Academic journal article Journal of Distance Education (Online)

Use and Perceptions of Second Life by Distance Learners: A Comparison with Other Communication Media

Academic journal article Journal of Distance Education (Online)

Use and Perceptions of Second Life by Distance Learners: A Comparison with Other Communication Media

Article excerpt

Introduction

Studying at a distance can be an isolating experience, and students can feel insecure about their learning when studying in this way (Knapper, 1988). When used in distance education, communication media can reduce feelings of distance and isolation from peers and instructors, and provide opportunities for collaborative learning activities (Bates, 2005). Such media include asynchronous discussion boards, synchronous chat rooms (e.g., Skype), and virtual classrooms (e.g., Wimba). A more recent development is the use of virtual worlds to build a sense of community in DE courses (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006). The use of virtual worlds in education has increased in recent years and is regarded as a pedagogical innovation with potential for further growth. The most commonly used virtual world in higher education is Second Life (De Lucia, Francese, Passero, & Tortora, 2009) which was launched by Linden Lab in 2003. While there is increasing evidence to suggest that Second Life (SL) is well received by distance students, little work has been done to evaluate this form of communication in relation to other online communication tools available to the distance learner.

This paper describes a study in which students' use and perceptions of SL were compared with other communication media. Two major research questions guided this study:

* How do students feel about Second Life as a method of communication compared to other communication media?

* How do students feel about Second Life as a way of increasing their sense of community in the program compared to their use of other communication media?

Literature Review

Communication plays an integral role in learning. It enables sharing of information, and ideas which contribute to learning. Additionally, communication supports learning by clarifying information, promoting enthusiasm in learning, encouraging interaction, and building positive relationships among learners. Within the traditional classroom setting, face-to-face social and communicative interactions occur between the student and the teacher as well as among students (Picciano, 2002). In DE situations, face-to-face interaction cannot take place except via the internet. This lack of face-to-face interaction can impact learners' sense of belonging to a scholarly community (Rovai, 2002). It may also result in students feeling isolated and insecure about their learning (Knapper, 1988) and lead them to discontinue their studies (Peters, 1992). Statistics show that between 20 and 30 percent of students who begin a DE course do not finish it (Rovai, 2002). Other studies suggest that program retention rates are generally lower in DE than in face-to-face environments (Russo & Campbell, 2004). It has been postulated that this lower retention rate is due to the lack of capacity of DE to provide the personal interaction that students require (Carr, 2000). Even students in online courses report feelings of social disconnectedness, missing familiar teacher immediacy and the interpersonal interactions and social cues they generally have in the face-to-face setting (Slagter van Tron & Bishop, 2009). Therefore, while interaction is important in any educational setting, interaction in DE courses is considered to be the cornerstone of effective DE practices (Abrami, Bernard, Bures, Borokhovski, & Tamim, 2011).

A lack of social interaction has been reported by students to be a severe barrier even in online DE and has been strongly related to learning enjoyment, learning effectiveness, and the likelihood of undertaking further studies by online DE (Warburton, 2009). These findings emphasize the importance of interaction and communication between students engaged in DE programs. Consequently, when considering the design of DE courses, it is critical to incorporate media and mechanisms that facilitate quality and timely interactions.

Online communication media and environments offer opportunities for communication, collaboration, and learning (Dawson, 2006). …

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