Web Wednesday: Second Life? Isn't the first one enough?

Web Wednesday: Second Life? Isn't the first one enough?

From Information Resources and Technologies

In recent years, "virtual worlds" have moved from a conceptual, emerging technology to a reality. Academics have begun to ask, "How can these new technologies be used to enhance teaching and learning?" Many are trying to find good answers ... and faculty and students are having fun in the process.

For some time, simulations have been used in a variety of disciplines, allowing learners to be immersed in a population, system or set of processes as they try out a variety of strategies in a safe environment. The methods used have ranged from text-based interactions to actor-created experiences to CD-ROM-based 3-D environments. New virtual world technology allows for simulations to be created in a much more realistic environment.

In an online overview, Educause defines a virtual world as "an online environment whose 'residents' are avatars representing individuals participating online. ... Today's virtual worlds are immersive, animated, 3-D environments that operate over the Internet, giving access to anyone in the world." Put another way, imagine a big animated computer game where cartoon-like characters run around in a cartoon-like world, except that the "cartoons" are realistic characters that real people control, and the "game" can be any form of interaction including online classes and meetings.

The most popular public and commercial virtual world is Second Life from Linden Labs. Its main competitor in the academic world is the open-source project Croquet. But Second Life captured the interest of Internet users and has done for virtual worlds what YouTube.com did for online video; it provides an extremely popular, easy-to-use framework to facilitate a new technology (albeit one with a commercial foundation, whose owners could change its business model at any time).

Colleges and universities have begun to build online virtual campuses within Second Life; a Harvard Law course (described last September in the Chronicle of Higher Education) featured a professor and his daughter (a computer science instructor) teaching their course in a traditional classroom and a virtual equivalent built in Second Life. A promotional video posted at YouTube illustrates the concept (the video also exemplifies the risks of building any academic initiative on top of a public Internet service like YouTube, as it exposes the creator to less-than-charitable critiques).

Other universities experimenting with Second Life include Ohio University and Texas State University; the New Media Consortium has built an online presence as well.

Meeting together in a virtual world also triggers closer connections among participants; the experience of "seeing" a friend or colleague appear next to you on-screen and lead you through a new environment is uniquely compelling.

Virtual worlds allow the potential for creative faculty and students to build new means of learning complex topics.  As universities move beyond replicating classrooms and begin to create walkthroughs of molecules or virtual archeological digs (which already have been done), or even more creative and engaging learning experiences (which are yet to be developed), the virtual world experience is poised to become a transformative learning tool.

We look forward to exploring how this technology can be used for teaching and learning and we would like to hear your thoughts and questions. Please contact your academic technology consultant to start the discussion.