My primary area of research is training enhanced by the Internet. When most people think of this, they envision the only part of the Internet that they are familiar with – the Web. This vision usually includes what’s sometimes called a learning management system (e.g. Blackboard/WebVista or Moodle). If they went to college in the last decade or so, they think of the courses they took with syllabuses and sometimes lecture notes posted to these systems. And although more innovative methods exist, information is usually just placed online (whether through plain text, audio clips, or videos) and learners are expected to absorb it.
But the web isn’t the only place learning takes place on the Internet. People can also learn in immersive virtual worlds, like Second Life. In these environments, you can create a virtual version of yourself (in ed-tech circles, this is called an agent) and then engage that version of yourself in whatever activities you like. Some simply explore. Some develop clothing and sell it to other players. Some buy land and rent out furnished apartments or homes. Some even engage in sex trade. The options are only limited by the users’ ability to create content within the Second Life universe.
Which is precisely why this is so powerful as an instructional tool, both in educational and organizational settings. In Second Life, the user isn’t simply playing a game – a version of themselves is actually present in the virtual world, with all the good and bad that comes with it. In a classroom setting, the sense of presence – the idea that when sitting in on a lecture, that you are actually there in the same room with the lecturer – is surprisingly strong. This opens up a great range of possibilities – students collaborating across continents suddenly requires relatively little effort above and beyond normal class preparation.
What you see to the left is what I call the ODU-SLRF – the Old Dominion University Second Life Research Facility. I’ve built it on a small plot of land on one of the main “continents” of Second Life in order to conduct classes and run studies in this virtual world. On the second floor, you can see a classroom just waiting for students to attend.
What’s amazing about this whole affair is that I built that entire facility – walls, floors, chairs, doors and all – and it only took a few hours of work. There is a currency system inside Second Life (called Linden Dollars, or L$ – roughly US$1 = L$270), but other than to buy the land, I never had to use it. Everything you see here was either created by me by hand or acquired for free from other residents. If you don’t want to spend any real money in Second Life (important if you are asking college students or employees to participate!), then you don’t ever need to. Accounts are free, basic building components are free, and a sizable library of objects can be acquired for free. The only thing that always costs real money is buying the virtual land itself. Unless of course, you want to hire someone to do all of the design and building for you.
Thus sits my research facility, run by my Second Life alter-ego, Arlanders Rae, just waiting for its first round of participants. Come by and take a look if you want. It only takes a free download and free account to visit. And if you’d like a guided tour, just ask!