We are still far away from Matrix-style 'uploading' directly into our brains, but virtual reality in the form of Second Life may soon replace the classroom.

Ofsted's recent survey shows that Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) for schools have been slower to take off than expected, failing to "enthuse" students, reports the BBC.

VLEs were found to be a "dumping ground" for rarely-used files, rather than an interactive forum to enhance teaching in a classroom.

But what if we didn't need classrooms? What if we rolled out of bed, unbrushed and unshowered, and logged in to class?

Far-fetched, perhaps, but that's the modus operandi of Second Life.

From Virtual Learning Environment to Social Virtual World

Dr. Li Jin, Course Leader of MSc Computer Animation at Westminster University, thinks virtual worlds are a powerful teaching medium.

Her research examines how Social Virtual Worlds (SVWs) transform the nature of learning as social practice, and aims to design an innovative platform which combines SVWs with conventional VLEs.

She says: "With increasingly pervasive high-speed networking connections and the technological evolution of Internet technology, SVWs have emerged to facilitate social interaction, combining efficient visual communication, integration of rich media, and the share of user-generated content in a collaborative environment.

"They have expanded and challenged ideas of the next generation of virtual learning environment."

Second Life art

SVW Second Life (SL), a downloadable client program inspired by the cyperpunk movement, enables 'residents' to interact with each other through motional avatars in the 'metaverse'.

Though akin to social networks like Facebook, it is differentiated by its rich graphics platform that fosters an immersive 3D environment.

SL residents can sell avatar designs, display 'real art' and also create 'virtual art' with the 3D modeling tool, which may be impossible to create in the real world due to physical constraints or high costs.

Countries including Sweden and The Maldives have virtual 'embassies', 'live' concerts and rallies take place, and Second Life has even hosted a virtual Inaugural Ball for US President Obama.

Second Life: the new distance-learning

SL, which offers discounted rates to educators to purchase campus land, has a large education community including leading universities Harvard, Iowa State, Stanford and The Open University.

SL is also a valuable medium for organisations such as the NMC, which fosters shared learning among educators by running inworld seminars and conferences related to virtual worlds.

Though distance learning has existed for decades, Second Life - with over 2 million users worldwide – opens a wealth of new possibilities.

Reincarnating themselves in an avatar, teleporting to different worlds, flying, hopping on a unicorn to gallop up to a tall building hovering over a glimmering city to get to class...

In a fantasy world where the laws of physics don't necessarily apply, Second Life is certainly more interesting than the regular educational droll. But this does not mean that it is all fun and games.

Vassar College constructed a virtual Sistine Chapel to explore how SL could be used for art classes, University of California-Davis created a place to train emergency aid workers, and students at Texas University's Genome Island in SL can perform virtual experiments.

Second Life setbacks

Second Life is not conducive to traditional lecturing, as streaming real-time audio is difficult. But as its supporters point out, this is not necessarily a disadvantage – classes are less professor-centred.

Also, the non-linear fashion of discussion that emerges from many people being able to type in real-time simultaneously (as opposed to the din that would emerge if they all spoke at the same time) can be productive for the development of ideas.

As Science Daily quotes Bill Ditto, chairman of Florida University's Department of Biomedical Engineering: "Second Life will make you think about the real world rules and possibilities a little differently."

Photo by Andrew Otto
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Plugged in: enroll me to Second Life

By: Sacha Fortune