Learning in the Virtual World
Liz Babiarz and Michael Davis
When Georgia State professor Dave McDonald began a new project with a class last fall, one student showed up as a giant, fire-breathing dragon.
That wasn’t the only surprise that day. Soon, students were flying around the room, busily chatting with one another, oblivious to the fact that the entire class knew what they were saying.
“It was absolutely awful — total chaos,” said McDonald, director of emerging technologies at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business.
Such glitches can happen when holding a class for the first time in the user-created, three-dimensional virtual world of Second Life. Unchecked, students may turn up as outlandish cartoon-like characters, move around haphazardly and hold chat conversations they mean to be private but that are available for all to read.
Now, however, professors in search of ways to integrate the virtual world with their real-life lessons can avoid such chaos by tapping a new resource created by Georgia State’s University Educational Technology Services (UETS).
The first-of-its-kind, it’s called Five Points, and it’s a Second Life faculty development island within Georgia State’s Second Life environment that offers free tips on the use of the virtual world as a teaching tool.
“It’s very useful,” said Peggy Lumpkin, a doctoral student who visits Five Points to hone skills she plans to bring to her future university teaching career. “There are so many resources, and there’s a place to practice how to build. It’s extremely helpful.”
A Second Life?
Second Life, launched in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, is a virtual world built entirely by its community of users, known as avatars, who move from place to place by teleporting or flying and communicate among themselves in text and voice.
About 13 million people are registered users of Second Life, and by 2011, some analysts predict, 80 percent of all Internet users could have a presence in one virtual world or another.
Second Life has its own economy, and residents can buy, sell and trade real estate and other objects. A number of real companies such as Comcast and IBM have a presence in the virtual world, and Georgia State is among more than 100 universities in Second Life.
Proponents say the technology allows for learning scenarios that would be prohibitively expensive or difficult in real life. For example, clothing design students can hold a virtual fashion show, art students can tour the Louvre or the recreated Sistine Chapel, and foreign language students can teleport to the “second” Moscow to practice their conversational Russian and gain a cultural experience.
As with any technology, Second Life novices, or “newbies” as they are called “in-world,” experience a learning curve. They struggle with communicating, moving around, dressing themselves and other necessary skills.
Educators are no exception, which is why Paula Christopher, project manager for the UETS e-learning group, developed the Five Points island. Since it launched in May, it has received hundreds of visitors and has been featured in dozens of national news publications because of its unique services.
The island includes a library filled with resources for faculty members new to the technology and meeting spaces for educators to discuss best practices. In one corner, Christopher left an undeveloped “sandbox” for users to try building objects from scratch.
Next door to Five Points is Peachtree Center, a separate class exploration island kept private for Georgia State employees and faculty to use for workshops and training.
Christopher also created an avatar known as Downtown Bloch, a blue, wolf-like creature that serves as the administrator, developer and host of the islands.
A new and creative environment
Georgia State’s entry into the virtual world began in the fall of 2007 when two professors were independently exploring Second Life in an educational context.
McDonald began using Second Life to encourage creativity among business students with assignments such as a virtual-world treasure hunt and scripting work, like building a chair or landscaping.
“How do you teach innovation? You can’t,” McDonald said. “But you can create an environment that fosters creativity. Second Life gives you a place where students can break out of the box.”
Across campus in the College of Education, Stephen Harmon, associate chair of the Department of Middle-Secondary Education and Instructional Technology, was taking his students — both pre-service teachers and working teachers — into Second Life to demonstrate its potential educational opportunities. For example, an island created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allows avatars to experience the impact of a tsunami.
“We use [Second Life] really more as an exploratory setting,” Harmon said, “where students can go in and brainstorm and think about how they can use it for education.”
More Georgia State projects in the virtual universe are in the pipeline. Harmon, for example, hopes to launch this year a new “education island,” a virtual K-12 school that would allow pre-service teachers to conduct classroom exercises with other pre-service teachers acting as students with various behavior and developmental disorders.
“We want students to have practice dealing with learning problems before they’re working with real children,” Harmon said.
McDonald foresees business students being able to develop their own small businesses or virtual firms, learning the ropes of management without the financial peril involved with setting up shop for real.
And then there’s the grand plan: McDonald and Harmon teamed up to secure a $37,500 grant from the student technology fee to buy and develop more Second Life islands, for a total of 10. The space would be enough to allow between 350 and 500 avatars to visit at once.
The future of the islands will be steered by a committee of faculty, students and staff, and designed by professional developers. And whatever they become, the islands should inspire students to think beyond the classroom walls and encourage collaboration among disciplines, McDonald said.
“Innovate, innovate, innovate,” he said. “That’s what the whole thing is about — innovation and creativity.”