I attended the Second Life ISTE speaker series June 1st, regarding learning spaces. The speaker categorized learning spaces as formal, informal and virtual. This would seem to indicate that Virtual World spaces are only virtual, but that is not the case. The virtual environment contains formal and informal spaces within its’ ‘virtualness’. Perhaps it is more what you do with the spaces than what they are or what they look like.
A traditional classroom is a formal space, yet teachers often manage those spaces in ways that engage students in untraditional ways. A teacher in a classroom with desks, even desks in rows, can engage students in an informal, non-didactic way ( though a different setting may be more amenable to this).
During the ISTE Virtual session, the avatars all sat in an auditorium and the setting was certainly visually formal, yet it was virtual space. The speaker did not talk-at, lecture non-stop or read from 30 powerpoint slides. The speaker engaged the group by asking very pointed questions and then responded to the chatter in local chat. Participants also “talked” among themselves without disturbing the group, so there was an informalness to the presentation despite the visually formal setting. This strategy would not work as well in a face-to-face formal setting because of sound/noise. The ability to discern salient comments would be impossible.
Organization of visual space, virtual or real, certainly contributes to how the space is used, but it does not need to dictate the way the space is used. A skilled teacher will be able to conduct learning experiences that are effective and can usually adjust in spite of the setting. An exception would obviously be a lab or studio requiring specialized equipment. In planning for the teaching and learning that will take place in any space the instructor must consider the content, objectives, target audience and learning styles.