If you think that Second Life is where you need to be to enhance your teaching and enthuse your students, be sure you do the groundwork. Harriet Swain outlines the first steps of your virtual future. Academics are using virtual technology in the shape of the 3D digital world of Second Life to enhance their teaching and communication and, on occasion, to have some fun.
An important first step is to make sure you don't get lost, advises Gilly Salmon, professor of e-learning at Leicester University. No one should venture on to Second Life without stopping at the orientation island, she says, and if you intend to teach students there you need to make sure they have the skills and the bandwidth to use it as well.
Lawrie Phipps, programme manager, users and innovation, for the universities' Joint Information Systems Committee, says it is unwise to think that you or your students can go in there and start using it from day one without any preparation. "Understand that there is quite a lot to go through before you get to grips with it," he says.
Salmon advises visiting the Second Life "island" recently bought by Leicester University's Media Zoo as a safe place for people to wander around and see some of the teaching and research activities that are possible.
David White, co-manager of technology-assisted lifelong learning at Oxford University, recommends sending a general e-mail around your institution to find out if anyone else has bought or rented a Second Life island that you could use.
He says it is a good idea to get your own space on an island if you want a secure place that is closed to non-students because otherwise it is a public space "and all kinds of crazy things go on there".
But first you have to know what you want to do with the space. White says Second Life is particularly good as a way of promoting cohesion if your students are scattered across a large area and rarely get together in real life. It is easier to feel part of a group in Second Life meetings than in a web chat forum, he argues, and students can also use it to interact socially.
The site is also a useful place for art and architecture students to build something together, or for science students to create models and molecules and revisit them whenever they like.
Phipps suggests using Second Life to help students visualise data sets and lists of information in 3D.
Salmon says the site is particularly useful for simulating environments that are not usually possible, so geography students can explore a particular land formation, economists can set up a stock exchange, archaeology students can experience how a particular civilisation might have lived, and medical students can hone their practical skills without killing anyone.
Salmon is also particularly interested in the way Second Life breaks down social and other barriers. "People tut-tut about others creating avatars to look how they would like to look in real life, giving them wacky voices, and making them thinner than they really are," she says. "But what that does is help people to focus on what others are saying."
The problem with real life, she says, is that you know immediately whether someone is black or white, whether they speak English well or not, where they come from socially and geographically. She says avatar appearance can help to spark conversation at a first meeting, but useful discussions can then develop without prejudices about appearance getting in the way.
Phipps says it is important to know your students' avatars and pseudonyms and who they are in real life so you will be aware if a non-student wanders into your lecture. And think carefully about your choice of avatar. Having one with fairy wings may be fine in some contexts but "it all depends on the learning outcomes you want to put across". This doesn't mean giving yourself a tweed jacket and a beard, any more than you should be trying faithfully to recreate the appearance of your real-life lecture theatre.
Maggie Savin-Baden, professor of higher education at Coventry University, says you need to think about Second Life as a different kind of space. Use it as an opportunity to teach somewhere different - among rocks and trees, say.
Salmon says she has gone to conferences where people have boasted about building a Second Life university that looks exactly like their own. There is no point in that, she argues - Second Life should be all about experimenting with new ideas.
Such experimentation can make Second Life a messy place, she warns, with lots of education-based islands littered with debris that has no educational use.
Salmon also worries about the fact that there is rarely much integration between Second Life and the rest of the web because the programming skills needed to achieve that are relatively complex. She urges anyone working in Second Life to try to introduce the rest of the web world as much as possible.
Salmon advises designing in detail how you intend to use Second Life before you start, and says that while the virtual environment favours immersive learning for students over lectures, it is still important to keep control of the learning process.
If you are willing to sit around chatting after a lecture in real life, you may choose to do the same in Second Life, but it is a choice you will need to make.
White says you need to find some way of arranging for all your students to meet at a certain place at a certain time and of checking that everyone is there and can fully participate - the equivalent of asking: "Can everybody hear me?" in a lecture.
Line up alternative ways of holding a class or seminar in case the system goes down, Savin-Baden counsels.
And if you and your students do manage to meet without a hitch, Phipps does offer one final piece of advice: "Be prepared for surprises."
http:///secondlife.com , Second Life
http:///pacificrimx.wordpress.com/learning/ , links to videos, tutorials, wikis, programs, books and other useful tools for those new to Second Life.