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.
Harvard in Second Life
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.”
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.
Nesson chose to offer her course in Second Life “to make a distance-education experience feel like a more substantial, more connected experience so that they would have someplace where they could come and actually get to interact directly with each other and with the instructors.”
How exactly will classes meet in Second Life? “I think this is a real Petri dish for teaching and learning experimentation,” says Jeremy Kemp, a doctoral student at Fielding Graduate University and the proprietor of//simteach.com, a resource center for educators using MUVEs.
“There’s a ﬁne balance there between offering the learning experience that students expect and utilizing the ﬂexibility of the environment.” Several campuses, resources, and research displays have already been established in-world. Some are mirror images of real-life buildings; for example, Harvard Law School’s Austin Hall is operated on the island by the law school’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a real-world research facility devoted to studying and exploring cyberspace. Others reﬂect the imagination and ingenuity of the developers and instructors behind them. On Campus Island, research projects are displayed on floating platforms, and some even invite visitors to participate in a sample experiments.
One instructor paying particular attention to her students’ environment is Sarah Robbins, a PhD candidate at Ball State University who is studying rhetoric and composition. This fall, she will meet with her English-composition undergrads in real life one day of the week and in SL on another. Robbins, a/k/a Intellagirl Tully, has put a lot of thought into her island, offering her students lounge areas for meetings, a Tiki bar, and dorm areas they can decorate by working together.