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By Ajay Singh

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Is virtual reality the next frontier for universities? Some of the most famous names in education — including UCLA — are teaching in cyberspace.

The librarian needs a makeover. "This head I have on is a little too big and funny looking," she remarks. "And I could do with some new shoes."

Click, click, click — Esther Grassian scans the note cards on her computer monitor. "Lots of designers offer outfits, prim shoes, plus there is some skin and great hair on offer," reads one card.

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Meet at the intersection of the real world and cyber life. Log on to Second Life at www.secondlife.com. To watch Professor Nesson’s YouTube video on his SL class, visit www.youtube.com and type in "ivygate."

"Wow!" she gushes. "You really could spend a lifetime here."

Grassian, an information literacy outreach coordinator at UCLA's College Library, doesn't really need a new hairdo. She wants one for her avatar, or online alter-ego, Alexandria Knight. Her puppet representative is a virtual-world librarian, and it's through Knight that Grassian serves residents of a vast 3-D metaverse called Second Life, helping them with research, information and critical thinking. Residents on SL, as Second Life is called for short, are all cartoonlike virtual characters created by people in RL, or real life. SL is similar to video games, with one big difference: There's no monster-slaying, and users provide and own all the content. That includes everything from dog parks and casinos to businesses and extraterrestrial civilizations. SL even has a newspaper, the Second Life Herald (a reporter for Reuters is embedded in the virtual world 24/7). And anyone can buy and sell digital real estate using an online currency pegged to the U.S. dollar.

Owned by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, SL is one of the largest and most talked-about digital realms on the Internet. Starwood Hotels has built a property there, kind of a trial run for an RL hotel. Rep. George Miller (D–7th District, CA), chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, held a Town Hall meeting in SL following the swearing in of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And in January, tech-savvy Sweden announced plans to be the first nation to open a virtual embassy in SL.

Now higher education is hearing the siren call of cyberspace.

At last count, 81 universities, colleges and schools — all but eight of them from the United States — were offering courses or educational programs on SL. The UC Office of the President recently teamed up with UC Berkeley's School of Information to explore the potential of virtual worlds. UC Berkeley archaeologist Ruth Tringham is inviting undergraduate students to work as research apprentices to design a Turkish village in Second Life. At UC Davis, Professor of Psychiatry Peter Yellowlees is using SL to help people understand what it's like to suffer from schizophrenia — by letting them "experience" its symptoms in the context of a virtual community health clinic. Harvard, Stanford, New York University and Pennsylvania State University, among others, also have a presence in SL.

Just this past January, the UCLA Library set up shop inside SL, becoming the sixth major library to do so. (All told, there are about 370 library staff in SL, and another 880 or so "friends" of that virtual group.) The library plans to exhibit UCLA's extensive digital collections, including an archive of local, state and federal electoral campaign materials over the decades that affect the Los Angeles area. UCLA's virtual library will also provide Web links to an array of its existing services, resources and tips aimed at enhancing the academic success of graduate and undergraduate students.

"Our SL presence will mature as we develop expertise and get to know our audience," explains Grassian, adding: "We would like to know about courses and research planned or being conducted in SL by UCLA faculty and students so that we can support their efforts there."

And the California State University, the nation's largest four-year university system, serving more than 400,000 students, may use virtual reality to meet the challenge of growing enrollment. The university's chancellor, Charles Reed, recently said at an education and research conference in San Francisco that he would like students to telecommute more, meeting with faculty and peers one day a week on campus and using the rest of the work week exploring virtual worlds and downloading information to complete their course work.