A virtual perspective
Using avatars to experience the world
Imagine two business people, half a world apart, meeting in a virtual world. Virtual reality goggles allow them to see each other in three-dimensional space, headsets let them hear in stereophonic sound, and a haptic body suit that fills with thousands of air bubbles simulates the pressure of a handshake or the exchange of documents.
This may sound like science fiction, but such technology has arrived in the digital realm of the Internet, and signs point to this media becoming widely accessible in the coming years. According to a recent study, U.S. sales of virtual goods, a broadly defined category that includes software and digital services, have increased fourfold over the past two years and are expected to top $1.6 billion (U.S.) in 2010. (The global market is expected to hit $5.5 billion.)
One of these virtual products is Second Life, freely downloadable software that incorporates a rich array of virtual reality components, providing users with an enhanced sense of immersion or "realism." Using a three-dimensional digital environment, real-life individuals explore and interact using a customized avatar or animated 3-D body. What distinguishes this world from other virtual reality applications is that Second Life is user-defined; real people buy virtual land from Linden Labs, which created Second Life, and use their avatars to build their own simulated reality.
Many simulations mimic real life; others seem to come straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Once "in-world," players can use the search tool to find other virtual worlds for their avatar to teleport between, including Mayan ruins, modern Paris and even Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Second Life and education
As an educational tool, Second Life's versatility in allowing students to use abstract knowledge within a simulated context increases the chance of gaining knowledge through "active" opportunities, so is conducive to long-term learning. While more gifted learners may interpret abstract concepts readily from text, the addition of speech, music, pictures, video, simulated kinesthetics and interpersonal situations appeals to a wider range of learning styles. For example, a math student learning the Pythagoras theorem could calculate and create shapes with precise measurements, using this information to build a virtual pyramid. The student could then integrate a history lesson, using graphics and sound to enhance the realism, providing other virtual visitors with a guided tour through the tombs. Such a cross-disciplinary approach would enrich a student's conceptual network, providing a multitude of neural avenues to retrieve information, further improving long-term recall.
With such a vast array of environments to visit and create, Second Life provides educators with a new approach to hands-on learning; students can conduct virtual surgeries, manipulate virtual molecules, visit planets or travel back in time and interact with historical characters within the context of a foregone civilization. The possibilities are limited only by one's imagination. Second Life also has the look and feel of a video game, so appeals to students who are highly motivated to learn within this environment.
Worldwide, well-recognized universities and colleges have been creating virtual campuses to complement classroom learning. In England, medical students at London's Imperial College can now train using a fully equipped virtual hospital in which they interact with and diagnose patients, order X-rays and perform virtual surgeries. The University of Texas is incorporating all of its 16 campuses in creating the world's largest undergraduate virtual learning environment. Other institutions found in Second Life include Princeton University, Harvard University, the University of Western Ontario and the International Society for Technology in Education.
With an average of 750,000 users logging close to 4 billion hours monthly and spending $600 million (U.S.) in 2009, Second Life has become a world within a world. Its economy is very real, sporting its own currency–Linden dollars–that can be cashed out into U.S. dollars. It is an environment in which residents can explore, travel, socialize, be entertained, build and learn. However, because Second Life has a "rated R" factor and includes participants from across the globe, some with quirky idiosyncrasies, it is inappropriate for students under 18.
A virtual world for high school students
To minimize the risks inherent within the adult world of Second Life, Linden Labs launched Teen Second Life in early 2005, creating a virtual environment for teenagers under age 17. Teachers who seek access to Teen Second Life with their students must first submit to a background check by Interpol, their police department or Ascertain, a private company that conducts screening and investigation reports. Upon approval, a teacher's "adult world" avatar is transferred to the teen world, where it is clearly identified as adult. When a teenager turns 18, their avatar is automatically transferred out of the teen world into the adult version of Second Life.
Recently, Lower Canada College (LCC) in Montreal, Quebec, explored the educational possibilities of Teen Second Life. Interestingly, due to the game's tighter restrictions, the virtual environment evolved differently from that of the adult world. Many collaborative projects evolved between schools with shared academic objectives, and some schools joined their islands together to form larger continents. For example, Global Kids, a group committed to working with inner-city urban youth, uses virtual reality to educate students about foreign policy issues and international relations.
Worldwide community and collaboration
Skoolaborate is another collaborative project on Teen Second Life with a rapidly growing membership, with participating schools developing projects accessible to all residents, thus forming a global campus. Established by Westley Field, the director of online learning at MLC School in Sydney, Australia, the Skoolaborate community began three years ago with six schools. It has since expanded to 45 schools and educational organizations, with the participation of up to 150 teachers and 4,000 students. Skoolaborate is only accessible to students and teachers from member schools, providing an additional layer of security.
What is particularly appealing about Skoolaborate is that it was conceived with the intent of providing students and teachers with an exceptional complement of online support tools and learning resources. When a school develops a virtual reality project, it also builds an array of online training tools that are readily accessible to all residents. Given Lower Canada College's research and development in online learning, Skoolaborate provided us with an ideal venue in which to learn and share with other schools.
Fusing Second Life with the curriculum
Last spring, LCC students began a project that promoted the learning of French. Required to read a French novella, students then rewrote several short scenes to be performed theatrically in Teen Second Life. Students built elaborate sets, acquired costumes and designed props. Other students, as part of a virtual audience, observed the performance, which was recorded and posted on the Internet. Though relatively simple, this first attempt was fun and fascinating for students. This year, LCC drama teacher Natasha Hart will join French teacher Mona Chidiac and me to enhance the performances and facilitate the production of custom-designed costumes and virtual sets.
The academic and social learning opportunities available in a virtual world such as Teen Second Life are numerous and often unexpected. For Westley Field, watching somewhat reclusive students become social butterflies in a virtual world, using their avatar's anonymity to overcome some of their social fears, has been remarkable. Academically, students' ability to design, measure, build, collaborate and then walk through their creations with friends from around the globe is another of the extraordinary learning opportunities. Rarely would you expect to hear a Teen Second Life student say, "But sir, when will I ever use these math concepts in the real world?" The conception and design of virtual reality projects provides students with many opportunities to apply abstract concepts. For those 80 per cent of students whose strength is not primarily linguistic, but rather visual-spatial, kinesthetic, logical, musical, interpersonal or intrapersonal, the richness of cues available in a virtual world provides a venue that evens the playing field for all learning styles and interests.