Black sun rising

June 15, 2007

Universities are racing to create virtual campuses on the web, providing mind-boggling opportunities for teaching, research and simulations. Stephen Phillips reports.

Bryan Carter's undergraduate classes on cyberculture and literature at the University of Central Missouri are convening at the Black Sun this semester, but the associate professor of literature has not repaired to the pub in search of a suitably offbeat location. With a dark Blade Runner -style aesthetic culled from the pages of seminal cyberpunk novel Snowcrash , the venue offers a futuristic setting in keeping with the subject matter. Carter (or "Bryan Mnemonic", as he is called in the Black Sun) and many of his students wear cyberpunk or "Goth" attire.

In fact, Carter and his students do not meet physically at all. The thrice-weekly hour-long classes take place in Second Life, the online parallel universe that has in four years gone from cult hit to mainstream phenomenon, capturing the attention of many educators along the way.

Carter and his students manoeuvre their alter egos, or "avatars", around a virtual classroom from wherever they happen to be. In a typical class, Carter says, his avatar might screen a PowerPoint slide show, movie short or live streaming video of a real-life lecture on the Black Sun's television, before dishing out assignments to students, who can mouse-click on banks of information kiosks linked to web pages for more details. They are then free to venture into the field to conduct ethnographic research on the "subcultures" to be found in Second Life, says Carter, while his avatar reclines on a couch to field any queries (via instant messaging or text entered into a "talk" window on the "client" interface, downloaded to users' computers, which serves as their portal into Second Life) - the virtual equivalent of office hours.

Carter tapped a modest grant to give his students an allowance of 20,000 Linden dollars, the coin of the realm (less than £5), to buy "digital content". These include clothing items or algorithms governing avatar movements developed by enterprising Second Lifers (who retain intellectual property rights over their creations) using the virtual world's scripting language, so students can accessorise their avatars and augment their stock gestures. The Black Sun's TV was scrounged for free from its charitable Second Life creator.

On May 8, Second Life counted more than 6.19 million registered "residents" (although the number actually logged in hovered around a more modest 40,000 or fewer), and denizens had transacted more than $1.5 million worth of business over the preceding 24 hours, according to Linden Lab, the venture-capital-backed San Francisco start-up behind it. Firms such as Adidas and Toyota have been snapping up parcels of the pixelated land to gain a marketing perch in the rapidly populating virtual world. Last October, Reuters opened a Second Life bureau, stationing a correspondent there to track fast-moving developments.

Educators have found Second Life particularly inviting. In the vanguard of the land grab is a growing influx of campuses for which the virtual environment opens potential new learning modalities, research possibilities and opportunities to enrich distance learning. Some 250 education institutions have a presence in Second Life, says John Lester, academic programmes manager at Linden Lab. These include Harvard, Stanford, California, Berkeley, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Sheffield Hallam universities. The site is also home to a vibrant community of teaching staff and postgraduate researchers who congregate on list servers to swap pedagogical and research tips.

To demonstrate its educational utility, the New Media Consortium, which comprises more than 200 campuses and other educational organisations, has created 30 simulated "islands" in the virtual world - collectively dubbed NMC Campus - purpose-built for universities, with virtual libraries, museums, planetariums, classroom space and a science centre. Linden Lab offers campuses single-acre plots free for one semester.

Ultimately, many institutions create a discrete island (for which there is an educator's discount) and set their own protocols governing access to it.

They can run it as an intranet for designated users only or open it to all comers with the attendant risk of non-students crashing classes.

In March, the NMC's annual Horizon Report identified virtual worlds among the six most promising emergent higher education technologies, farther out than "user-created content" (blogs, wikis and YouTube, for example) and social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook, but "likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning and creative expression" within three years.

Educators drawn to Second Life cite its scope for modelling concepts, testing hypotheses, running simulations and historical re-creation that would be prohibitively expensive or wildly impractical in real life.

"Because it's virtual you can play with scale - for instance, a lesson on Einstein's theory of relativity where the scale is at the level of a photon," says NMCchief executive officer Larry Johnson.

"It affords students the tools to make their environment," says Dmitri Williams, assistant professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois. "I know instructors in English, physics, social sciences, the arts and planning who've found ways to adapt lessons to Second Life; it's so malleable."

Sarah Robbins, a PhD candidate at Ball State University, Indiana, has customised the Second Life classroom where she teaches undergraduate writing with "breakout spaces" for group work, student dormitory and coffee shop. In the same anything-goes vein - with gravity no object - the Black Sun floats 600 metres above Glidden Campus, a virtual representation of Northern Illinois University, of which Carter is a sort-of cyber tenant.

The rarefied altitude reduces non-student intrusions, says Aline Click, assistant director of e-learning services at Northern Illinois, who developed the Black Sun with Carter. "People have to figure out how to get up there."

At ground level and a little more down-to-earth, Glidden replicates aspects of Northern Illinois's campus, rendered by Click from topographical maps.

Exercising her creator's prerogative, Click says her real-life office is not as well appointed as her quarters in Glidden, while the actual campus bus stop does not double as a "teleportation pad" to the Black Sun.

Like Northern Illinois, many other institutions have replicated iconic features from their physical campuses in Second Life. Providing familiar features helps students feel more comfortable, says Click. The University of Illinois envisages a planned Second Life annex to its Global Campus online degree initiative, to be launched in 2008, as a touchstone for far-flung students. "One challenge is to get these students to feel they're part of the University of Illinois," says Chester Gardner, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who is spearheading Global Campus. "We feel Second Life might allow us to construct a virtual presence that will give them a feeling they're part of the university."

Others eye Second Life's potential to offer more engaging forms of distance learning. "How many times do we hear about the maths teacher who changed people's lives? This effect can be achieved in traditional online learning environments, but it's harder, the visual social presence is missing - something you can at least simulate in virtual environments," Click says.

Meanwhile, one particularly fascinating research application of virtual world-related technology lies with so-called massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). Distinct from "open-ended" Second Life (that is, it has no particular purpose), "educational MMOs combine a carefully crafted setting with specific educational objectives," says NMC's Horizon Report , which puts their wider institutional adoption at four to five years away.

Edward Castronova, associate professor of telecommunications and director of the Synthetic Worlds Initiative (SWI) at Indiana University, first realised the academic possibilities of MMOs after observing that minor changes in rules governing games he played recreationally resulted in profound behavioural shifts among participants. In 2001, he found one variant of the game EverQuest in which players could "use combat spells to attack other players" and another in which this was forbidden.

"The social atmospheres were dramatically different. The world where you could not attack was much more peaceful, but people grouped together far more for protection in the more dangerous world," he says. "You could write a paper on violence and social capital, but here is a case where people relinquished individual rights and liberties to be in groups because it was a matter of life or death."

In a paper on SWI's website, Castronova elaborates on the potential of synthetic worlds to function as "social-science Petri dishes: controlled environments for studying the evolution of macro-level forces of government, law economics, sociality, learning and culture". Attempting such exercises in real life is fraught with "horrible causation problems", but "causation is obvious" in carefully controlled games settings, he says.

SWI's first initiative, Arden, to be made available later this year, will immerse Indiana University students in a simulation of Shakespearian England using characters from the Bard's plays - as an educational exercise in its own right, but also as a laboratory for social experiment.

Castronova plans to test a hypothesis that has been proven empirically, such as the price elasticity of demand for certain goods, "to validate the research environment", before proceeding to more speculative hypotheses about the impact of variables on social behaviour.

In the ongoing social experiment of Second Life, meanwhile, crystal-ball-gazing is difficult. "In ten years' time we'll look at what people are doing and say, 'Wow, no one ever saw that coming,'" Lester predicts.

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