IST student, faculty examine problem solving in Second Life

September 22, 2008

Since its creation in 2003, Second Life has garnered tremendous media attention and now boasts more than 12 million users worldwide. It’s been used for everything from college recruiting to shopping, but can it be used to solve a problem collaboratively?

Penn State senior Nathan McNeese and information sciences and technology professors Gerry Santoro and Michael McNeese sought to answer that question by creating an experiment in which students were student teams were asked to solve a problem in different ways. Ten teams worked face-to-face, 10 teams worked through teleconferencing and 12 teams worked as groups of avatars in Second Life.

The assigned task revolved around the educational video "Rescue at Boones Meadow"; participants watched the video individually and then convened to figure out how to rescue a missing eagle according to the conditions given in the video. Team members had to decide who would rescue the eagle, which methods of transportation would be used and estimate the time it would take to complete the task.

The groups using Second Life were confined to text-based communication and had to learn how to master the complex keyboard strokes required for avatar movement.

These barriers did not deter the groups from completing the assigned task, but the teams using Second Life took the longest to finish. The face-to-face teams felt most confident of their performance, yet the Second Life teams provided the most accurate answers in the task.

"Overall, Second Life is a viable option for group work," Nathan McNeese said. "But there’s definitely a learning curve with it and accomplishing even basic tasks can be difficult, especially if you've never used it before."

Some of the participants, college students ranging in ages from 18 to 22, were already familiar with online chat and gaming tools, making them more comfortable working in Second Life.

Nathan McNeese, whose own knowledge of Second Life was limited before starting this project, said the research opens the doors to explore more uses of Second Life with different age groups and solving different problems.

Second Life was created by Linden Labs and, according to its Web site, has more than 12 million users worldwide. The paper "Team Performance in Real and Virtual Worlds: The Perceived Value of Second Life," was presented Monday, Sept. 22, at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society meeting in New York City. Also collaborating on the paper was Mark Pfaff, assistant professor of media arts and sciences at Indiana University-Indianapolis.

Last Updated March 19, 2009