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Studies in Second Life

A handful of Canadian colleges and universities are exploring the learning possibilities of this virtual online world, with mixed results


Somewhere near the small city of Belleville, Ontario, lies Loyalist College Island. The island is split into four major areas separated by lagoons and ponds. There are classrooms, an academic centre, an open area that resembles the Rome Coliseum and other buildings with strange circular holes in the roofs. The school pub, called the Shark Tank, actually has sharks swimming inside the aquariums that line the walls. There’s also a bartender who appears to be a cardboard cutout of a woman clad in a provocative green ensemble.

To get from the classroom to the pub, or to any other part of the campus, there are a variety of means. You can hang-glide using a harness that sits atop the school café or windsurf from the beach. If you’re really in a hurry, you can fly over buildings and land through the holes on the roofs; teleportation, however, remains the quickest route.

The people of this island, as you may have guessed, are not real people but avatars. And the island is not actually close to Belleville but located in cyberspace in Second Life.

Second Life is the virtual world developed by Linden Research Inc. in 2003. It’s a place where users are not allowed to use their real last names but rather are forced to choose from a fairly limited – and rather eccentric – list. I, for example, am Christal Garzo.

In Second Life, walking is not considered cool; and in the Second Life vernacular, properties are islands, money is Linden dollars and members are residents. Originally, this virtual world became a spot for social networking and business transactions. But, in 2004, Second Life launched the Campus: Second Life program for educational institutions.

Universities including Harvard, Columbia and Duke, among hundreds of other American schools, quickly signed up to conduct their classes online. Second Life’s educational initiative soon spread around the world. Today, more than 120 schools from such countries as Finland, Brazil, Korea and the United Kingdom are part of the growing virtual community that uses Second Life for distance education. Its growth in less than half a decade raises the issue of whether 3-D online education will one day replace normal classroom settings – real life versus Second Life.

Two years ago, Belleville’s Loyalist College was the first Canadian postsecondary institution to create a Second Life virtual campus. Ken Hudson, known in Second Life as Ken Hubble, is the college’s manager of academic and new media services. He stumbled upon Second Life in 2005 and tried it a year later. But he didn’t log out impressed.

“When I went in at first, I was skeptical because I wasn’t involved in the culture at all,” says Mr. Hudson. But he became convinced after his third visit when students from Harvard Law School asked him to participate in a project. “From that point, I really started to understand the collaborative potential of this environment.”

After pitching the idea to the school, Mr. Hudson and several Loyalist staff set up the campus in December 2006. Soon after, Mr. Hudson convinced five Loyalist professors to use Second Life for teaching purposes, and one even built a simulated prison for the Justice Studies program. But it was Robert Washburn’s e-journalism course that became the first class at Loyalist, and perhaps in the entire country, to actually be taught by an avatar.

Professor Washburn learned of Second Life in November 2006, in a class presentation by a fellow master’s student in the joint communications and culture program offered by York and Ryerson universities. Unlike Mr. Hudson, Professor Washburn was immediately sold on the idea.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, this is amazing! You can teach classes in it’,” he recalls. The first time he taught a course registered in Second Life, Professor Washburn, a.k.a. Duncan Innis, led a 15-week, one-hour lecture to 25 students in the island’s amphitheatre.

But on this particular Thursday morning last February, Professor Washburn’s avatar is teaching five second-year journalism students in an hour-long session called “Topics in Journalism.” Tyson Urqhart, Anya Burger, Tasio Deerhunter and JonathanB Fall sit on the front row, while ToriMC Doobie parks herself a couple of rows behind. (There are actually more students in the class, but they were either editing their assignments for another class or chose to post their thoughts on the message board rather than attend the Second Life session.)

Duncan Innis stands in front of the class wearing a suit and a semi-up hairdo longer than the real professor’s real-life hair. It’s 11:35 a.m. and class is in session. Of all the students, Deerhunter immediately makes an impression. Maybe it was because he raised his hand before anyone else in class to discuss the media empire of Cosmopolitan. Or maybe it was the horns attached to his lichee-peel-coloured forehead that caught my attention.

There is no audio, just words flashing on screen like an MSN chat session. The discussion veers from “fluff journalism” to magazine branding. Nobody raises their hand to voice an opinion; an avatar makes a typing motion in the air if it wants to comment. Professor Washburn and his students often interrupt each other, since you can type whenever you want.

Another Ontario institution with a Second Life island is Mohawk College of Applied Arts and Technology. The college has used its island as a gallery for the school’s 40th anniversary, but has yet to use it as a teaching space.

Marilyn Gris, manager of student recruitment and online communications at Mohawk, thinks Second Life has great potential for students with disabilities who might otherwise have difficulties accessing higher education, but she quickly adds that 3-D environments have their limitations. “There are some islands that are X-rated. There are porn clubs and strip clubs and a lot of weird things that go on in Second Life.”

Luckily for Canadian schools using Second Life, most of their locations are far from the bad neighbourhoods. Mohawk’s island, for instance, is surrounded by other schools and libraries. Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, McMaster University, LaSalle College in Montreal, University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, University of Saskatchewan, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and British Columbia Institute of Technology are also Second Life island owners situated in the good side of town.

The learning curve that comes with Second Life is a drawback mentioned by all professors, online communications personnel and students, and this is one factor that makes some universities reluctant to use the program. Jason Toal, who works at SFU as an experience designer, spearheads most of the university’s projects in Second Life. “If you’re going to use Second Life for your course, you need to spend at least the first couple of classes teaching your students how to use it,” he says. “You have to walk them through what it’s all about, how to hook it on your computer.”

Shawn McCann, an e-librarian at McMaster University, agrees: “It’s not something you can immediately start using,” he says, adding that even experienced users run into problems.

The university has only dabbled in Second Life; for example, McMaster students created 3-D video game characters in a course called Digital Game and exhibited them in the school’s 3-D library space. The event included two ribbon-cutting ceremonies, both in real life and Second Life.

In an instant messaging conversation during Robert Washburn’s journalism lecture at Loyalist, Urqhart, whose real name is Tyson Jewell, reveals his frustrations with Second Life. He says the heavy computer requirements can be a hassle for students who can’t afford sophisticated video cards or a faster Internet connection. Because of this, some students have to come to school anyway to use a computer inside a lab or a library to attend their Second Life classes. There are various other technical problems, such as the glitch in the program that caused Mr. Jewell’s classmate to be locked out of his account. And, ironically, Second Life battles against the one thing that has propelled its popularity: the rapid advances in technology.

“Technology is accelerating at a faster and faster pace. What you see today won’t be what you see 10 years from now,” says Sam Shaw, president of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and a professor of organizational behavior. Mr. Toal at SFU sees Second Life as “just the top of a large pile of other 3-D environments.”

McMaster e-librarian Krista Godfrey says her university is already testing other 3-D waters. “Second Life seems to have the most educational opportunities at this point but we’re also keeping an eye on all the other virtual worlds popping up these days,” she says. Other examples include the Active Worlds Educational Universe and the Education Grid, part of the international Immersive Education Initiative.

Finally, everyone who was interviewed for this article agrees that virtual worlds like Second Life won’t completely overtake normal classroom settings. However, they do believe that three-dimensional online classes and assignments will become a staple in Canadian education – and that’s for real.

Second Life web links

Academics interested in or currently using Second Life can join a listserv and participate
in a Second Life Wiki. The links are:

Christal Gardiola
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