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 (http://secondlife.com/).
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.
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.
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."