These answers were provided by Mary-Carol Lindbloom, our very own Project Director for D4L, and the Executive Director of the South Central Regional Library Council.
For people who aren’t familiar with this community, where should they explore to find out more about it?
I am going to discuss the Renaissance Island learning community a.k.a. the Parish of Reading Primley, which is located in the 3D virtual world of Second Life. Second Life is a persistent virtual world, which means that when you log off, the buildings and everything else--including other people who may be inworld as avatars (their online representation), are still there.http//www.secondlife.com contains much information regarding the platform. Once inworld, you can search for places and find us under Renaissance Island.
What are a few of the most interesting features of this community?
It is one of the few educational areas in SL that combines learning with role play. There are villagers who rent cottages or stores and there are educational events including plays at the Globe Theatre, monthly early music concerts, storytelling, book discussions, and sometimes guest lectures. There is also en garde, jousting, and the new favorite, lawn chess. We've had faires and a few years ago, a cross-disciplinary conference. Second Life has taken a lot of grief over the years and then when the media moved on to the Next Big Thing, some people thought of SL as a "has-been." Tell that to the million people who still log in! I like that I can be part of the Renaissance Island community but then skip over to my favorite progressive rock club (have many international friends there) or even go to church if I am so inclined. Sometimes I hang out in a couple of other educational or historic builds. It's all just there--I don't have to load another program to visit those places.
What’s it like to participate in this community?
Unlike some of the sims in Second Life, we do not insist that people be attired in 16th century garb, though pretty-much everyone who is there does so. Some try to talk in the version of English spoken at the time. Inworld as other places, our representations are called "avatars." There is a growing body of research on identity in virtual environments. Identity is the way you look, act, and even what you call yourself. In Second Life, it is now possible to float your real world name over your avatar, but we had to choose surnames generated by the platform. Inworld, I am Korrigan Keynes (pronounced "cains"). Our manager sometimes appears as a horse. It's really not fair--it gives her an advantage for all of the steeple chases, hahaha! In most other learning communities, identity may not be quite as consuming as in SL. What I mean by that is that you can look any way you want--though some sociologists suggest that many of us tend to create our perfect selves. On the other hand, at least one 30-something colleague prefers to be 90-something in Second Life.
What do participants put into it?
Their time and expertise--and sometimes money. Some create buildings, clothing, and even animals while others host events or perform management functions. For years some librarians have answered reference questions--those pertaining to functionality of SL and real-world questions.
What do they get out of it?
It is probably different for everyone, but I would say the feeling of community and satisfaction that comes from creating things and helping others. There is a book by Frans Johansson called the Medici Effect. It is a book about intersections and the innovation that happens when different disciplines do that. SL is full of creative people from different professions and a place replete with such things. I also like networking with other educators and librarians from around the world. One time a Danish medievalist built a display and hosted an event. Educators and librarians usually let you know who they are in the real world.
How did this community get started?
With the Alliance Library System, which had been one of nine multi-type systems in Illinois until a few years ago. They wanted to explore the feasibility of developing a world as a learning community and library. It's fine to build a library and set up a virtual desk, but Ren was an experiment whereby the entire sim became a wiki and opportunity to learn and participate....to build community.
What kind of steps were involved?
We had to assemble a team to lend ideas and expertise. Eventually we developed a full-fledged business plan. Groups form, storm, norm, and perform--I think we're in the latter two phases but we certainly went through all of them!
What do/did you do to maintain this community?
After the Alliance Library System, South Central Regional Library Council became the sponsor of the sim, as a non-profit. The residents who live there generally raise the funds to maintain it. But the most important aspect of maintaining this community is to have a "boots on the ground" manager. Ren is incredibly fortunate to have a volunteer manager who is there most days. You have to have someone there, and there have to be things for residents to do. That is why we have events, both role playing and educational--and just plain fun. You have to build relationships and make it a place people want to engage with.
What kind of issues do/did you have to troubleshoot?
Sometimes it can be as simple as helping a resident to open their inventory - especially if they are new to Second Life. Other times there may be an issue with the sim and we have to do what is called a "roll back" - a return to a time before things went haywire. The more challenging issues involve negotiating problems between people. SL attracts incredibly creative people and sometimes there ideas may clash. We also have experienced what they call "griefing" - residents (not of Ren but SL in general) that may breeze into an event just to disrupt it. Those are annoying issues. This past year we had a zombie problem. Indeed, someone planted zombies in the sea and spread them across three different sims so that no one sim could return them. This is one time when Linden Lab was not responsive. They are still there--our manager isolated them in their own parcel and now they cannot annoy theatre-goers with their horrible sounds. (-:
What other advice can you offer about online learning communities?
Online communities, like any other, require constant attention. If you can't be there every day or much at all, make sure you have someone who can be. Another likeness with the real world is that you tend to get out of it what you put into it. In say, one of your real-world associations, do you just pay a membership fee or do you deeply engage? It is the same in a virtual learning community.
Here is a link to one of the machinima videos shot by a librarian that features the music of our first resident musician, Thom Dowd (Thomas Coard in real life). Generally we do not give our our real names--anonymity is taken very seriously by the Community Standards of Second Life. Like me, though, Thom did not separate his two lives. He was from the USA but taught at a music conservatory in Freiburg, SZ and streamed his real life concerts into SL. He passed away a few years ago in the real world and there is a marker for him in the churchyard, as there is for Dinnie, a librarian from Canada who also died a few years ago. You know that you are in a community when you grieve. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIXaL4RncFw
Well, to end on a happy note....a couple of the cool things that have happened--Showtime premiered the first episodes of The Tudors on Ren and the choreographer of the horses for the Patriot movie did a talk for us.
The last word...... there is also a Second Life Education Discussion list. This is also where some of the librarian and educational innovators are. I truly hope that you will grab one of the avatars that Lori is developing for the class and hop inworld and join us for a tour and/or an event!