IUP’s Second Life

April 17, 2009—IUP’s presence in Second Life serves as a prime example of how virtual worlds are ready to take their place as another useful tool in the teacher’s arsenal.
By Bruce Dries

Introduction

Note: As of January 2012, IUP no longer has a presence in Second Life. However, the university continues to explore the potential of virtual worlds. Visit IUP’s Social Media page for the latest updates.

Over the past half-century, film, radio, television, videocassettes, and desktop computers have nestled themselves into the classroom environment. Each advance in technology was initially met with varying degrees of reluctance but over time came to be accepted and eventually expected as part of the learning experience.

The advent of virtual worlds in the past few years is opening doors to new opportunities for students and educators. While some may be suspicious of the use of technology for technology’s sake, compelling arguments and examples are demonstrating that virtual worlds such as Second Life are ready to take their place as another useful tool in the teacher’s arsenal.

IUP’s presence in Second Life serves as a prime example: virtual buildings where student teachers experiment with different layouts of classroom space; detailed re-creations of a Mayan pyramid, Greek ruins, and a sunken ship that archaeologists-in-training can examine from their homes; game simulations that teach and test students while keeping them engaged and coming back for more; real-time discussions and demonstrations combining voice and multimedia presentations for distance learners; and finally Whitmyre Island, where two IUP Honors College students have created one of the most-visited university sites in Second Life.

The author’s avatar, Kilgor Wirefly, on Crimson Island

The author’s avatar, Kilgor Wirefly, on Crimson Island

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What is Second Life?

Second Life logo

Second Life logo

Second Life is an on-line, digital world created by its residents. Areas of land, known as islands, can be explored, built on, bought, and sold. Anyone can become a resident for free—just download the software from the company’s website (Linden Labs); select the basic, beginning look of your avatar (the 3-D figure that is your alter ego); and log in.

Once you enter Second Life, thousands of destinations can be easily found and explored: events such as concerts, discussions, art exhibits, live theater, and sports; groups that cover the spectrum of nearly any subject of interest, including religion, games, politics, literature, business, history, and tourism; sightseeing realistic and surrealistic user-created places such as Africa by hot-air balloon, the Japanese Warship Kanrin Maru , the Palace of Versailles, the Princeton University Gallery of the Arts, ballroom dancing on the Titanic , the Lighthouse of Pharos (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and uncounted numbers of imaginative sites that could never exist in the real world; socializing, dancing, and chatting with other residents (either by text or voice); and, of course, shopping. All of these places are called “sims” (short for “simulations”).

Objects are bought or sold using Lindens, the currency of Second Life. Lindens have real-world value—the rate fluctuates but is approximately 250 Linden dollars to one U.S. dollar.

Many of the sites within Second Life can be located on line through “SLurls.” Most of the Second Life places identified in this article are linked via Slurls, unless they are private sims. Clicking on a SLurl, whether in this article or through any Web browser, brings up a webpage with the local map and clickable coordinates that will teleport you to that location within Second Life (if you have the installed software).

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Comm Media Island

Sunset on Comm Media Island

Sunset on Comm Media Island

Breaking the mold of the “normal” Second Life location, Comm Media Island was not designed to be a destination in and of itself. It functions instead as a blank slate, where every semester students start on a different project, sometimes with multiple classes and multiple projects. As the areas are usually works in progress, the island is often closed to public visitors, who might not understand or appreciate what they see there.

An assistant professor and director of the Applied Media and Simulation Games Center, Allen Partridge explained that IUP students are currently creating a single educational simulation game based around the concept of pirates in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The goal is for a student to bring his or her avatar into the game and explore, in the process gaining or losing virtual wealth, encountering puzzles and traps, and earning tokens and rewards. The puzzles are actually learning elements containing display screens of presentations prepared by graduate students in e-learning design. Virtual money needs to be earned in order to see the presentations, which explain and train the “gamer” about information related to the topic. Once the presentation is over, the system presents a quiz with questions in a learning management system format—basically multiple choice and true/false questions. If the students answer the questions (solve the puzzle) at the end at a high-enough percentage—essentially learning information and taking a quiz—they’re rewarded with a larger prize or new ability.

Following a trail of tokens on Comm Media Island

Following a trail of tokens on Comm Media Island

“The key here is that we’re not developing this as a pirate solution: we’re developing the pirate solution to demonstrate the system,” Partridge said. “You could take the system and do the same thing for teaching finance or teaching basic medical nursing concepts or basic math skills, you name it—it really doesn’t matter. How you theme the thing doesn’t matter; what the tokens are doesn’t matter.

“We’re basically creating an open system that allows the students to have a simulated game experience, which will expose them to having to manipulate and work with a variety of informational topics. This will result in their having a sense of accomplishment, because they’ll have been given short-term feedback. They’ll know that they’ve accomplished something by conquering the puzzle, by reaching a certain score. It’ll even encourage them to retry if their score isn’t high enough.”

In contrast to the classroom experience, games offer an opportunity to fail without significant penalty. This concept, called safe failure, is an inherent part of effective learning.

“Think back to when you took a class that was heavily interactive, like a language class,” Partridge said. “In language class, you will speak and you will be called on, and you’ll have a very immediate reaction to that. Even if you know the answer, there’s still the rush in your heart as you think ‘I’m going to make fool of myself in front of the class.’ It’s a momentarily terrifying experience for virtually everyone. And for some students, it’s an extremely terrifying experience. They just pray they’ll never be called on. And it’s extremely difficult to learn when you’re spending all of your time trying to avoid any kind of interaction.”

Hilltop view on Comm Media Island showing some of the instructional signs

Hilltop view on Comm Media Island showing some of the instructional signs

The opposite mentality exists in a game. The approach to games has always been to go into the game space, experiment and discover, and if you’re blown up or sent back to the beginning, you can just shrug and do it again.

“That’s safe failure,” Partridge said. “I know that I’m safe to fail, so I’m free to experiment. And I don’t get terribly frustrated if I experiment over and over again, if I do it incorrectly over and over again.”

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Crimson Island

IUP’s first foray into Second Life took place in 2007 with the creation of Crimson Island. That first piece of virtual property was soon joined by Archaeology Island, made possible by an Academic Excellence and Innovation Grant from the Provost’s Office for the purpose of exploring Second Life and developing it for educational purposes.

Crimson Island was originally a wide-open area where students and faculty could come to build, learn, and socialize. Part of it was set aside for a “sandbox,” an area where creation of new objects was allowed. (In general, most areas of Second Life do not allow building, as the owners of the land don’t want others cluttering up their painstakingly-created property.)

The “Classroom in the Sky” on Crimson Island

The “Classroom in the Sky” on Crimson Island

It was on Crimson Island that a Cook Honors College student decided to play with re-creating Whitmyre Hall. However, there is a limit to how much can be built on any given piece of land, and Crimson Island quickly found itself running out of room for the new building. In response, Robert E. Cook ’64 himself, the benefactor who lent his name to the Cook Honors College, stepped in to purchase a new island solely for the Honors College, and the virtual building was transferred to Whitmyre Island.

Crimson Island continues to be used for classroom instruction and as a place to orient new users. The centerpiece of the island is a park featuring the IUP arches. Around it, visitors will find realistic buildings and whimsical structures, such as the fanciful Classroom in the Sky, a stone and wood open-air construction held aloft over the beach by gently spinning propeller blades; a Welcome Center with ready-to-use discussion areas; and a teleporter to the PKAP Research Complex and Welcome Center, with information and photos from the Pyla-Koutsopetria archaeological site in Cyprus. (The Second Life PKAP center is managed by Scott Moore, chair of the History Department and one of the project's directors. More about the project can be found on in the Archaeology Island section ).

James Lenze created a building with customizable classrooms, where users can touch a button and select the type of area they wanted to appear, whether a casual circle of comfortable couches, a typical classroom, a formal lecture area with forty chairs facing a podium, or other choices. Lenze, a Comm Media associate professor and cocoordinator of the Ph.D. program in Communications Media and Instructional Technology, uses Second Life in his classes and research but notes that he is still in the exploration stages, focusing his research on the study of all virtual worlds, not just Second Life. “I don’t promote technologies—I explore them and see where they’re effective,” Lenze said.

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Whitmyre Island

The virtual re-creation of Whitmyre Hall in Second Life was originally constructed on IUP’s Crimson Island by Cook Honors College student Erin O’Brien. Her decision to re-create the Great Hall of Whitmyre soon became a project that expanded to the entire building.

The Second Life version of the Robert E. Cook Honors College

The Second Life version of the Robert E. Cook Honors College

When Crimson Island ran short on how many “prims” it could contain, Honors College benefactor and namesake Robert E. Cook ’64 purchased land for the new Whitmyre Island in Winter 2007, and the virtual building was transferred there. (Prims is short for “primitives,” the simple shapes that make up more complicated objects. Only a finite number of prims can exist in any given plot of land.) With a whole new island to work with, O’Brien and fellow Honors College student Mike Daniel poured themselves into the re-creation in earnest.

O’Brien, a History and Asian Studies double major from Pasadena, Calif., and Daniel, an Economics major from Harrisburg, have dedicated nearly two years to building the Whitmyre Hall re-creation and developing the surrounding areas. The result is a community that hosts regular discussions and classes, offers tutorial videos, and provides a huge, multilevel sandbox—an experimental area used by numerous residents and groups from across Second Life.

Many might ask what the point is in re-creating an existing building inside a virtual world. After all, physical spaces are irrelevant in a world where dragons can ride in hot-air balloons under the sea, people can fly and change their sex and size, and clothing stores can sit in the clouds. Daniel notes that many universities and companies replicate their buildings and corporate offices as sims (simulations) in Second Life, whether for advertising or in pursuit of some other vision. But then they just let them sit, like a website that never gets updated.

“People do love to see replication, but if you’re not going to create some kind of community around it, nobody’s going to see it,” Daniel said. “Most sims in Second Life get less than fifty minutes total of people visiting it every day, and a lot of them are stuck at zero. I’m not sure the sim owners really understand what can be done.”

“People stay in a sim because they make friends. They’re networking and getting involved with a community in Second Life,” O’Brien said. “A lot of the people I know that didn’t find an interest or a community that fit them, they left.”

In September 2008, the island began to host events in virtual Whitmyre Hall, usually on Thursday nights. Events have included discussions on Buddhism, Darwin’s two-hundredth birthday, and informal logic. Education students from around the world have been invited to present. “We had a physics education major from Germany speak at two or three events, talking about ‘physics for non-physicists’ and concentrating more on the theory than the math. She drew some pretty good crowds,” Daniel said.

A recent event centered on philanthropy, discussing how to judge what cause to support, how to decide which charity to give to, and then how to run a fundraiser in Second Life. The intention is to run such a fundraiser in Second Life in the spring and raise real money for charity.

A discussion group in the virtual Great Hall of the Honors College building

A discussion group in the virtual Great Hall of the Honors College building

Another event O’Brien and Daniel are considering is a philanthropic concert, possibly with one or more of the many music ensembles at IUP. Live music events are one of the most popular attractions within Second Life, and the Honors College has a lot of music majors.

On Tuesdays, Daniel usually teaches Second Life scripting classes (programming code that allows flags to wave, doors to open, rain to fall, and other special effects that that can be created in Second Life), and the duo is continuing to evolve the video area near virtual Whitmyre, similar to a drive-in movie lot but with beach chairs instead of parking spaces, each with its own video screen. The area may be the only one in Second Life capable of running sixty-four different channels at the same time. O’Brien and Daniel note, however, that the area needs to be upgraded due to some audio and video lag issues.

“The first upgrade we’re probably going to do is a tutorial to teach people how to stream their music in Second Life,” Daniel said. Later will come tutorials on building, scripting, animating, making clothes, and more. But making the tutorials will not be quick, because it takes time to replicate the same information in different media (video, audio, slides, etc.) to be accessible for visitors with different computer set-ups and/or preferences.

O’Brien and Daniel want to re-create the community of scholars that is the Honors College. To that end, both students have put in lots of time. “I’m getting all my service hours this year through Second Life at this point,” O’Brien said. “Our work study ended, so we’re both continuing on a volunteer basis for this. I also have a job doing webpages for the English Department. (That’s on top of 15 credits of 400-level courses this semester.) But I more than met my quota of sixty service hours within the first couple of weeks.”

The two have very different styles. O’Brien is the detail-oriented builder, and Daniel, who prefers broader strokes, works with the code. “That’s part of the trouble of finding somebody else to do this,” O’Brien said. “He can code amazing things; I can barely edit a couple of scripts. Between the two of us, it’s a really full skillset.”

That begs the question of who will take over management of Whitmyre Island after the partners graduate in 2010. Daniel and O’Brien would like to pass the torch, but if no one steps up, they’ll still remain involved, noting that the island is great for alumni relations. Some Cook Honors College alumni visit the island often. “They’re all nostalgic for this place. They want to come and hang out and learn how to make stuff, and they want to have a discussion with another Honors College student,” Daniel said.

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Archaeology Island

On all of IUP’s islands, the question behind the scenes is “What is the goal?” Visitors to IUP’s Archaeology Island in Second Life will find four main areas: a Mayan pyramid, a Native American village, an underwater shipwreck, and a dig site in Cyprus, all more or less faithful replicas of sites that actually exist.

Beverly Chiarulli’s avatar, Beverly Qunhua, at the Mayan pyramid re-creation

Beverly Chiarulli’s avatar, Beverly Qunhua, at the Mayan pyramid re-creation

“Part of what Archaeology Island is about is creating information about archaeology for a broader, general audience. It’s kind of an interactive museum exhibit where we can show students and general Second Life participants about archaeology, about some of the things archaeologists do, and some of the ways we know about the past,” said Beverly Chiarulli, associate professor and director of Archaeological Services. She and Scott Moore, associate professor and chair of the History Department, are working toward having Archaeology Island ready for the public by the end of the Spring 2009 semester.

Most of the students Chiarulli and Moore work with have no practical archaeology experience, and it’s difficult for them to get that experience. On Archaeology Island, the instructors are working to create active participation modes that the students can experience, ideally easing the learning curve of the physical requirements, such as how to dig properly.

Monongahela village re-creation on Archaeology Island

Monongahela village re-creation on Archaeology Island

“We’re trying to find a way to help them understand stratigraphy, the different layers, and what it looks like as you remove a layer, where they’re actually doing it themselves and having to make a decision,” said Moore, who takes a group of students to Cyprus each summer and who noted the trip costs roughly $2,000 per student. “I’m hoping that will enable more kids to participate, so it will open up the experience to a wider range of our students here at IUP.”

In the meantime, faculty members will be able to take their students to Archaeology Island to see the replica of a ship that was sunk off the coast of Cyprus hundreds of years ago. Instead of the time and expense of actually going to Cyprus, learning how to dive, and then going deep into the ocean, the students can, with their avatars (their Second Life personae), descend into the water and examine that replica at leisure and in ways that might not be possible in real life. Adorned in scuba gear—obviously not needed, but it helps with the immersive feel—they will be able to experience underwater dredging to pull sand away from the wreck on the floor of the lagoon.

The Cyprus dig, based on the Pyla-Koutsopetria archaeological project site, will allow visitors to experiment with “self-healing” ruins. With a few clicks of the mouse, they will see re-created versions of the now-ruined architecture. This self-healing effect can help students to make more vivid connections between the appearance of a ruin in data and the building that once stood in that place.

Inside the Monongahela village re-creation on Archaeology Island

Inside the Monongahela village re-creation on Archaeology Island

The Belize area will use an approach similar to the Cypriot dig site. Self-regenerating ruins of the Mayan pyramid will provide learning aids along with ever-present displays revealing information about the timeline and archaeological estimates regarding the data. Students can explore the pyramid—walk around inside, climb over it, examine it from all angles—and come away with a better understanding than what would be gained by just looking at photographs in a classroom.

A visitor’s center will act as the focal point for the entire island. The center will have space for up to thirty to sit and listen to a lecture or participate in a discussion. General information about the island and all dig sites will be available for the students as well.

“The village re-creation is based on a reconstruction down near Blairsville, where we do our field school,” Chiarulli said. The late-prehistoric Monongahela village was featured in an exhibit at the University Museum in 2008, and that exhibit provided the content that was moved into Second Life.

“One of things that we wanted to do with this island was to take actual archaeological data and have what’s built here conform to that information,” she said, noting that there are some inaccuracies, partly due to limitations of Second Life and partly to not working closely enough with the content designers. It’s not always evident from the information, for example, what the scale is for the houses, but that is being worked out.

Visitor’s Center on Archaeology Island

Visitor’s Center on Archaeology Island

Clickable kiosks around the island will give students and future visitors more information about the re-created sites, detailing the background of the areas and what has been discovered about them.

“One of the things that Second Life is very good at is advertising what schools and programs are doing,” Moore said. “I’m always very interested in people knowing what I’m doing on Cyprus. There is a webpage and a Facebook page, plus we did a documentary about the dig, and Second Life is sort of a natural extension where people can come to learn about archaeology. Most of this is based on what I’m doing and on the Mayan project that Bev is involved with.”

Using a 3D scanner, Chiarulli and Moore are creating three-dimensional representations of artifacts from their sites for placement on the island. In this virtual museum, visitors could actually pick up, manipulate, and closely examine these pieces—something that they could probably not do in any real-world museum. An idea being worked on with the help of Allen Partridge from the Communications Media Department is providing the ability to see changes in an area over the span of time, similar to the self-healing ruins: for example, seeing a site as it looks today, then moving a slider (or other manipulator) to the Roman period and seeing the buildings appear, and then moving to the Hellenistic period and seeing the differences then. This is a little like Google Earth, which has a historical imagery section that allows viewers to see changes over time. “It’s hard for students to appreciate how a building goes from this period to this period to this period,” Moore said. “You would be able to stand there and see time move very rapidly. It would be another immersive experience that would help students understand the processes and what they meant.”

Beverly Chiarulli’s avatar, Beverly Qunhua, at work on the Mayan pyramid re-creation

Beverly Chiarulli’s avatar, Beverly Qunhua, at work on the Mayan pyramid re-creation

Second Life was just becoming known around campus when an Academic Excellence and Innovation Grant proposal was submitted to the Provost’s Office for starting Archaeology Island. Reaction to the request was positive. “There was a lot of support from the academic area and the Provost’s Office,” Chiarulli said. “Some of the Comm Media folks were just getting involved in the process.... We were lucky in some ways that in our ideas we were half a step ahead of a lot of people on campus.”

An assistant professor and director of the Applied Media and Simulation Games Center, Allen Partridge was a natural to assist Moore and Chiarulli with developing the technical aspects of the island. At its inception, they brought in an outside expert and Second Life resident, Beth Ritter-Guth, with an established reputation for creating innovative education spaces. “This gave us a really significant boost,” said Partridge. “A lot of universities and colleges just jumped in [to Second Life] without a sense of the space, what’s possible, what isn’t possible, and what the pedagogical issues are that people have faced… Bringing her in made a big difference, because we had a leg up on what issues other people are facing. We were able to think critically about it right out of the gate.”

“The island is coming along,” Chiarulli said. “The underwater shipwreck is pretty much finished, and I think we’re going to be able to get the content worked out this Spring and get it open. Then we’ll begin to see what people think about it. I think it’s pretty exciting!”

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New Islands

The number of IUP’s virtual islands in Second Life may soon increase if proposals for additional grants are approved. Scott Moore, associate professor and chair of the History Department, is working to oversee creation of a new island for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Meanwhile, James Lenze, a Comm Media associate professor and cocoordinator of the Ph.D. program in Communications Media and Instructional Technology, is waiting for word on the proposed Research Island. Increasing the island count to six equals what Linden Labs (the creators of Second Life) calls a continent, resulting in a price break and more privileges within the Second Life world.

Scott Moore’s avatar, RSM Barbosa (far right), at a Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project meeting in Second Life

Scott Moore’s avatar, RSM Barbosa (far right), at a Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project meeting in Second Life

In preparation for Humanities Island, Moore has students doing research on ancient buildings. One project he envisions is creating a “holodeck,” where visitors can press a button and see a rebuilt coliseum, among other ancient structures, or press another button and view the Roman Coliseum as it is today. “Once I can get the island officially approved and paid for, which has always been an issue, we’re hoping to have it set up by the end of spring and by next fall have people doing some things,” Moore said, noting that the college already has a Digital Humanities Center.

Research Island would not only be a place where people could discuss best practices for conducting research in virtual worlds—like how surveys are done in virtual worlds, what the best practices are for attracting subject populations, how one gets approval to do a study in a virtual world, how to make sure people don’t double-dip on the same study (logging in with different avatars) so the same person is researched over and over—it would also be a place where avatars could come and conduct the research studies.

“For instance,” Lenze said, “one of the studies I want to conduct right now is to survey avatars in Second Life or other virtual worlds and ask, ‘How much do you use distance education, how much do you use graduate education, what’s your level of learning, do you ever want to take classes in Second Life, do you want a degree or just courses, and do you want continuing education courses or courses that actually lead to something else?’”

Aerial view of Crimson Island (note the hawk shape), with the western part of Archaeology Island and the Northern edge of Whitmyre Island

Aerial view of Crimson Island (note the hawk shape), with the western part of Archaeology Island and the Northern edge of Whitmyre Island

Many are surprised that the primary users of Second Life are, on average, thirty-year-old females. Coincidentally, that mode demographic is shared with both distance education and graduate school students. “Second Life is actually social networking software, and it attracts primarily a female audience,” Lenze explained. Plotting the three areas with a Ven diagram—three circles representing distance education, graduate education, and social networking—the question is, do they overlap and, if so, to what degree?

“I’m part of what’s called the Virtual Worlds Research Group on campus. We’re looking at setting up a study, statewide, to survey graduate students and ask, ‘How much do you use distance learning?’ ‘How much do you use social networking sites, specifically virtual worlds like Second Life?’ We’re hoping to find out how big that overlap is,” Lenze said. “If the overlap is significant, it means that, as an instructional technology, this would be a particularly good application for distance ed classes, because the primary audience likes it and is used to it. That doesn’t answer the question of how best to use it. It just says that the audience is open to it, familiar with it.”

At least parts of Research Island will be open, because there would be people coming in to do studies. But parts of it will probably need to be restricted so that only people affiliated with the university to some degree could enter. “It depends on the funding source, what the funding intent was,” Lenze said. “If the funding source is purely for IUP’s faculty, staff, and students, we need to close it off so that only they could go there. There could be research circumstances where unless you’re part of this group or this project, we don’t want you in here. This is private information, there’s anonymity... those kinds of issues.”

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Teaching Live and On Line

The peaceful seaside town on Comm Media Island

The peaceful seaside town on Comm Media Island

The initial thought for most educators, when asked about Second Life, was its potential for use in distance education. Allen Partridge, an assistant professor and director of the Applied Media and Simulation Games Center, explained that the concept has always been problematic—students generally don’t respond well to looking at fixed, asynchronous material presented on a computer screen in two dimensions. It’s often not highly active and not highly engaging, and the socialization aspect is lacking. In a real classroom, “there are two different kinds of instruction happening. One kind is the teacher bringing the students to an understanding of whatever the topic is. Another kind is students learning from each other,” Partridge said. “If they fall behind or need help, they can whisper a question or talk with another student before or after class. Many students are more comfortable having that kind of interaction. Putting them in a virtual world encourages those kinds of educational peer relationships.”

Of course, there are other tools that can be used for distance education, using voice and text chat, PowerPoint, slides, white boards, and so on; these are tools students can use anywhere they’re located. A virtual world wouldn’t be necessary if all that’s being shared is a PowerPoint demonstration, for example, or if the students just have to hear the instructor and ask questions.

While there have been a few distance education classes at IUP that have taken place totally within Second Life, most of its use has been in cases where instructors have the students do just a few things in Second Life throughout the entire semester.

James Lenze shadowed by his avatar, Eight Shepherd

James Lenze shadowed by his avatar, Eight Shepherd

James Lenze, a Comm Media associate professor and cocoordinator of the Ph.D. program in Communications Media and Instructional Technology, recalled his first experiments in teaching with Second Life. A common assignment for education students is to design a classroom. Students read about the theories of classroom design: the different ways to set a classroom up—where the teacher sits, how the desks and posters are organized, and where the computers and everything else is placed. Typically, the design is drawn on a sheet of paper. “Professors frequently tell me that the problem is that the students always put the desks too close together. They don’t really get a feel for, on that piece of paper, walking through the room,” Lenze said.

In response, he created a building in Second Life containing forty ten- by twenty-meter empty classrooms, plus a “warehouse” with student and teacher desks, blackboards, pencil sharpeners, and anything else that could be used in a classroom. Each student was assigned a classroom, given papers and articles to read and research on how to design a classroom, and then sent to the warehouse to go shopping. The students could select anything they wanted, take it to their virtual classrooms, and set it up. When finished, they were to take screenshots of the rooms and include them in a paper explaining how the articles’ information was used in designing the rooms, and then leave the classrooms in place so Lenze could go look at them.

“Well, they loved that; they just went crazy,” Lenze said. “First of all, they loved shopping and picking things out. I was asked for a poster of Albert Einstein. I spent a week making stuff, filling requests, and I’d put them in the warehouse and send an e-mail saying ‘your Albert Einstein poster is ready.’ They just had a blast organizing the rooms. They said, ‘I’ve done this in another class, and it never worked on paper the way it did in this classroom. I really had a feel of where things should be, walking through the room, and seeing it from the different angles.’”

Lenze realized that simulating a three-dimensional environment, when it was impossible to do the actual environment in the real world, worked amazingly well in a virtual world.

“Emulating or simulating a three-dimensional thing that is easily done in the real world is really not a good application, at least in this instance. There are some rules there: if it’s easy to do in the real world, do it in the real world. If it’s hard or impossible, consider that Second Life may allow you to do something that you couldn’t do before.... In the real world, such a request for a building, including a warehouse of furniture available for me to use with my students, for a one- or two-week assignment—IUP would say I was nuts. But it was real easy in Second Life.”

Using Second Life in the classroom is like switching from overhead projectors to PowerPoint—why do you have to do it? The answer is that you don’t. But it does have the advantage of allowing instructors to do much better things, if they can find practical educational applications within the spatial relationship.

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Virtual Worlds and Beyond

After Lloyd Onyett first learned about Second Life at a conference, he spent the following weekend setting up accounts in every virtual world he could find. Onyett, the assistant dean for Technology in the College of Education and Educational Technology, set up characters and tried out different systems but kept finding himself coming back to Second Life. “As I explored it more over the last three years, I kept coming to the realization that it’s still, at this point, the best virtual world out there for education. But I’m willing to jump to something else if something better comes along,” he said.

The teaching amphitheater on Comm Media Island

The teaching amphitheater on Comm Media Island

“Some other company may come along with a better product. Right now, there are at least a half dozen virtual world systems out there— some are better at gaming and so forth—but Second Life seems to be heads above the others with an environment for teaching and education,” Onyett said. “Will Second Life be around two to three years from now? Will a better product come out than Second Life? Will Second Life evolve enough to stay ahead of the game and continue to be the leader? Who knows? But there will be something out there in the way of virtual worlds, I’m quite confident. It’s not just a flash in the pan thing. It’s something that’s going to continue to be out there as another tool, as another way that can be used for distance education and other on-line types of things, but also for enhancing the regular classroom experience, too.”

“It seems to me there are applications for this in almost every realm,” said James Lenze. “I want to explore those and see if they’re worthwhile, see if this is a legitimate technology.”

Lenze, a Comm Media associate professor and cocoordinator of the Ph.D. program in Communications Media and Instructional Technology, admits to being a little nervous when people infer he is promoting Second Life or virtual worlds in general. “No I’m not. I’m exploring them. I’m investigating them,” he said. “My job as a professor, especially as a state-employed professor, is to ask the what-if questions and come up with some answers. I’m supposed to be a little ahead of the curve, sort of a scout who goes out ahead and says here’s where this could go, here’s what could happen, and inform the public so they can make good, informed decisions about what they want to do and where they want to go with this.”

Second Life definitely has a certain amount of escapist draw. But Lenze notes that people are practical, and if they’re going to do something over time, they have to find value in it. “The way we find value in our lives is we make money, get education, love… There are relationships forming in Second Life, there are emotional love attachments forming. There are ways to make money. And there are ways to learn. Just like in our real lives, nothing operates independently. People say, ‘To do this, I have to give up some time for this.’ In virtual worlds, it’s all going to converge as well, in that it really might become a Second Life to people,” Lenze said. “My biggest concern is that it will become their first life, which it already has for many. The question is, is that healthy? What are the implications of that?”

Speculation on the future of virtual worlds includes a further merging with reality. For instance, could a neural interface be built that would allow quadriplegics to perhaps live inside a virtual world, where they could walk, run, fly, explore, and interact with other people? As the human-machine interface improves, the virtual worlds will be able to emulate avatars, textures, and experiences to much greater degrees.

“I’m not saying what’s right or what’s wrong,” Lenze said. “I’m just saying the technology is going to make this available. It’s something to explore. It’s something to consider from a moral perspective, from an ethical perspective.

“I’m teaching a course in the fall called Cultures of Cyberspace, looking at how culture has developed there. Part of that will focus on virtual worlds and part on MySpace and Facebook. A lot of people say Second Life is like [the video game] World of Warcraft. Actually it’s more like Facebook and MySpace, in terms of the purpose and goals of it and how it functions. We’ll be doing research and looking at how culture develops in cyberspace, how it is different there, how the normal constructs that we use to make culture—which usually you can’t change or have trouble changing, like gender—how they are broken down in cyberspace cultures and how that affects it. I think it’s going to be a real fun class to teach.”

The future of virtual worlds will certainly include a change in the Internet experience. Similar to the early days of the World Wide Web, when AOL and the other infant service providers essentially had their own private internets, each virtual world currently exists in isolation, with no way to move avatars, identities, or objects across the different platforms. However, it has been known for a few years that Linden Labs has been pressing IBM and Sun Microsystems for an open protocol, which would allow users to “teleport” their identities and possessions between virtual worlds.

“Whichever company makes [open protocol] happen first will have the Mozilla Netscape of virtual worlds,” said Allen Partridge, director of the Applied Media and Simulation Games Center. Such a virtual world globalization would have to surmount the biggest problem with open protocols: controlling the monetary aspect. “At present, there is no clear digital rights management technology that will allow for protection of digital properties [clothes, gear, items, etc., that are created within Second Life] once they leave the domain of the originating servers. If the other domain’s management of that property allows for the ability for that property to be replicated or irresponsibly used, it has unleashed the digital rights of whoever created the art. It has put that out into the public space irresponsibly.”

No one is quite sure when that hurdle might be overcome. But, based on everything known about new technologies, it is clearly happening. The Wall Street Journal noted that, from a business point of view, virtual worlds are now viewed as mainstream. Investment capital in massively multiplayer online (MMO) games and virtual-world technologies has skyrocketed, with MMOs and virtual worlds becoming the fastest-growing sector for venture capital in the games world.

Major research firms predicting future trends say that virtual world technology combined with social networking will eventually become infused into what we currently think of as the Internet. Gartner Group and Forrester, two of the leading analyst firms that track information technology trends, predicted that the Internet would be 80 percent 3D by the year 2012. “Exactly what Forrester and Gartner predicted was not all that clear,” Partridge said. “My guess would be that we’ll see the browser experience modified so that we would have both virtual worlds and the traditional, two-dimensional view. The logical conclusion would be that you’re surfing the Web and you click on a link, and if that link happens to be to a virtual place, then it would simply open a virtual viewer of some sort.”

Justin Ratner, chief technology officer of Intel and director of the company’s Corporate Technology Group, made a major presentation at an Intel R&D conference. He presented several different virtual-world technologies and argued, most notably, that such virtual-world technology is the Internet of tomorrow. “This is not something that a few people are grabbing onto and saying ‘this is the thing,’” Partridge said. “Most of the reliable sources are saying it’s here.”

For people who’ve only used a computer to see two-dimensional things, the idea that we could very quickly migrate to a society where the expectation is that everything would be at least plausibly 3D can be a difficult hurdle. The key will be making the technology easily usable enough for the average person and getting past any specific assumptions about the technology that could prevent new users from being able to adopt it. “There are conventions that exist within technology,” Partridge said. “Even something as simple as a keyboard can be very cryptic to someone who has never seen one before. If they’ve never seen a computer, they wouldn’t know how to turn it on or how to use it. We adopt those conventions as they become plausible to adopt.”

The Second Life Educators listserv connects at least five thousand educators from around the world. “The tone [of the conversations] is very serious, very self-critical, which I think is a really healthy sign,” Partridge said. “If you can be heavily self-critical of the technology as you’re exploring it, then you’re probably onto something because that means you’re evolving it into something real as opposed to just holding up this grand idea that doesn’t have any legs.”

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More Than a Gimmick

All agree that getting word out on what the university, colleges, and departments do is very important. “Academics have always been sort of reluctant to sell themselves—your fame will precede you, so to speak—but there are so many colleges competing that you need to tell people what you do so they understand what they can get when they come here,” said Scott Moore, chair of the History Department. “And I’m always amazed how many college kids show up knowing so much about the university, compared to five years ago or so.… I think we ought to show them what we’re doing and what we’re capable of, because if they don’t know when they get here, they could go two or three years without realizing what we’ve got, the case of ‘I wish I’d known this sooner.’ We need to do a better job, starting with our students here but then expanding outward, to make sure that the community and the world know what we do.”

It can be difficult to overcome initial public perception, especially when the technology is used in mainstream media. Second Life-style virtual worlds have been featured on CSI and Law and Order, and it’s easy to view the idea as gimmicky or as just some sort of business. But the people involved on campus, from students to professors and staff, believe that IUP is moving in the right direction and that Second Life is the chance for the university to be ahead of the curve.

“Crimson Island has been doing a very good job,” Moore said. “All of the members of the Virtual Environments Coordination Committee have been working very hard to make sure it’s a great experience. IUP has a pretty good reputation within the Second Life community about what we’ve been doing. The question is can we continue to progress.”

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