Second Life

Blended Realities: An Evaluation of Education in Second Life

 The focus of this article will be an examination of the internet based virtual world technology, Second Life (, and how it is being applied in education, specifically in relation to education within the care professions (e.g. Understanding Mental Health).

Second Life is a three dimensional virtual world founded by Philip Rosedale and hosted and operated by Linden Lab of Linden Research, Inc. It is the leading virtual world online environment (Linden Lab, 2014) and has recently celebrated ten years in existence. Second Life’suser base has increased exponentially over the past decade with an average of 400,000 new users registering every month (Figure 1).

Ten Years of Second Life

Ten Years of Second Life

Figure 1: Ten Years of Second Life

What are virtual worlds?

Virtual worlds are computer simulated interactive zones which allow an infinite number of users to communicate and interact at the same time (Smart, Cascio & Paffendof, 2007). Smart, Cascio and Paffendof, (2007) further argue that all virtual reality applications possess the following features:

  • a virtual world environment
  • a shared space allowing multiple users to participate simultaneously
  • a personified three dimensional representation of the self (avatar)
  • interactions between users and objects in a 3-D environment
  • an immediacy of action such that interactions occur in real time
  • similarities so comparable with the real world that they provide an illusion of being in a real world.

Accordingly, Second life can be described as an internet-based, simulated multi-media virtual reality, designed so that users can interact via their own graphical representation (avatars) (Ward, 2010). It is a three dimensional social media platform whichprovides users with an experience that facilitates a strong sense of being immersed in an alternate world. Childress and Braswell (2006, p. 188) suggest that “virtual online worlds provide an additional level of personality that is missing from the typical chat room environment” while Ward (2010) argues that virtual worlds, like Second Life, offer great potential for academic teaching and research.

Presently, Second Life is the most developed and accepted multi-user virtual world environment employed in the educational sector and its dominance within the educational world is demonstrable (Warburton, 2009). For example, in 2008 approximately three quarters of UK universities were developing or using Second Life as part of their educational modalities. Indeed, a regularly conducted virtual worlds’ survey examining multi-users virtual environment usage among UK universities and other tertiary educators has identified Second Life as the most popular educational multi-user virtual environment (Warburton, 2009).

A particular educational advantage which Second Life has over other internet based educational applications (e.g., massively multi-player on-line games like Our World, Ego); is its open-endedness. Accordingly, there are no pre-determined narratives or engagement strategies required to participate, unlike the multi-player online games which may require certain criteria to be fulfilled before advancing through the application (Warburton, 2009). This affordance, together with the ability to create content and shape the virtual environment in multiple ways, has attracted educators to the possibilities afforded by immersion into Second Life. Indeed, Second Life’s affordances allow educators and students to do things that could not be done before, for example the global virtual classroom now facilitates worldwide interaction between faculties. It has been further posited that online interaction can lead to enhanced student engagement i.e. an “integration of the cognitive and the affective” (Maharg, 2010, cited in Serby, 2011). Moreover, Second Life provides users with a safe environment in which they can develop skills, try out new ideas, and learn from others. It facilitates students in applying their acquired knowledge in the safety and security of a virtual environment (Baker & Brusco, 2011).

Resulting from the implementation of Second Life’s educational platforms, educational community usage is expanding in tandem with its main-site growth. Moreover, it is reported that the education community in Second Life is the fastest growing, active, and most dynamic community on the virtual platform (Second Life) – subscribing institutions to its education sector now number more than one thousand (Ward, 2010).

Second Life – Support for Educators

The expansion of the educational platform in Second Life is aided by the ease with which new users and educators can join, and by the support provided by Linden Lab. For example, there are no set-up costs for joining Second Life, nevertheless, educational institutions who want to establish a more permanent campus are required to rent or purchase virtual land. However, discounts are provided to educational institutions who wish to set up facilities in Second Life. Indeed, several educational and library groups have constructed a sizable and expanding set of information resources in Second Life. For example, New Media Consortium Campus (, the largest educational institution in Second Life, provides interactive learning experiences for both educators and students. It comprises 250 learning organization dedicated to the development of educational resources in Second Life. The following YouTube clip provides an overview of the NMC Campus and insight for first time users into student life in Second Life.

Second Life is a low cost, high value learning environment (Salmon, 2009), the support pages of which, provide a comprehensive step by step guide for educators (available here: The initial step requires participants to download the Second Life software, sign up and create an avatar which can then be customised to the users’ preferences (Figure 2).

Female Avatars


Male Avatars

Figure 2: Avatar Images in Second Life


A quick start guide to Second Life is provided here:

The Destination Guide in Second Life is the optimum place from which to start to explore education locations, as it provides a comprehensive list of participating educational institutions and resources on offer. An example of education facilities available in Second Life is provided in figure 3 and a link to the information of the destination guide, here:

University College Dublin - Library

University College Dublin – Library

Stanford University

Stanford University

British NHS

British NHS

Figure 3: Sample of Educator Providers on Second Life


Examples of Real-Life Education in Second Life

Educators around the world are identifying new ways to influence and operate the potentialities of Second Life in online, and campus life (e.g. Stanford University; Penn State College; Imperial College London). Indeed, it has been suggested that Second Life’s educational properties have the potential to incorporate realistic clinical situations in a safe environment thus allowing healthcare students to acquire the clinical skills and cognitive abilities required for clinical practice, for example CPR/defibrillator training (Parker & Myrick, 2009). Perhaps the most significant educational benefit of Second Life is that students believe that the skills and knowledge they acquire during the simulated scenarios are readily transferable to clinical practice (Bremner, et al., 2006).  The following examples illustrate just a few of the ways care educators at further education can use Second Life in educational practices.

Second Life currently features an extensive resource for medical, care and health educators. A comprehensive list of the top educational locations in Second Life, (available here:

Within a further education setting and, specifically within the community and health care modules, Second Life offers an opportunity for tutors to construct scenarios and demonstration which facilitates the acquisition of knowledge in a fun and entertaining way.  For example, early childhood studies students can log onto the Ohio University platform in Second Life, where they can participate in a ‘Nutrition Game’ (Figure 4) to learn about the impact fast food has on health (watch a short clip of the Nutrition Game here:


Nutrition Game

Nutrition Game

Figure 4: Nutrition Game

This particular simulation is very beneficial for health care students as they can experiment with different eating styles in simulated fast-food restaurants to learn about the short- and long-term health impacts of their choices. Indeed, it is suggested that such online activities are more meaningful and interesting for students than classroom based instruction because of the enhanced enjoyment students’ gain from participation (Finlay & Faulkner, 2005). Summarily, Csikszentmihalyi (2004) suggests that engaging in a joyful and pleasurable activity facilitates an optimal learning experience, and is correlated with positive emotions, leading to enhanced cognitive processing.

The nutrition game requires each student to make a healthy food choice that will result in a high score and a positive effect on health.This action learning approach to teaching is located within a social constructivist epistemology (Vygotsky, 1962). Health care and social studies students can gain insight into the nutritional health requirements of individuals throughout the lifespan by actively constructing their knowledge through learning experiences within the Second Life domain. Constructivist instruction is facilitated through authentic, purposeful and contextual learning. Developments of metacognitive skills are further developed through students negotiating their own learning objectives as well taking control over their learning (Heinecke et al., 2001).

This activity would be particularly advantageous for educational instructors delivering the Child Health and Wellbeing module where students are required to outline the various nutritional needs of babies and young children and devise balanced menus and meals for the children in their care. Simulation activities, similar to the nutritional game in Second Life, have a tendency to motivate students to engage in learning, including those that have been considered “low ability” (Nelson et al., 2005).

Indeed, Cognitive evaluation theory (CET) presented by Deci and Ryan (2000) may provide rationale for students’ enhanced motivation. These authors posit that motivation is enhanced when three inherent psychological needs are satisfied. These needs are stated as: the need for developing competence, the need for relatedness and the need for autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 1985, cited in Deci & Ryan, 2000). By immersing students into virtual simulation activities these three intrinsic promoting psychological needs may be met, thus increasing students’ motivation. For example, students may gain competence in their educational abilities by successfully completing the activity and devising a healthy nutritious diet for children. Students’ need for relatedness may be fulfilled through their interaction with others in the virtual world.  Finally, the need for autonomy may be satisfied as students’ have complete autonomy over their choices regarding the activity i.e. they are able to initiate and regulate their own actions.

At its most basic level, Second Life offers great potential for students taking the Human Growth and Development (Psychology) module, to observe “human” social interactions. Research indicates that “human” behaviour in simulated environments is similar, and replicates behaviours and interactions in the real world (Bainbridge, 2007; Sherwin, 2007).  For example, Yee, Bailenson, Urbanek, Chang, and Merget (2007) investigated personal space allocation between male-male, female-female, and mixed gender groups in Second Life and real life and found that patterns of interpersonal space were similar in the two realities. Indeed, within the Second Life platform, it is possible to replicate situations and environments found in the real world highlighting the potential for social psychological research within the safety of Second Life. For example, it is possible to observe the behaviour and interactions of avatars within Second Life in many of the public meeting areas and observe the differences in social interaction and non-verbal communication between formal (e.g. work, college) and informal (e.g. clubs and bars) situations (Figure 5). This activity could also be incorporated in communication modules as one area within the communications module deals specifically with interpersonal and non-verbal communications. Observing interactions in Second Life (e.g. non-verbal communication clothes, postures, etc.) enables students to become aware of the features and characteristics of body language and to observe social interactions from the safety of their college of home computer.

Work Setting

Work Setting

Social Setting

Social Setting

Figure 5: Social Interactions: Work and Bar

At a more advanced level, Second Life can be used as a virtual laboratory to examine psychological conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, anorexia, etc. This particular feature of Second Life is significant because psychology education is beset with challenges that make it difficult to expose students to the range of psychological conditions and disorders required to maximize skill development and knowledge acquisition due to their sensitive nature or hypothetical construct (Parker & Myrick, 2009). Incorporating such scenarios into the teaching strategies of the ‘Understanding Mental Health’ module holds promise for educating students about mental illness in an applied setting. Students taking this module are required to gain an understanding of the concepts of mental health and, in particular, togain an understanding of how different mental health problems impact on people’s lives. In light of the paucity of teaching resources on mental health, the University of California developed a specific site in Second Life aimed at educating students about schizophrenic hallucinations. This captivating demonstration leads visitors through the minds of patients suffering with the perceptual distortions commonly experienced by individuals with schizophrenia. Incorporating this simulation activity into the ‘Understanding Mental Health’ module exposes students to a clinical experience that is not accessible to them in the real world and provides them with a safe environment in which they can enhance their experiential learning.Demonstration of mental health illnesses which students may find challenging to understand in a lecture or in reading situations, are visualised and encountered in new and novel ways facilitating deeper processing and understanding through exploration.

Upon entering the schizophrenic hallucinations simulation, students’ avatar’s move through the site where they have an opportunity to experience a virtual psychotic environment. For example, students are confronted with disembodied voices, unpleasant newspaper headlines, etc. By experiencing and engaging in the presentation of visual and auditory schizophrenic hallucinations students deepen their understanding of the disorder. A video sample of the program can be viewed here:


Other possibilities exist for using Second Life as a teaching tool for Human Growth and Development (psychology). For example, tutors could build a virtual re-creation of an important psychological experiment (e.g., a working recreation of Pavlov’s lab), or a large-scale model of the brain to aid the learning and processing of, amongst other things, memory, cognitive development, amnesia, etc.

A further feature of Second Life is its potential use for people with lifelong disabilities. For example, Parsons et al. (2006) conducted a study exploring training of social skills to individuals with autism and found that virtual environments could be used effectively to train individuals with autism in the use of social skills. Moreover, the anonymity of Second Life may have a positive effect on individuals with lifelong disabilities who may find it difficult to interact with others in the real world – social interaction confidence levels may rise as a result (Stendal et al., 2011). Perhaps the greatest benefit of Second Life for people with disabilities is that they are not confined by the physical laws experienced in real life.  Second Life offers the possibility to participate in a range of educational programmes which may not be readily accessible to them. The universal discursive nature of Second Life means that students with disabilities can interact and work from anywhere in the world as part of a globally networked virtual classroom. Moreover, the ability to communicate through both text and speech enables individuals who use augmentative and alternative communication methods (e.g. individuals who are blind, or deaf) to participate fully in courses run in Second Life (Stendal et al., 2011).

It has been argued that Second Life is a next generation technology tool for education (Singh & Lee, 2008). As well as the educational possibilities already mentioned, Second Life also offers the opportunity for students to come together to discuss projects, to partake in lectures, and to participate in courses entirely taught in the virtual world.  Many Libraries also have land in second life where students can search the library catalogues, watch presentations, take part in demonstrations, or view art exhibitions (e.g. UCD Library in Second Life). The educational capabilities of Second Life are well documented, and beyond the scope of this article. For additional information about Second Life’s educational potential, please visit the supplemental links included below.

However, consideration of students’ psychological wellbeing and safety ought to be taken into consideration before progressing with educational pursuits in Second Life (Beard, et al., 2009). For example, the hallucination experiment mentioned previously provides a warning on entry and advises participants that if there is a history of mental illness, particularly a psychotic disorder, they should not tour the facility (Figure 6). Accordingly, in an effort to cater for all students, two versions of the hallucination experiment are available. The first is the walk through, with all of the hallucination incorporated in the experience, while in the second version; students simply walk through and look at slides about schizophrenia. This approach may be more suited to students who are only beginning to explore the field of mental health. A judgement call can be made by the tutor.

Virtual Hallucinations - Warning

Virtual Hallucinations – Warning

Figure 6: Virtual Hallucinations Warning

It is also reported that some users experienced side effects during and after experimenting in a virtual reality environment. For example simulator sickness, eyestrain, blurred vision, fatigue, balance disturbances, and nausea (Mantovani et al. 2003).The learning curve for navigation and interaction on Second Life appears steep – time and effort are required to create avatars, negotiate the way around the virtual world and become conversant with the different features of the application(Baker, Wentz & Woods, 2009). There are also technical requirements – a number of computer specifications need to be fulfilled in order for Second Life to run successfully. For example, the average computer at the disposal of students and educators may lag behind the technical requirements needed to host Second Lifeeffectively. Moreover, Inman, et al. (2010) identified a number of potential difficulties with using Second Life.  Issues such as student acceptance of Second Life as an educational tool, possible distraction caused by navigating away from the educational assignment, and potential exposure to uncensored information have all been identified as potential problems in navigating through Second Life.

Furthermore, student willingness to participate in new technologies also needs to be considered as some students may be anxious about experimenting with new technologies (Stendal et al., 2011).  To mitigate against possible anxiety on the introduction of Second Life into educational pedagogy it is suggested that virtual technology could be introduced on a phased basis (Gearld & Antonacci, 2009). Indeed, Gearld and Antonacci (2009) have suggested three types of teaching using Second Life – 1. Students can simply study the Second Life technology itself; 2. Use the technology as a communication medium (lectures, presentations, discussions; 3. In-world learning activities – role play, simulation games etc. A phased basis of technology introduction, similar to Gearld and Antonacci’s model, would acclimatise students to the use of Second Life as an educational tool.


Education in Second Life moves from the traditional classroom approach to that of a multisensory learning environment where students have the opportunity to actively construct their own knowledge. Indeed, Second Life has the potential to provide a more interactive experience for students which enables them to maximize skill development and knowledge acquisition. Within the care instruction domain, Second Life has been found to have enormous pedagogical potential. However, some issues and challenges relating to the educational use of Second Life have been identified. For example,initial set up requires a considerable investment of time and effort in order to learn how to navigate and interact in the new environment. Caution also needs to be observed regarding immersion of students into virtual realities. Nevertheless, educational institutions are finding multiple ways to incorporate interactive technologies into their teaching strategies with enormous benefit for students. For example, the two additional interactive technologies identified on the WordPress page (interactive whiteboards, and Edmodo) provide further illustrations of the shift to technology based learning.  Long term, it will be interesting to see the evolution of interactive technologies as educational tools. As advancements in computer technology, bandwidth, etc. continues to evolve, the potential utility of Second Life and other technologies could be immense.


Educational Resources: Second Life

Second Life Educational Resources:

Virtual World Learning Spaces: Developing a Second Life Operating Room Simulation:

Second Life Education:

Educational Uses of Second Life:

Newcomer Site:

Examples of Useful Second Life Resources for Educators:

Resources for getting started in second life (For both the student and the educator)

Virtual Worlds:

Students’ Views about Second Life:

Great Places to Visit in Second Life:



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