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Exploring Mobility, Chatbots, Blockchain and Augmented Reality solutions in the Cloud to re-imagine Education & Research

Second Life

Kevin Roebuck
Director, Digital Experience

Second Life is an on-line society in a 3-D world. It's residents are able to use second life tools and primitives to build environments of all kinds that they actually own. After having lunch last thursday with Pathfinder Linden, it's clear that the leading-edge of on-line collaborative learning is taking place in this community and not in course management systems. Second Life is growing rapidly like other user-generated content sites like Myspace and YouTube. Yet, SL is really blurring the lines between the real world and the virtual. The Second Annual Second Life Community Conference was just held over the weekend here in San Francisco to talk about these opportunities in a session bringing together educators now using Second Life for their work.

So, we're going to set-up an Island for the Education Commons community and start with the Digital Hollywood student community to design and build our virtual university space. We can then host on-line forum using Second Life URLs to bring real-life communications and idea-sharing into this parallel universe. A truly fun way to learn as reported by WGBH:(VIDEO of Pathfinders Talk at Harvard)

Harvard in Second Life

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.

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."

Otherworldly courses

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
http://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.

"I'm very interested in how virtual environments can foster collaboration
and community building in the class itself," she says. Since so much of her
class is centered on observation and research, the SL community as a whole
will also play a major role, providing her students with interview subjects
and discussion.

"I've been in lots of MMORPGs [Massive Multiplayer Online Role-playing
Games] and run into some nasty people," Robbins says. "I've not seen any of
that in SL. ... I feel like I can trust the community to be encouraging so
long as my students are [not] bothersome."

It is perhaps because the SL community is characterized by civility that
in-world learning has the potential to promote respectful, supportive
classroom behavior. According to Jeremy Kemp, "When you have the other
person looking at you in the face, it's kind of hard to be mean, and so it
helps to generate an altruistic environment."

Still, typical student behavior is to be expected; a student can fall asleep
in a real class just as easily as his or her avatar can slump over,
indicating that he or she is away from the computer. Instructors already
accustomed to the real-life behavior of students seem prepared to accept it
in-worlds

"We see many things in a lecture hall with wireless when the students have
laptops," says Dr. Ed Lamoureax, who will be teaching an SL-only course
during Bradley University's three-week interim session in January 2007.
"Students multitask now. It's just a given."

Kemp, whose studies focus on "legitimate peripheral participation" —
extraneous classroom chatter such as instant messaging and passing notes in
class — sees this behavior as a potentially good thing. "There are things
that happen outside of the official line of communication in a teaching
setting that students benefit from," he says. An environment like Second Life
can encourage students to use such behavior in a constructive way.

Expanding in-world resources

In-world, there are offerings that are open to the public, from lectures
with NASA engineers to presentations hosted by The Infinite Mind public-radio
show, which was the first live-broadcast program to have a presence in SL.
There is also Info Island, home to the Second Life Library 2.0, a
collaboration between the Alliance Library System and Online Programming for
All Libraries (OPAL).

"More and more educators see Second Life as a way to engage students," says
ALS director of innovation Lori Bell. "We wanted to see what role a library
could play."

A group of about 35 librarians have volunteered their time to build
structures and stock the collection, which includes searchable indexes,
audio and video clips, and books, many of which are public domain and
available to own. "I see this as a great way to promote reading," says Bell.
The library also offers live help at certain hours of the day, for the
typical real-life reference questions that inevitably come up, and it will
hold live events like authors' chats and tours.

The library is also exploring ways to offer learning experiences that simply
would not be possible in real life. It is working with the Library of
Congress to build a Declaration of Independence room, where a
larger-than-life-size copy of the document will be on display along with
additional readings, audio files, and period furniture. There's also a
library in the works on Caledon, the exclusively 19th-century island where
avatars wear period dress.

Historical displays from other organizations are scattered throughout SL,
including an International Spaceflight Museum that hosts more than 50
life-size rockets from space programs around the world. Visitors can ride
the Titan II rocket to the International Space Station and view a scale
model of the solar system where each planet has its own observation
platform.

So what does the future hold for education in Second Life? "The crucial
problem for educators is finding out if being in this environment, which is
very expensive in terms of time and technology, is worthwhile from a
learning-outcomes perspective," says Jeremy Kemp. With the software still
rolling out new features each week, it's tough to get a grip on how this all
will shake out. Academics such as Sarah Robbins, whose research can take
place almost entirely in these virtual environments, see the movement online
as a necessary change.

"Not being familiar with technology puts all academics at somewhat of a
disadvantage right now, unless you're tenured or in a really traditional
university," she says. "So it really behooves academics to understand how to
deliver their content online. SL is the bleeding edge of that movement.

That's the SL academic world for you: the most advanced generation of
educators on the planet, at home in their pajamas, challenging minds simply
by logging on.

Kate Cohen is a Web researcher for WGBH's Frontline and can be reached at
kcohen00@yahoo.com .

Copyright (c) 2006 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group

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