18 May 2008

Simulating life itself...

This is more or less copied from another place, because I think it's of general interest.

I have been having an intermittent conversation with a colleague, sociologist Denise Milhofer, both in person and via computer mediated communication, about the value or otherwise of virtual environments such as Second Life. I confess to being in two minds about this. Viscerally, I recoil from such constructs (I am, after all, as I commented earlier in the conversation, the person who won't even wear sunglasses because the tint which they cast over the world interferes with my sense of the "real"). Intellectually, however, I think that I am probably wrong to do so.

Denise wrote, a little while ago:

Research on cyber addicts (sometimes playing for 17 hours a day) in U.S and Holland suggests that in the cyber world you don't have to "invest any real feeling, so knock-backs don't hurt the way they do in real life. You don't learn risk taking and emotional development is arrested".[1]

The quoted portion of that is perfectly true. Like many things, though, it is double edged - and I suggest that perhaps educationists ought to be looking into whether there is benefit to be derived from (to mix metaphors!) the other side of the coin.

I freely admit that such benefit doesn't always exist. In the case of cyber reality, however, I'm inclined to suggest that it does. This is more akin to TV (of which I am just as suspicious as Lesley is of cyber reality) than, for example, substance abuse where I see (yet another switch of metaphors) no silver lining.

The key to this one lies in exactly that fact that "knock backs don't hurt the way they do in real life". Kept in proportion, not allowed to run into the ground, that can be a good thing. We recognise that children need to try out their rôles in safe environments. We let them cross the road with us in tow, ready to intercede if they make a mistake, before releasing them into real traffic on their own - because a mistake won't kill them the way it would in real life. We expect our pilots to build up their skills on simulators before being entrusted with expensive airliners, and then to run dummy flights before being entrusted with real passengers. And isn't education, looked at from one angle, a graded series of dummy runs in increasingly complex circumstances as students build up affects, knowledge, skills which will (we hope) stand them in good stead when they have to stand alone in the real world?

I found the following a couple of days ago, in an editor's leader column from Scientific Computing World:

We live in a simulated world. From computer games, such as The Sims, to whole virtual worlds, such as Second Life, to the more practical, such as flight simulators, software and processing power has developed to such an extent that we can now pretend to be doing just about anything we like, safe in the knowledge that we are not really doing it ... if you follow me.[2]

He's talking about systems biology (in relation to the article here), but aren't those words "pretend ... safe in the knowledge that we are not really doing it" a good description of many a good classroom doing a good job for its students? And if computer simulation can give our students a safe environment in which to safely develop risk taking, shouldn't we embrace that rather than just letting them go there alone and fall into risk avoidance?

  1. Linda Duberley, "First Person" in The Guardian: Life and Style section, 3 May 2008, available online at http://lifeandhealth.guardian.co.uk/family/story/0,,2277635,00.html
  2. Warren Clark, "Simulating life itself" in Scientific Computing World, May 2008, Cambridge: Europa Science.

No comments: