Second Life adds a new dimension to the classroom

In Features

By Susannah Blakey
For the Daily Titan

Some Cal State Fullerton professors use Second Life as an extension of their classroom. Fullerton Island is where students and faculty congregate on the site. Screen capture by Paul Lester.
Some Cal State Fullerton professors use Second Life as an extension of their classroom. Fullerton Island is where students and faculty congregate on the site. Screen capture by Paul Lester.
The flag ripples in the breeze, with Tuffy swaying back and forth. The sea shines and daytime turns to dusk. You fly past it all to make it on time for your evening class, settling into your seat for a lecture.

This is the path many visual communications students took spring semester of 2008 while attending an online class offered by Dr. Paul Lester, photocommunications concentration coordinator. The class was taught exclusively through Second Life, a 3-D virtual world developed by Linden Lab in 2003 that allows users to create an avatar and travel around different online worlds while socializing with other avatars.

One can seemingly live their life online through Second Life – so much so that Linden Labs reported last month that users have spent over one billion hours using its site.

Fullerton is just one of many universities, organizations and businesses that are on Second Life, utilizing the site as a teaching tool. Most students at CSUF are familiar with Fullerton’s online learning tool, Blackboard, but the school is now trying to extend the experience via Second Life. Helping spearhead the effort is Lester, who wanted to test the new technology.

“The idea of integrating a virtual look so it wouldn’t be just a chat room appealed to me,” Lester said.

After visiting the site and discovering its potential, Lester taught his online visual communications class solely through the Second Life Web site. Lester taught his students about topics such as movement, color and depth using tools on the site. The class — and Second Life — uses personalization to help simulate the face-to-face aspects of regular classroom learning. Students and teachers design their own avatars. Just like a regular class, the avatar has to be in class at a designated time.

Lester along with Dr. Cynthia King, part of the entertainment studies concentration faculty, recently completed a study comparing the experiences of students in the same class taught online versus in a classroom. Lester and King found that students in both learning environments received similar grades.

Fullerton Island is CSUF’s virtual campus in the Second Life world, but it is only one of the worlds students can visit to broaden their horizons.

Students can also take a spin through places like replicas of the Sistine Chapel, ancient Rome and even the inside of a computer.

Lester said creating this immersive educational resource is no easy task. “One of the drawbacks of Second Life is the amount of time it requires from a teacher,” he said.

He further stated that like any other technology it takes “time getting used to,” so many teachers may have a hard time adjusting to it.

Dennis Robinson, director of distance learning, which manages Fullerton Island, teaches faculty workshops on how to use the virtual tool in classrooms.

“Variety is important because students have lots of different learning styles,” Robinson said. “Second Life offers a social presence lacking from traditional online learning. It offers students live meetings with teachers which is more similar to traditional face-to-face teaching.”

Online courses are becoming popular because of advancements in technology and the rise of the Internet. Students at CSUF are no strangers to online learning and more and more classes are becoming available on the Web.

One student who sees the value of the online learning approach is political science major Sylvia Gutierrez who said, “I would love to take a class in Second Life. I feel there is more of a student-teacher interaction, compared to Blackboard where the approach is more individualistic.”

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