The Empirical Strikes Back

Second Life, the on-line simulated world in which people create virtual selves and interact with one another, is a fascinating concept, one much trafficked in by science fiction writers over the years. You can easily see why. The notion of a second self living in another reality is intrinsically interesting and raises questions that have fascinated writers and philosophers for centuries. But for the last six years this sci-fi conceit has been a reality, or at least as much a reality as a made-up computer world can be.

I’m told that Second Life is quite absorbing. You can have a virtual career and a virtual bank account with spendable Second Life money. You can own virtual property and even have virtual sex. The great fear for worrisome hand wringers and technophobes is that this virtual reality will be so much better than everyday reality that people will come to prefer it to their actual lives. I’m not sure about that. People have always valued escapism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to escape.

The philosopher Robert Nozick poses an interesting thought experiment on this very point. Imagine, Nozick says, that we had a Sensation Machine that could recreate any pleasurable sensation we might want to experience. Once attached to the machine we would not be able to distinguish between the simulated sensation of eating a delicious slice of blueberry pie and actually eating a delicious slice of blueberry pie. The question Nozick asks is whether people would still prefer the real thing, and the answer is almost always yes. Even when the same outcome is guaranteed through a simulation, the majority of people opt for the authentic experience. Second Life is no doubt a fascinating world in which to escape, but few would wish to live there.

I suspect the same is true for distance learning, the educational practice of putting the classroom on line. It’s the dream of every bean counter in higher education. Just imagine! No more classrooms to light and heat, no more parking lots to build and maintain. Think of the cost savings. You put professors on-line and have them lecture to students sitting before computer screens spread out from Terre Haute to Tokyo. It would be even better if we could somehow make the professors virtual. The dream of distance learning has never been fully realized, however. Even so, a few institutions have decided to begin teaching in Second Life. Harvard Law and Case Western are now offering classes on virtual campuses with virtual classrooms.

Will this succeed?

Hard to say, but I have my doubts. Retention is paramount at institutions like mine, and The Chronicle of Higher Education found that on-line programs routinely have drop out rates 20 percent higher than face-to-face classes (and a 50 percent rate is not unheard of), which isn't so surprising given that dropping out is simply a matter of "click."

I know today's generation is much more comfortable on-line than mine, but it pays to be a little skeptical about these things. The introduction of almost every new communication technology has been accompanied by grand promises that the latest gizmo would radically transform education. This was true with when radio swept into the marketplace in the 1920s. It happened again when TV came on the scene in the 1950s, and ten years ago there was a mania to wire every classroom for Internet access. And we're still waiting for that great transformation.

The problem with distance learning of any kind has never been that it doesn't work. For years students have learned through correspondence courses, tele-courses and interactive on-line instruction. The problem is that students don’t like it very much. Just as with devotees of blueberry pie, they tend to prefer the real thing. Besides, so much of teaching and learning is non-verbal. Really good teachers have to rely on a host of intuitive cues about the mood of their students. They know when to press and when it's not worth it. I'm not saying distance learning is useless. It's kind of like phone sex: better than nothing, but it should never be mistaken for the real thing.

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