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Real learning in a virtual world

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2006

They may be college teachers and students, but they're also pioneers – exploring strange new worlds that exist nowhere on Earth. That's because their classes and field trips take place only on computers, using an online digital world called Second Life (

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Some 60 schools and universities have set up shop inside Second Life – most in the past year. They join a population that includes real-world business people, politicians, entertainers, and more than 800,000 other "residents" of the virtual world.

For the first time this fall, a Harvard University class is meeting on its own "Berkman Island" within Second Life (SL). "Avatars," visual images that represent the students and teachers, gather in an "outdoor" amphitheater, head inside a virtual replica of Harvard Law School's Austin Hall, and travel to complete assignments all over the digital world. (If SL could be magically brought into the "real world," it would cover about 85 square miles.)

Some 90 Harvard law and extension school students taking the course, called "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion," can receive real college credit. But anyone on earth with a computer connection can also take the course for free. Students are participating from as far away as South Korea and China.

While virtual classrooms lack certain advantages of real ones, they are advancing online teaching methods, especially in the way they can make students thousands of miles apart feel like they've really gathered together for a class.

"The typical experience in a distance-education class is to go to a website, watch a video, [and] correspond by e-mail ... usually just with the instructor and even then only intermittently," says Rebecca Nesson, a Harvard law school graduate who is teaching the class along with her father, law school professor Charles Nesson. "Second Life gives us the capability to really have a classroom experience with the students."

Having the avatars meet, Ms. Nesson says, "really changes the way the classroom conversation proceeds because you have a sense of all of these people being there participating in one way or another.... It somehow gives people a sense of community that they're not by themselves doing this."

The students, who communicate via text messaging, can even have private one-to-one asides, just as they might in real life. "They can ask, 'Hey, do you really understand this assignment? I don't know what's going on here. What did you think about X, Y, or Z?' " Nesson says.

To illustrate a story called the Three Hat Riddle, the solution to which makes a point about self-perception, she was able to bring three student avatars to the front of the "class" and place different colored hats on their heads. This visual lesson wouldn't have worked nearly as well using text-only e-mail or instant messaging.

Other classes using SL include undergraduate English composition courses at Ball State and Central Missouri State universities, an education course at Pepperdine University, and a medical course on hypertension at the University of Tennessee. This winter, Bradley University will offer what the instructor calls "Field Research in Second Life."

More and more people are choosing to live some kind of second life online. The role-playing game World of Warcraft, in which players work together to accomplish missions, defeat enemies, and become ever more powerful, boasts millions of players worldwide.

But SL represents something different. Rather than a game with set goals, it is a "life" that its residents decide to live, a virtual world some see as an early version of "The Matrix," depicted in a popular Hollywood movie series.

In SL, residents can set up businesses, buy land, build structures, or go to clubs or concerts to hang out and meet others. They can be as industrious or as lazy as they wish. Entering SL and looking around is free, but buying things like fancy clothes for your avatar or other "in world" possessions cost Linden dollars. One US dollar buys about 280 Linden dollars.

"Education is actually growing to become a very significant part of how SL is used," says John Lester, community and education manager at Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based company that owns and operates Second Life, now in its third year.