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Sizing Up Second Life

Higher ed learns how to live in a virtual world.
University Business, Mar 2008

ALL THOSE THINGS YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT Second Life-that corporations spend small fortunes building "islands" that no one ever visits, that the virtual world is overrun by "griefers" whose only purpose seems to be harassing other users, that it's a digital den of depravity-well, they're all true. But it's also true that Second Life has a vibrant education and research community that carries on its business pretty much undisturbed by sword-wielding ninjas, and colleges and universities are leading the way in this virtual realm of possibilities.

There is much confusion over just what Second Life is. Although users can play games within the virtual world, Second Life itself is not a game. It has no objective, and there is no prize for finishing first. Indeed, there's nothing to finish-no levels to conquer, no princess to rescue, no timers to beat. That's what turns away people who go online to <i>do something</i>.

Much like real life, Second Life is precisely what you make of it. If you want to socialize with people from around the world, there's always a party going on somewhere. If you want to explore the works of filmmakers, painters, and sculptors, Second Life has no shortage of such food for thought. If you want to discuss politics or religion, or play a game of chess, you'll find plenty of like-minded people. On the other hand, if you want to speed around a beach in a missile-firing hovercraft, no one will stop you from doing that (but such behavior will result in your banishment from certain locations).

Although creator Linden Lab claims there are more than 2 million "residents," a live statistic report at sign-in shows only a small fraction of that number "in world" at any given time. And when one considers that the Second Life world currently consists of nearly 900 million square meters of leased virtual space, it's no surprise that many islands are indeed deserted. But longtime Second Life users know that once the novelty wears off, many people lose interest, leaving the rest to embrace the technology and learn how to use and improve it.

According to Linden Lab, at least 70 U.S. colleges and universities have taken up that challenge, along with a like number of schools from around the world.

One of Second Life's strengths is in collaboration, which was a nice surprise for Lisa Dawley. As chair of the Department of Educational Technology at <b>Boise State University</b> (Idaho), Dawley created EDTech Island in 2006 as a place where she could teach a graduate course in educational games and simulations.

'Second Life provides the capability for people to communicate very effectively, in a very rich form.' - Chang Liu, Ohio University Without Boundaries

"As the course grew we began to address the students' needs," she says. "For example, they would need a place to test their ideas, so we made a quarter of the island into a 'sandbox,' where they could build what they wanted. Then we set up informational centers throughout the island."

Partway through the class, Dawley became intrigued with social interaction in the virtual world. Although EDTech Island was built to support the course, it soon became clear that it had the potential to become a resource for other teachers as well. Dawley wondered whether people would interact more if they had a place to live in Second Life. A high-rise condominium was built on one part of the island to find out. The condos were originally intended for students but at semester's end were deserted, so Dawley opened them up to the public.

"What was really cool about that was we started getting a mish-mash of people from different universities and different community colleges actually living in the condos," she says. "And different collaborations started coming out of that. That was totally unanticipated. Teachers met up with other teachers and started working on projects. I wound up working with some people from the <b>University of Helsinki</b>-it was just a really unplanned collaboration because we opened it up to the public."

Anthony Fontana, co-administrator of <b>Bowling Green State University</b>'s Virtual Campus in Second Life, says teachers and students at the Ohio institution have adopted the platform as an extension of real-world activities.

"Our Virtual Campus is well trafficked because of our lively community, resources, and the continuing development of the campus," Fontana says. "We have more than a dozen professors using it in some way. Some are doing research, while others are teaching. I've exhibited my art, and there are many instances of student exhibits, music, and performance."

The Virtual Campus continues to grow and will soon have a writing center staffed by graduate students. Bowling Green faculty have even been known to use their virtual offices-which look like space pods built into the side of a mountain-for office hours and meetings.

"The real value of it is as a means of interaction," Fontana says. "For example, last semester, we conducted voice chat interviews with an artist working in Tokyo and with a physically disabled entrepreneur who runs a nightclub in Second Life for handicapped residents."

Interaction was also the key behind the recent collaboration between <b>Ohio University</b> and The Princeton Review. The result was a live, in-world pavilion dedicated to SAT preparation.

'Does Second Life increase university exposure? Definitely.' -Lisa Dawley, Boise State University (Idaho)

"We set up an event venue to have the Princeton Review teachers come in and do a series of live Q&A sessions for parents and students interested in doing the SAT and ACT exams," says Chang Liu, director of the VITAL (Virtual Immersive Technologies and Arts for Learning) Lab, part of Ohio University Without Boundaries. The venue, which includes seating, stages, multimedia projection screens, and voice and text chat capabilities, also has a robust administrative system to capture student data and the ability to record detailed logs of each of the sessions.

"Second Life provides the capability for people to communicate very effectively, in a very rich form," Liu says. "It's no longer just text. It's no longer just voice. It's text plus voice, plus the 3D animation that lets you see and interact with each other. It's a very rich form of communication, and the main task of education is communication."

Because it opened to the public in 2003, Second Life is still very much in the early adoption stage. Linden Lab's designers had no grand scheme in mind other than to see what people would do with their creation. One of the most groundbreaking examples has come out of the <b>Georgia Institute of Technology</b>'s Augmented Reality Lab. The lab team created custom software that works within Second Life to blend locations in physical space with corresponding places in the Second Life virtual space. The result is real world interaction with virtual world objects and beings.

"We're very much interested in using video games, not for their typical purpose of beating a high score, but as expressive platforms and performance spaces," says Michael Nitsche of the School of Literature, Communication & Culture, who is part of the Augmented Reality team. "We wanted to create a new form of telepresence and virtual performance."

The project enables the Augmented Reality team to take a real-world video feed and combine it with the avatars acting in Second Life. These performances are then recorded as videos called "machinima" (a portmanteau of machine and cinema). "The result is that you can actually appear as yourself in your own body next to an avatar and interact. You can enter these worlds yourself," Nitsche says. "That's very powerful."

The Augmented Reality team has begun experimenting with this breakthrough with a series of virtual performances by Georgia Tech's improvisational theatre group performing with Second Life avatars. Nitsche says the potential for such technology is huge and can see it one day being used for training simulations, or perhaps to practice surgical procedures. "Second Life and other game engines are simply a means to achieve something. I'm interested in empowering the player more with this technology," he says. "There are all kinds of implications. It's a new form of telepresence that can be used, for example, in a virtual meeting where you appear as yourself and interact with your boss." (See an example of Augmented Reality machinima at <a href="; target="_blank"></a>.)

Gaming technology is one thing, but Ohio University has also had some success using its Second Life presence as a marketing tool, says Chris Keesey, project manager of Marketing and Learning Applications for Ohio University Without Boundaries. When a user first teleports to the island, he or she arrives at an arched gateway to the campus, with various paths from which to choose. Up ahead is a faithful recreation of the school's landmark Cutler Hall. In real life it serves as an administrative building, but in Second Life it is the student center, featuring meeting spaces and video screens that play student-created films on demand.

Throughout the island are automated information boxes that contact advisors. Just touch the box and a message is sent to a university representative. "If someone is looking for specific information on, say, the English department or computer science, their request is forwarded to the correct department," says Keesey.

"The greatest benefit of our Second Life campus has been as a marketing tool, really extending our brand out into a whole different channel," he says. "Along with creating the campus, we also created a corresponding machinima video on YouTube that has had thousands of hits. That has done wonders in terms of throwing attention not just on our Second Life campus but on Ohio University as well. There are many people who would've perhaps never heard of Ohio University. Even more amazing is that we've seen YouTube video tours given in other languages, created by people who just randomly found our campus via YouTube or from bopping around in Second Life. They created their own videos, in their own language, giving a tour of our island. So here are people who clearly would never have set foot on the Ohio University campus, and the Second Life campus really allows them to walk our sidewalks and under our trees and really get a feel for what it's like."

Dawley says that although EDTech Island is just over a year old, it has grown in part from the marketing potential of Second Life. "We're still exploring how we can leverage our virtual presence to increase our exposure on a national and international level, but I can say that it has helped," she says. "Last semester we had a class called 'Teaching and Learning in Second Life.' I put up a billboard on the island that advertised the course, as open enrollment. Normally, students who enroll in our courses are actually in our master's program. But for this class, of the 14 people who enrolled in the class, only two were from our master's program. The rest were people who found the class through Second Life. Now we've started advertising our other grad classes in-world. Does Second Life increase university exposure? Definitely."

Like television and the internet before it, Second Life has its share of critics. While some call it an enormous waste of time, others are concerned about using a technology in teaching that hasn't been thoroughly assessed as an education tool.

"Students are not introducing Second Life to universities, universities are introducing Second Life to students," says Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at <b>Iowa State University.</b> Speaking at a Second Life symposium at ISU last fall, Bugeja warned that because Second Life is largely an "anything goes" world, schools may be opening themselves up to enormous risks for liability, especially in areas of assault and harassment.

"If you place in that world a replica of your college or university, leasing virtual land, and agreeing to service terms that bestow anonymity and disavow liability, your institution becomes liable for virtually anything that happens there," Bugeja says. "Almost anything that happens in real life can happen to avatars. The actions of avatars are controlled by people behind the Wizard-of-Oz-like computer screen. If you check the daily police blotter in Second Life, you will see that the most frequent violations are harassment and assault."

'Policy has to change. As we innovate we will run into policies that were written for other contexts.' -Chris Keesey, Ohio University Without Boundaries

Iowa State already has a firm, zero tolerance harassment policy-in the real world. But what happens when harassment or intimidation takes place in a virtual campus that carries the name and identity of a real state institution? "There is a reason that harassment is expressly forbidden at ISU, and this reason is at the heart of my argument," Bugeja says. "Sexual harassment threatens the environment in that it compromises institutional integrity and corrupts traditional academic values. As you can see, at stake in these trade-offs is our academic culture. Faculty senators and administrators at Iowa State worked decades at great personal expense to ensure that due process is afforded to our own residents so that they could resolve disputes via principles of transparency and disclosure. I guarantee that Second Life proponents and academe will be among the first to demand due process should they become embroiled in a virtual controversy. I'm placing responsibility on state employees who contract with nongovernment vendors to take these concerns into account before litigation and controversy compels us to."

Keesey agrees that Bugeja brings up important legal and policy issues that educators need to hear. "That said, I think he is a bit alarmist," he concludes. "Many of the issues he raises can simply be dealt with by closing specific spaces off, having students register their avatars, and having faculty retain logs of any discussions that go on in a particular space."

Criticisms such as Bugeja's might ultimately have the effect of trying to stagnate innovation, says Keesey. "We don't want to do that. Our eyes should be open to innovation in a number of domains, not just the technical domain and the learning domain. I'm of the opinion that our legal experts need to innovate as well. Policy has to change. As we innovate we will run into policies that were written for other contexts."

There are many ways to control the Second Life environment, Dawley says. "Instructors can set up the avatars that the students use, and they can lock off the island so that no one but their students can get in. It all depends how much you want to restrict the environment. That's something that people who are not knowledgeable in Second Life wouldn't know how to do-or that it is even an option."

Are waivers and disclosures necessary? Because EDTech Island does not represent Boise State University, Dawley says that at least in this early adoption stage she can get away with putting a disclaimer in her syllabus. "But when you move to the mid- to late-adoption stages, where a whole university might be using the technology, then the university does need to have a firm policy and disclaimer about the activities or content you might run into," she says. "Some universities are already doing that. To me, that's just creating awareness and acceptance. It's learning to work with the environment. I don't think it should be discounted in the sense that it is dangerous. It is understanding how to use it and how to use it effectively."

Dawley says it will take tech-savvy people with vision to continue working with and developing Second Life. "Is it ready to go mainstream in higher ed? I don't think so. Not yet. But there is amazing potential."