The recent announcement of the discontinuing of the Teen Grid on Second Life and allowing 16 and 17 year olds to register on the Second Life Main grid has sparked much conversation regarding digital responsibility and safety on the Internet and Virtual Worlds. In conversations with colleagues, educators using the Teen Grid, Second Life residents and students I have some thoughts about what could and maybe should happen.
Operating a secure closed grid was a complicated venture and educational organizations were not exactly flocking to take advantage, for several reasons. Costly fingerprinting and background checks for people who already have fingerprints and background checks, a reputation for adult content (despite the security and separate grid), and a general lack of knowledge and understanding of VW among educators were all barriers to taking advantage of the the Teen Grid.
One possibility now is for companies who are developing on Opensim or who have already developed Virtual Worlds with a more educational/student focus could fill the void. Reaction Grid and Kaneva are both viable possibilities. A safe environment designed for students under the age of 18 where student participation is monitored. Supervision is key, one educator told me that even on the Teen Grid students figured out how to smuggle in or create inappropriate content (just as they do in the real world).
The second possibility is to use the Main grid on second Life, not a possibility for my district. Certainly individuals under the age of 18 will now be allowed to register but a school district will not likely be convinced that the SL main grid environment is safe for students and there would be no liability issues. Students I have talked to about this tell me that “it is boring” and they would rather play World of Warcraft with a pre-defined objective, points and great graphics and action. Sims devoted to this type of activity may indeed draw some gamer youth, but not for educational purposes.
If an educational institution does decide to go this route they could develop filters and restrictions to keep students in appropriate locations and to keep intruders out. Filters would need to be in place to prevent particular activity and content, possible but complicated.
It is a complex issue, one widely publicized, inappropriate event involving an underage person could set the entire focus of using these environments for purposes of education into a tailspin, not to mention what it could do to the student. Educators who are interested in and involved with using the virtual environment for education are clearly innovators and are working for the benefit of children. In their enthusiasm they must not forget safety and security of the students they teach and should ensure the teaching of digital responsibility to their students.