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Creating Life-Size Molecules in Second Life

A Conversation with Drexel University's Jean-Claude Bradley

The debate continues over just how useful virtual worlds like Second Life are for educational purposes. We spoke with Drexel University's Jean-Claude Bradley, who is e-learning coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences, and an associate professor of chemistry. Despite his initial skepticism, in 2007 Bradley helped establish Drexel's presence in Second Life, Drexel Island, and used Second Life last semester to augment portions of his Introduction to Organic Chemistry course. He has blogged extensively about his use of the medium. Here, he discusses the benefits--and drawbacks--of the much-discussed virtual world.

Campus Technology: You helped start Drexel's Second Life island and you're known for doing some interesting things there. What does Second Life bring to education?

Jean-Claude Bradley: It's an alternative channel to reach students. It's not something mandatory in my course; some students [don't] learn that way. I use quizzes in Second Life where students click on an obelisk and four images appear, and three of the images will be incorrect, and one of them will be correct. If they click on the correct one, they make it to the next set of images. There might be 20 or 30 images, and I can run races like that, so students can compete against each other. The first one to finish will win a prize.

CT: That's done real-time in class?

JCB: Right. Or students don't have to be there. I run workshops rather than lectures, so students aren't obliged to come to class. They might be in their dorms, participating in the race....

CT: I can't believe I'm saying this about organic chemistry, but that sounds fun.... Why aren't more instructors using Second Life?

JCB: Well, I was very skeptical initially as well. I'm not a big believer in using technology just for the sake of using it. I really stayed away for some time. Then one of my colleagues invited me to a class [she was conducting] in Second Life. Once I saw that there was something special there, I decided to give it a try.

It turns out, there are some things you can do well in Second Life, and some things that aren't done as well.

The really important part about it is, it's a social site. So my students get to meet other students ... and teachers from around the world. And the content attracts a consistent [caliber] of person, people of like mind. That's very powerful.

CT: What's an example of something that doesn't work?

JCB: Video doesn't work that well, in my opinion. You're better off just using iTunes.... It's hard to tell if everything is working properly for everyone. I just don't like to use it. And with the viewer [software] I've used, you can't fast-forward. I've put a few of my lectures in Second Life, but [the rest] are on my wiki.

If I really wanted to, I could make sure everything is working, but it's just not worth that extra effort.

[Also], it's not very good for very large classes. You start to have [access] problems and lag time problems. I've got 175 students, so that's a problem [for participation by the entire class]. I have colleagues with maybe 15 students in class who do make Second Life mandatory, and that's fine....

CT: Conversely, what are some things that work really well in Second Life?

JCB: One thing new that I've done this term is have students do a project in Second Life.

CT: Yes, you recently wrote in your blog that one of your students created a life-size model of a molecule as part of that. That sounded really cool.

JCB: Right. To be able to stand next to a molecule that is as tall as you are, and to have your teacher be able to walk around it with you and comment,... that's pretty useful.

CT: How familiar are students with the technology?

JCB: Most students have never been on. You have to install software; it's not very difficult, but if you're not motivated, there's going to be a lot of handholding. I don't mind doing it for a few students, but I can't do it for 175.

There's a misconception out there that students are very tech-savvy and following all these blogs and wikis and Second Life. That's not true. The vast majority have never been [to Second Life].

CT: That's an interesting comment about not assuming that students have used these technologies. One of the criticisms of Second Life is that there's a lot of flash around it, but there aren't that many people really using it.

JCB: It's not really a common experience right now for students. That doesn't mean you can't teach them, but certainly, you cannot assume that they can just do these things without guidance. That's why I have workshops, and during them, I can ... have students bring in a computer and just work with them for a couple minutes [if needed].

CT: Do you have advice for instructors who want to integrate Second Life into their course?

JCB: You should have a really good reason to do it. The best advice is to find another teacher who is actually using it, and try to experience what the student is experiencing. You'll get some ideas and advice from that. I was just talking to another teacher an hour ago who might be doing some things in Second Life. She's also an organic chemistry teacher. I told her, just send your students to Drexel Island; have them interact with my students, click around on the quizzes, and if you think it might make sense, you can spawn off from that.

A lot of people have bad experiences in Second Life because they don't have a good reason for going there. It's like having people go to the Internet without a Web address. You want to be guided. That's the best possible scenario.

It's just another tool. I wouldn't teach exclusively on Second Life. We have WebCT Blackboard; I have my wiki; I have my blogs; and those things all have their strengths. You've got to leverage them all.

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