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“The Cost of Thinking” and Second Life for Futures

May 26, 2009

The CALF event on the 28th of April in Leicester took place in Second Life, the 3D virtual world where users can socialize, connect and create using voice and text chat. The choice of setting the event in Second Life was determined by one particular challenge of future studies – “the cost of thinking”.

This challenge is one which those working in the area of Consumer Research call “the finite or quantal choice problem.” It refers to the difficulty people have in comparing diverse alternatives. According to theories about the cost of thinking in choice problems, when having to make choice between alternatives people form perceptions by acquiring information about each alternative and then processing this information to arrive at an expected utility. The comparison between the characteristics of the alternatives will be associated with a cognitive effort – the characteristics are evaluated and their differences assessed. Therefore, the more comparisons are required to make a choice, the more difficult the choice – the cost of thinking. Determination has costs — ubiquitous information, numerous alternatives, time pressure, limited information processing capabilities, and the general effort exerted to solve the problem. Choice theorists say that generally, the net utility of finding the best product from one set of products may be different from the net utility of finding it as best from another set of products. That is, there may be a cost associated with the act of making a decision—the “cost of thinking”. In the case of the Creating Academic Learning Futures Project the cost of thinking that participants have to pay is significant – they have to imagine possible futures of learning, to compare them and to make a choice of their preferred future. The comparison is between entities or concepts – futures –  which do not yet exist—either complete new systems or new states of existing systems. This represents a relevance gap.

A number of properties of Second Life offer a way of addressing this challenge. Second Life provides “sandbox” where participating students can compare alternatives and characteristic which are not that distant and abstract any more. By providing interactivity within the environment and a ‘feeling’ of presence and immersion, dialogue and encounter, Second Life allows the participants in the CALF Project to visit and immerse themselves in learning locations and cultures in a way that is not possible in real life. It was hoped that in this way it can give a very real sense of a possible future for learning technologies. The experiences in Second Life can provide a platform for the creativity, imagination and viable innovation in engaging with the technologies and pedagogies of the future that can reduce “the thinking cost” of having to compare alternative futures.

 During the Second Life CALF event the three students entered Second Life for the first time and explored different sites in Second Life – the Beyond Distance Research Alliance Media Zoo, the replica of the Sistine Chapel recreated by Vassar College and NASA’s moon probe launch site. After the event the students were interviewed individually about their experiences in Second Life and their ideas about the future of learning.

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