ITC09 Grand Debate – a Real Con Job

I was accused of being particularly snarky and ill-informed by some online posters during the grand Debate at eLearning 2009, the ITC annual conference (see previous two posts). All true. No denial here.

I don’t actually believe that I am ill-informed about Second Life and virtual worlds, but I was pretty much acting that way during the debate – you see, that was part of the strategy. Because above all else, I was trying to win. I hate to lose, and there was no way that I could see myself winning this debate unless I went over the top with both provocative content and a major splash of snark. (A friend saw these comments about me online and was concerned about how I was coping, but he also needed to know what snarky meant. After I told him, he said that my picture should be in the dictionary next to that word. Here’s my effort to do that.)

If it had been an academic debate based solely on reasonable arguments, any (or all) of the following would have occurred:

  1. I would have lost
  2. it would have been boring
  3. it would not have been a memorable event (not same as #2, boring can be memorable)

At the risk of disappointing some who voted for my side of the resolution, I need to say that I don’t really believe that SL is stupid, or that it sucks, or that it is a waste of time and money. Below the fold I’ll get into much more detail about what I really believe in regard to the development of virtual worlds for education.

BTW, that story about my kid wanting to go to the park to fly a kite? Totally made up. Not the kid, he’s real enough, but the rest of the story was just for affect. But I loved that story, and yes, it was to make the point that flying a kite in a virtual world will never be as good as (or even close to) flying a kite in real life with your kid. Doesn’t mean that SL is stupid, but it does mean that we want to use virtual worlds for what they’re good at, and probably not use them for what they’re not good at.

During the debate I barely touched on griefing in SL -well, maybe barely isn’t quite accurate considering that the image I used was quite graphic. But I only mentioned griefing in relation to that one slide – even though I had lots of material that would have scared the non-SLers completely over to the other side. Do I think that griefing is a reason not to explore VW? Of course not, but it is fun as hell to talk about.

You might notice that I turned the topic on its head a little bit. I concentrated on bashing Second Life and totally stayed away from the idea of virtual worlds in general. Again, I was trying to WIN. Much of what I could talk about regarding SL wouldn’t necessarily apply to virtual worlds in general. Fleep picked up on that a little bit, but I was afraid that she would use it as more of a hammer to beat me over the head.

Some of my best material was left on the cutting-room floor. I’ll throw in just a little bit of that material in this post, if for no other reason than to give some people another opportunity to get all worked up over this stuff. Probably the one piece that I regret the most not getting to during the debate revolves around the issue of vendor lock-in with Linden Labs, and the same piece also got at the question about whether our business practices are ready for all of this. I planned to make a few comments about the dangers of higher ed allowing for vendor lock-in to occur (“Haven’t we learned anything from the Blackboard debacle?”), but the “bit” that I planned to use has to do with trusting Linden Labs to want what is best for higher education. It would have gone something like this:

“So all these colleges and universities are rushing into Second Life to buy their own little Education Island. Education Island? That’s funny, apparently Creepy Treehouse would have been too direct. How does your purchasing agent react when you tell him that you are buying an island? An island that doesn’t actually exist anywhere (except as e-bits on a server that you have no control over), but that you’re still going to pay real money for? And let’s just assume that you’re able to jump this hurdle and buy your island – that doesn’t exist – what guarantees do you have that you’ ll always be able to access this island, that you’ll be able to do what you want to on this island – that doesn’t exist – and that Linden Labs won’t just change the terms of service on you without notice and leave you holding an empty (virtual) bag?”

“Here’s an idea. I’m willing to sell off sections of my brain. For the right price – you can own a section of my brain – where you can imagine yourself building anything there that you want to – where you can imagine yourself engaging in any kind of activity that you want to – and I promise to never deny you access to all the imaginary stuff that you have residing in my brain. Do you trust me? No? You trust Linden Labs more than you trust me? Ouch!”

Hyperbole? Of course. Snark – see picture above. Points? Well, I hope so. Even though I don’t believe that Second Life is stupid, I do believe that allowing ourselves (higher ed as a whole) to continue down this road to vendor lock-in is incredibly stupid.

What I Really Believe about VW in Higher Education

In no particular order, I think:

  1. That Second Life is stupid – (jk, seeing if you’re still with me), I mean that all of the development that is currently going into SL is mis-directed or poorly aimed.
  2. That we (higher ed in general) are setting ourselves up for another colossal vendor lock-in situation with Linden Labs. They cannot be trusted to act in our best interests, but we can be trusted (much more so, anyway) to act in our best interests.
  3. That operating an open source virtual world (Croquet, Cobalt, or other) for higher education has many advantages that we cannot get in a world owned by LL or anyone else who is not committed to directly supporting higher ed.
  4. That a large higher ed consortium of colleges and universities would be a fabulous thing where we can create a large VW (based on open source) in which we can interact and learn together. I’ll call that the HEVW (higher ed virtual world) for short.
  5. Policies and procedures – not only would we be better able to apply our policies (acceptable use, code of conduct, etc.) to behavior in a virtual world that we collectively own in higher ed, we may even be able to work together collaboratively to create those in-world polices and procedures that would apply to all consortium members.
  6. In our own collaborative virtual world, it would be much easier to control access to the site and student authentication issues- porn stars and others who might damage our learning environment would not be invited – except for academic purposes, of course.
  7. Collectively we could provide I.T. support for the HEVW without any one school or partner being depended upon to do it all.
  8. Purchasing virtual assets from the HEVW consortium just might prove easier for college purchasing agents and policies than when dealing with LL or other profit-seeking organizations that are selling us “property” without our best interests in mind.
  9. I think this list could go on and on, but you get the drift.

In and of itself, this approach does not solve some of the following issues, but it would allow us as a higher ed community to work together to help solve some of these issues:

  1. We would need to work collaboratively to improve accessibility of the virtual world we create.
  2. We will still need to learn how to help students protect their real identity in this HEVW (FERPA still applies).
  3. It will still be a creepy treehouse of sorts, but as least we will be able to keep some of the (other) creeps out, and over time we can lose the impression that we are just trying to show how cool we are.
  4. The lack of portability of objects (you can’t get them out of SL) might not be totally addressed with this approach, but at least we are reducing the likelihood that we’ll want to move our virtual builds to a different metaverse. As it stands now, I predict that within 3 or 4 years many schools will be wishing they could extract their objects from SL to move them elsewhere, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be able to.
  5. Maybe we can find a way to enable avatars to be better dancers (what? not academic enough for you?)

Why didn’t I mention these things during the debate? Because I would have lost. You can’t take the CON position and then make PRO arguments, at least I can’t.

6 Responses

  1. Barry,
    As Ratbert would say, I agree with everything you’re saying here, so put me down as co-author.

    My question is, ok, but how long would all this take? If we want to have a presence in SL, we can create something very basic by next semester. If we wait for a ‘consortium’ to offer us a place…well, we might all be retired by then.

    If you come up with a timeline, contact us at the ALC. We’re maybe, probably, already interested. 🙂

  2. One of the things that really bothered me during the debate was the use of double-barreled survey questions:

    Virtual Worlds are the second life for online learning.
    (to this I would answer pro)

    But your “Pro” category says “Second Life Rocks” to which I disagree.

    And the “Con” category says “Second Life Sucks” to which I agree.

    And this now leaves me in the position of wanting to choose neither of the options.

    As you said, you chose to pick specifically on second life, which is reflected in the way you set up the survey questions. However, I’m not sure you left Christine any room to talk about anything other than Second Life with the way the pro/con statements were worded.

  3. I appreciate the blog post, and in hindsight, the debate. I’ve been considering a thought since the debate, and I’m curious as to what your thoughts might be.

    I attended ITC/eLearning for the first time this year and was live blogging the debate with several others in the room and we had 2-4 experienced SL educators observing remotely. Everyone in the live blog was quite unaware of any ITC “snarky debate” tradition. Given the forum and the overall academic, informative purpose of the conference, we were all expecting a serious academic debate. Of course, given the snarky tradition; that’s not what it was.

    My concern is about the sarcastic tradition for the debate.

    Is there a risk that even 5% of the 400+ in attendance – 20 people could remain unaware of the tradition and take the sarcastic arguments back to their campuses with them because they are unfamiliar with the participants and the tradition and take both sides seriously? IF that’s a risk, is the tradition something ITC should reconsider?

    Perhaps if the debate had been sarcastic from both sides, I would be less concerned. In this instance though, someone dropped a ball; as I understand it, Chris “Fleep” Collins was unaware of the tradition until she arrived 15-20 minutes prior to the event. Chris’ serious approach and tone made the debate less sarcastic, which made it more difficult to accurately interpret the purpose of your approach as deliberately sarcastic as opposed to just uninformed.

    Perhaps if the sarcastic tradition and intent had been explained to the audience more explicitly or if I had confidence that the 5% that potentially may take your arguments back to their campus are the same 5% that will likely also read your real thoughts on virtual worlds in this blog post, I would be less concerned.

    In general – and perhaps my experience with academic debate heightens my sensitivity and concern – should a serious, quality format for learning (a debate) be used as a mechanism for entertainment (unless very clearly approached that way by both sides) at an academic conference whose purpose is to share accurate information?

    Maybe it’s a real concern. Or maybe I’m just having the same reaction I had to Steven Spielberg’s movie Artificial Intelligence. I went in expecting a movie that thoughtfully engaged a futuristic moral question; instead, for me, it took a very strange, more entertainment-centered turn into a fantasy world. I didn’t care for the movie either 😉


  4. So, you are actually proposing a Third Life?

  5. Chris (cmduke),
    I have concerns about the debate as well. As I tried to explain in an earlier post (, the debate doesn’t really have a tradition of sarcasm – it is more a tradition of strong statements and somewhat over-the-top zeal for the subject. Mine was definitely more sarcastic/snarky than most – and that is not what you see every year.

    I’ve thought a lot about the debate (unfortunately, and probably because I’m a little more thin-skinned than I like to let on) and if there was a take two I would probably do it differently – for reasons that I don’t care to go into right now.

    One point of view is the old “no publicity is bad publicity,” and this debate certainly attracted lots of attention, both good and bad. I remember one ITC debate that was so boring because there were no fireworks at all between the two sides. It would have been better to just let people eat their lunches and chat.

    I seriously doubt that ITC will reconsider the debate format. Each year there are two different debaters (so I won’t be doing it again, which is a plus) on a different topic. Finding a topic that people are passionate about is one of the hardest things. And you also need a topic where you can expect a fairly even split in opinion – even this SL debate was a bit heavy on the CON position for starters. Much more one-sided and the debate topic probably won’t be very interesting.

    I have plenty more to say about it, but not the time or energy to write about it at this time. If I see you at another conference sometime I’ll buy you a beer and we’ll have a real conversation about it. I would enjoy that.

    BTW, I could have just as easily argued the PRO side of this issue. But, the CON side was more fun. Well, it was more fun at the time. It hasn’t been fun at all since then.

  6. […] ITC09 Grand Debate – a Real Con Job (3 year old post still gets lots of hits) […]

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