Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Second Life

Virtual Environments: Second LifeEdit

by Patricia Glogowski [1]

This wikibook chapter discusses Second Life, a virtual environment. The first part of this article, Introduction, gives a brief introduction to virtual environments and to the features of Second Life. The second part of this article, Characteristics of Second Life, discusses the theoretical features of virtual environments. The third part, Uses of Second Life & Projects in Second Life, focuses on uses of Second Life for social activism, education, and language teaching and learning. The final part of this article, Criticisms, Problems, and Limitations, includes a discussion of the most serious social problems occurring in Second Life and the constraints that individuals face when using Second Life.


Virtual Environments

Virtual environments are complex visual and audio-based, immersive environments where individuals interact with one another via avatars or digital representation of themselves. These environments are quite distinct from Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG). Whereas MMORPG are games where content is designed by developers and consumed by players, virtual environments are places where residents co-construct physical and social content through socialization and collaboration. The content of many virtual environments is co-constructed collaboratively by residents through creativity, invention, taking on identities, and experimentation. “Practices of the participants, their actions, conversations, movements, and exchanges come to define the world and continually infuse it with new meanings” (Thomas & Brown, 2007).

What is Second Life?

One of the more popular virtual environments that has emerged recently is Second Life. Second Life was launched on June 23, 2003 by Linden Labs. It is widely popular with individuals in their early 30s (Generation X), and, according to the Kzero research group, it has 13 million registered accounts, which makes it one of the largest virtual environments (Virtual Worlds). Although residents do not need to own land, some purchase or lease parcels of land from Second Life real estate developers who, in turn, purchase the real estate from Linden Labs. Plots of virtual real estate in Second Life can range in price from $100 to $1000 US or more. Linden Labs lists three types of land: mainland regions, islands (private regions), and open spaces. Residents who are interested in buying land, bid for it on the Second Life auction (Types of Land ). Land is also available for rent; the prices are US $50 per region per day (Types of Land). Real estate trading as well as other economic activities that take place in Second Life are done in Second Life currency, the Linden Dollar.

Main Grid and Teen Grid

Second Life consists of the following parts: the Main Grid where adult residents create their spaces and the Teen Grid which is designed for residents aged 13 -18 only. Adults who want to work with teenagers in the Teen Grid need special clearance to enter the Teen Grid and are restricted to their approved projects. Adult residents entering the Teen Grid need to create a new avatar which can be used on the Teen Grid only; if they use the avatar from the Main Grid, they cannot return to it once they leave or communicate with other adult avatars on the Main Grid.

Ownerships of Content

In January 2007, Linden Labs released its client source code under the GPL free software license (Embracing the Inevitable) which made it possible for residents to own the content they create. The physical content of the space, the ownership of objects, buildings, natural settings, or clothing created by the residents is in the hands of the residents, which means residents can own, sell, or give away the objects that they have created. They commonly license them under the Creative Commons. The possibility to own objects created in Second Life is one of the main features that distinguishes Second Life and other such similar environments from the MMMORG games where players do not own the content.

Second Life CharacteristicsEdit

Distributed Networks

Second Life is characterized by distributed networks as its residents are geographically, demographically, and generationally dispersed. Thomas & Brown (2007) also suggest that the distributed networks are, at the same time, co-present as, for any interaction to take place, residents’ avatars are in the same space.

Participatory Culture

According to Ondrejka (2008), another characteristic that makes Second Life unique is its participatory culture (culture of interacting, sharing, and collaborating) characterized by innovation and creativity. Participatory culture is integral for Second Life to function as the social and physical content of the environment is collaboratively authored, preserved, modified, and maintained by its residents (Robbins qtd. in Arreguin, 2007) through the process of what Yowell (Yowell, qtd. in Arreguin, 2007) and Thomas & Brown (2007) call “networked imagination.” To explain this further, it is the collective or network imagination of Second Life residents that leads to the creation of urban and natural spaces where the residents congregate, and it is the collective imagination of the residents that results in defining the purpose to meet in those spaces. These purposes can range from social gatherings to educational initiatives such as lectures or workshops.

Social Interaction

Because it is the residents of Second Life who are the creators and developers of the physical and social content, the quality and complexity of this virtual environment depend entirely on residents’ agency - their willingness, frequency, and quality of interactions. It is up to the residents to decide to what degree they become involved in this space. This, according to Ondrejka (2008), largely depends on residents’ needs, desires, and constraints. It is also worthy to point out that, in contrast to interactions in other Web 2.0 applications, such as blogging, wikis, or microblogging which are sequential, the interaction in Second Life and other similar virtual environments is always synchronous.

Learning as a Social Practice

Because the content is co-constructed by its residents, Second Life is an environment where learning occurs through social interaction. Ondrejka (2008) labels it as peer-to-peer pedagogy learning which is modelled on the apprenticeship model put forward by Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978) and which takes place in communities of practice created by learners (Wenger, 1998). “Rather than requiring learners to become proficient in all Second Life skills, students are encouraged to become dependent on each other’s talents and strengths to the point of leading and teaching each other” (Arreguin, 2007). Learning in Second Life is predominantly driven by the needs of the individual. Ondrejka (2008) points out that there is no pre-set curriculum and that learning is regulated primarily by the needs of the learners. According to Robbins (Robbins qtd. in Arreguin, 2007) knowledge is pulled by the learners rather than pushed at a student. Robbins also stresses that the roles of the learner and instructor change as a result of this; the learner becomes an instructor and the instructor becomes a learner. Learning in Second Life occurs through formal and informal instances that include conventions, conferences, workshops and demonstrations organized and led by more experienced residents or through informal peer-to-peer synchronous voice or text chats. Learning in Second Life is also supported by exchange of knowledge, expertise, and information through a mash-up of technologies that are used along with Second Life. Thus, Second Life residents continue to learn by interacting outside of Second Life by writing blogs, collaborating on wikis, joining Facebook groups, exchanging short comments on microblogging applications such as Twitter, participating in conversations on listservs, sharing images on Flickr, and sharing resources on or other social networking sites.

Uses of Second Life & Projects in Second LifeEdit

Social Activism


Since its launch in 2003, Second Life has been used for various purposes: social activism, politics, education, and professional development. An example of social activism in Second Life was a project that aimed to alert Second Life residents to the plight of homeless children living in developing countries. The project was launched by The Messengers of Peace Association (Mensajeros de la Paz), a Non-Governmental Organization based in Spain that works with needy and socially-disadvantaged groups in developing countries. This NGO created a homeless teenager avatar in December 2007. The avatar did not own any land and was living in a cardboard box stuffed with newspapers and a sign that said, “Help a child have a second opportunity in his First Life“ (Doctorow, 2006). The intention behind creating this avatar was to use the newest technologies to alert wider audiences to the plight of poor and disadvantaged people. Salvador Dinez, one of the designers of the project stated, “We think Second Life and other forms of new technologies can be a great way to connect with young people and make them a little more conscious about the huge population in the real world needing help, and it doesn't cost much to guarantee the future of another human being” (Doctorow, 2006).

Labour Protests

Another example of social activism was a labour strike organized in September 2007 in Second Life by Italian workers working at an IBM plant in Italy who were protesting the $1, 377 pay cut. The labour protest took place at the IBM corporate campus and marketing site in Second Life that the company’s UK sector has been using for developmental purposes (Au, 2007a).


The decision by the government of Sweden to open its embassy in Second Life with the view to promote tourism and travel (Sweden) was a perfect illustration of how important technology has become as a tool to reach wider audiences. Yet another example of political activism was the opening of the France's New Front Party Headquarters in Second Life. This met with violent protests from the Second Life residents that involved virtual throwing of grenades, detonations, and setting buildings on fire (Au, 2007b).

It has become clear that Second Life is an important place for social activism aimed at addressing real life issues that have been traditionally dealt with in real life. Companies, governmental, and non-governmental institutions increasingly seek to establish their presence in this virtual environment as they realize that they can reach more geographically, demographically, and socially distributed audiences.


Universities and Colleges

Many universities and colleges have established their presence in Second Life either with pre-built campuses or by creating opportunities for students to engage in project-based learning. One of the examples is the initiative, “Stepping into History,” developed by Alliance Library System in cooperation with Learning Times. The project was developed to explore the possibilities of teaching history in an interactive way with live talks and interaction with historical characters in re-created historical settings. This project is an example of shifting students' learning from text-based knowledge acquisition to learning in a highly-interactive multimedia environment where students can build their knowledge via image, voice, and live, synchronous interactive exercises.

Other initiatives include the Ohio University Virtual Lab which does research on Second Life or University of Cincinnati Second Life Community, just to name a few. Individual educators have also started various initiatives to create educational spaces which are devoted to education. A good example of that are the Islands of jokaydia, a self-funded group of islands that provides a space for educators to collaborate and explore how virtual worlds can be used in education and the arts.

Another example of educational development is the newly launched Education Grid or the Global Kids Digital Media Project.

Medicine and Sciences

Medical schools are using Second Life for medical stimulations. One example of that is the Ann Myers Medical Center. The purpose of establishing medical schools in Second Life is to train medical students and nurses through case presentations which are expensive or dangerous to perform in real life. Medical research and visualization of disorders have also been documented in Second Life. An example of that is the Visual Virtual Documentation of Schizophrenia which aims to familiarize medical students with the details of the illness. Research institutions have also established scientific research centres to create immersive science learning experiences. Some of the examples include projects developed by Drexel University and the University of Denver.

Language Teaching and Learning and Professional Development

Language teaching has not lagged behind in establishing its presence in Second Life. The British Council has developed a number of initiatives to build places for English language instruction in Second Life . The Second Life English group started by a language teacher in Germany has established itself at the English Village and has been operating since 2006. Its mandate is to provide free resources and support to language teachers and learners. A real language school, the Avatar Languages School, based entirely in Second Life offers English language classes in Second Life. The annual SLanguages conference (hosted within Second Life) is a 24-hour variety of workshops, PowerPoint sessions and discussions, field trips, and hands-on building activities. The conference took place in May 2008 and will be held again in May 2009. The event focuses on the use of Second Life and other 3D virtual worlds in language education.

Criticisms, Limitations, and ProblemsEdit

Financial Constraints

One of the main criticisms of Second Life is the financial cost of using this environment. Establishing a permanent presence in Second Life requires substantial financial investment, especially recently when the land prices have increased (Linden, 2006). Land prices vary depending on the region and whether one owns or rents. In addition to land prices, residents also pay monthly maintenance fees that range from $5 US to $195 US depending on the size of their land (Knowledge Base). Linden Labs also states on its website, “To purchase land in Second Life, you must have a Premium account, current payment information on file, and your account must be in good standing (i.e. not delinquent). You may also be required to have a clean disciplinary record. Linden Lab reserves the right to refund your purchase if you do not meet our minimum criteria for land ownership” (Knowledge Base).

Another prohibitive issue that limits the use of Second Life are the hardware requirements needed to run the Second Life client software. This translates into a substantial economic investment that many individuals or educational institutions cannot afford.

Educational Constraints and Criticisms

In addition to these financial constraints, using Second Life for educational or other purposes involves a steep learning curve that involves learning how to function in the environment and how to build the physical content. In addition to basic skills, building educational spaces and bringing learners into Second Life requires creativity, time, patience, and innovation. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the content created by residents will be educationally valuable. A further criticism of teaching in Second Life is the misguided pedagogy of using Second Life and other newest technologies to teach in old ways; often it’s the traditional, teacher-centred, unidirectional teaching transferred into a new environment.

Ethical Problems

Misbehaving, Virtual Vandalism, and Griefing

Social misbehaving, virtual vandalism, and what’s commonly known as griefing are the most common social problems in Second Life. Those who engage in griefing are called Griefers. “Griefers are so-called because they create grief. Their antics are designed to interrupt proceedings in virtual worlds and games usually for no other reason than because they can. Attacks … are triggered by a program code that generates self-replicating objects. Much like email spam, these “griefspawn” attacks can chew up system resources and slow down performance. They can sometimes even trigger network crashes” (Jardin, 2006). In 2006, a virtual assault by griefers took place on the virtual estate of a self-proclaimed virtual millionaire, Anshe Chung (Ailin Graef RL). According to the news report, in a staged, virtual protest, “A torrent of pixelated male genitals rained upon the victim” (Second Life). Another example of griefing was cited by Michael J. Bugeja, Director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, who gave an example of cyber-shooting at the Ohio University virtual campus in Second Life. “Last May, in the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, a visiting avatar entered the university's Second Life campus and fired at other avatars” (Bugeja, 2007 ).

Sex-based Economy

The most serious accusation and criticism against Second Life is ethical. Most Second Life land is used for recreational purposes where residents engage in the economy-based activities that include gambling, nightclub hopping, and sexual activities and exploitation. One example of that is a news report ran by a Hawaii television station that described a single mother who amassed a fortune running virtual brothels (Pai, 2007). Another news report reported a number of incidents of sexual exploitations (Twohey, 2008).

Child Pornography

Other accusations that have surfaced were those of child pornography. In response to that, Linden Labs issued a statement condemning all illegal activities in Second Life and warning about strict and irreversible punishments. In their response, “Accusations regarding child pornography in Second Life”, Linden Labs indicated that sex involving minors and child pornography constitute illegal activity. They also state that residents are responsible for the content of the space and that such illegal activities are not tolerated. The punishment for two avatars that were photographed engaging in sexual activity (one avatar appeared to be a minor) was a permanent ban from Second Life (Linden, 2007).

Criminal Activity in Second Life

Michael Bugeja further points out to the liability that educators face when they bring learners into Second Life. “What about a complaint by a student who agrees to meet the teacher's avatar outside of class but in-world and then witnesses or engages in an unwanted virtual act? Or a claim of emotional distress filed by a student exposed to virtual shootings or any number of sexist, racist, homophobic, or offensive avatar behaviours? Who is responsible?” (Bugeja, 2007). Many questions have also arisen as to what constitutes and what does not constitute criminal activity in virtual space and whether criminal activity in virtual space can be or should be considered the same as it is in real life. Regina Lynn, a journalist for Wired, in her discussion of virtual rape, for example, makes the case against it. She states that virtual rape although traumatic cannot be treated as real-life rape (Lynn, 2007).


Linden Labs’ response to the unwanted sexual acts and other criminal activities in Second Life includes a series of punishments that range from warnings, suspension, and then banishment for life from Second Life. For the purpose of suspension, Linden Labs has created a prison stimulator, “The Corn Field,” where misbehaving avatars are locked up. The virtual prison contains one-way teleport terminal which does not allow an avatar to escape since communication to the Main Grid of Second Life is permanently cut off (Walsh, 2006 ).


Second Life is a complex, audio-visual, immersive environment where individuals represented by their avatars, take on new identities and create physical and social content in which they interact with others. Individuals’ identities are replicated from real life, augmented, or significantly modified. An increasing number of researchers agree that engagement in virtual environments is supplemental to real life presence and virtual identities are supplemental to real life identities. Many activities taking place in Second Life serve educational and other valuable purposes. Many institutions have established their presence in Second Life to create highly immersive educational experiences that are too expensive, dangerous, or not feasible in real life.

However, social activities in Second Life have not always been positive. Some residents engage in violent, sexually explicit, and morally questionable behaviour. Although certain measures have been taken by Linden Labs to assure security and safety, this newly emerging social environment has not been yet thoroughly regulated, and its safety and security largely depend on the residents and their intentions. While Second Life has shown a lot of potential as a virtual venue for valuable activities, including education and social activism, some of its drawbacks cannot be ignored. It remains to be seen whether Second Life can indeed be the next great tool in education.


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Where to Learn MoreEdit

Australasia Virtual World Conference

Avatar Languages School

Education Grid

JoKaydia Island Blog

RezEd: The Hub for Learning and Virtual Worlds

Second Life in Education Wiki

Second Life Video Tutorials

SLanguages conference in Second Life


Second Life Educator’s Blog (SLED)

Sim Teach Wiki

Second Life Teen Grid