Saturday, December 19, 2009
What was it like, to teach the Dharma in Second Life?
That question has been posed to me quite a few times, since Adam Tebbe, founder of Kannonji Zen Retreat in Second Life invited me to teach there on Dec. 16, 2009.
A week before the date, Adam introduced me to Second Life, created an avatar for me, and taught me how to sit down, strike the gong, and other basic movements. I was struck by the tasteful design of the temple. Clearly, care and attention had gone into creating this alternative reality.
At the appointed hour, I came into the temple, more or less materializing à la Star Trek, into a throng of about 30 people (there are 1300 in this particular community). Everyone, except me, had their audio muted to avoid what would otherwise have been a cacophony of feedback. For the first few minutes, I had the same feeling I had when I did a tele-teaching with Tricycle, about three years ago: the disorientation that arises in the absolute absence of any sense of being with other people. I moved to interaction as quickly as possible, to have some sense of who was present (hmmm, interesting context in which to use that word). Responses to my questions came back through instant messages, but the messages scrolled by a little too quickly. This was a small problem, but it did inhibit my ability to respond to all the questions and comments.
During the actual teaching, it quickly became clear that, to judge from the questions and responses, some of the people "present" had a good level of experience. I did my best in my comments and approach to meet them, yet one can't read much in terms of body language or emotional energy from (or through) an avatar, and I could only guess at how to respond.
In comparing Second Life to other online teaching I've done, Second Life, for me, is a bit thin for two reasons: the setting seems to add an additional layer of separation, the appearance of speaking to a group of people sitting, and the interaction is limited to speaking and responding to comments and questions.
I've used a couple of online classrooms (wimb and dimdim). While they don't provide a visual scene as Second Life does, they do allow people to see a video of me, and, in addition to the voice and IM communication in Second Life, I have the use of a whiteboard, slideshow, screen-sharing, and web links to enrich the interaction.
Of course, Second Life provides a completely different experience and was not designed as an interface for teaching, so the comparison may seem unfair. But I was there to teach and that was what I was trying to do.
Having said all this, I was impressed and intrigued by the size of the group, the level of interest, the level of experience, and, not least, the ability to make it sustainable financially, all of which says that something is happening here (but I'm not sure what it is).