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Virtual Possibilities

Exploring academic and island life in the metaverse of Second Life

Snapshots from the virtual world of Second Life

Carmen Fies’ students have been to the Great Wall of China. They have piloted an airplane into the eye of a hurricane.

Not really. But they’ve done the next best thing.

Fies, an assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching in the College of Education and Human Development, has been a leader at UTSA in exploring how the online, virtual world of Second Life can be used as a teaching tool.

Last spring, Fies obtained an internal grant to purchase a virtual parcel of land—known as islands in Second Life—which her graduate students then spent the summer developing by adding buildings and landscapes. At the end of the course, the students gathered on the island, Tejano Tech, and held a celebration where their virtual selves, or avatars, danced and mingled. In reality, they were sitting in the same classroom in the Main Building, carrying on real-world exchanges while they simultaneously navigated the virtual world.

This fall semester, Fies utilized Second Life to help teach her undergraduate students in her IDS 3003 Science and Humanity classes. "It’s an interdisciplinary course that looks at how science and cultural settings have sort of mutually influenced each other throughout history and around the globe," she explains. "We use Second Life for some of the exploration of different cultural settings. We can’t go on a real world field trip to China to look at the Great Wall, but there is a virtual China in Second Life."

While some universities do offer online-only courses in Second Life, and distance learning is an obvious use for the technology, Fies also is interested in how the technology can be used to enhance student learning in a bricks-and-mortar environment.

"Let’s say we talk about gravity, or the phases of the moon, or we talk about the universe. I can show my students pictures, I can show my students diagrams. I can show my students video clips of one sort or another in my real-world classroom," she says.

In short, she can give them information; but in the virtual world, she says, she can give them an experience. "Government organizations such as NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have a presence in Second Life. I can take my students to NOAA and have them fly a virtual airplane into the eye of a hurricane," she says. "Granted, it’s a virtual experience, and granted, it’s based on a model that someone created. But it has a tangible experience associated with it that I cannot get when I show them a picture."

Pixellated profs

In September, the University of Texas System announced the purchase of a 50-island archipelago in Second Life to share between its 15 member institutions as a part of the Virtual Learning Community Initiative. Like the other UT System universities and health science centers, UTSA received three islands to develop as it sees fit. Two have been tagged as academic and administrative spaces for instruction and possibly as a way to showcase the university in a virtual tour; students in information systems lecturer Jeremy Koester’s special topics course this fall worked to re-create the Main Campus in the virtual space. The third is entirely dedicated to culture and arts and was a part of the Second Life component of Yoko Ono’s Imagine Festival in October.

UT Austin and UT Dallas already had a large presence in Second Life and now have eight and six islands, respectively; other UT schools now are leaping into the fray, says Mario Guerra, a training specialist at UT Austin’s Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment, who is helping to coordinate the initiative. UT El Paso is using one of its islands to replicate the Galapagos Islands, where visitors can retrace Charles Darwin’s footsteps. UT Pan American is creating a classroom simulation where teachers in training can gain experience working with special needs students (by responding to avatars who mimic the behaviors of autistic children, for example) before they actually do their student teaching.

"It really is a learning environment right now. We’re learning from each other," Guerra says. "I think that’s the great thing about this grant in that it’s not each individual campus trying to move into this virtual world. Let’s do it as a system and see how it works."

While the UT System is the first statewide university system to delve into Second Life en masse, hundreds of universities have created a presence in Second Life since it was launched in 2003. Students at Harvard Law School have held moot courts on their Second Life island. An administrator at Vassar College used photographs to re-create the interior of the Sistine Chapel on Vassar’s Second Life island; there, visitors can fly up to the ceiling to get a closer look at Michelangelo’s work. Duke University School of Nursing offers distance courses through Second Life, where students can gain experience treating avatars before they work in clinical settings. Stanford University created a virtual library in Second Life where visitors can browse rare documents that are restricted outside of the virtual world.

At Montclair State University’s Second Life islands—where UTSA staff leased instructional space to train interested faculty and staff before the UT System Second Life initiative was launched—bookworms could visit a house based on Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Fall of the House of Usher" or fly around a Quidditch stadium built by a professor who teaches the Harry Potter series.

Just this fall, Penn State announced that academic advisers on the university’s online campus are now required to be available for students meetings in Second Life. And earlier this year, Bryant & Stratton College held what administrators claimed was the first commencement ceremony in Second Life, for 40 students in the institution’s online degree program.

Whole new world

Those disparate projects point to the boundless applications of Second Life, supporters say. The virtual sky is the limit.

Architecture students can build their designs in Second Life and get a better sense of what it feels like to move through a building than traditional models offer. Engineering students can learn how to use equipment that may not be available on their campus.

"I think the absolute best application is in the foreign language area," says Joe DeCristoforo, who is UTSA’s campus lead for the UT System initiative. In Second Life, through the program’s audio or text chat, "you could have interactions with students all over the world. That’s a phenomenal application."

DeCristoforo, UTSA assistant vice president and registrar, began exploring Second Life more than a year ago after learning about the program at a conference in Corpus Christi. Keen to learn more about distance learning, he attended a session offered by Texas State Technical College, which offers a digital media degree program entirely in Second Life.

"I was just amazed. I never knew about Second Life," says DeCristoforo, who team-taught a freshman seminar with COEHD faculty member Patricia McGee using Second Life this fall.

In addition to its applications as a teaching tool, DeCristoforo is interested in how the virtual world can be used for administrative purposes. At his suggestion, the UT System registrars now use Second Life to hold group meetings, something that’s prohibitive for them to do in the real world in a state as large as Texas.

DeCristoforo also has attended a number of conferences in Second Life. "It was fascinating. I could sit at my desk, raise my hand and ask questions if I wanted to. I took a lot of notes. It’s as if I was there in person."

In fact, he says, there’s one advantage Second Life meetings have over real-world meetings. Online, you can scan other avatars’ profiles to quickly learn about who’s sitting around you and even engage in private chats without interrupting the speaker; that, DeCristoforo has found, has made it even easier for him to network than it is at real-world conferences.

UTSA systems analyst Sara Bordelon, who has trained more than 100 UTSA and UT System employees in Second Life since she began working in it a little over a year ago, says she was struck by the program’s potential after the registrars began meeting in Second Life. "I thought, if we can get this group to get together in Second Life, what can’t we do?"

Thinking beyond the blackboard

Fies, who serves on the VLCI project team at UTSA with DeCristoforo, Bordelon and others, says there are faculty members from across the university who are participating with the team to different degrees. But faculty involvement and interest is sporadic, she says. "That’s understandable because this is an environment where you have a very steep learning curve at the beginning. To get comfortable with interactions that are sort of basic interactions takes a little while," Fies says.

Even though users can log on and create an avatar in Second Life without spending a penny, they still have to learn the computer controls that allow them to move and communicate in the virtual world. And the use of avatars may create a misconception that Second Life is an online game, which it is not, supporters say.

"In Second Life, there isn’t an ultimate goal to accomplish, and there is no finale we’re all striving for," Bordelon says. "We’re just there to be there—to learn, to communicate, to do things we may not have the ability or opportunity to do in real life."

Not to say that there isn’t an element of fun. In Second Life, DeCristoforo’s avatar walks around wearing a tuxedo; Bordelon’s sips Red Bull as she moves about.

Graduate student Linda Lindsey, who works as Fies’ graduate assistant and has been working to build up the UTSA islands with details such as native Texas landscape, is known for giving her avatars red hair to match her own. But rather than detracting from the learning environment, performing tasks such as dressing up their avatars and planting bluebonnets on their virtual campus can help engage students in the environment and "add an element of socializing that you would have in real life," she says.

Fies agrees. "I remember taking an online course, and it felt like one of these old correspondence courses where they sent you stuff to read, and then you write something back, and they write something back to you. It was a lot like that."

But in Second Life, she says, "the environment has the advantage that you have a feeling of presence and identity.

"I had not anticipated that. When I came to Second Life, I was very skeptical. I mean, I’m still skeptical; it’s not a silver bullet. But it has so much potential, and I think that’s what makes it worthwhile to explore."

— Rebecca Luther

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