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Real learning in a virtual world

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Unlike role-playing games, Linden Labs has not provided a "story" for residents to experience, Mr. Lester says. The residents create all of what they find inside SL.

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For example, teachers of architecture bring their students to SL to build things that would either be too expensive or physically impossible to create in the real world. "The students can see each other while they're building and work collaboratively around projects," Lester says. Others, such as psychologists and sociologists, study what people choose to do in SL and why they're doing it, he says.

"In a virtual world, where there's no weather and no need for shelter, why do people need to build houses, which they do?" Lester asks. "It really comes down to our desire to have spaces that feel familiar so that we can socialize in them." People even build virtual campfires and sit around them to talk, he says.

SL is a middle ground between the familiar and the fanciful, where imaginations can blossom, he says. Going there is like entering "a sort of slightly surreal state, like 'Through the Looking-Glass,' where you see a lot of things that look familiar – you'll be walking down a street and see a car go by and clouds overhead. [But] then you'll see a giant flying dragon float overhead."

Also inside SL, real-world businesses experiment with new business models, computer science students run new programs while classmates and others watch, and chemistry students walk around and discuss a giant model of a molecule they've built. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is creating simulations inside SL to teach the public about tsunamis and other phenomena. A federally funded bioterrorism-preparedness project, Play2Train, has built its own virtual town and hospital.

"It's still a pioneering space. We're still trying to figure out how to use it best," Lester says.

"I'm really learning more about our subject matter this way than I would be otherwise. It's fun," writes Jason Cordial, a sophomore taking an SL writing class at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., in an e-mail. He calls himself "Bobsesnstien Crispien" in SL. "People can do things in this virtual world that they can't do in the real world, and we have to come up with ways of describing these things that can only exist in the virtual world. It really stretches the imagination and grows a person's creativity."

Scott James is taking a course in SL at the graduate school of education and psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. He agrees that SL offers "tons of learning environments," but he also has encountered technical glitches. At one point, when he tried to put new clothing on his avatar, Reign Buchanan, the words "no image" appeared instead of a head. "I was pretty much missing a face," he says.

For teachers, the chance to join students in varied environments is appealing. "It's almost as if I'm physically there with [my students]," says Bill Moseley, who teaches 19 students in the SL class at Pepperdine. If we want to, "we can have class with everyone sitting in a [virtual] hot tub," he says, which presents "a whole different kind of context" in which students might feel freer to have a "more casual off-the-record type of discussion."

As SL grows, it will offer an ever-more-compelling virtual world for students, says Sarah Robbins, an English instructor at Ball State who's teaching 18 students in an SL classroom. "There are so many communities within SL where my students can learn more about what they couldn't in the real world – different nationalities, religions, sociopolitical groups," she says.

Ball State and other schools have bought "land" on SL to build a campus. Ball State's Middletown Island has a tiki bar and lounge for dancing, a coffee shop, and dorms where students can "live" in SL without having to buy their own land.

The students decorate their dorms with furnishings they buy in SL and then write about the experience for a composition class. And since anyone's avatar can look female or male (or not human at all), some students are writing about what it's like to be taken for the opposite gender. Among Mr. Moseley's students at Pepperdine, about 70 percent chose avatars that look much like their real-life selves, he says. The rest look "strikingly different."