Campus News

The Second Life span

Virtual world offers real learning experiences

“We all need to refrain from flying. For this class, we should all stay on the ground,” Scott Shamp says to his students from a bridge on the NMI island. He isn’t being figurative.

Shamp, director of the New Media Institute, was teaching a new media topics class through Second Life, a virtual world that allows users to interact  with each other and their environment through the Internet. Think of it like MySpace in 3-D.

OK, now everyone look at me,” Shamp instructs and the students turn their avatars, or online alter egos, toward him.

“Good now, who did I give assignments to last time?” and he’s switched gears to professor mode, speaking about the day’s topics.

The students respond with their keyboards or microphones and the class proceeds regularly, even though the students are scattered throughout campus and the community­—not all physically located in one classroom.

The class is an example of a movement at UGA, and in academia in general, to harness virtual communities like Second Life for education. The stated goal of Shamp’s class is to find ways to use the application for the university. Students have shared ideas about hosting UGA-related events such as concerts and lectures or creating interactive learning spaces online. Part of the students’ grades, Shamp said, will be determined by how well people respond to their event or object.

But even with the new technology, doing something fresh and different can seem impossible. Second Life already boasts parks, political candidate presences and a real-life Reuters reporter embedded to cover daily news. Live bands regularly perform in virtual venues and higher education institutions like Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University are opening virtual campuses as a way to reach more potential students.

“It’s not enough to create a space, there has to be something happening,” Shamp told the class. “What is the return on investment for someone here? If we are going to spend this much time making a cool thing, it better do something for us.”

UGA’s presence in Second Life is limited thus far. The New Media Institute owns an island, or pocket of digital “land” that they can control, as does the Center for Teaching and Learning, although both are in start-up phases.

“We’re gearing up for faculty who may want to use or already use Second Life for their courses or as part of a course,” said Michele Estes, the instructional resources coordinator for the Center for Teaching and Learning. “The island is going to have a place where professors can deliver lectures to classes and where teaching assistants can build objects and spaces appropriate to teach in or about.”

But learning in Second Life is not simply learning through telecommuting, she said.

“The benefits of using programs like Second Life have to do with finding new and creative ways of accessing learning and engaging students,” she said. “It also seems to have a transformational effect, even for the people in my department who are using it. It’s started to transform the way we think about teaching and learning. We think about things differently when we see them in Second Life.”

For Tom Satwicz, an assistant professor of education who studies how people learn through video games, the possibility for learning in digital arenas seems practical. Detractors of the program see it as a substitute for genuine social interaction or simply unnecessary, but just as real money swaps hands within Second Life, real information is being conveyed, Satwicz said.

“I hesitate to even use the term ‘virtual world’ because there are places where the real world and this world intersect,” he said. “A class is a good example. It’s in a virtual space, but there’s real learning and interacting going on there.

“And the skills transfer. Linden Labs (the company that created and operates Second Life) weren’t the first people to do this or use a lot of this technology,” Satwicz added. “Knowing how to create objects and interact with things will transfer to future projects online or on computers.”

Basic accounts in Second Life are free to use and come with tutorials to help new users. To find Second Life islands operated by the university, use the “search” command and type “UGA.”