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Virtual Opinion

Should higher education go virtual? If you visited a cyber-university, what would your avatar be?


Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Copyright © Illustration by Phil Wheeler

Is this the future of learning or just another tech craze? We asked students, teachers and thought leaders for their points of view. For more on the subject, see our feature story, "Avatar Academics," on page 18. And tell us what you think of virtual learning.

Sofia Marquez '07
English and Chicana/o Studies

"Universities should go virtual, but only in certain areas. For example, a virtual library would make it easier for students to find research materials for papers. But in terms of the virtual classroom, I think it would take away from the university experience. I love having classes in beautiful buildings like Royce and Haines. There is something about actually, physically being in a place that virtual reality will never be able to reproduce. Also, in a virtual reality university, the interaction between students would change. In a classroom, you are sometimes forced to communicate with those around you, which may lead to a friendship. I have difficulty seeing this same situation happen virtually. If I went to a virtual university, my avatar would look exactly the way I look in real life. I wouldn't change anything. But I think that's the appeal of virtual reality: that humans can transform themselves into the person they want to be without much effort."

Leonard Kleinrock
Professor Emeritus of Computer Science
UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science

"The growth of virtual worlds is a natural evolution within the Internet. Cyberspace has many dimensions which cross the boundary between virtual and physical realities. The fact that real dollars and virtual dollars (such as Second Life's virtual currency, Linden dollars) interact and have an exchange rate which allows many people to earn considerable sums of real money in Second Life is intriguing and real! There is genuine content being generated in these virtual worlds, true interaction with actual business, life, creativity, social networking, etc., which is a fascinating development. There is no reason why higher education should not include virtual experiences in its learning ... If I visited a virtual university, I would be clothed in staid academic robes — under which would be my Superman costume."

Ann Mack
Director of Trendspotting, JWT

"I applaud universities for experimenting with virtual worlds. After all, most of their students spend much of their time already online: reading, researching, networking, gaming, befriending, etc. For the Millennial generation (which makes up a large part of university populations today), the distinction between online and offline is fuzzy, and, for some, practically nonexistent ... If I visited a virtual university, my avatar would look like a Super Hero. Who wouldn't want super powers at a university, to cram for a test or crank out a thesis in record time?"

Harry Turtledove '70, M.A. '72, Ph.D. '77
Author and Historian

"Virtual universities may well find a place in the future. It probably takes more motivation to stick to classes in one of these than in one where you physically have to show up. I suspect lecture classes work better than ones like foreign languages or math, where immediate interaction between teacher and student is more important. All the high-tech bells and whistles are undoubtedly cool, but they may not be necessary; a wise man once said, ‘The best school is a log with a teacher on one end and a student on the other.' "

Katherine Hayles
Professor, UCLA Departments of English and Design | Media Arts

"By combining visual images, animation, sound and text, sites like Second Life offer rich environments in which to carry out various kinds of projects. Tim Lenoir at Duke University, for example, teaches a freshman class in which the class as a whole purchased real estate in Second Life and completed their course projects within that space. Combining the virtual setting with real-life preserves the incredibly wide bandwidth communication we call face to face; real life meetings offer advantages difficult to duplicate virtually, so my own preference is to work in both settings in the same class."

Vinton G. Cerf M.S. '70, Ph.D. '72
Vice President and Chief Internet
Evangelist, Google

"Higher education can and should experiment with various ways of packaging and delivering its educational and research product. These social networking and game sites are allowing participants to explore a range of personal possibilities and socio- economic possibilities that might be difficult to achieve in the real world. I think it unlikely that the university experience can or even should be replaced by these virtual environments, but there may be some important opportunities for collaboration and experimentation ... There is also an interesting opportunity to link the real world and the virtual one with sensor systems and real scientific instruments with virtual controls that affect real-world devices and systems. As for a personal avatar, either I lack imagination or don't feel a need to be anything other than Vint Cerf, so likely my avatar would bear a fair resemblance to the bearded entity that bears my name IRL."

Diane Favro
Professor, Interim Chair of Architecture & Urban Design
UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture

"FOR OVER a decade, I have been involved in the building of virtual reality reconstructions of historic environments used for research and education. Seeing, moving through and hearing re-created buildings, art and sounds in context enriches the overall experience and understanding. Visiting such realms, I would not limit myself to a single avatar, but I envision and the students would assume the roles of different social classes appropriate to the period re-created digitally. We could meet and tour restored historic worlds, considering how experiences varied according to class, gender and race. Such simulated experiences are invaluable, but incomplete ... At the moment, virtual realms cannot re-create smells, temperatures and other sensorial experiences ... The cyberverse is wonderfully useful, but we must remember, to quote Gertrude Stein, ‘there is no there there.' "