Campus created in an acre of pixels

December 1, 2006

It was raining in the city but Edinburgh University's e-learning MSc tutorial convened on the beach regardless.

The students discussing a text about social networking with their tutor were quite comfortable, as the weather is not a problem in the online virtual environment of Second Life. Edinburgh's e-learning degree is in the vanguard of UK university courses run in the three-dimensional digital world that is taking the real world by storm.

More than 1.6 million people - 125,000 in the UK - are registered "residents" of Second Life. Students from some 100 universities, including six British institutions, are being taught in its designated teaching spaces.

The Edinburgh course meets in an acre of pixels called "Holyrood Park", leased from the higher education-oriented Campus Island.

Sian Bayne, programme director of the e-learning MSc, holds tutorials for up to 25 students, some from as far afield as Sweden and Sri Lanka.

"They love it. Once the novelty wears off we can use it for some serious academic work," she said.

While most Second Life residents just participate in a sort of goalless game, John Lester, community and education manager with Linden Labs, the company that runs the virtual world, said there had been an explosion in the number of academics using it to extend and augment courses. He added that it was particularly effective at allowing distance learners to interact with one another. "It feels like you're really talking with other people and sharing work with them," Mr Lester said.

Daniel Livingstone, a lecturer in computer science at Paisley University who teaches in Second Life, is adapting open-source educational tools to enable them to operate in the virtual world. This will allow academics to assess and monitor their students' work more effectively. "As soon as I saw Second Life I knew it had enormous educational potential," he said.

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