Professor teaches communication classes on virtual Fullerton island

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Second Life, a virtual portal, allows students and professors to take online classes to a new level by actually simulating the face-to-face class through the web.

Photo Illustration by John Pekcan
Photo Illustration by John Pekcan

Program developer Linden Research Inc. released Second Life in 2003. It is a free, virtual world where people from all over the world can meet and create their own online societies.

It is “a 3-D world where everyone you see is a real person and every place you visit is built by people just like you,” according to their website.

The emphasis on self-expression and communication from its members, also called residents, are what attracts people to join.

Paul Martin Lester, Ph.D., a communications professor at Cal State Fullerton, uses the virtual world in teaching some of his classes.

Second Life allows for interaction, like dissecting and rotating images for his Visual Communications class. The live communication with students during his online office hours is equally important.

“I really enjoy the real-time, synchronous discussions that take place on Second Life, with the addition of avatar representations of the students,” said Lester.

How detailed that avatar is depends on the user and how they chose to represent themselves. Avatars range from humans to vampires, animals and robots, allowing for a wide variety of customization.

Once created, students can teleport to CSUF’s own “Fullerton Island” and use their avatars to explore.

A small land mass, the school’s flag sits atop a central mountain with a mock school below—complete with buildings, outdoor classrooms and even Pepsi vending machines.

Lester has his own area on the island for his online visual communication class filled with detailed, floating pictures and active videos that automatically play when an avatar gets near.

Wijesinghe Purasinghe, 41, is a nursing student who regularly visits the virtual CSUF destination. She said she enjoys being online with fellow classmates since online classes are primarily independent.

“It’s fun to see other students in class, so I don’t feel alone,” said Purasinghe. “The good thing is (the professor) makes the class fun and makes it exciting.”

Purasinghe also said that she prefers when teachers use professional web conferencing, but believes that the informal and interactive nature of Second Life is perfect for an online course about the visual aspects of communication.

James Reiter, 21,a junior American Studies major, is an active participant in Lester’s online course. He said his experience with the virtual classroom has been positive.

“I’m not a fan of teaching online, but Second Life has really impressed me with its ability to communicate easily,” said Reiter.

Both students acknowledged that Second Life can be slow and can take some time to load different things. Reiter added that its graphical presentation could be improved, as well. Outside skeptics of online classes may also question how well students perform.

Lester, along with fellow CSUF professor Cynthia King, Ph.D., conducted a study comparing a course taught online and an identical course taught in a traditional face-to-face, classroom setting.

Together they published their study, “Analog vs. Digital Instruction and Learning: Teaching Within First and Second Life Environments,” in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication during April 2009.

The classes were taught the same and came out with similar results. The average grade, out of 100 points, for those in a real classroom was an 84, while the average for those who sat in a virtual classroom online was an 80.

The positive feedback Lester has received from students and the continued support from school has allowed him to continue using Second Life as a teaching tool.

His upcoming book, Digital Innovations for Mass Communications: Engaging the User, is expected to be published early next year. It will be used in the Augmented Reality course he hopes to teach next spring.

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