Universities use Second Life for Education.

From left to right: Me, Tracy Villareal, and Riley Triggs in Second Life.

My avatar—a lanky, bald, black man in a professional grey suit and tie—stands upon a remote island next to Riley Triggs, a University of Texas Lecturer. He’s teleported me here to meet with a Professor of Marine Science, Tracy Villareal, who is currently holding lectures and class projects on this plot of Second Life land.

A short, fat orange man walks onto my screen. His green hair juts out like handle bars on either side of his balding head. He wears a poofy, hot-pink-on-black shirt and bulbous-blue bellbottoms.

Well, I think to myself, at least Villareal has a good sense of fashion.

“Welcome to the NEREUS project,” he tells me.

NEREUS, or Nautical Environment for Research, Exploration, and Understanding of the Seas, is one of UT’s forays into teaching through Second Life. Last semester, Triggs taught the first class, Design Technologies II, about spatial awareness and 3D technologies. Course work included projects that moved between the real and virtual worlds—and creating this island for Villareal. Leslie Jarmon of UT’s Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment used Triggs’ first class as a case study to receive a $250,000 grant to expand Second Life’s integration with courses.

On the NEREUS island, our avatars walk down a dock toward a boat with a mechanical arm hanging over the water. When we all have our seats, Villareal whispers coordinates to the boat, and it sails into the ocean. The ship moves slowly, taking almost five minutes to reach its destination. Villareal tells me it’s meant to convey a sense of realism to the students.

This stretch of land is a part of the Educators Co-op, a non-profit organization to support educational efforts in Second Life headed by Jarmon. Areas of this water are mapped to real world coordinates and ocean data from the NEREUS database. During class, Villareal assigns students data to document in order to find oxygen minimum zones, latitudinal and longitudinal gradients, and evidence of deep water circulation. The size of this ocean means the students must coordinate research vessel (RV) teams so their data isn’t redundant.

Our research vessel gathers data from the virtual ocean.

Riding this virtual boat from the comfort of my bedroom desk is nowhere near the experience of sailing the ocean in real life. But I have to admit, trekking out over the sparkling waters with my companions has a certain immersive quality to it. The glimmering water that stretches across my virtual horizon reminds me of boat trips I have had before.

“There are limitations, of course,” Villareal said. “One is frequently wet, cold, or really-really tired while sampling. Ships operate on a 24 hour basis, and stations can come really close together. You work until the work is done; sleep can be done later.”

No one’s saying Second Life can ever replace the experience of being on an actual RV in the Gulf of Mexico. Triggs acknowledges both the real and virtual worlds in the design curriculum: “Within our program, we’ve got a typographer who’s making prints on an old printing press using wood cut type from the 1800’s. The same students who were in [the Second Life course] last semester were in there helping him today and getting ink on their fingers and producing things on paper.”

The NEREUS project seems more akin to playing a Marine Science video game. It’s not so much replacing the real world experience as it is about providing UT students with a different way of learning. Skeptics ask, if you can’t achieve a real experience through Second Life, why bother spending $250,000 on this program? Triggs and Villareal tell me a significant time and financial investment would be needed to bring all 31 of Villareal’s students to the coast, put them on an actual boat, and conduct actual data gathering. In fact, UT just sold its RV which would have cost $5,000 — $50,000 dollars a day to maintain. This Second Life course provides students with a middle ground between an impossibly expensive experience and no experience at all.

Furthermore, Villareal is based in Port Aransas. Second Life allows him to remotely teach his students 250 miles away.

But why use Second Life and spend all this money on what is arguably a glorified chat room? After all, courses are more commonly and less expensively taught remotely over video conferencing. Triggs and Villareal argue that there simply isn’t the same level of engagement.

“The video conferencing thing just wasn’t working.” Triggs describes Villareal’s earlier classes: “He could only see the first row of people and they would fall asleep after a few minutes. There was a disconnect.”

Triggs theorizes that the Second Life lectures are more effective because users relate to others in virtual worlds by embodying their avatars.

“A lot of it has to do with that you can move through the environment,” he says, “It’s a 3D experience, which is much more like real life, instead of seeing something 2D displayed on a TV screen. That element of motion really activates the spatial sensibilities and starts to create a sense of place and makes it more like you’re interacting with another person”

The possibilities don’t end with virtual classrooms, however. Triggs wants to explore more kinds of virtual congregation. If you can gather students and instructors in a virtual space, why not hold a virtual conference? Hundreds of attendees who would otherwise have to pay for airfare and lodging can attend from their homes.

“That’s one of the reasons the presidents of the different campuses were for it: it’s so cost effective,” he says. “I mean there’s nothing more cost effective to get a bunch of people together than to do it in Second Life. It’s fractions of a percent of a penny to have someone log on. They’re not missing productivity by not missing work.”

His efforts have even caught the attention of Jim Walker, UT’s Director of Sustainability. Environmentally speaking, virtual classrooms and conferences have almost no carbon footprints. Triggs even muses about putting meters on virtual buildings that show how much CO2 has not been emitted.

Back in the NEREUS project, I spot a large structure floating over the ocean to the left of our boat. It starts at a brown round base with long, thin arms that shoot up toward the sky. Green disks protrude from the top of these arms. To the side of these green disks are informational slides suspended in midair. Villareal tells me it’s an unfinished structure for a student presentation. Once the boat reaches the coordinates given earlier, he whispers more commands to the boat. The mechanical arm lowers into the water and a wall of data is fed into our chat window.

In the NEREUS HQ building.

After sampling a few other locations we return to shore and walk to the HQ building on the island. On one wall a slideshow of colorful graphs displays student data from the project. Right next to it, a balding mannequin sits at a desk, welcoming me to NEREUS.

“If you could see me, you would notice an uncanny hairline resemblance between myself and the character sitting over there,” Villareal jokes. “Riley’s class thought they were very funny.”

Portraits of Triggs(far left) and the students who created NEREUS line a wall of the HQ.

On the far wall hung a row of student portraits depicting Triggs’ Design Technology II students who built NEREUS during their pioneering course. This project is a rare instance where an undergraduate class created the coursework for another undergraduate class. Creating NEREUS under Villareal’s specifications gave the students experience working with a client to design and create something.

“So what I’ve always done is have them design something and then I make them build it,” Triggs says, “and then they’re like ’Oh this is hard to build, I shouldn’t have designed it that way.’ So they really need to think about how things are built in order to design them better.”

Triggs believes the disconnect between design and creation extends into the virtual realm as well. As virtual worlds become more prevalent in our lives, the necessity of understanding them will follow.

“Designers are going to need to know how to deal with those environments,” he says. “What are the similarities, what are the differences, what are the expectations? Things like wayfinding, spatial design, graphic design, computer coding. All that stuff is going to be necessary in the next few years if someone wants to do any design work at all, really. There’s going to be some component that’s going to be virtual whether it’s designing in three dimensions in your computer and it spits out on a 3D printer, or you’re actually designing for an environment that is persistent world like Second Life or gaming. It’s going to become part of a designer’s toolkit.”

Virtual worlds becoming prominent parts of our lives? The thought of everyone spending more time in these virtual worlds than in the real world can be scary.

“So yes, I’m kind of against things that take you out of the real world,” Triggs says. “I even hate talking on the phone because it’s somebody who’s someplace else and I have to cut myself off from the world while I’m doing it. You know, you see people, they get a cell phone call and they physically get up and move someplace else to talk on the phone. So it literally removes you from the people you’re with. But at the same time it connects you to people in a way that wouldn’t be possible. And so the trick is to make those things complement each other and bring it into one larger world instead of separate worlds that separate people.”

The design class’s semester culminated in a project where images from Second Life were projected onto the walls of a real world tent. A camera was set up in the tent that sent its stream into Second Life where it was projected onto the walls of a virtual cube.

“I’m really looking at smoothing the space between virtual and physical so that they do complement each other, so that it’s not an ’either-or’ situation. It’s a ‘both-and,’” he said.

As with any pioneering project, Triggs and Villareal are looking to learn from their respective first semesters using Second Life.

Villareal has assigned his students virtual presentations. One of these works in progress hovers on the horizon.

“I have to be careful about the SL presentations,” Villareal says. “The classroom tends to be a bit unruly if I am not in it when the class is in SL. From what I understand, there is a bit ofAnimal House. Lots of extraneous things going on: banter, conversation outside the class topic, people wandering around, playing on Facebook, checking their [avatars], editing appearance, etc. There is a whole new world of distractions in the classroom.”

Triggs’s Design course teaches Second Life as another tool such as the printing press or Photoshop. However, Villareal’s course is using Second Life as a medium to teach the Marine Science curriculum. Students must cope with traditional information delivered in a new way. Despite the experimental nature of the integrating Second Life into these courses, students had no option to opt out of either class. Predictably, many had their reservations.

“For the science students, Second Life is a means of communicating information, much like PowerPoint,” Villareal says. “They find the new software skills required a hindrance. So, it is my challenge to find out how to use Second Life to get them to learn while creating content.”

A virtual slideshow displays ocean research data.

So far, students have been turning in assignments as PowerPoint presentations. However, as evidenced by the towering brown structure I saw on our boat trip, Villareal wants the final presentations to be in Second Life. These virtual presentations have elicited some moaning from students who were more reluctant to create things in Second Life.

“So, that’s the big learning curve for me,” he says. “I think it has potential to seriously frustrate folks who don’t appreciate this. This is not to say that all my students feel this way. There are some very creative ones that are thriving. It is just that most of them have developed test taking and study skills that may not work well outside the box in Second Life”

Similarly, Triggs’ class had its share of skeptical students who either didn’t like Second Life or weren’t familiar with virtual worlds at all. A survey of the students found that around 21% did not understand how to engage in design that moved between real and virtual worlds. After the course, 100% of students felt they could do so. Triggs recalls one particular World of Warcraft-playing student who had tried Second Life before the class but had never engaged in the more social aspects of it.

“Once [she realized the social aspects of Second Life] and there was a reason for being there and she could be with friends, she was all over the place,” he says. “She was working on more projects than she had to.”

Back in the NEREUS HQ building, I finally gather enough courage to ask Villareal about his eccentric avatar.

“Not really a presentable business avatar, but professors are allowed (expected?) to be eccentric,” he said. He tells me it’s nothing compared to some of his students’ avatars. “Imagine a transgender redneck with a beer gut and pointy ears. They are not shy.”

It’s easy to dismiss Second Life as the kooky, red-headed stepchild of the MMO world. The first time I logged in, I found the controls unintuitive, and even for my powerful PC, the graphics left much to be desired. Textures and models pop into view as they slowly render on screen. Moving through densely populated areas can feel like walking through molasses. Ask the average person about Second Life and they’ll probably tell you about a friend of a friend who was addicted to it or laugh at the sexually deviant communities that call it their home. It’s a preconception that the proponents of education in virtual worlds will have to combat.

“There were naysayers about the telephone,” Triggs counters. “People wanted to string wires around and talk to people in other cities. They were like, why would we ever need that? That’s not to say that Second Life is even going to be around in the next five years, but the idea of it is going to evolve.”

Triggs is currently looking into Blue Mars, a virtual world like Second Life, which uses the cutting edge Crysis Engine for graphics. In addition, instead of building everything in game, objects can be imported from traditional 3D design programs such as 3D Studio Max and Maya. Blue Mars is in closed beta at the moment. If it can eliminate Second Life’s technical challenges and cultural stigmas, it might just pick up Second Life’s educational torch.


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