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A Second Life for Higher Education?

Virtual worlds may wind up breathing new life into teaching, learning, and creative expression.
University Business, Jun 2007

HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT Second Life (SL)? Even if you don't have the time to deal with the demands of your (first) life, chances are you've already come across the fantastic buzz built around this 3-D online virtual world. Launched in 2003 by Linden Lab, a company founded by former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale, SL has been featured in newspapers and magazines across the world.

Wikipedia describes SL as an internet platform that "enables its users, called 'residents,' to interact with each other through motional avatars providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse." SL residents can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade items and services from one another, adds the Wikipedia article.

By mid-May, more than 6.4 million people had created an SL account and received in return a free ticket to enter or fly to this virtual online world. More than a million of these SL green-card holders had spent some time in-world in the prior 30 days, while more than 500,000 had crossed the Second Life border, sometimes on multiple occasions, during the prior seven-day period.

Despite these relatively modest adoption numbers, at least compared to web usage stats, Second Life and a few other online virtual worlds have been identified in "The Horizon Report: 2007 Edition" as "emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning, or creative expression within higher education." Released in January 2007 by the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), this report forecasts the wide use of virtual worlds in higher education by 2010.

More than 100 highered institutions have active projects in Second Life.

Difficult to believe? The exponential growth of the web and, more recently, social networking websites also sounded like wishful thinking a few years ago.

SimTeach, an online resource about multi-user virtual environments maintained by Jeremy Kemp, an instructional designer at San Jos? State University (Calif.), lists more than 100 highered institutions with active projects in SL. About 2,600 educators working in SL have also registered to use the Second Life Educators Forum available on this independent website. Every week, the Second Life Educators Mailing List maintained by Linden Lab receives several messages from college professors about to start a class in SL or who are working on a grant proposal to teach in-world.

John Lester, alias Pathfinder Linden and the academic program manager at Linden Lab, sees the growing interest in higher ed as a logical development. "Second Life gives both students and faculty a new medium for exploring things like distance learning, experiential learning, simulation, and scientific visualization in a fundamentally collaborative environment." By using a 3-D virtual world reminiscent of many popular gaming platforms, teachers have the opportunity to engage their students in a medium they already find compelling and natural, adds Lester.

The popularity of Sarah Robbins' English composition class at Ball State University (Ind.) confirms how compelling SL can be for this generation of students. Launched in August 2006, her course was capped at 18 students. In March, Robbins spoke simultaneously at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in SL. During this presentation, the instructor, also known as "Intellagirl" in-world, said that 300 freshmen had applied for one of the 18 virtual seats available for the spring session of her course.

The novelty factor of SL may help explain this incredible interest for such classes. In any case, more and more institutions have started to invest money and time in the virtual world.

Many members of the NMC, an international consortium of nearly 250 leading higher ed institutions, museums, corporations, and other organizations, are conducting exploratory projects or classes in SL, including Seton Hall University (N.J.), Bradley University (Ill.), and Otis College of Art and Design, located in Los Angeles.

In January 2007, the consortium launched its own Second Life building under NMC Virtual Worlds with projects in development for MIT, Princeton, Cornell, and Case Western Reserve University (Ohio). NMC has now an entire educational archipelago in Second Life. Case Western just launched virtual tours for prospective students, as well.

Adopted already by IBM, Dell, American Apparel, Toyota, and even presidential candidates for their marketing campaigns, Second Life could also be used as a new marketing channel for admissions, alumni relations, or institutional advancement.

"I'm waiting to see colleges start leveraging SL as a recruiting tool," says C. C. Chapman, vice president of New Marketing at crayon, a real-life marketing company based in SL, and the former digital marketing manager at Babson College (Mass.). Chapman thinks IHEs should integrate SL into their overall outreach strategy by showing their viewbooks or offering live conversation with admission staff in-world.

Vassar College (N.Y.) has opened a private island in SL to explore these possibilities. On Vassar Island, visitors can tour the place using an auto-guided flying vehicle, get general information about the private liberal arts college, and even leave comments on virtual message boards installed on the path to the Media Garden of Vassar Island.

"Building an effective educational environment in SL ... is by no means cheap."
-Gerri Sinclair, Centre for Digital Media

Miles away, in real life, the Masters of Digital Media Program based at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, Canada, prepares to welcome its first class this fall in a brand new building. It has already offered seminars and even an open house in the virtual replica of the CDM located on its Second Life campus. "It was an obvious decision to hold our first MDM open house simultaneously on our own physical campus and in Second Life," says Gerri Sinclair, CDM executive director. "The results for both events were fantastic; we were filled to capacity both in our own Conference Center in RL and at our virtual Center in SL."

While Sinclair's outreach experience with SL has been very successful, she warns that it's not enough to build a virtual campus and then let it sit empty most of the time. "Building an effective educational environment in SL is very intensive in terms of time and human capital requirements, and it is by no means cheap," she says.

Before your institution jumps into Second Life and buys its own private island, it's probably a good idea to follow Alan Levine's advice. The director for Member and Technology Resources at NMC recommends exploring as many other locations as possible both to see the types of activities and virtual facilities created and to better understand the experience of being and communicating in a virtual world.

If you're thinking about an SL presence for your institution, definitely take some time for your own second life.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college as well as a consultant on web projects for other institutions.