Peter Leong’s rooftop terrace on top of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics building is easily one of the most scenic, high tech classrooms at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Students and instructors sit on cushions on a grid-patterned floor, encircled by multimedia screens. Beyond, ocean vistas stretch to the horizon. A few students are fancifully dressed in flowing garb; some have chosen rather skimpy outfits. Oddly, all have been sitting in the same posture. They rise on Leong’s instruction.
“Okay everyone, rez a prim,” he says. Suddenly a pulsating beam of light shoots out of each student’s hand and objects of various shapes begin appearing on top of the grid.
This is not a new cohort of wizards and witches, but a class of educational technology students in the UHM College of Education, meeting online in a three-dimensional virtual world known as Second Life.
“Rez a prim” is Second Life speak for “create an object.” The educational objects they’ll build by the end of the class include notecards, virtual books and interactivity tools for conducting surveys or creating animation or sound effects.
The students are training for a future in which distance and online learning, multimedia conferencing, professional networking and even recruiting will happen as naturally in a virtual space as they do in real life.
Seem far-fetched? A recent study estimates that one in eight Americans spends some time each week in a virtual environment where they represent themselves with avatars that range from the realistic to supernatural to wholly fanciful. At last count, World of Warcraft is the largest, with a subscription base of 11.5 million gamers; Habbo Hotel counts 8 million regular teen players; and the Disney-owned Club Penguin has attracted more than 12 million kids age 6–14. Users are tricky to count for Second Life, the creative laboratory most widely adopted by educators, but an estimated 1.5 million people go in at least every 2-3 months. The number continues to grow as the powerful computers and fast connection speeds needed to experience the 3D web become more pervasive.
“By the time they reach college—the first big group of ’tweens will arrive within five years—they’re going to expect virtual education, and we have to be ready for that.”
She notes with pride the leadership of librarians across the country in getting faculty members into Second Life and supporting their information needs once they are teaching there, as she has been doing for the past two semesters. “We’re trying to figure out creative ways to interact with information in a virtual world because you can do things very differently here.”
Educational applications include virtual field trips to various sims, or simulated environments. For example, Second Life has a replica of the Sistine Chapel—inferior to the real thing, certainly (although the lack of crowds is refreshing), but in many ways better than a photograph given the ability to see the placement of paintings on the ceiling and zoom in on the artwork.
On the NOAA island, visitors can observe a tsunami, fly through a hurricane and explore a realistic underwater world. The University of California, Davis Virtual Hallucinations sim lets visitors experience visual and auditory hallucinations associated with schizophrenia. The group running the Globe Theatre island presents Shakespeare plays in real time. Possibilities for disciplines such as architecture, art, foreign language, engineering, economics and even Hawaiian culture abound for educators who apply their skills to the technology.
The University of Hawai’i island in Second Life features four buildings that share a Mānoa courtyard—HIG, Holmes, Sakamaki and POST—as well as two floating skydecks and a treehouse. Funding for the research that established the island will end in March 2010; new support is being sought.
Mānoa psychologist Leon James is teaching two courses there this fall. One is on avatar psychology, which is the study of human behavior through avatars in the virtual world.
But securing virtual land takes real money, paid yearly. Grant-funded projects might lease a parcel, but campuses don’t have designated funding for a continued presence in Second Life, said Mary Hattori, Kapiʻolani Community College assistant professor and coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching and Technology, on a recent episode of Hawaiʻi Public Radio’s Bytemarks Café. “We need a sustained presence.”
Her sentiments are echoed across UH campuses and departments, including Honolulu Community College where technology coordinator Jonathan Wong is excited by the possibilities but, like everyone, challenged by constraints of budget and technology. “We’re looking at ways we can use Second Life to better engage students in the learning process as well as lowering operating costs for certain programs,” he says.
A Honolulu and Mānoa alumnus and of UH President’s Emerging Leaders Program graduate, Wong foresees using the space for committee meetings or conferences as travel budgets shrivel. This is already happening on a small scale. He also envisions subject-based collaboration that could unite students from various campuses around their discipline, be it nursing or automotive technology.
Other educators note that Second Life collaborations alleviate the isolation students sometimes feel using traditional distance learning technologies and could encourage community college students to continue their studies in four-year institutions. UH West Oʻahu is testing the placement of recruiting information on the UH island and Mānoa’s College of Education will soon be doing the same.
It may be several years before a UH presence in Second Life is ready for prime-time educational use, but proponents emphasize the importance of exploring and studying the technology while building an interdisciplinary coalition.
As Leong puts it: “Like any tool, any technology, we need to understand is its advantages, disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses, and then capitalize on the strengths to the advantage of teaching and learning.”
Noted Second Life correspondent
One of Second Life’s first and most prominent chroniclers is UH Mānoa alumnus Wagner James Au, or Hamlet Au as he is known online.
Au spent the ’90s writing about the then-emerging culture of games for publications including Wired and Salon, designing games and writing screenplays that got optioned but not developed. Soon after Second Life was launched in 2003, parent company Linden Labs hired him to document what was happening there.
He continues to write, notably for business media network GigaOm.com and on his own heavily trafficked blog, New World Notes. His book, The Making of Second Life (HarperCollins), combines history and personal experiences to paint a rich picture of the community.
“I love writing about the relationships between the person’s real life and what they’re doing in Second Life,” explains Au, who says his philosophy degree helps him endlessly. “There are people with really extraordinary stories, with all kinds of ambitions and dreams to create things that they couldn’t create in real life or enhance what they already have or create an alternate identity that has nothing to do with their real life.”
His book is punctuated with vignettes about Second Life characters he’s met: the homeless computer programmer living in a virtual mansion; the in-world supermodel who lives her first life as a paraplegic; the injured Iraqi vet, unable to resume his civilian occupation, making money as a virtual real estate agent; the 87-year-old holocaust survivor reaching out to share her story. “One of the most powerful educational tools in Second Life is you get to be in a community of really diverse people who have all kinds of life background.”
A seasoned industry observer, Au confirms that educators took notice of Second Life fairly early on. “A lot of the big universities are there, Princeton is there, Harvard is there, MIT, University of Hawaiʻi and everywhere in between, for all kinds of reasons. As far as virtual worlds in general, there is a lot of potential beyond Second Life,” he says. “But I like what UH is doing. For a place like Hawaiʻi, Second Life is a good way of connecting people.”
UH Second Life evangelist
The UH island is administrated by Sam Joseph, a College of Education researcher and tireless Second Life evangelist. He recruits faculty from across the UH System to explore and eventually leverage the strengths of Second Life in their classrooms and seeks funding to perpetuate the UH Island past March 2010.
“Of the new social media out there, Second Life has definitely got a steeper learning curve,” admits Joseph. To 3D gamers and the so-called digital natives of the Millenial generation, getting started in Second Life is usually fairly straightforward, but others may find it frustrating and disorienting. Joseph likens exploring Second Life on one’s one to being dropped unawares in the middle of Times Square: confusing, over-stimulating and seedy in places.
“We are trying to craft a positive arrival experience where people are aware of what’s going on,” Joseph says. Although he obliquely forgives the existence of mature content (in part because it often drives technology), the sheer volume of commerce and recreationally oriented content exemplifies the value of having a UH island that is safe and designed for educational purposes.
To help newbies get oriented in Second Life, he offers weekly tours to anyone interested in the UH island and generously helps newcomers learn the ropes; email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.