It was a bright, cloudless day when I arrived at Joe Sanchez's research lab. Palm trees rose above the empty field, and a Viking ship floated just off the coast. Sanchez is an assistant instructor and doctoral candidate at UT Austin, and we'd arranged to meet there, though at first there was no sign of him. In fact, I was nearly convinced it was the wrong place - no way a Texas university would hold classes on a tropical island. Then, a tall figure in a long black coat appeared from nowhere and introduced himself.

It might seem odd to see Viking ships anchored beside palm trees, or people appearing from thin air, but we were meeting inside the four-year-old virtual world of Second Life (SL), where even stranger sights are common. Accessing the online virtual world through the free SL program, millions of people lead recreational fantasy lives as shape-shifting avatars - their physical representations in the program - teleporting from place to place.

Because avatars also do more mundane things like meeting people, buying cars and building houses, the virtual platform opens up new possibilities for academic research and even class discussion. You're as likely to find a college course in SL as a flying squirrel-person with wings and yellow sneakers. There are plenty of both.

According to Claudia L'Amoreaux at Linden Lab, the San Francisco company that created it, at least 300 universities around the world teach courses or conduct research in SL. In Texas alone, academics at some schools are finding SL can help teach complicated concepts with 3-D models, build collaborative networks for projects and explore the possibilities of virtual worlds.

Texas academics are engaging SL from a variety of angles. At Trinity University in San Antonio, new media students design and implement promotional campaigns in SL in Aaron Delwiche's "Virtual World Promotions" course. At the University of Houston, architecture students build business plans in the virtual world and subject their models to the forces of SL's free market. At Texas A&M University, a "Visual Culture in the Metaverse" course teaches students how to navigate and engages them in critical questions about real-life and virtual connections. Instructors from other U.S. universities build giant molecules, re-create crime scenes, stage mock trials and hold public lectures.

New Way of Interacting
In the course Sanchez teaches for the UT School of Information, students work together on projects that connect SL and RL (that's real life). Standing in the open field where he holds class, he apologizes for not having more to show off. Until recently, his students had dorms there, but the class had just torn them down to make room for new projects.

Now one group is planning a fundraiser at a virtual nightclub, where guests must come as an animal avatar, and live disc jockeys will spin records. By charging admission to the party, the group will raise virtual money to benefit real-world victims of the Southern California wildfires. (Because people pay real money to acquire virtual land and other goods, the in-world currency, the Linden dollar, has real-life value. As of late 2007, one U.S. dollar was worth about L$265.)

Sanchez says his course is designed to build computer-supported collaboration, and the goals of his course reach far beyond teaching SL skills. "We use Second Life as a way to pull them in, to get them interested," he said. "Second Life gives us opportunities to meet and connect with people in the community we wouldn't get to in real life."

The geographical boundaries between communities have a way of breaking down even more in Second Life than in traditional, two-dimensional Web environments. Sanchez recalls that on a field trip to a virtual replica of Virginia Tech, just after the shootings there last April,

Patrick Michels  |  Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.