An Interview with Second Life Guru Gavin Dudeney

Gavin Dudeney discusses virtual worlds for education and why he created EduNation in Second Life.

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
Gavin Dudeney

Gavin Dudeney

Tara Benwell: Second Life is a virtual world that is becoming increasingly popular for educational purposes. For the past few years, you have helped promote and support this aspect of the online community, especially in the field of English language learning and teacher training. Can you describe how your combined interests in life crossed over to the islands of Second Life (SL)?

Gavin Dudeney: I think it’s a question of being a teacher who likes and knows technology – which is a curious mix. I’ve been using computers since the early eighties and have been through many types or technologies in those nearly thirty years. I’ve spent much of my life learning about the technology side: software, hardware, building computers, repairing computers and writing software, graphic design and a few other things. At the same time I’ve spent a lot of time teaching, teacher training and writing about technology and education.

I think it helps teachers to work with other teachers who understand their world, but who also understand the world of technology. As for how that crosses over into SL, I think SL represents a significant challenge for educators because it’s new and it’s complicated – so what I’ve done is spent time trying to simplify it by applying my experience in teacher training and teaching to build spaces and tools which I think educators will be able to use ‘out of the box’.

Tara Benwell: What inspired you to build EduNation?

Gavin Dudeney: I’d been playing in SL for some time, acquiring the basic skills and learning a bit about building and scripting and I’d got to the point where I thought I’d like to take it further. It sort of fits in with some of my professional brief which is to ensure that our company is engaging with useful technologies and also future-proofing against the next wave of development.

I distinctly remember having dinner with a colleague in Scotland and walking back along the beach and blurting out that I thought we should buy an island in SL and see what happened. He agreed. I then phoned my other colleague in Spain and said the same thing. She also agreed. The next day I did the paperwork and we waited.

Tara Benwell: SL describes EduNation as “a private island simulator devoted to exploring Education in Second Life and Second Life in education”. Can you explain this in further detail?

Gavin Dudeney: Hmmm….. it’s soundbites like that that come back to bite you! It really only means that it’s a comfortable space for educators to work together to construct some ideas around the application of environments such as SL in their teaching practice and to look at how teaching in SL works and impacts on that practice. Basically it’s a free (mostly), supported space which aims to help educators through the process of working out if/how SL might be of use to them.

Tara Benwell: There are three separate islands in EduNation. What are the main differences between EduNation I, II, and III?

Gavin Dudeney: EduNation I was the original island back in 2006. In its first incarnation it was divided into a set of spaces for teachers to use: video spaces, PowerPoint spaces, audio spaces, RSS spaces and simple class spaces. Not many people used it and it became quite an expensive ‘asset’ so I then decided to break it up into small spaces and rent them out to educators who wanted to dip their toes in the water of SL. This worked so well that we eventually found ourselves with no space of our own in SL, so we added EduNation II, which is still my favourite of the three.

EduNation II is a lot of water and a lot of space for educators to use free of charge. It’s sunny and airy and relaxed and you’ll often find people hanging out in the Sandbox chatting or building things. It’s where my avatar ‘lives’ (1000 metres up in the air in a huge hall where I design teaching tools) and it’s where most of the events are held.

Around that time I had been working with several colleges and universities, helping them get into SL and it had come to my attention that one of the biggest single issues for higher education was the ‘comic book’ nature of SL. Although they often had great ideas about experimenting with SL, they were held back by the people in charge of the money who were reluctant to release funds for people to ‘play in a cartoon world’. And that’s where the ideas of EduNation III came from – a zoned, professional island where everyone is equal (in terms of land and buildings), where there are spaces which people recognise from the real world and where those with concerns can see that their company or college can be properly represented in a controlled, academic environment that doesn’t leave them feeling alienated or unduly worried about image, etc. That sort of sums up the three islands:

EduNation I : rental land for educators
EduNation II : free space for educators
EduNation III : rental buildings for educators

Tara Benwell: I really enjoyed learning about the sandbox in the EduNation video tours. Can you describe this tool and give us some examples of what teachers of English can create?

Gavin Dudeney: A sandbox takes its name from the typical sandbox you might find in a park for kids to play in – you can play for a while and then collect up your things and when you return the next day someone will have tidied the space and cleaned the sand, etc., ready for a new day. A SL sandbox is a space where everybody can play and build things, try out things they’ve bought and generally experiment. After a certain time the sandbox is magically cleaned and everybody’s objects are returned to their inventory, leaving the Sandbox ready for new visitors.

As for what teachers can create on a Sandbox, that’s really a question of their skills and their imagination – you could build a replica of the star ship Enterprise if you had the building and texturing skills, but mostly teachers will experiment with teaching tools which they’ve bought, or work on small-scale design or building projects. I’ve made a selection of free teaching tools and they can be tried out in the Sandbox on EduNation II.

Why do people provide Sandboxes? The answer is that you can’t simply go anywhere and build things in-world. It’s a bit like real life in that respect: you need to own land in order to be able to build on it. Hence the need for Sandboxes where people who don’t own land get a chance to experiment.

Lost in EduNation

Lost in EduNation

Tara Benwell: Speaking of experimenting…after joining and installing SL on my computer I found myself in a similar situation as Nergiz Kern described in last month’s TEFL guest interview. My SL avatar, Novella Scrabblebat, stood alone near a beanbag chair in EduNation II for a while. She laughed “with a girl voice”, said “wow”, and then quit. What can I do to improve her second visit?

Gavin Dudeney: I’m actually on my third avatar, having started in late 2005 with a similarly disappointing experience. I remember reading about SL, getting excited, downloading and logging in, walking about for a bit, getting bored and leaving. The second avatar was early 2006 and by then I had joined the SLED list and made some friends working in education. I had places to visit and people to talk to. And actually, that’s the secret with all social networks – if you don’t have a network, then they’re boring and pointless. It’s like being the only person at a party.

And SL is primarily a social network. If you treat it like a game then you’re going to be disappointed. The success of anyone’s experience in SL is the extent of their network in-world, and their comfort level in manipulating the SL software. My second avatar made friends, learnt things and acquired skills which enhanced my experience – and then I killed him off and set up my final one (Dudeney Ge) who has been in world just over three years. I’ve been using SL with this professional avatar for so long because I have people to talk to, things to build and script, islands to look after and events to organise and attend. So there’s a purpose to my SL life, and there’s great enjoyment and collegiality.

Tara Benwell: I think online teachers will appreciate the fact that EduNation is also for socializing. How can Novella Scrabblebat hook up with other teachers that I network with online?

Gavin Dudeney: Join a group and meet some people. Go to events, talk to people and relax. Don’t expect too much from SL, and expect the unexpected. SL is like RL in all its glory – you’ll meet good people, bad people, weird people and more – you have to learn to relax and go with it. Meeting like-minded people is a good way to get into SL society and find a purpose for your visits. are a couple of groups who meet up more or less every week in SL on EduNation II or III and these are great places to start. The SLExperiments group is a good place to start, with weekly meetings on Fridays. They’re a very supportive bunch of people and very welcoming of new members. The Osna group also meet regularly and often have discussions with invited guests – contact Osnacantab Nesterov in-world for more information on that one. Joining groups like this, and going to the occasional meeting, puts you in touch with people and helps you grow your SL network.

Tara Benwell: What types of educational events are available for English teachers in EduNation and how can newbies sign up?

Gavin Dudeney: We run a regular series of events over the western European academic year (October to June) in which we invite people we think are doing good, interesting work in Second Life to come and share their wisdom. In 2007/8 we adopted a traditional seminar model with guest speakers and a Q & A at the end, in 2008/9 we ran a series called “A Coffee With…” which was more an interview followed by audience participation.

Events like these give people a chance to get together, hear from someone inspirational and then take the discussion further to enhance their own understanding of SL and the possibilities. I’m not sure yet what we’ll be doing for the 2009/10 season, but it’ll be different again, that’s for sure.

Tara Benwell: What about in-world training for SL educators?

Gavin Dudeney: We run a two-week training course called ‘Second Life for Educators’. The course is run partially in Moodle and partially in Second Life. In the Moodle part we learn about Second Life, discuss education and training in Second Life and discuss how virtual worlds can be applied in teaching and learning. This part is coupled with four ninety-minute sessions in Second Life which cover the basics of using Second Life, as well as basic design and scripting, teaching tools and approaches.

Tara Benwell: There is a twitter rumour going around that you are interested in buying a real island. Is there any truth to this?

Gavin Dudeney: Well, there are lots of rumours about ELT people earning enough money from coursebook sales to buy small islands, but I think it’ll be a while yet before that happens to me! The virtual ones cost enough, to be honest – so I suspect I’ll have to be content with them unless something amazing happens in my life (winning the lottery, perhaps)!

Tara Benwell: One last question. Dudeney Ge looks so cool with his shades and black suit. Where can I find tips on changing Novella’s appearance? I’m not sure educators or learners will take her very seriously in her current spacesuit.

Dudeney Ge of EduNation

Dudeney Ge of EduNation

Gavin Dudeney: It’s a question of spending some money, I think – rather like in real life. You can have the free ‘Wal Mart’ look, or the expensive ‘Hugo Boss’ look, and it all comes down to disposable income. The thing with money in SL is that most things are really very cheap, but people have a philosophy of not wanting to pay for anything. Most new users tend to spend a lot of time trying to find ways of making free money – most of these involve leaving your avatar dancing on a dance pad for hours and being paid for it, or similar.

What most people don’t realise is the electricity they’re using to power their computer is undoubtedly costing more than they’re ‘earning’ per hour. The cheapest way to get money is to buy it using a PayPal account or a credit card, frankly – you’ve got to work out how much your real life time is worth and then do the maths.

Once you’ve got some Linden Dollars (L$) you just need to go shopping like in real life. To get your avatar looking suitable for human eyes you’ll need a shape, a skin, some decent hair and some smart clothes. A place like Laqroki (use the Search function in SL) is a good starting place for all these items, especially if you’re using a female avatar. Failing that, try XstreetSL.com for a one-stop shopping place.

More about Gavin Dudeney at: http://slife.dudeney.com

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
August 2009 | Filed under Interviews
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.