or even longer. The student would design a project, in conjunction with an advisor or instructor (in accordance with guidelines set out by both of them), and develop a build along with a log of reflections on the build. A direct link could connect one’s virtual portfolio to the web-based ePortfolio. Then the writers could use the affordance of the electronic portfolio platform to reflect on their vPortfolio, and instructors and other readers could offer their feedback.
On the small, 512 square meter parcel that accompanies a deluxe account (roughly $10 US dollars a month at this writing), a student could construct, over time, a virtual build holding up to 112 prims (the “primitives” or smallest virtual units of construction) that would be linked to his or her online portfolio. To help defray the cost, schools or other associated institutions could sponsor contests that would offer ongoing support through competitions, grants, and scholarships. The virtual presence could in the long-term do more than simply offer expression for the student; like the ePortfolio, it could be used to make a statement about causes or projects or subjects that the student cares about and build connections to other online resources. The student could link his or her electronic portfolio to a SLURL (second life URL) for her build and discuss its implications in her portfolio. For example, one build from Burn2 2010 (pictured above) drew attention to the issues of climate change and ecosystem stress by offering an interactive experience that highlighted the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.