A Second Life for Higher Education? Virtual Worlds May Wind Up Breathing New Life into Teaching, Learning, and Creative Expression

Article excerpt

HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT Second Life (SL)? Even if you don't have the time to deal with the demands of your (first) life, chances are you've already come across the fantastic buzz built around this 3-D online virtual world. Launched in 2003 by Linden Lab, a company founded by former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale, SL has been featured in newspapers and magazines across the world.

Wikipedia describes SL as an internet platform that "enables its users, called 'residents,' to interact with each other through motional avatars providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse." SL residents can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade items and services from one another, adds the Wikipedia article.

By mid-May, more than 6.4 million people had created an SL account and received in return a free ticket to enter--or fly to--this virtual online world. More than a million of these SL green-card holders had spent some time in-world in the prior 30 days, while more than 500,000 had crossed the Second Life border, sometimes on multiple occasions, during the prior seven-day period.

Despite these relatively modest adoption numbers, at least compared to web usage stats, Second Life and a few other online virtual worlds have been identified in "The Horizon Report: 2007 Edition" as "emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning, or creative expression within higher education." Released in January 2007 by the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), this report forecasts the wide use of virtual worlds in higher education by 2010.

Difficult to believe? The exponential growth of the web and, more recently, social networking websites also sounded like wishful thinking a few years ago.

SimTeach, an online resource about multi-user virtual environments maintained by Jeremy Kemp, an instructional designer at San Jose State University (Calif.), lists more than 100 higher ed institutions with active projects in SL. About 2,600 educators working in SL have also registered to use the Second Life Educators Forum available on this independent website. Every week, the Second Life Educators Mailing List maintained by Linden Lab receives several messages from college professors about to start a class in SL or who are working on a grant proposal to teach in-world.

John Lester, alias Pathfinder Linden and the academic program manager at Linden Lab, sees the growing interest in higher ed as a logical development. "Second Life gives both students and faculty a new medium for exploring things like distance learning, experiential learning, simulation, and scientific visualization in a fundamentally collaborative environment." By using a 3-D virtual world reminiscent of many popular gaming platforms, teachers have the opportunity to engage their students in a medium they already find compelling and natural, adds Lester.

The popularity of Sarah Robbins' English composition class at Ball State University (Ind.) confirms how compelling SL can be for this generation of students. Launched in August 2006, her course was capped at 18 students. In March, Robbins spoke simultaneously at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in SL. During this presentation, the instructor, also known as "Intellagirl" in-world, said that 300 freshmen had applied for one of the 18 virtual seats available for the spring session of her course.

The novelty factor of SL may help explain this incredible interest for such classes. In any case, more and more institutions have started to invest money and time in the virtual world.

SL PROJECTS IN PROGRESS

Many members of the NMC, an international consortium of nearly 250 leading higher ed institutions, museums, corporations, and other organizations, are conducting exploratory projects or classes in SL, including Seton Hall University (N. …