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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Virtual world allows for educational opportunities

    A computer program called Second Life provides educators with unique opportunities to connect with students in a virtual landscape. Now the UA is jumping in.

    Second Life is a three-dimensional virtual world in which users are represented by characters of their own design called avatars. The avatars can meet and socialize in a 30-square-mile virtual world.

    In May, the Office of Student Computing Resources leased a region in Second Life that has been dubbed “”Arizona Island.”” The move kicked off a two-year experiment to see how Second Life can be used to promote instruction, research, cultural and economic development and to provide students with a virtual learning space, said Chris Johnson, an adjunct professor of education and psychology and faculty lead on the project.

    “”People get confused because it looks like a video game,”” said Chris Impey, aka “”Cosmo Priestman,”” a UA astronomy professor who incorporates Second Life into his courses.

    Second Life is useful for making simulations and models such as walk-through simulations of molecules and the Martian surface, he said.

    “”It’s a very high-quality 3-D world with avatars, but it’s not a game,”” he said.

    The UA leased one and a half acres of virtual land from the New Media Consortium, a nonprofit organization that leases land from Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, Johnson said.

    Johnson is interested in utilizing Second Life as an alternative medium for students to express their understanding, and for instructors to assess their students’ grasp of the course material.

    “”If you’re a good writer, then you should be writing papers,”” he said. “”But if you’re not quite so good a writer, but you’re a great artist, this would give you a different outlet where you can express your understanding and not get penalized.””

    Second Life enhances communication between students and faculty, because it’s often more convenient to meet in Second Life than it is to schedule an in-person appointment, Johnson said. It is also an opportunity to speak with geographically scattered colleagues who may not have the opportunity to meet in real life.

    “”There’s no rules, there’s no goal, there’s no killing people or gathering gold,”” Impey said.

    He used the program in an astrobiology course and occasionally held office hours in Second Life, implementing the program’s ability to go beyond the confines of the physical world.

    “”The most important and useful thing I did was I got students to do projects in there,”” he said.

    Students in his class developed a walk-through timeline of the Earth with physical models, animations and video clips, he said.

    OSCR leases land at no charge to faculty members for use in their courses, said Limell Lawson, OSCR director.

    “”If you own land, you can limit who can come in the door,”” she said. “”That way instruction can happen for UA students without random people dropping in and saying, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’ “”

    “”My goal is to give the campus this opportunity, and then to make sure that students get an opportunity to just go in there and go nuts and try everything that they want to try,”” she added.

    Second Life started in 2003, Impey said, but it started to take off over the past 18 months.

    In some ways, Second Life is more real than one might think.

    The currency in the virtual world has value in the real world. The conversion factor fluctuates based on demand, but the rate has held steady: around 250 Lindens to the U.S. dollar, according to the Second Life Web site.

    “”It’s about $1 billion a year in equivalent U.S. dollars,”” Impey said. “”So, it’s the (gross national product) of a small country, and it is a 30-square-mile virtual country.””

    Entreprenuers build virtual objects like clothing from basic elements and sell them to other avatars. The time devoted to building something takes on a value in Lindens, he added.

    Second Life users can also spend real money on custom virtual merchandise for and enhancements to their avatars.

    While the program offers opportunities for students and educators that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive, there are downsides to spending excessive time customizing avatars and loitering in the virtual world.

    “”I think it’s a time sink for a lot of people, including a couple people in my class, actually,”” Impey said. “”They got into it so much, I was starting to think maybe they were spending too much time in it.””

    Second Life has also proven interesting from a sociological standpoint, Impey said.

    “”One of the interesting, almost utopian aspects of the project is that the company that set it up put almost no rules in place,”” he said. “”The lack of rules was kind of an optimistic gesture by the creators, and it seems to be working pretty well.””

    Students and faculty who are interested in developing the UA region of Second Life can contact Chris Johnson at cgj@email.arizona.edu.

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