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Can Product Training be born again with Second Life (SL)?

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As most of you know, Second Life is a three-dimensional virtual world whose content is open-ended and created by its users based on their imagination. The access to SL is free to casual users, while additional benefits and services come with a price tag.

When I first heard about SL, I promptly created an account and explored it. Can SL change the way product training or sales training is done now? Will its three dimensional (3D), visually intensive and information rich learning environment offer us a powerful medium to address these critical training needs… were some of the questions that raced through my mind.

My first impression was that product and sales training will be ‘born again’. [But then, I can get very excited with new technologies] I started dreaming that companies can take initiatives of educating their sales staff and customers on their products, given its 3-D environment. But after some exploration, I think, although SL is “cool” and shows a lot of promise with its visual and functional capabilities; it is not something that you and I will happily welcome with open arms. More specifically, we will encounter obstacles such as:

  1. A steep learning curve needs to be maneuvered due to lack of awareness about SL in the first place.
  2. Internal Learning & Development teams may not have the required skills to deliver this kind of training online.
  3. The current navigation structure is not intuitive. It is slow, awkward and confusing. Many a times, I got stuck.
  4. It will definitely be expensive to develop custom applications.
  5. Some organizations may have bandwidth limitations.
  6. Integration with existing learning management systems will be a real challenge.

I am still convinced that Second Life has potential (I don’t know why; more of a gut feeling), but it looks like as of now, that it is overshadowed by a steep learning curve for new users, a non-intuitive interface, and the high investment of time and money required for programming content to justify the costs.

I would greatly appreciate your comments and sharing of your experiences. Thank you for reading my blog.

RK Prasad

CEO

Product Training Course

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  • Ken Keith

    RK,

    I agree with you. It’s probably been over a year since I took a look at SL. At that time I had the same impression that you did. Kind of cool but definitely hard to maneuver around in…and I am not unfamiliar with gaming / role playing type arenas. To expect novice people to play in this world has always struck me as unrealistic.

    I think however that there is still potential if you can somehow learn to target/attract the people that are already there and don’t waste time trying to introduce new people to this world.

    This “universe of people” may be very skewed to the young and maybe even males…but sometimes that’s exactly who you are looking for under certain situations.

    Good article.

    Ken Keith
    Sr. Manager Online and Emerging Research Technology
    M/A/R/C Research

  • I like your review but I think SL is still too clunky for the everyday sales executive or client who you will try an interface to the training session.

    Maybe using gotomeeting and then hosting and displaying in SL may be a better scenario that i think would not be as difficult for the participants to understand.

    Nice work,
    Abel Garcia
    GTGweb Technical Solutions

  • Interesting post sir. But in my view there are already a ton of far less costly solutions to training. For starters, I’ve read that the SL “appliance” is 55k a pop for a corporate environment.

    On the other hand, it would be amusing to watch the CEO’s avatar spin randomly around the virtual environment. Maybe the sales team could put together a 20-man raid and get some good drops off him….

    In all seriousness, it sounds like a cool concept, it is just the execution and the how to make money part that is still in the fog for me.

  • Clark Aldrich wrote a book on the Future of Learning where he purports this time of 3D elearning game will be the next big thing. I doubt it. The efforts required to create video-games are massive and large profits are the lure that drives companies to do it. Not sustainable for training and learning, where profit is hard to eke out. I have a client who has a proposal to do just this sort of thing and I can’t find a game developer interested in taking it on.

  • I believe there are a myriad of applications for using SL in corporate training. IBM is doing it as well as numerous emergency responders. I just learned about a mining school who is using it to help people learn how to use dirt moving equipment without physical injury.

    Last year I took a Spanish course on SL and was impressed by the level of interaction possible and how “real life” the experience was. There are companies (Mike Abrams) who are doing team building events using SL.

    All the limitations previously discussed are true. However, the payoff can be great. Start up fees can be reduced by leasing property on SL or creating usage agreements with other users.

    I think the more relevant discussion is how can virtual worlds, not just SL, be used for training. The line between virtual reality (think WII sports), real life and gaming is merging ever so fast. What an exciting time to be in training!

  • With regard to Mike’s point about the cost, that’s only if you want to put it behind a corporate firewall. For many training applications, that would not be necessary so the start-up cost would be very small. Having said that, a lot of companies would pay off even the behind the firewall solution fairly quickly if they are spending a lot now on travel, venues, etc. for training. (As well as saving time lost in transit.)

  • You can do corporate training on the main Second Life grid without purchasing the enterprise solution, but that is not the core of the issue you’ve raised, so I’ll focus on the question of learning curve and usability.

    One way to dramatically reduce the learning curve as an issue is to design orientation into the plan, as a basic part of the first encounter. Back when email was new, people thought it was awkward, weird and needed special training too (just a brief aside.)

    I work with a team that does orientations for corporate and training participants, and has developed some really effective methods for getting people comfortable quickly, without overwhelming them with things they didn’t need to know. While orientation is not instant, it can be reduced to a guided inworld experience before the training start date.

    Quality of orientation is critical, as a slap-dash orientation usually leaves new participants frustrated and confused. A high quality orientation gives users confidence, a touch of handholding and “just in time skills” to feel comfortable.

    If the scene created for the experience is simplified to reduce visual distractions, new participants will find it easier to acclimate. They will feel less need to explore all nooks and crannies, and be able to focus on the rest of their first experience. There is plenty of time to learn advanced topics and explore gorgeously detailed builds.

    Overall, keeping complexity and chances for embarrassment low during the participants’ early experiences, creating a “newcomer-friendly build” and having real people who are trained in understanding the new user experience available to help during the first encounter go a long way to creating a positive response from participants.

    Regarding comments earlier about sales executives, we just finished a project that brought in sales execs from across the country, oriented them to a game show environment, and had them participate in a live broadcast game show in Second Life. The reaction was strongly positive, and the people involved said that they felt they knew their coworkers better from the experience (many have not ever met face to face).

    I fully believe that with experience, a solid plan and clean execution these types of experiences can be effective, positive and you can avoid the patterns that you’ve raised as concerns. There are ways to build success into the plan.

    On the LMS front, there are already integrations with Moodle. That may or may not be to your preference, however it is working and there are ways to extend it.

    I’ve been using Second Life for business meetings, distributed teamwork coordination and project management for almost three years now, with a variety of participants, ranging from “old hands” to people who were oriented in 20 minutes for a single meeting. There are trade-offs, as with any tool. There are some very persuasive advantages to virtual worlds in both project and educational contexts that repeatedly show themselves if you use the platform for its strengths.

    I use webinars, traditional conference calls and video conferences as well, and think that they all have their place. For me, virtual worlds have a distinct place at the table, and the need for some startup orientation is well worth the effort.

    I hope this helps!

  • Thanks a lot, folks for sharing.

  • I too looked into SL as a potential platform for training. Aside from the steep learning curve and all the other valid drawbacks, it does take a certain mindset to “game”. Only those willing to invest long term can be reached through SL. I encounter people on a daily basis who, at best, have a hate relationship with the computer and a fear of online activity.
    Some people like game environments. Many do not. Until the culture makes a radical shift to the game framework SL is not the “general” forum for training.

  • mike smith

    Always good to see new thoughts on the delivery of training and development.
    There is a tendancy for companies to cut back on ‘people development’ in the ‘tougher’ times,in my opinion that is the best time to invest in your people.
    Companies who want to have sustainable results must start to adopt a simple Recruit, Retain and Develop policy.

  • E. Summer

    Second Life is NOT a “three-dimensional world.” It is a rendered CGI world. The term “3D” is the misapplied CGI term referring to this kind of “round” rendering ala “Toy Story.” Toy Story is, in fact, a good example. It is 3D CGI just re-released as S3D (Stereoscopic 3D).

    Unless… someone has made an S3D version of Second Life that I’m unaware of.

  • Thanks for the topic, I had been thinking the same thing. About 2 years ago I started to look into 2nd life as an option for training (and counselling). I had seen several other universities begin to research 2nd life as an academic option and I was interested in it’s potential in the career realm. However, with the economic downturn 2nd life plans seemed to be put in a holding pattern.

    I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (US) http://chronicle.com/section/Home/5 – in the Wired Campus Section http://chronicle.com/blog/Wired-Campus/5/ that Pennsylvania State University(Penn State) was requiring’ their advisors to offer ‘hours’ on 2nd life http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Second-Life-Duty-Is-Now/8770
    Here is the opening to that article
    ‘Plenty of colleges have a presence in Second Life. Pennsylvania State University is taking that a step further. Academic advisers at the university’s online campus are now required to be available for meetings with students in the virtual world. . . ‘

    There is still much of a learning curve (and a paradigm shift) . . .but there is a conversation worth having

  • Well, virtual worlds can. The Second Life Enterprise solution is simply to costly to justify for many eLearning departments.

    I create training as part of a nine person department that reaches over 70,000 annual users in 110 countries and the starting price tag of $55,000 per year is far outside our budget.

    But . . . a wonderful alternative is http://reactiongrid.com and for $3,300 per year you can have a similar solution.

    The nice thing about Reaction grid is that you get your own grid and server (they are an OpenSim hosting company). You have much more control over your virtual world. Microsoft recently left Second Life in favour of Reaction Grid. Another plus is that you can “hypergrid” to many other institutions running the open source OpenSim software (including IBM).

    I speak from three years experience with Second Life where I own 12 sims and now also have four sims in Reaction Grid. I have also had eight speaking engagements in the last year and a half on eLearning with Second Life (eLearning Guild’s DevLearn for example).

    You can see how I use Second Life for eLearning at http://subquark.com . I don’t use it to train people in-world, I use it as a very inexpensive and fast 3D filming studio for scenario-based training.

    In January, I will have a “sandbox” on my new OpenSim grid’s that anyone can use for free. All of your Second Life skills are fully transferrable to OpenSim worlds.

  • Of all the words offered in response, above, the one that stays with me is “clunky.” When getting involved and finding your way around takes away from learning, for me, it’s an easy decision to walk away.

    What we’re concerned about in our simulations and games is that the learner be able to practice making decisions, and failing, within a safe environment. We want them to explore and learn by doing. And when it comes to interacting in a 3D environment, we want avatars that show emotion through expressions, voice and body language.

    You’re welcome to come explore our virtual world headquarters (and view other work examples) at: http://www.wslash.net/world/e-learningwork.html

    I’d also invite you to more discussion on learning from within sims and games at one of my blog posts: http://bit.ly/3ilXXG

  • I really enjoyed reading this article. I tend to agree with you that there is a steep learning curve, but after almost a year in SL, I feel confident enough to teach others who are just getting into it. I feel the same way about your hunch: that SL has great learning potential, and would like to add the entertainment and relaxation values of Virtual Tourism and Virtual Entertainment.

  • For our money, SL is a social environment that isn’t necessarily conducive to training. We use full body avatars with body language and lip sync (codebaby) in simulated environments that we create. The focus is on practicing skills, interacting with an avatar…sometimes it’s also on using avatars do model certain behaviors, and occasionally to coach or facilitate.

    SL characters are real enough to do that for us, plus there is so much e-listening going on, and walking around…we just see it as a contrivance that doesn’t make the grade…not for what we do, anyway. And again, our focus is on learning-by-doing, in simulated environments. Can’t figure out why people get excited about SL, or try to force fit training into it.

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