Thursday, January 05, 2006

Virtual Environments for Online Education

“Gamers come to virtual worlds because in them they find more than a game, they find other gamers.”.

Ludlow, P. and Wallace, M. (2006). Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much. to be published by O'Reilly Press. (

After attending the Games, Learning and Society (GLS) conference last summer in Madison I began researching a multi-user virtual environment called Second Life. Soon after realizing the potential of this environment I obtained funding to purchase a piece of land (also know as region or island) and began to build a 3D replica of our university campus (Altgeld Hall and the surrounding landscape). I decided to call this region Glidden Campus which provided some anonymity while also familiarity to our student population. I was to soon realize this project was not a small undertaking. I have put over 650 hours into research and development since July 1, 2005 - Jan. 2006. I am working on this almost every night and weekend. I have been told Altgeld is one of the largest structures in Second Life and with only the exterior shell competed I have used over 8000 primitive object to construct it.

Altgeld front view
Altgeld front view

Altgeld back view
Altgeld back view

Altgeld itself will be used as an orientation center (the technology lab), a social center (the auditorium), it will contain a resource room, a Huskie store, and an art gallery, a perfect venue for fine arts students to hold virtual art shows or to teach gallery layout. Altgeld could be used by our own gallery directors to decide on gallery placement as it would be easy to move things around and mock up the show before you took days installing massive pieces of art.

In order to maintain the immersive quality of our university campus landscape I decided to put the classrooms in the sky (600 meters high) that the students teleport to from the bus stop. These classrooms can look like anything from a courtroom, a club, or the surface of Mars.

Photo of the Black Sun II
Classroom designed after the Black Sun from the novel Snow Crash

While initially most people try to make their avatar look like themselves the avatar can look like whatever you want it to. If in real life a student is in a wheel chair, in the game he can walk along side his classmates. You can look like a human, hello kitty, or a little fox. Diversity seems to rule in this virtual world. Avatars are referred to as residents in Second Life because it is not so much a game, but a place, a virtual environment. However, there are games in Second Life such as Darklife, Tringo and Chess, built with primitive objects and scripted with a language similar to C++ by the residents.

Photo of Ali in front of Dartmouth
Ali in Hanover New Hampshire, built by Dartmouth

I am currently collaborating with faculty from all over the world and most recently helped a Central Missouri State University faculty member present to students and faculty at Sorbonne University in Paris France. While he was physically in Paris, I was in my office in Illinois presenting through my avatar (Ali) in Second Life. Walking along side the presenter's avatar, Ali answered the student’s questions, gave them a tour of an in-world library, a planetarium and a replica of downtown Hanover New Hampshire (Hanover was developed by Dartmouth University for one of their homeland security for Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training.) I heard later that my presentation in Paris was a huge success with the students, with tons of questions afterwards about if I was a real person, etc.

BP Simulation

In addition the corporate world is using Second Life for training. I recently attended an in-world presentation by a company that tests gas station equipment. They developed a replica of a typical gas station to train their "new field techs on how gas stations work before letting them loose on real gas pumps". The asphalt suddenly disappears so the trainees can see all the pipes and valves below ground. The face of the pump does the same so they can see how it is constructed. Finally a simulated fire is started and the trainees have to follow proper procedures to address the situation.

A similar product developed by Disney called Virtual Magic Kingdom is now available for kids. I know several 10 year olds who spend their time hanging out with their classmates after school in the game, which isn’t such a bad thing because these kids are also learning keyboarding skills, spelling (the game won’t accept a misspelled word) and writing. In addition they are learning to follow cyberculture rules, such as what is appropriate language to use, the consequences of sharing their passwords and the system prevents them from typing phone numbers or names. One of these kids recently visited the real Disney World and he knew exactly where every ride was located, and tons of details about the Magic Kingdom based on his experience in the game. This example could be translated to lots of applications for adult immersive learning using Second Life.

The Army also uses a similar product for high level tactical distance training called “The Virtual Tactical Operations Center” bringing together geographically dispersed students and instructors for collaborative online learning.

Army Training

"The technology in games has facilitated a revolution in the art of warfare," says David Bartlett, the former chief of operations at the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office, a high-level office within the Defense Department and the focal point for computer-generated training at the Pentagon. "

Virtual Reality Prepares Soldiers for Real War, Washington Post (02/14/06) P. A1; Vargas, Jose Antonio

Some other ideas of how this can be use to supplement courses includes: the College of Business could use this environment for the apprentice game, because Second life has a real economy.

“For the truth is that virtual world economies are extensions of the economy of the "real“ world. Because real world currencies are involved, there is nothing "fake" or "merely play" about them. As of September 2005, one U.S. dollar bought about 282 Linden dollars, plus change, on, the main currency exchange for Lindens. In July 2005, one U.S. dollar fetched 248 Lindens. If your Second Life business is pulling in a million Lindens a month (as more than one SL business does, according to Rosedale), that's the difference between $3,546.10 in gross revenues in September and $4,032.26 in July, almost $500, or a difference of almost 14 percent.”

Ludlow, P. and Wallace, M. (2006). Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much. to be published by O'Reilly Press. (

We could use Second Life to teach 3D modeling, computer programming, architectural design and humanities. Our university Public Affairs wants to use this to create advertisements for use at football and basketball games. We could build virtual replicas of cities not only for homeland security training but to demonstrate future city development and enhancements.

As this system becomes more popular and accessible I can see it being used for online tutoring and student communities, where students can hang out with their classmates (both on campus and off – campus, globally even). Tutors, labeled as such, will be found just hanging out in a coffee shop available to answer a quick question or take appointments for additional help.

There are a few drawbacks to using the system. It requires the user to have high speed connectivity (cable modem) and a good graphics card. Most campus computers have adequate hardware, but some students may not be able to access this from their homes (except maybe for PC gamers, they will have no problem).

It is amazing to me that all of a sudden we have this inexpensive tool right on our desktops that provides such amazing graphics and flexibility. This is the largest technical leap I have seen in 10 years on the Internet. A system like this proves we are going to see amazing changes in how we will use the Internet to find information, learn, and even interact with others in the very near future.

The link below provides snapshots and videos to give you a sense of the look and feel. But you really have to experience it to get a true feel for the quality of the graphics and animation, the level of interactivity and ability to communicate with others in the game with more than just chat, but body language as well. It is truly amazing.

This link contains presentation notes for an Educause conference on using Second Life to teach computer mediated communication. It also contains links to several Second Life video captures.

Other Blogs on Second Life

The Metaverse
Eric Rice on Second Life:


Amy said...

Great article, thanks for well placed examples, I'm new to Second Life but am trying to explore it with an eye towards Academic Technology. I hope to bump into you in SL, maybe we can chat some more.

Abaga Rutabega in SL

Anonymous said...

Very informative article, thank you for your suggestions and tips.
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Rizwan ali said...

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sf said...

If we able to using this in all schools then it nothing better then that.
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Ali Pharouq Najar said...

very formative article