October 26, 2007

Second Life phenomenon extends into academia

Imagine a place where students from all over the world can hear lectures from noted law scholars, stroll through a world-class art gallery, and view an interactive presentation on Mesopotamian artifacts while sitting in front of a computer screen. Many believe that Second Life, a rapidly expanding 3-D digital community, has the potential to be that educational utopia. Founded in 2003 by Linden Lab, Second Life allows users to participate in a community and determine how it is used. Users, represented by their self-designed avatars, can buy land, invent digital environments, and interact with each other in an online universe unsurpassed in its approximation of reality.

In the fall of 2004, five universities began offering virtual classes within Second Life, and since then, schools throughout the country have quickly recognized the academic and marketing possibilities of the digital community. Princeton University recently purchased an “island” in Second Life for its students and faculty to explore its possible academic uses. A virtual art museum, performance hall, classroom area, and store are available for exploration. According to the Princeton Island’s website, future plans include a student activity center and science museum.

Harvard Law School, in conjunction with the Harvard Extension School, began to offer classes in Second Life in the fall of 2006. While some of the course sessions are closed to anyone outside of the Law School, many were open to all Second Life users wishing to attend.

The U of C has also gradually begun to use Second Life for academic pursuits. On December 7, Richard Posner, senior lecturer at the Law School, appeared on Second Life for a question-and-answer session. During the appearance, Posner commented on topics ranging from terrorism to copyright laws concerning parodies. In an example of the unique and often eccentric nature of Second Life, the session was briefly interrupted at varying times by the appearances of a giant wooden block, a Pamela Anderson look-alike, and, ultimately, a flying ball of fire.

On June 12, Wendy Ennes, teacher services and e-learning coordinator at the Oriental Institute, and Christie Thomas, the assistant director of the eCUIP Digital Library project, a collaborative program between the University and Chicago Public Schools, participated in a program taking place in Second Life entitled “Integrating Visual Thinking Strategies into Web-Based Technologies.” The program, which was sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), aimed at educating teachers on ways in which art and artifacts can be used to teach visual literacy through critical thinking and communication skills.

Thomas said the benefit of using Second Life for institutional advancement seminars like the June event was “the perfect venue for non-local participants.... You can be in the same room interacting with people from around the world.”

Thomas was introduced to Second Life by a colleague at the Chicago Public Schools who saw the academic benefits of the digital environment’s interactive qualities. “It allows the user to interact and manipulate text in ways other technologies don’t,” Thomas said.

Ennes said that the June event “worked quite well” and was optimistic about the possibilities of Second Life as a marketing tool for museums by serving as a place where they could display their collections in a completely accessible way. However, she cautioned that a digital environment should never be used as a substitute for real life.

“It never would replace the museum,” Ennes said. “Nothing compares to getting up close and seeing for yourself. The real experience involves your senses in ways that could not be replaced.”

Both Ennes and Thomas expressed enthusiasm for pursuing further projects for their respected divisions in the realm of Second Life.

“The possibilities are endless,” said Ennes.

Although the possibilities for Second Life might appear endless, as with most new technologies, there are considerable drawbacks. Chad Kainz, senior director of NSIT Academic Technologies, described some of Second Life’s downsides. “It is no great secret that Linden Lab has had a difficult time scaling their infrastructure to meet demand. Latency, rendering issues—the worst, I’ve heard, is a faculty member’s avatar at another university appearing on screen without clothes—and bandwidth are all things that contribute to a negative image of Second Life in teaching and learning,” Kainz said in an e-mail interview.

Linden Lab currently claims an online population of over 10.3 million users, with more than 80 academic institutions estimated to use the platform.

Kainz sees this perceived unreliability as a key point when considering Second Life’s possibilities at the U of C. “In a quarter- based system, having a single class session, virtual or otherwise, go awry can have a serious negative there’s not a lot of time in the quarter to recover from a lost class meeting,” Kainz said.