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The virtual world of Second Life offers unique opportunities for a new sort of hands-on research in college, but it might not be for everyone.

click to enlarge UNCONVENTIONAL: Students gather for a class discussion.
  • UNCONVENTIONAL: Students gather for a class discussion.

When you think of Second Life (SL), a web-based, user-created virtual world where people remake their own identities, clothing, appearance and lifestyle, you might think of anti-social geeks sitting at home in their mothers' basements, communicating with other "avatars" and creating a charmed virtual life that in no way resembles their own. And for some users you probably wouldn't be too far off.

But what started out as a virtual universe where users can create alter egos, interact and actually participate in a virtual economy is being used by universities in Arkansas and elsewhere as a cost-effective, easy-to-use learning tool.

“The thing about Second Life is that everyone is an attractive 22-year-old. The weather is always like San Diego, warm and sunny. So all the little things that happen — let's say it gets icy and you slip and fall — all the interesting things in life are gone,” says Dr. Craig Thompson, a graduate research chair in the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Arkansas.

“It's kind of funny because for some people, it's like they're modeling their own idea of heaven and it can be pretty weird if you think about it.”

But Thompson isn't using the platform to create his own personal heaven or to amass a fortune of Linden dollars (the currency of SL, named after its creator, Linden Labs). He's building hospitals.

“In SL, everything can have an identity, or a script,” Thompson says. “You can build a world and model things in that world that would be impossible to do in real life. It basically allows you to try out ideas at a very low cost.”

“So for example, just look at nurses. Nurses spend about 10 to 15 percent of their time just looking for things that they need or that have been misplaced. We can build models of hospitals where every object has intelligence, or a script, that could be easily located in the case of an emergency or even an everyday procedure.”

Coming from the world of computer science, Thompson needed some help building his virtual hospital, or “Hogspital” as it's called in SL, piece by piece. That's where Dr. Fran Hagstrom comes in.

Hagstrom is the interim head of the department of rehabilitation, human resources and communication disorders at UA. She has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and has experience working in hospitals. She wondered what it would be like if you could model various processes that take place in a hospital, from something as mundane as admitting a patient to more complicated procedures like performing surgeries. So she teamed up with Thompson to create various scenarios in SL.

“We want to be able to track things,” Hagstrom says. “What if we could track every time a health professional used a Q-Tip or a Kleenex? In SL everything has an identity, so you can do that. That way you can look at your inventory to cut costs. If we tried to do that in our every day world, it would be impossible and overwhelming, not to mention extremely expensive. In a virtual world you can control things like that and model things and test them, and the cost is nothing. It only takes time and effort.”

Together, and with the help of students, Thompson and Hagstrom have developed a hospital complete with furniture, working toilets, beds, chairs and classrooms. There are doctors, nurses and patients. Students can watch a heart catheterization procedure or track the use of equipment from the shipping dock to the hospital room.

“Health technology is a growing field,” says Hagstrom. “So my tech partners are looking at those aspects. I know that we have needs in health care and we want to actually get to the point where we can have virtual patients that we can program so students can actually practice clinical skills. That's where we can go.”

Beyond health care, universities are finding other uses for SL. Harvard University, for example has recreated its library. The University of Texas has constructed 16 campuses that sprawl across 49 virtual islands. At Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Dr. Alyson Gill is using the platform to teach students about art history.

“It was really kind of weird,” Gill says, “because I went to the administration and said, ‘I need you to buy me a virtual island in cyberspace and I think it will be really great.' ”

Real estate in SL costs actual money. The cost of bringing the ASU campus to life in SL for one year was $2,740, but Gill says the administration has been very supportive.

“For the university I think it was a leap of faith,” she says. “But the students have really taken to it. Part of my intention in doing this is to find new ways to teach art history. There are some really great tools in SL. For example, Vassar College has completely restored the Sistine Chapel, so students can actually go there when we're studying Renaissance art and look at these things.”

Gill (whose avatar is named Professor Caproni) started using SL in 2008, when she actually taught an art history class from Italy. Despite the huge gap in time zones, she could meet with students, conduct classes and give lectures in virtual classrooms. Now, her focus has turned to building 3-D models of ancient buildings and artifacts.
“They're learning about the structures we study in class by actually building them,” she says.

But one question is, is it an effective teaching method? Gill says the reaction from students has been mixed, but mostly positive.

Trevor Scudder (avatar: Tank Riddler) is a freshman who is currently working with SL for an art history class. He says at first, he didn't really see how SL fit into the curriculum.

“To be perfectly honest, I thought it was kind of lame. But once you get into it and you're using it for class it's completely different,” he says. “I didn't realize there was such an emphasis on user-created content. Because you're actually building things yourself, you end up learning more about the artifacts than you would if you had just read a chapter out of a book and answered some questions.”

Megan Perry (avatar: LaCole Popstar), a freshman graphic design major from Benton, says the course offers a level of interaction that doesn't really exist outside of SL.

“It's great because if we have any questions for the teacher, we can usually find her in SL,” Perry says. “Last night we were studying for a test and we could go on there and ask her right away if we had any questions instead of emailing or calling. It's easier to just chat with her in SL and it's great to be able to talk to her one-on-one like that instead of having to make an appointment or waiting for an email. It's a much more instant interaction.”

Instant, maybe. But interactions on Second Life do seem, at least from the outside looking in, a little impersonal. It doesn't seem to bother these students, who have grown up in a world where conversations are increasingly mediated by computers.

“I guess you do feel a little strange because you're working with people and having classes and you're not really together,” Scudder says. “But you're still interacting. The one thing I would say is that it allows us to do things and go places and meet people that we couldn't possibly have done without it. And even though we're not in the same room, we're collaborating.”

In the classes taught strictly by Second Life, students don't gather in a conventional college classroom with the instructor. They meet at a set time in the virtual classroom via computer, which can be anywhere in the world. Different teachers can approach the use of SL differently. Some mix use of the virtual classroom with old-fashioned meet-ups of real people in real classrooms.

Holding a class in a virtual world does present its own unique set of problems. Gill ran into trouble early on when students would walk into “class” with guns in hand (in the virtual world, not in a regular college classroom), or stand up in the middle of a lecture and change their appearance. Now, she makes it clear that students are to follow the same rules in SL as they would in any normal class.

And because ASU's SL “campus” is open to the general public, sometimes, Gill says, “Crazy things happen.”

“One time I actually had some vampires show up in my class and they were sitting there talking about sucking blood and I had to go and tell them that this may look like a game but it's actually a class and they would have to either be quiet or leave. So they waited outside the class until the students came out.”

SL has been around since 2003 and although it is user-friendly, the technology and graphics are somewhat antiquated. There has been a movement away from the platform in recent years, probably due to the proliferation of other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But its use at universities has grown exponentially.

“The number of universities that use SL is pretty unbelievable. When I started I think it was around 160 and now it's about five times that,” Gill says.

As with any technology, though, SL does have its drawbacks.

Some universities have decided not to use SL at all. Dr. Jennifer Perkins, a computer science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock says her students' privacy is a factor that needs to be considered.

“Last semester I tried to use Facebook and many students were not interested in using that as a means of communication because many felt their privacy would be vulnerable and didn't think it would be useful for class work,” Perkins says. “After that experiment, I thought SL would not be well received. The privacy issues of my students were the main concerns and I have to respect that.”

And there are other obstacles to the platform's practical application.

“For one thing there's no sense of touch,” Thompson says. “You probably don't want to get a shot from someone who was trained completely in SL. Now, in the future there might be some type of sensory equipment you could use, but we're not there yet.”

Hagstrom says the possibilities at this point far outweigh the limitations.

“This is going to make our students better doctors,” she says. “There are all types of situations you can model. Let's say we have a pre-med student and they're going to have to deal with the family members of their patients. We can set up scenarios where they could do that virtually and it would give them the experience of what that feels like. And they'll be better communicators because of it.”

“And that could be a jumping off point for other things,” says Thompson. “Imagine if you could have one device, say an IV drip that had its own intelligence that could communicate with another object. So if a heart monitor starts to show a problem, it could communicate with another device that could help solve the problem immediately. That's just one potential use and those are things we can test in SL.”

At ASU, other departments from business to education have expressed interest in using SL, and Gill expects other faculty members to follow suit.

“There is any number of research applications for it, and more and more professors are starting to figure that out,” Gill says. “For one thing, it's a great recruiting tool. I have people sitting in on my classes from all over the place and the virtual campus is a great representation of a lot of our buildings here at ASU. For me, I just think it's great that students from Northeast Arkansas can go to Rome or visit a monastery in Sinai whenever we want.”

You can experience the virtual world at secondlife.com. Looking around is free. Acquiring property and various elements of the “life,” will cost you money. But you can, for example, download the program and take a visit to ASU's virtual world. No vampires allowed.

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