The key economic metrics have been released for October and November of 2007 on the “official” Second Life Blog:
James Au has an article up on his New World Notes blog commenting on these latest numbers:
He is comparing the user population of Second Life to that of Portland, Oregon. He is also pointing out the obvious that Second Life appears to have hit a plateau in recent months, despite high profile exposure on CSI, The Office and other media properties. And user retention has not budged, even with a streamlined OnRez client.
I jumped over to the metrics page and downloaded the Excel file. The first thing I did was plot a chart using the active members page that lists age distribution in Second Life:
In case you are having a hard time reading these numbers (total of 543,375 active users):
Under 18 years old: 0.92% or 4,975 users
18 – 24 year olds: 24.62% or 133,806 users
25 – 34 year olds: 35.88% or 194,948 users
35 – 44 year olds: 23.29% or 126,559 users
45 and over: 14.77% or 126,559 users
unknown: 0.52% or 2,818 users
I am blown away that there are less than 5,000 active teen residents on the Teen Grid. That’s less than a seventh of my district’s ADA! I just posted a message to the SLED listserv yesterday asking for confirmation of this number, as I had read somewhere that it was around 5,000. I guess I now have my confirmation from these “official” statistics.
Another statistic that was pretty amazing is the Gender % by Usage numbers. Pretty consistently there is an almost even split between male and female users. Females hover in the low 40% range with males in the mid to upper 50 range. That is pretty surprising to me, as in almost every MMO I’ve played over the past ten years the populations have been heavily tilted to the male side of the scales. Compare this to the majority of female avatars in-world in these same MMO’s (that will be saved for a whole different discussion). This is important because a technology has to appeal equally to both sexes if we are ever to effectively use it in education.
The largest challenge facing Second Life and Linden Lab is user retention. They have traditionally retained fewer than 10% of those who have tried Second Life. As James points out in his article,
“The main reasons for this stagnation, of course, are obvious: constant system failures, a confusing user interface, and disorienting first-time visitor experience. Improvements to the first hurdle will surely grow the populace, though I’m beginning to wonder how much the latter two can really be addressed: OnRez, despite its many strengths, coupled to a highly polished introductory experience, did little to improve overall retention rates. It may be that the conceptual barrier will always remain constant at 10%, and the remaining 9 and 10 who try a user-created 3D world without imposed guidelines and goals are fundamentally, intransigently incapable of embracing it. That may be.”
That last sentence nails the retention issue square on the head in my opinion, and mirrors the experience I’ve had with our students on PacRimX. The vast majority of teen users (90% or more) are not attracted to a virtual environment unless they have imposed guidelines and goals (more commonly known as quests or missions in other MMO’s and console games) to guide their experiences in-world. Even with social chatting, they embrace it more readily if there are specific areas set up for them to gather and talk rather than leaving it up to them where to gather. It would appear that a maze is preferred over a flat table top to most people in virtual worlds. Boredom emerges when no specific tasks or goals are involved, thus the inherent issues with retention in Second Life.
I’ve posted a few messages to the SLED listserv these past few days about where educational virtual worlds need to go. I truly believe that in order to appeal to students, virtual worlds need to have the majority of their experiences scripted or constructed in a progressive manner that takes them through a series of steps to master a task, or more specifically to meet a standard.
Over the past ten years of playing popular MMO’s, I’ve seen people “grind” for hours on mundane tasks to raise their characters experience levels to achieve new levels of skill mastery. Raid groups will re-run complex dungeons and instances (basically large constructed puzzles) dozens of times to get to the epic gear drops from the boss at the end. Status is displayed in wearable gear, weapons and various trophies displayed in personal residences in MMO’s. The drive to gain experience points and rewards drives the user to pay their $14.95/month subscription to most of these worlds and work long hours (sometimes approaching a full-time jobs) to be the best on a server.
Why can’t we adapt this model to our educational virtual environments? Is that really such a stretch? Let’s narrow our scope for illustration to Geometry. Imagine a virtual world that was based on Geometry. Students would enter this space and have to first build their house using basic geometry concepts. A virtual in-world calculator would allow them to make their calculations, and have the system record their “work” in calculating the problems. Because it’s a virtual world controlled by a computer, the problems could be varied slightly student to student to eliminate the possibility of cheating. The student would gain experience points and virtual items upon completing each level that they would use to show status. Students that were having difficulties would quickly be able to identify others who could tutor them on solving their own problems (both students getting points for their parts, tutoring points would open access to other in-world items). As the class moved through their studies the entire in-world area would increase in visual details and complexity as their “Geometry Community” grew and expanded.
If you put on your futurist cap you can easily see how this could unfold into a complete and rich virtual educational world. Business students could run the businesses in-world, engineering students could build the infrastructures for the world, programming students could script the objects of the world, graphics and multimedia students could add the spice and entertainment. Non-virtual world activities and events could be brought into this world via streaming servers (plays, sporting events, debates, etc.). This virtual space would layer over the real world school experience, not replacing it but enhancing it.
Constructing this virtual world would require hosting the servers, or placing them physically at the educational institutions. These school servers could then be tied together into district grids, and then linked up into regional, state and national grids. We as educators are always looking to district, state, national and even international student achievement statistics. These statistics would take on a visual life of their own in an educational metaverse that circled the globe. Here in California we have a high speed fiber network called the California K-12 High Speed Network. This network already incorporates video conferencing (K12Video.org) and other collaborative technologies. We’ve got infrastructures that are here today that are underutilized that could be put into use supporting these types of educational metaverses. What we need is a group of people interested in making these virtual learning environments a reality. Large corporations like Microsoft, Intel, HP and others would benefit from the existence of such a virtual world as it would lead to increased sales of their products both inside and out of our schools.
From these latest published user statistics on Second Life it’s obvious that we are still in the infancy of this technology. Many educators are experimenting with these technologies. Listserv’s like SLED need to be leveraged to share our experiences with others in education. We can’t be dragged down by existing models that appear to be failing with virtual worlds. And most of all, in order to succeed, we need to engage our students in the process. Let them contribute to this discussion, We should not be afraid to release some of our “authority” by asking what it is they want from their education, and how they would like to spend their time learning. And we absolutely must avoid trying to force subjects and tasks into a virtual world that simply don’t translate well to this medium.
We have the opportunity to engage our students and to leverage technology assets already in place to build a growing and living community of learners in a virtual space that will dissolve barriers between our learning communities, and possibly tear down cultural walls between our countries. We all need to contribute to this effort if we are ever going to realize this dream of engaged and excited students who actively participate in their education. We certainly won’t get there in the next year, maybe not even in the next ten years, but we won’t get anywhere if we don’t start taking the first steps today. So what are you waiting for?