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Learning in Second Life: Virtual Education

by on January 23, 2010

Time for another in our ongoing Second Life series, and this time I’m going to tackle Education in Virtual Worlds.  Again, not a particularly new advance.  Several universities have begun to embrace “online courses”, coupling traditional education tools with web-based systems like Blackboard to increase revenue with a minimum of expense.  It allows teachers to very easily re-use class materials (doesn’t get much easier than cut-n-paste, or simply clicking a “publish” button from their library of assets), and enables the university to open classes to students around the world.

Virtual Worlds are becoming the “next generation” of these online courses, and Second Life is on the forefront of the wave.

There seem to be several “schools of thought” (no pun intended) on how to integrate virtual worlds into traditional education, so I’m going to try to discuss some of the more popular ones.

Virtual Worlds as Classroom Replacements

When people start thinking about how to integrate Virtual Worlds into their classrooms, the first thing that pops into many people’s minds is to simply move the entire classroom into the Virtual World.  At the designated time, the professor and all the students login and rendezvous at the designated classroom, and the professor presents his materials just like in the real-world.  However, I’ve only found a few universities that have taken things this far.  There’s several issues to consider:

  • Powerpoint Slides – Many professors have pre-built assets in powerpoint slides or overheads, how can they translate this into the virtual world?
  • Unfamiliarity with the space – Working in the virtual space (interacting with objects, voice chat, simply moving around) may be unfamiliar and complicated, requiring additional training for both educators and students
  • Additional Resource requirements for Students – Students will need to have network connections and computers capable of loading and running the virtual world and whatever extra material the professor requires

Second Life provides several solutions to this.  The hardware requirements are pretty low, and it provides a “uniform” experience that matches several other platforms, and is generic enough that the same tools can be recycled between classes and universities.

The collection of in-world tools seems to be the biggest hurdles, and in my research I stumbled across a great solution at the Texas A&M Virtual Campus.  They provide a pre-built collection of furniture (desks, chairs), blackboards, whiteboards, timer clocks, and much more to their educators, allowing them to simply mix-and-match to build the classroom environment they prefer. The systems support text entry, for a classic blackboard use, and texture uploads, for overheads and powerpoints.  This means educators don’t have to “scour” the virtual space to purchase the necessary equipment, decreasing the barrier to entry.

Virtual Worlds as Classroom Enhancements

One of the more popular uses for Virtual Worlds seems to be in augmenting the classroom experience.  Want to show a detailed process breakdown or experiment, but can’t replicate it in the classroom (perhaps it’s too dangerous, or too costly)?  Maybe you can recreate it in a virtual world.

This would be similar to the use of a video or movie in the classroom, but (just like Machinima) puts the creation process in the hands of the educator.  In addition, the created asset can be “left behind” in the virtual world for students to interactive with at their own pace.  Several such exhibits exist on the “SciLands”, a collection of islands in Second Life dedicated to science and education and containing several such “interactive Experiments”.  Several independent people and large institutions have setup in the space and offer a wide variety of experiences.

The SL Nanotech Center

For example, one island dedicated to nanoparticle research has a “mobile lab” setup with all of the various equipment used in creating, monitoring, and investigating nanoparticle materials so that you can view the various equipment and read up on usage.

the NOAA "Science on a Sphere"

the SL NOAA Glacier Experiment

Also, NOAA has a very extensive island where you can see several aspects of the weather and meteorology monitoring lab.  You can interactively see the effects of a melting glacier, watching it return to the mountainous terrain underneath as the ocean level quickly rises to overwhelm you.  You can take a virtual flight in a hurricane monitoring plane, flying right through the eye of the storm.  They’ve obviously spent quite a lot of time building the space, and it shows.

Virtual Worlds as Recruiting Tools

While you could argue that all of the above described tools also serve the purpose of recruiting new students, some universities create an inworld presence that is nothing but a recruiting tool.  One such space is the Clemson University space, which when I visited was setting up for an inworld Graduate Studies Fair.  Several of the graduate programs are setting up posters and interactive exhibits to show off their various capabilities, and hope to recruit new students.  Unfortunately, Clemson is also a great example of what can go wrong during such events.

Presumably, they accidentally left some permissions a bit too open and the entire campus was vandalized.  Upon my visit, I saw graffiti spraypainted in various locations, squad cars parked at the bottom of a pond, various profanities and insulting news clippings posted all over campus.

I would imagine that if this display attracted any attention at all, it would be entirely of the wrong kind.  However, if you made it past the initial vandalism, you could see the research underway at the university and it made for a pretty impressive display.

Virtual Worlds as Self-Directed Learning Tools

The other, and I believe most impressive, use of Second Life as a Learning tool is in the wide selection of self-directed learning applications.  Where most of the other solutions require an instructor present, SL’s wide choice of objects and scripting allows for a whole host of interactive teaching tools that can be run entirely by the student at his own pace, at his own availability.  While you’re not likely to get a degree this way, it’s a great way to learn about applications and systems.  One great example of this is from Troy McConaughay McConaghy, head of the Second Life Science Center.

This is an example of a ‘Field Effect Transistor’ or “FET” (the FET part of MOSFET).  Used in semiconductors and electronics, it’s the primordial ooze of modern electronics.  This visualization combines audio describing the device with video and 3D models showing how electrons move from one side to the other.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of similar displays set up all over Second Life.  Far more than I can list here, I highly recommend you visit the ScienceCenter Website that maintains a huge database of interesting locations.


So there you have it, Education in Second Life is growing strong.  I know I left out and glossed over many of the inworld experiences, so I wanted to include some links to where you can continue your own investigation and exploration of the space:

I do hope that you find this article useful, but if I’ve left anything out feel free to post in the comments.  And be sure to come back next time where I hope to write up hard Science in Second Life.