Teaching gets a Second Life

In another lifetime, University of Western Ontario Psychology professor Mike Atkinson would be teaching his classes on a beach on Bora Bora Island.



Psychology student Jon Kidd and Psychology professor Mike Atkinson pose by their avatar doppelgangers, which they created to live in the virtual world of Second Life. The pair are exploring research and teaching opportunities in the online virtual world. 



Although this is not quite his reality, Atkinson is able to indulge his academic fantasy in Second Life.


Second Life is an online virtual world that resembles much of what exists in real life, including the people and buildings that populate it. Users of Second Life can create an alter ego, called an avatar, to explore the 3D world and they can buy land, build houses and structures, and trade in the virtual marketplace.


With millions of users world-wide and more than a hundred university campuses represented in Second Life, Atkinson says the interactive environment could change the dimensions of university classrooms and revolutionize distance education. He explored the possibilities of teaching and research in Second Life during a Teaching Support Centre workshop on Jan. 16.


“This can be used as a supplement to a face-to-face course,” he says.


Although Second Life is a relatively new phenomenon – becoming publicly available in 2003 – universities such as Princeton have created exact replicas of their grounds where students can visit art galleries, attend classes and labs and drop by professor’s virtual office hours.


And Western isn’t that far behind.


For several months, Western’s Information Technology Resource Centre (ITRC) has been working with Faculty of Information and Media Studies associate professor Carole Farber and English professor Mark McDayter on projects to develop buildings and interactive spaces on a plot of land Western purchased in Second Life called ITRC Island.


Although in its early development stages, McDayter has started to create a medieval village with a coffee house for visitors to discuss literature or other areas of interest, and a printing press. Farber is also experimenting with collaboration in the virtual world. Even Western’s trademark, University College tower, has made its way into this alternate world.


Kim Hoffman, ITRC web and instructional technology support staff, has been working with the two professors to create their Second Life. 


“Western’s land is in the experimental stage. The whole island is open right now,” she says.


“We are always on the lookout for new teaching tools,” she adds. “Other universities have used Second Life and we have requests from faculty members to provide space and support in Second Life.”


Those teaching classes in Second Life are not faced with the same space limitations as the bricks and mortar of a university, says Atkinson. Rather, Second Life turns the virtual world into a classroom.


“You can have a classroom that is anything,” he says.


Using the Sistine Chapel as an example, Atkinson says art history professors could take a virtual tour to the Vatican City and observe a detailed replica of the ceiling painted by Michelangelo. This kind of trip would otherwise be too expensive to include as part of a course.


With human cadavers in short supply, professors in the medical sciences are exploring ways to create 3D models of various body parts for a cost-efficient way for students to conduct dissections. Second Life also allows students to have an inside view of the body and reproduce traditional experiments in the virtual world.


As well, the residents of Second Life, or the avatars, do not have the same physical limitations as humans – namely they can fly. This allows the avatars to ‘teleport’ from one location to another in minutes.


Second Life also has a built-in voice simulator that allows Avatars to speak to each other, similar to using the online phone service Skype, or individuals can use instant and private messaging to communicate. Atkinson foresees Second Life as having significant advantages over WebCT because the social interaction of the avatars “gives you more of a sense of being there. In WebCT, you are more detached.”


Distance education courses taught in Second Life would simulate a classroom experience and it would allow students from all over the world to interact, he adds.


Psychology student and Atkinson’s research collaborator, Jon Kidd, feels Second Life can offer students an interactive experience.


“It is much more fluid and flexible,” he says, adding Second Life is “something you experience.”


One of the biggest limitations for some Second Life users may be their computer. Because of the detailed 3D images, users must have a high-end graphics card installed.


For more information about Second Life and teaching and research opportunities on Western’s ITRC Island, contact 519-661-2111 ext. 85513 or visit www.uwo.ca/its/itrc.