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4 Ways to Make the Most out of Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds like Second Life may have lost some luster in recent years (see "Is There a Second Life for Virtual Worlds?"), but educators and technologists say they still have value for higher ed. Here are four ways to make virtual environments work for you.

1) Use virtual environments as one element of a blended-learning curriculum. To a large extent, this is what most colleges are doing right now--adding virtual worlds to a course here and there and combining them with other technologies, disciplines, and face-to-face instruction. Patrick O'Shea, assistant professor of instructional technology at Appalachian State University (NC), uses augmented reality in several of his courses, as well as virtual classes set in Teleplace, 3D collaboration environments similar to those in Second Life. "I like the idea of having mixed face-to-face and distance education classrooms," says O'Shea. "It's not yet possible to read body language and those kinds of things in virtual worlds."

At New York City College of Technology (City Tech), students from various disciplines come together to work in Second Life. As part of a 3D project about the structure of a cell, for example, biology students provide information on and monitor the accuracy of biological processes, while students in entertainment technology, computer science, advanced technical writing, and advertising and graphic design help write scripts and construct models.

2) Collaborate like crazy. Hardly an application these days doesn't claim to be collaborative, but virtual worlds allow a degree of sharing that can't be found in run-of-the-mill online media. For Judith Doyle, an associate professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design, the collaborative aspect of virtual worlds is perhaps their most attractive feature. As the chair of the college's Integrated Media program, Doyle pushes the envelope in her use of cutting-edge technologies. OCAD's campus in Second Life is the virtual home of its Hybrid Media Lab, which allows students in the Integrated Media program to collaborate with artists around the world to create virtual artwork and installations. It's possible for OCAD instructors to run a workshop on sculpture for students in Peru, for instance, or teach multimedia production to communities in Jamaica.

"You can very successfully use Second Life as a collaborative environment," says Doyle. "It allows you to make connections between remote locations." And it's uniquely suited to distance learning, she adds, since it combines so well with other electronic media practices such as film, streaming video, and animation.

3) Simulate business and commercial environments. The best way to prepare students for the working world is to allow them to fully experience what it's like--and as an inexpensive simulator, a virtual environment is hard to beat. "The fact that Second Life is made up of a lot of different communities, economies, philosophies, and social structures allows it to become a microcosm of what's going on in the natural world," says David Smith, entertainment technology professor at City Tech. "So a business class may be able to use it to develop marketing techniques, sell products, and so on."

Appalachian State's O'Shea says he's "trying to simulate the professional activities that students will face when they leave school." For instance, he has built a series of virtual libraries for students to manage. He throws students curveballs--graffiti on the walls, for example--then observes their reactions: "How would they deal with the problem? Those are the kinds of things I see happening in virtual worlds."

4) Sit tight: The technology will improve. Don't abandon your virtual campus just yet, educators advise. "Immersive 3D environments are going to continue to get stronger and stronger, but a few things need to happen first," says Smith. "Second Life is an amazing resource, but it is owned externally and educators have no access to the source code on the server side. But there are several movements to develop open source components. We won't see development in this technology until it is like the traditional internet, with billions of pages. This sort of ubiquity is required for it to really move forward."

Mario Guerra, an educational technologist at the University of Texas at Austin, also sees technological advances coming via open source development. While the University of Texas System is sticking with Second Life for another year, it's looking into alternatives. "I think that's where education is going to go--open source, whether it's hosted outside or by the school," he says. "That's where we're headed."

About the Author

Rama Ramaswami is a business and technology writer based in New York City.

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