Loyola Marymount University invites you to teleport over to one of its new islands. When you touch down, you can sit on the benches by the fountain, chat with classmates or read the William James quote etched into the waist-high curved wall. Later you can head over to the exhibit that shows what it’s like to be inside a human brain. And while you’re doing any of the above, you can appear as almost any kind of person you like, even an anime creature or just a younger, more muscular version of yourself — your virtual image, called an avatar. You are inside what may be an essential component of the future of higher education: the immersive Internet, or Web 3.0. Specifically, you are “in world,” a member of the online community called Second Life, where estimates of regular users vary widely and range from 300,000 to more than 6 million. Second Life is also being used for academic research and instruction. LMU has four islands in Second Life: Computer Science Island, Engineering Island, Psychology Island and Modern Language Island. On Engineering Island, students are treated to an interactive science museum, where the exhibits can be “touched” and engineering concepts can be explored. “It is an amazing experience,” said Stephanie August, director of graduate studies for the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering. “We are creating a learning environment where the teacher can be available 24/7.” Second Life is a virtual world (secondlife.com) where users, who enter by using a password, socialize, play games, buy and sell virtual products, and generally interact as in the real world. But the possibilities in Second Life are not limited to gaming, socializing and business. Second Life is also home to real-world colleges and universities, such as Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, that are exploring this virtual world for its potential to take online learning to a new level. The target audience for LMU’s Engineering Island is first-year students. The island utilizes the very social nature of the medium — and the familiarity that today’s college-age students have with it — to teach logical operations and engineering concepts. Students are able to control devices, explore the interactive sculpture in the island’s museum and even converse with the historical scientific figures in the portraits on the wall.
21st century literacy
“We have an opportunity at LMU to do something great,” said Richard Gilbert, professor of psychology in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, “to become the world’s leading educational institution in the emerging three-dimensional Internet.” Gilbert is a leading proponent of the LMU Virtual Worlds Initiative and its related Second Life efforts. “Literacy in the 21st century,” said Joseph Hellige, vice president for Research and dean of Graduate Studies, “includes communication using various forms of new media, like interactive Web technology, simulation and virtual reality.” In June 2008, Hellige convened a meeting that included Gilbert, John Dionisio and August, assistant and associate professors, respectively, in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The gathering led to collaboration between the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science on the “development of a virtual teaching, research and conferencing campus in Second Life.” Seaver College and the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts chipped in funds, as did benefactors Irene and Edward D. Holly (an amphitheater on LMU’s Second Life campus is named in honor of Edward) and the National Science Foundation. In summer 2008, each department purchased an island, and Psychology Island was developed to offer real courses in Second Life. Today, all or parts of five courses are taught there. Also, cutting-edge psychology research work is underway. “Having a presence in Second Life opens the door to research that would be difficult or impossible to conduct in our ‘first life’ world,” Hellige said. “It also provides a cost-effective way to immerse students in simulations of almost any imaginable environment and to study the effects on student learning.” Dionisio and Gilbert team-teach a course called “An Introduction to Virtual Worlds: Psychological, Computer Science and Aesthetic Perspectives.” Half the course time is spent in an LMU classroom, and half in Psychology Island, via the 160- seat virtual reality lecture hall equipped with real-time audio, video and document download capabilities. Some educators say that Second Life classes can help students who withdraw in class, perhaps because of their appearance or a lack of confidence in their ability to engage in discussions. Because everybody in Second Life chooses or designs their own avatar, physical attractiveness means less. “I have already seen students,” Dionisio said, “who seem to be transformed by their use of a virtual immersive environment. They show an excitement and enthusiasm that previously was missing with traditional approaches.”
Some observers are skeptical about Second Life’s educational horizons. First, Second Life, like the Internet, has its share of adult activities and regions. Second, how to guarantee that an avatar is being operated by the appropriate user, in a virtual exam setting for example, is a concern. Finally, some educators say that the virtual classroom cannot match the face-to-face learning that takes place in a real classroom. They wonder: Is Second Life merely a bells-and-whistles diversion when it comes to education? Hellige suggests that some questions can be answered by more research into the technology’s potential. “It would certainly be useful if we showed that students can learn as well in the virtual world as in the real world,” Hellige said. “But the really exciting thing would be to discover how to use the virtual experience to produce learning that goes beyond what we can do without the virtual experience.” Gilbert foresees more LMU departments adding courses and even their own islands. He also envisions vanguard programming, such as creating dream archives that would allow visitors to experience 3-D, animated dreams of others and lead to improved ability to understand and empathize with others. “The three-dimensional Internet is not some kind of fad,” Gilbert said. As for increasing LMU’s presence? “We have very little to lose. We have an en