Right-click to learn

Second Life offers students a virtually real education
By KATE COHEN  |  August 17, 2006

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Harvard in Second Life
As membership grows exponentially on Second Life — the online 3-D metaverse where users can shop, socialize, and even blow their brains out — the academic world’s forward-thinking minds are seeing new opportunities for the virtual campus. With undergrads already dedicating a lot of their online time to chatting with friends or gaming, instructors are discovering that their pupils are ideal guinea pigs for a new frontier in learning online. Desks might be a thing of the past, rules like “don’t come to class naked” might seriously apply, and a professor’s tweed blazer could be replaced by a robot chassis or butterfly wings, or both. But the possibilities for learning are nearly endless.

Second Life (SL) is an online Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE) where users are represented on screen (or “in-world”) by animated “avatars” who can walk, fly, and talk with each other in 3-D environments designed and inhabited by fellow users, known as “residents.” SL residents can buy SL virtual real estate — usually in the form of a private island — from Linden Labs, the San Francisco –based company behind Second Life. Using graphics tools provided by SL, island-owners can develop their land any way they like — by building a mansion or a dungeon, say, or creating a forest or a snow-swept steppe. Residents also get to design their own avatars, often idealized human forms, who then function, on command, in any in-world environment. (To access Second Life, you need to download proprietary SL browser protocols and sign up for membership.)

Although Second Life is not the first MUVE to gain a foothold on the Internet, the academic world is taking to its flexibility and advanced options. Linden Labs Community Manager John Lester, known as Pathfinder Linden in-world, is facilitating SL’s partnership with educators by connecting them with the tools they’ll need. Lester helped create a Campus Island, virtual real estate where educators can use an acre of land free of charge for the duration of a class.

But the Linden vision is really to let the educators run with it. “We would love to see Second Life be used for things we haven’t dreamed of,” he says, “for instructors to use it to teach things that could not possibly be taught in the physical world.” Many instructors who started with Campus Island have returned to build their own islands. Lester estimates that more than 50 universities now have representation in-world, and about 400 members have joined his educators’ mailing list. “It’s a community that’s growing on its own at this point.”

Otherworldly courses
Having an online presence and sharing ideas among colleagues in-world is only the beginning. Already, instructors are moving toward holding real-time classes in SL; several will be teaching in-world this fall for the first time.

For those accustomed to traditional forms of online learning, the possibilities presented by a 3-D teaching environment make correspondence courses seem antiquated. “Distance students have a very disconnected feeling,” says Harvard Extension School instructor Rebecca Nesson, who will be teaching her first class in Second Life this fall. For the extension school’s typical Web-based courses, a student might check in with an instructor from time to time, but interaction among peers can be iffy, with no set protocol for making it happen.

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For love or money: Tips for finding the continuing-ed courses of your dreams. By Elee Dean

If you’d like to sample the virtual world’s forays into academia, get yourself to the biggest, fastest Mac or PC in sight. Still, it’s not exactly simple.

Second Life is in a constant state of development, and as such is not always as user-friendly as beginners would like. But with a little patience and experimentation (after all, you can’t break anything) you can train yourself to explore this slightly trepedatious new world.

Start by going to secondlife.com and clicking on the join now link. Opening an account is usually free; if you want to stake your personal claim in-world, it’ll cost you — but you can do that later. For now, sign yourself in and choose a name and a look for your avatar.

The next necessary step is to download Second Life software, through which you’ll gain access to the metaverse. That part is easier than making an airline reservation online.

The particulars of navigating through SL’s 3-D environment are less obvious. Click on the button labeled map, then type Info Island in the search box. In time, a fuzzy map will appear on the screen; click into the map and then hit the teleport button. Poof! (well, wait and poof) and you’re on Info Island.

Now fumble around and explore, using your cursor keys to move through the landscape. When you come upon a labeled wall display or book or kiosk, click on it and you’ll be linked to the corresponding resource page via your Web browser. To better learn the territory, ask for a tour using the chat function; a librarian is often on duty. Info Island also hosts special events and guest speakers (Henry VIII was promised the day we logged on, but we think he had to cancel).