Ethical Issues of the Use of Second Life in Higher Education

Matthew Croft Wake and Bernd Carsten Stahl


Second Life is a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) which offers users almost complete autonomy in the virtual world, from operating virtual businesses (S. Hutchinson, 2006), and operating virtual presences of real-world businesses, to building homes, even virtual intimate liaisons. The ability to buy land, build structures and objects, and give them scripted functionality, coupled with the free access afforded to users who do not wish to purchase land or items in-world, has made Second Life highly attractive for educational establishments to create virtual classrooms and learning spaces.

However, Second Life, as with all MMOG’s, has had a fair share of incidents involving both users of the system in ‘griefing’ attacks(S. Hutchinson, 2006), and hackers attempting to subvert the system (‘R. Linden’, 2006). The use of virtual money which has a real-world value if traded out makes Second Life a highly attractive target for hackers, and the very flexibility which makes the platform so attractive also allows new avenues of abuse or attack, from allegations of virtual sexual assault perpetrated by in-game users, to theft of intellectual property using hacked client software (‘C. Linden’, 2006).

In our proposed paper we will categorise ethical issues arising from the use of Second Life as a platform in education. While there is a literature that investigates ethical issues of ICT in higher education in general (Jeffries, Stahl & McRobb, 2007; McRobb & Stahl, 2007; Stahl, 2005; Stahl, 2004), as far as we know, such ideas and questions have not yet been applied to a particular application such as Second Life. We will therefore start with a description of the Second Life environment which will concentrate on the security and user protection features it provides. This will then lead to a review of social and educational consequences that can arise from SL use.

A problem with outsourcing any IT system, especially so with one as broad as Second Life, is that it can become difficult to administer user access. How do we know that a user of Second Life is a particular student at our university? How do we know that the student’s account has not been compromised? And can we request removal of an account on a platform we do not own, if that user has breached our terms and conditions, but not those of the service provider?

Linden Labs, the creators and maintainers of Second Life, state that they are a service provider, and do not actively police any occurrence which does not directly conflict with their terms of use. As such, an individual university must monitor and deal with any incidents which fall outside of Linden Labs’ jurisdiction. Do they keep sufficient logging information to be able to prove or disprove that a particular infraction even occurred?

We suggest that categorising the ethical issues arising from the use of Second Life can be classed as follows:

  • Security
  • Abuse / misuse
  • Technical constraints
  • Pedagogy
  • Intellectual Property
  • Legal liability

For each of these issues we will provide a discussion of the particular issues as they arise and contrast them with other more established environments such as virtual learning environments.

The paper will conclude with a list of items to be considered by decision makers considering the use of Second Life in higher education if they want to avoid creating foreseeable ethical problems.


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McRobb, Steve & Stahl, Bernd Carsten (2007): “Privacy as a Shared Feature of the e-Phenomenon: A Comparison of Privacy Policies in e-Government, e-Commerce and e-Teaching” International Journal of Information Technology and Management, Special Issue on “Making Sense of the E-Phenomenon”, edited by Feng Li, 232 – 249

Stahl, Bernd Carsten (2005): “E-voting: an Example of Collaborative E-teaching and E-learning” In: Journal of Interactive Technology & Smart Education (2:1), 19-30

Stahl, Bernd Carsten (2004): “E-Teaching – the Economic Threat to the Ethical Legitimacy of Education?” In: Journal of Information Systems Education (15:2), 155 – 162

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