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By Ajay Singh

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM

The Virtual Vanguard

Although SL boasts 2 million registered players, the number of regular users at any one time may be only about 100,000. The most hardcore are tech-savvy and imaginative — their avatars walk, run, fly, swim or hang around, instant-messaging each other for online entertainment, artistic creation and exchange.

Many of these early adopters are academics. Grassian, for example, uses SL to collaborate with librarians, educators and computer technicians around the world. The collaborations are aimed at learning about various educational sites in SL and sharing ideas and tips for instructional activities as well as information, research and reference services.

Grassian signed up for SL a year ago after attending a two-day online conference on educational gaming sponsored by the New Media Consortium (NMC), an independent organization comprising some 236 colleges, universities and research centers worldwide that promotes the use of new media and new technology to support learning. Such forays would have been unimaginable just a year ago. But as Web-based technologies improve, so does the promise of conducting relatively low-cost research in synthetic worlds. "Imagine how a few well-designed experiments about socialism in 1870 might have affected world history," says Edward Castronova, an economist renowned for his studies of virtual worlds. "The idea would cost $20 million to $50 million, but it would also dramatically improve business as usual in a large chunk of the university."

Esther Grassian’s Second Life doppelganger, avatar Alexandria Knight, poses in front of the UCLA Library in Second Life’s Cybrary City.

For universities, the timing appears to be right, given that a virtual-world presence is likely to "take off in a way that will echo the rise of the Web in the mid-1990s," according to the 2007 "Horizon Report" by the NMC.

Higher education, says this highly regarded report, will be transformed over the next five years, thanks partly to two major trends. The first revolves around the fact that we are all awash in a sea of "user-generated content," thanks to blogospheres, YouTube photo streams, wikibooks and machinima clips, which are rapidly changing the very nature of news and information. "The notions of collective intelligence and mass amateurization are pushing the boundaries of scholarship," says the NMC report, adding: "It's all about the audience — and the audience is no longer merely listening."

Alexandria Knight strolls through the Malcolm Brown Library on the campus of the New Media Consortium (NMC). The library is modeled on the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

The second trend revolves around the growing use of the Internet for social interaction, rather than just as a resource for information. "Increasingly, this is the reason students log on — the Web sites that draw people back again and again are those that connect them with friends, colleagues or even total strangers who have a shared interest," says the report, adding: "Social networking may represent a key way to increase student access to and participation in course activities."

Learning Logs On

Little wonder, then, that Ball State University's students discuss their assignments on SL — while their avatars cavort at a tiki bar. Meanwhile, students of a Pepperdine University distance-learning course meet every fortnight to learn, as well as explore, what it's like to be part of an online community.

A glimpse into how some institutions are balancing the challenge of digital interactivity with the real world came last fall when Harvard University offered its first course on SL. Titled "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion," 40 students signed up for it — and then some of them studied the same course along with 50 Harvard Law School students on campus, thereby effectively blending the physical and digital worlds.

A virtual bird’s-eye view of the sprawling NMC campus in Second Life.

The course was promoted, in a dizzying display of virtual virtuosity, by Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson, who taught the course in the real world, and his daughter, Rebecca, a computer scientist at Harvard and instructor at the university's Extension School, who conducted CyberOne in SL. In a promotional video on YouTube.com, the professor putters up to the steps of Harvard Law School on a black motor scooter. Standing in front of the building's steps, Nesson introduces the concept of the class: "about argument, but not argument in a courtroom ... argument in the new integrated media space that I call cyberspace."