Discussing Cross-Cultural Exchanges in Second Life

I just attended a virtual conference in Second Life, called “Virtual Worlds for Cross-Cultural Interaction,” sponsored by the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.  When I say I “attended,” I mean that I opened a new window on my computer screen, logged into Second Life, and sat in a virtual chair in the BGSU Community center with about 25  other attendees/avatars from around the world.

Image of the Virtual Worlds for Cross-Cultural Interactions roundtable conversation (in Second Life)

The Virtual Worlds for Cross-Cultural Interactions roundtable conversation (in Second Life)

It’s not your usual roundtable discussion – conversation is somewhat halting and sometimes digressive, since it’s all done in text-based chat and there are so many people participating; sometimes the lag between comment and response spawns different threads of conversation. However, the moderator, Grizzla, did a great job of keeping the participants focused.

Some of the interesting points that came out of the discussion:

  • There is a private island in SL called Skoolaborate, designed just for teenagers between the ages of 13-15, with the purpose of getting young people together of different cultures
  • Much of the cross-cultural learning going on is actually associated with language learning; many teachers use SL to help students learn a foreign language.  A key spot for this is a location called “Virtlantis“.  Interestingly, SL actually has a button right above the chat that will activate Google Translate in the chat interface. Not surprisingly, most language instructors discourage using this tool and in fact find that their second language learners (whether it be an English-speaker learning Spanish or a Spanish-speaker learning English, etc.) actually are more comfortable communicating and making mistakes in text-based chat than they are in live conversation.  Perhaps the lag of IM gives them more time to craft their sentences and think about what they are going to say next?
  • Several instructors mentioned that they actually find that using dance animations in SL (yes, you can make your avatars dance!) helps their students focus – so they have avatars dance together while carrying on conversations.  I wonder if the dancing style choices reflect a cross-cultural influence or not …
  • When asked what’s being done in SL to promote cross-cultural understanding, several participants pointed out the many culturally-linked sites that have been created in Second Life — others specifically referenced how religion and religious buildings factor into cross-cultural experiences in virtual worlds.  Another person mentioned the possibility for role-play (i.e., role-playing a different cultural identity in Second Life) as a way to help students interrogate cross-cultural understanding.
What possibilities does SL hold for Stanford’s CCR Project? I’m still looking for connections to build from the work we’ve done with Egypt in SL in the past.  Although arguably SL is emerging more as an academic space than as a mainstream social space, it still holds a lot of potential for overcoming geographic boundaries and connecting students together to develop important intercultural understanding.  True, there is a technological learning curve, but you can keep the tech-intensity minimal … though if you were truly dedicated to leveraging the full potential of SL, you could do amazing cross-cultural work – talking about the cultural construction of identity, building cultural spaces together, developing exhibits … there’s a lot of  potential there.
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