A Funeral For Teen Second Life: A Presentation From Beyond the Grave on the Future of Mixed-Age Education in Second Life

Below is the rough script from Barry Joseph's presentation at the Virtual Worlds - Best Practices in Education conference.

(click below to watch the video as you read)

The set up was GlobalKids Bixby, in a bee costume, standing in front of an open casket, within which lay the teen grid avatar of Barry Gkid.

A Funeral For Teen Second Life: A Presentation From Beyond the Grave on the Future of Mixed-Age Education in Second Life

Eulogizing Teen Second Life over the open casket of his Teen Grid Avatar, GlobalKids Bixby will share his deep grief over the loss of Teen Second Life. Meanwhile, a surprise guest will celebrate the end of Linden Lab’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy” for teens and herald the new age of mixed-grid education in Second Life.

with teen grid avatar in the a coffin

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together (to misquote Prince) to get through this thing called Second Life. For 8 weeks ago, a switch was flipped, forever dispersing Teen Second Life, our virtual playground and classroom for all these years, into actual oblivion.

Teen Second Life's passing is no doubt tragic and deeply felt by us all. But its tragedy lies less in the failed results of this noble experiment but, rather, that it was never provided the resources required to succeed. It dies too young for its years, its vast potential more a suggestion than something properly realized, it's name and deeds largely unsung.

So join me as we look back and ask What was Teen Second Life? and What does its passing mean for the future of youth-driven learning?

Imagine the creators of eBay had launched Teen eBay, where youth ran their own businesses buying and selling goods. Imagine the creators of Wikipedia doing the same, as well as YouTube and Facebook, launching youth spaces for young people to aggregate their own collective intelligence, publish their own creative expressions, build their own social networks, not to meet the needs or expectation of adults but on their own terms. This was Teen Second Life, all these activities combined into one, and yet so much more. It was not simply a place for youth to find a safe haven online, to be away from adults. It was a place where, in the absence of adult authority, youth could be in charge.

We easily recall that Teen Second Life launched in January, 2005, in the early days of the adult-oriented "main grid" of Second Life (18 and over only, please!), before it went from 10 thousand to 10 million adult residents, before it was idolized on the cover of BusinessWeek then parodied on The Office. The possibilities were endless for extending and expanding our real worlds through involvement in the virtual.

Youth in Teen Second Life were more than just customers buying clothing and cars; they designed and built these virtual goods, architected and constructed the stores and malls where they were sold, and ran the businesses and web-based catalogs that manged these enterprises. They were more than just renters and land-owners; they were landlords and land barons, speculating on property-values and renting to their peers. They were more than just players or residents; they were community leaders, organizing the community to raise funds to fight cancer, and civic activists, inspiring fellow citizens to march for their virtual rights.

Teen Second Life forced its residents to move from players and consumers to producers and creators. Numbering in the tens of thousands, it was never close to any of the largest online youth communities, But Teen Second Life was in a category by itself, becoming one of the largest youth-led communities the world had ever seen, online or off, in charge of it's own activities and economy. Yes, adults were there at the launch, to make sure the technology worked, and as a source to enforce the Terms of Service (no sex, please!). But beyond tech support and security, youth were left to their own devices. It was their world to build.

That is, until Global Kids was given permission to enter. We were the first outside educational institution granted the power, and the privilege, to operate within Teen Second Life. We were foolish enough to take full advantage of this remarkable opportunity to experiment with both the teen community and Linden Lab, which owned and administered the space, to learn how an interest-driven virtual world could be leveraged to support deep learning. But like everyone else, we entered the world confused, calling upon old models to provide guidance to the new. We thought it was a game, albeit one without rules, narrative, goals or end-states (no losers in Second Life!).

We opened the island in February, 2006, with a simple scavenger hunt that introduced global issues and led youth through a Polynesian-themed jungle, to a giant rotating globe that rose out of a lake, into the heart of an active volcano. Within a few days, after all game details had been thoroughly explored and posted on their message boards, we learned more from the experience than any youth who went through it. Digital graffiti, of sorts, went up, in the form of giant floating arrows pointing out the correct route. In the heart of the volcano, we ran across a couple in an SL marriage ceremony, who politely asked us to leave, as we weren’t invited. In the shadow of the volcano, under the lake, we found a youth stepping out for a virtual cigarette; he'd quit in the real world, but found virtual smoking met his craving. More importantly, we'd forgotten to turn "build" off; in just the first day we had to return the hotel, church and amusement park industrious youth had created. Eventually, with our permission, one youth even turned our volcano from a representation into a simulation, belching smoke every four hours to be followed by projectile, flaming rocks of lava that left no island corner safe.

So yes, Teen Second Life welcomed us, along as we followed the rules and, like Gilligan and his crew, never left our island. But more importantly we learned right away that for adults to operate in a youth-driven environment, which offered such powerful constructionist opportunities, we couldn't deliver pre-formed activities and opportunities. Rather, to properly leverage their interests and the affordances of the word, the development process would need to be much more flexible, and collaborative. More like a dance.

We barely have time to review all that youth did on Global Kids Island, but a few highlights must include the following, which I now share to suggest the remarkably broad reach of what TSL enabled:

- the summer camp which inspired existing youth residents to develop leadership skills around global issues and educate their peers about sex trafficking through the construction of an elaborate maze.

- the UNICEFcompetition that challenged the community to build structures that raised awareness about human rights, followed by a second summer camp, this one to produce, short animated films for UNICEF's site commemorating the passage of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

- the Virtual Video Project, which over three years led Global Kids Youth leaders to work with community residents to produce animated films about child soldiers in Northern Uganda, child sex trafficking, and racism as an obstacle to education around the world.

- I Dig Science, where Global Kids Youth Leaders in NYC and youth in Chicago’s Field Museum learn about paleontology and global issues while tracking, and communicating with, scientists in the field.

- Playing For Keeps, in which youth developed a simulation called CONSENT! to raise awareness about medical racism against African-American prisoners since World War II.

- the Dream It, Do It initiative, developed with Ashoka, which trained scores of youth to develop entrepreneurial ventures, wherever they were, be it middle schools, the virtual world, or even teen jails.

- Witnessing History, a project with youth interns at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who used primary source material to create a simulation that raised questions about the role of witnesses to genocide.

- Science in Second Life was a high school level class that taught basic science skills through students visiting simulations of places around the world like Naples, Italy, where they learned about the environmental impact of garbage, and Antarctica, where they flew into the atmosphere to measure the impact of global warming.

- Finally, we brought in public intellectuals, like Henry Jenkins and James Paul Gee, whose work had been lending context and credence to virtual world-based education and interest-driven learning. Jenkins, for example, addressed the topic of Harry Potter fandoms' social activism through a dance party to the music of the politically-charged fan-genre Wizard Rock, held within a virtual Hogwarts created by residents, in a Dumbledore costume.

And Global Kids was far from alone. After the first year, the librarians came in with Eye4You Alliance, offering college fairs, classes, and more. Then the schools, from Australia, England, New Jersey and California, amongst others. Students took English classes acting out famous scenes from literature and learned about body-image by intentionally manipulating and critiquing their avatars. The listserv dedicated to educators in Second Life grew so big we saw the creation of one just for teen educators. Then Global Kids launched the web-based RezEd.org, now with over 3,500 members, as our use of virtual worlds has spread far beyond Second Life to a wide variety of virtual worlds.

So why did Teen Second Life fail? There are many reasons, not the least being it was never designed to succeed, at least not as a youth-run community. Underage youth in the “adult” space of Second Life was a legal liability. Teen Second Life was the answer. Although segregated, youth were otherwise treated no differently than adults. They used the same convoluted browser, were governed by the same laisse-faire policies. But adults working in the space attest to the fact that while youth deserve their own online places and the opportunities to run them, it doesn't mean they can or should do it on their own. Adult knowledge, wisdom, and guidance will always be required. It’s one thing to provide youth tools and hold them to high expectations. Its another thing to support them with the resources and scaffolding required to attain them.

But perhaps Teen Second Life did not fail. Henry Jenkins suggested years ago that “we might think of Second Life as a platform for thought experiments -- a place where we can test ideas that might not be ready for prime time, where we can experiment with new ways of being on both a personal and communal level.” From that perspective, youth who used the platform to express themselves, and the educators who brought them there, learned a tremendous amount, about themselves, life in a digital age, and the potential of digital media for learning. That this experiment has ended, then, might not mark it a failure, just a tragedy that it couldn’t continue.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you all with some final words from Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” with which I opened:

Are we going to let the elevator bring us down? Oh no, let's go,
let's go crazy, let's get nuts
Let's look for the purple banana ‘til they put us on the truck

I have no idea what Prince is talking about in that last line, but I am confident that someone, somewhere in Teen Second Life, has made (or will make) a purple banana. On a truck. And that this spirit of boundless creativity will never die.

Now, I would like to introduce someone who could never be here before, in the main grid - my teen grid avatar. Please give a warm round of applause to Barry Gkid (as Barry gkid rises from the coffin)


I’m not dead yet! (balloons)

As the grids merged, so did the educator’s once locked to their islands. So, at long last, I am here in the Main grid. In fact, if you want to visit our volcano, whose regular eruptions were designed by teens, please go to Global Kids Island. But before you do, I have this to say:

Almost three years ago, residents of the youth-only Teen Second Life held a protest march, walking (and flying) en masse across all teen public lands. Their slogans and placards reflected demands which only make sense in the context of a virtual world: grid merger, which is to say, eliminate the teen grid by combining it with the adult-only main grid. Merge the economies. Merge the social space. Merge the properties. When Linden Lab, the producers of the virtual world Second Life, announced last Fall they would be closing Teen Second Life, they offered just that in return, a grid merger, in which older youth, their avatars and properties, would be transferred to the main grid.

My main grid avatar has already spoken about how disappointed we are at the closing of Teen Second Life. But what I'd like to do now is reflect on the potential, and perils, of the grid merger.

First, I'd like to clarify three misconceptions that might be floating around.

First, Linden Lab is clearly on to something with this idea of mixing youth and adults within the same shared online space. Since this announcement Facebook has followed suite with a similar statement, eBay leaked a memo about plans to let teens buy and sell on their site and the World Wide Web, as full as it is with porn and content with questionable sources, might do the same.

Actually, as we all know, this bit of farce highlights that the Internet has primarily been a mixed-age space. There are valid causes for concern, as there are with any media influencing our youth, but year by year we're figuring it out. Cyberbullying is hot in the news these days, and we're seeing more programs developing youth's ability to assess credibility. But even virtual worlds like World of Warcraft have successfully mixed ages for years.

Secondly, Linden Lab is not about to start supervising youth in Second Life for the first time. In fact, they've been doing it for over five years. As Philip Rosedale, Linden's CEO, recently said in interview, their current practices have worked very well and the grid merger won't end those practices.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important thing, Linden's new grid merge policy will not introduce youth to Second Life for the first time. I remember three years ago running an after school program to teach youth Second Life. I was surprise to learn that three youth entered the program complete with their own Second Life businesses, designing clothing and building houses. However, of the three, only one was actually operating out of Teen Second Life. It's always been an unspoken understanding that there were more teens in Second Life than Teen Second Life, simply because more people meant more opportunities.

So if none of that is new what IS new about the policy. Two things:

First, Teen Second Life will no longer exist as a safety valve for Linden Lab to siphon youth. And while Blue and Claudia Linden did magnificent work supervising the space, they were chronically under-resourced. Now Linden Lab can address youth's needs as part of their work on their main product, not inadequately on a side project.

Secondly, and most importantly, the major change is that youth will be in Second Life AS youth. Before they had to pretend or risk being kicked out. Now they can be themselves. In a sense, we can view this as Linden Lab eliminating their own "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, returning integrity to adventurous youth.

As you might sense, the new changes do not strike me as a call for alarm to protect youth (although I am confident others will continue to raise valid concerns, like those who initially responded to Philip's announcement as the 2010 SLCC). What interests me now is what this change means for Second Life overall, and what that will mean for both youth and education.

It means at long last families can play together, teaching each other skills while parents are returned to their rightful role as mentors to their children's online behavior. Who better than one's own parents to teach the ethics and practicalities of safely traversing Second Life's various social scenes.

High school programs can now reach youth who range ages 16-18, something seemingly random which wreaked havoc on program designs.

Students and educational programs will now have access to the incredible array of resources, both virtual and human, that populate Second Life. Imagine the possibilities for language learning, taking youth to communities populated by all French or Japanese residents. Imagine a class on public policy with guest speakers from every corner of government. Nearly every institution from every corner of the world has a presence in Second Life; finally, educational programs can take full advantage of how virtual worlds echo that Disney refrain "It's a small world after all."

For example, thanks to the Honda Foundation, this Fall we will publicly launch our new program, Let’s Talk Sustainability, a series of in-world talk shows, addressing STEM-related issues, led by GK youth leaders, for a live audience of their peers. The youth will interview scientists, engineers, and others ALREADY in Second Life. Previously we could never have imagined such an innovative program.

Youth educators can finally visit and learn from each other's programs. This might not be known to you who never worked as an educator in TSL, but when we say we were locked to our organization's islands to prevent us from visiting the youth mainland, it also meant we couldn't visit each other. That meant we were locked out of one of the things that makes Second Life so effective, it's social network. Professionally and in regards to field building, it's amazing how much HAS been done, considering the isolation.

Finally, I think having teens as teens in Second Life, and everything I just mentioned, will mature the space, and I don't mean in a "mature for adults" way. I think it will improve how some, but not all, people behave, which will improve Second Life's image, which will make it easier for youth educators to run our programs. It will certainly be bumpy at first - some people's programs have been decimated and will need to be redesigned from scratch, if at all - but in the end if this means that the support, resources, and professional connections we've lacked all this time will be available in a new way, once the scab heals and we're back in the race, youth virtual world education in Second Life can thrive.

Aw, go back to the Teen Grid.

Sorry dude. I’m here to stay. Get use to it.

Well... then give me a hug.



We began by asking two questions:
What was Teen Second Life? and What does its passing mean for the future of youth-driven learning?

We're answered the first and addressed the second. But I think there is more to say about the future of youth-driven learning and second life.

But first I need to step back a bit and reference the work of the MacArthur foundation, who has funded much of our sl activities.

In October, 2006, MacArthur publicly announced it's new Digital Media Initiative. Originally announced as a 5 year, $50million project, the Initiative continues and has produced a wide range of research-backed theory and practice to guide our understanding of learning in a digital age.

The first point to recognize is that the nature of learning has changed.

It is moving from education to learning. Education is what happens in the walls of a school, but is just a piece of a broad range of learning, which is increasingly happening 24/7, and life long.

It is moving from information consumption to participatory learning - not just about the stage on the sage but also the guide on the side, supporting youth to take part in their own learning through experiential and project-based learning.

It is moving from institutions to networks.

To succeed in the workplace, classrooms and town halls of the 21st century, youth need the basic skills promised by traditional schooling, but they also need so much more. They need an awareness of global issues. They need to understand how to not just consume digital media but produce products to be shared with others. They need to understand how to critically assess information they find, distinguish between a search on Google vs Twitter, Twitter vs. Youtube, Youtube vs. Wikipedia.

The competencies required to be engaged and responsible digital citizens is not being taught, let alone addressed, in most schools. But what we find is that learning is happening in other settings; for example, when youth are on their own with the digital tools: their phones, mobile and console gaming platforms, and surfing Facebook. It is also happening in informal learning environments like after school programs and libraries.

The problem arises when only those with the means can access these rich resources, or use them in a context which both values their use and can guide youth in their proper use. If not, we see emerging what Henry Jenkins calls the Participation Gap, a gap between those just consuming digital media and those who have the skills, access and orientation towards participating in our digital age through contributing to it's design - by posting videos on Youtube, tweeting about public concerns, adding a story to a fan fiction site.

A seminal study was released a few years ago, led by Mimi Ito, which was summarized in the book Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out. It's actually not one study but the analysis of the results of twenty studies, which involved over two dozen researchers. They asked themselves the basic question - what are youth actually doing with the digital media in their lives and how do these activities promote learning.

The title refers to the three modes or genres of engagement with digital media which were observed.

Hanging Out refers to activities that are primarily friendship-driven, using digital tools to spend time with people they already know. Posting comments on a friend's Facebook page, sending a string of text messages. These activities revolve around those they already know, using digital tools to extend these relationships into times and places that were previously closed off.

In contrast, Geeking Out is primarily interest-driven. It's not about who you know but WHAT you want to know. It's about participating in a knowledge community where one finds a social role, and validation, by contributing to the core of knowledge. Participating in a Harry Potter Fan fiction site, or anime sub community. Since this mode of engagement is not about connecting with who you know, it introduces youth to new people, often people of all ages. While the hanging out mode can be intense it's more shallow, while Geeking Out goes deep, as youth develop an expertise.

Finally, messing around is sort of the gateway drug between the two. Both friendship and interest driven, these activities often offer the entry way to deeper levels of engagement. Learning a graphic program to edit an ex- out of a profile photo. Learning how to design a game without the need to learn code on Gamestar Mechanic. Doing Youtube searches to find music about Nigeria. Messing around, in part, is where youth first learn the system is to be played around with, that the resources are out there to teach themselves and pursue their own interests.

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out - or HO-MA-GO for short - was written at a time when the values of learning through digital media was being contrasted with school learning. It focuses primarily not just on what youth do out of school, but on their own time. The role of informal educators or institutions is not a core focus. But the HO-MA-GO framework can be applied, and is, within a variety of settings.

In Chicago, the main library branch was retooled as YouMedia, based on HO-MA-GO, to remarkable results. Learning Networks, now in Chicago and New York, are bringing together schools, museums, libraries, and after school programs, are also deeply informed by HO-MA-GO. And both are set to expand in the coming years around the country.

Now what about Teen Second Life? What does HO-MA-GO tell us about what it was and could have been.

In many ways, TSL was HO-MA-GO fully realized, a vibrant examples of what youth could do, on their own, with the wide range of digital tools at their disposal. We spoke earlier about some of the areas were they took on leaderships. Many of these were also examples of where they could geek out. TSL residents created their own web-based store to sell youth-produced products, built the first mobile SL app, managed virtual armies, and created a stand-alone instant messenger tool. Clearly, TSL resident could geek out - using the social space to collaborate with others to build knowledge and tools to share with others.

One of TSL's problems, and perhaps SL’s as well, as that it often tilts towards those looking to geek out. Perhaps that's why TSL’s numbers remained small - the geeks were just the tip of the potential teen iceberg. But youth could hang out and mess around in TSL as well. The social scene in TSL, often filled with what we might affectionately call beloved misfits, was full of youth playing together in a sandbox, or IMing. They could endlessly tweak their avatars, start messing around with sculpting prims, or play around with photography.

The grid merger is challenging youth's hanging out capabilities, as they struggle to maintain their contacts from their previously youth-exclusive space. But they have new opportunities now to find new ways to hang out, in new places, with new people.

Messing around activities, perhaps, raise the most concern for us, as we'd prefer to not see certain lines within SL played with.

But in TSL, Geeking Out was limited to just youth. Now, young people can take full advantage of the human and material resources within a mixed-age communities.

Perhaps the greatest lesson for us is that HO-MA-GO can highlight the valuable ways youth are learning when it might look to some that they are just, say, wasting time playing Second Life. Yet, as mentioned earlier, the role of adults - either formal or informal educators - was a secondary concern. If TSL is an example of HO-MA-GO in action, it's also a cautionary tale of what happens if the role of adults are not clearly defined, and if youth are presumed to be in touch with their capacity to be self-directed learners.

TSL needed adult Lindens as authority figures to offer security, mentorship, and role models. TSL needed outside learning institutions to assist youth to pursue those interests, as most youth’s ability to learn has been oppressed by a system that little values their inherent abilities to learn. Youth empowered to mange their own learning is more of an ideal, than a reality. It's our job, as adults, to support youth to become 24/7 lifelong learners.

The rise and fall of TSL in many ways shows both where we succeeded and how we failed to do that.

With the grid merge, we have a second chance - both Linden Lab and the now broader community of youth-concerned educators, to get it right.