Educational aims and content

View of HellMost of us have heard of Dante's Inferno, the medieval view of Hell. Some of you are probably aware it is part of The Divine Comedy, in which Dante also visits Purgatory and Heaven. You may or may not be aware that Gloria Naylor wrote a book called Linden Hills, which uses a parallel structure to The Inferno as an parable of modern black America.

This sim-sized build created Hell, complete with its nine circles which the students and visitors populated with well known (and in most cases still living) residents, and a mountain side with ledges - Linden Hills - that the students decorated with houses and excerpts from the book to introduce visitors to Linden Hills and its parallels to the Inferno.

You can read more about the build on my blog, on the NMC blog, On the client's blog, in Second Life Insider and in SLNN. You can also read who was assigned where in the round up post on the Literature Alive! blog.

Technical notes

This sim was created by using Photoshop to create a .raw file which was uploaded by the sim owner. Textures of rock, lava and ice were used to create the various levels of Hell.

Visible in the picture are several elements:

The various boards are scripted with simple notecard giver scripts so visitors can learn about the circle of hell and why the various people have been suggested for this circle. The drop-box has a dual function script. One function allows people to add their own content, the other allows a restricted number of people to receive copies of the cards by touching the box.

Revisiting Hell

Picture of new inferno buildMany builds are revised as the needs of the owner change, or become more clearly realised. Few of them are totally reimagined in the way that Dante's Inferno has been. In some ways we were lucky with this, in others, it has been a nuisance. The first build of Inferno and Linden Hills was on a borrowed sim, and was known to be short duration. Recently, in fact with a timing that would have made Dante proud on Good Friday 2008, we took delivery of an openspace sim from a sponsor who wishes to remain anonymous. We had the opportunity, and the motive, to revisit the entire sim and its contents with a clean slate.


We started from the ground up: the terrain file was altered so that the pit of hell fills the entire sim. We had decided to split the sim in two, so the Linden Hills elements were on the opposite side of Hell to the Inferno elements.

Some elements went: the assignation of individuals to circles of hell caused confusion, because there were various people assigned to multiple levels by different people. Those who know the original story, but were less clear on what we were doing, complained that people should always be assigned to the lowest appropriate level. They are, of course, correct, but if you were in Minos' place you might assign people differently to me, which is what we were showing. We also picked up the message that people were missing the information we tried to hand out to explain what was going on, so we provided several ways for them to get it.

We added several parts as well. For example the flag in Limbo runs away from you - one of the technically hardest elements to keep it within the space of the vestibule whilst moving nicely - and in response to feedback from someone who believes in directing independent learning more tightly than we do, we offered a choice of moving between levels - you can ride a gondola down, or you can still jump from circle to circle. There was also more content - there is a sort of twister version of the malebolge, circle seven has a woods, burning sands and rivers of boiling blood.

Has it worked? We have had less coverage from the Second Life media this time, but we have attracted visitors, most of our feedback has been positive, and in educational terms the students by and large seem to have more clearly grasped the connection between the stories and are better able to articulate it. For its core functions, certainly a success. If you would like to learn more about design process and enter into a dialog about it, I have posted a blog entry about this new build to compliment this page.

Note about directed learning

We were visited by an educational web-site designer who was very new to Second Life. This visitor was confused about how to find out what to do and how to move around in the Inferno - it transpired she had been teleported in and avoided the notegiver that might have helped explain this, and her hosts hadn't bothered to provide her with one, a situation that we suspect is quite often repeated, hence the additional chances to pick up this card. She did, however, highlight that she found it unclear that she could move around and go down the circles of hell. This raises an interesting point: on a website you have to click links to move pages. These obviously need to be clear so everyone can follow them. Does Second Life require the same clarity of direction? Can we assume, as we did, that people used to Second Life will move around, see the other things and head over to investigate them? (Remember we don't completely expect you to do that without some prompting: there are a couple of chances to pick up information cards before you get into the main part of the sim.)

This also raises an educational point. Within Second Life it is easy to move back and forth, sideways, up and down. The learner can, unless you very deliberately force them away from it, move between elements as they choose. Self-directed learning at its purest: the learner is absolutely in charge of how they develop, of the route they take through the learning opportunities. Most educational websites that I have seen don't achieve this. You might be able to select a topic freely, but as you drill down into it your only "back" opportunities are either back one page or back to home and then down into another topic. Is there are right and wrong here? No, of course not, simply a difference in teaching philosophy, both approaches can lead to good learning, but it is a question to consider when planning your builds within Second Life.


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