Avatar Academics


By Ajay Singh

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Nesson notes that while teaching would be done by his daughter in SL and himself in RL, the students' arguments would appear on blogs, podcasts, wiki and community television.

One of an endless number of places to relax in the vast virtual realm, populated by avatars both familiar and strange.

The professor turns and begins to climb the stairs — and the scene instantly shifts to its virtual-world doppelganger, with Nesson's avatar climbing virtual steps into the virtual version of the same building. Inside, he walks into the large classroom in which the course will be taught. Floating 10 feet or so off the ground is Rebecca, who takes over the description of the course.

"The essence of the class was to bring students to a realization that in the Internet environment, each one of them is potentially a digitally enhanced superhero," says Nesson. "Everyone can step up and speak to anyone with these extraordinary powers of communication, where the challenge is to choose your message and frame it so that you gather audience."

What's the Second Life Span?

Despite the power and promise of the new digital democracy (Time magazine's 2006 "Person of the Year" was, after all, "You"), the precise pedagogical methods and goals of virtual education are still far from clear.

Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson and his daughter, Rebecca, joined to teach a law course in Second Life at Harvard Extension School, which they promoted in a video on YouTube that showcased virtual learning’s virtuosity.

"It's a tremendous resource for urban planners, architects and those who deal with spatial representation," says Leah Lievrouw, a professor at the UCLA Department of Information Studies and 2006-'07 Fellow of GSE&IS' Sudikoff Family Institute for Education & New Media. "But if I were teaching literature, I might wonder, ‘where am I going with this?' "

Maybe it's just a matter of time. Grassian's SL experience, for example, is stirring up interest on campus from faculty who are intrigued by the idea of virtual education. They include scholars such as Communication Studies Assistant Professor Francis Steen, Writing Programs lecturer Lisa Gerrard (who has gotten herself an avatar), and Anthropology lecturer Dario Nardi, who teaches a remarkable lab course in "human complex systems." Nardi's students visit SL to conduct ethnographic research, including what it's like to take on a new identity, what sort of avatars they communicate with and which are the most popular places in the virtual world.

The virtues of learning virtually also are being explored on campus at UCLA Extension (as a possible subject for the Entertainment Studies program) and the Department of Design & Media Arts. In addition to virtual learning, UCLA is home to virtual realms re-creating present-day cities, future urban areas, ancient archaeological sites, famous cathedrals and other RL spaces. And the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and the Institute for Digital Research and Education is presenting a Digital Humanities Showcase on campus later this spring.

"At the moment, the biggest advantage for universities is a reputation for being aware of embracing newer technologies, and that's a very important consideration," concludes Michael Fatten, a master's student of telecommunications at Indiana University. "Because if you look at an educational institution as a business, it needs to attract 25 percent new customers every year, and a university that is slow to work with new technologies is going to be slow at attracting new students."