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,
his students stopped talking and walked around in a delicate, respectful way as if they were on the actual campus.
Texas State University in San Marcos, meanwhile, has built its own virtual campus to give students a meeting place in SL. The project's main programmer, Emin Saglamer, said although much of the virtual campus is in place, the school isn't publicizing the campus just yet, partly because of unanswered legal questions.
"The virtual campus is an extension of our physical campus, so we could be held liable for whatever happens in the simulation," Saglamer said. He said such concerns are probably a bit of a stretch, but there's plenty of untested legal territory when it comes to Texas-sized institutions building a presence in SL. Texas State has assembled a "Second Life Dream Team" to guide future projects in the virtual world.
In addition, a spring 2008 course in reading competency will be Texas State's first foray into SL immersion teaching. In the intensive reading skills class, students will receive assignments written on note cards along paths on the campus, and they can talk with one another as they work on improving their reading ability. Students must volunteer for the SL version of the course, and Saglamer said the novelty of the virtual world will help students stay engaged. "Some of them are more at ease in a visual environment than a textual environment," Saglamer said.
Adapting to Virtual Reality
Tired of fighting the multitasking, YouTube-influenced lifestyle among students, some professors have adapted their teaching style to be more relevant for today's students. Sanchez points out that to function well as a modern worker, students will have to use virtual environments as places to network professionally and produce work, not just socialize. Sanchez predicts the novelty will soon wear off and people will use avatars the way they use e-mail today - with separate ones for their work and personal lives. "I think virtual worlds are the next evolution in the Internet," he said.
Still, staking a claim in Second Life isn't a decision any university or individual instructor should make lightly. One major consideration is the real cost of land in SL. Individual avatars are free, but property on an island requires an initial purchase plus a monthly subscription fee. Building design and other development takes time and skill, and programmers worldwide make a living by contracting out their building skills. Then there's the question of whether a professor is tech-savvy enough to use SL effectively. "The learning curve is pretty high for a teacher who sees Second Life and says, 'This is something I want to try out,'" Sanchez said. "A faculty member isn't just going to walk into Second Life, build a building and be ready to go."
Sanchez helped Leslie Jarmon, a senior lecturer in the UT Graduate School, start the Educators Coop in Second Life, which helps academics get their bearings in SL and make the most of classes taught there. Teachers who join the Coop get their own house on the island and access to meetings with educators from around the world. Even without joining, academics can take advantage of the Coop's published body of knowledge on its blog, or teleport to the island and meet teachers and researchers.
L'Amoreaux, who works with Linden Lab community initiatives, said networks like the Coop, and the Discovery Channel's Educators Network hold the most promise for the growth of SL as an education tool. Linden Lab sponsors a few college classes each semester with free real estate to help educators make the transition but L'Amoreaux said, user-created networks are where the real body of knowledge is developing. "It's really reaching a level of maturity that's quite amazing."
Ultimately, Second Life's most powerful possibilities haven't been developed yet, said Jarmon. The sense of untapped potential makes SL an effective tool because educators and students are working in uncharted waters. "These three-dimensional virtual worlds are extending our ability to create, extend new knowledge, learn and explore," she said, "and of course we're only starting to figure out what questions to ask."
Patrick Michels is a writer in Austin, Texas.