The Different Ways Educators Can USE Virtual Worlds

  1. Office hours

Students can come to a set location (the office) on the virtual campus during a given time, just like office hours in real life.  Can be held concurrently with normal office hours in your real office.  This is a good way for an educator new to virtual worlds to get started working with students on the virtual campus.

  1. One-on-one student consultations

This is similar to office hours with the one difference that only one student comes at an appointed time to meet with their professor.  I have English professors teaching on-line classes use this method to discuss with students how to improve their writing.

  1. Review sessions

With this method, a group of students come to the virtual campus at a given time to meet with their professor to review for a pending exam.  I tend to rotate the questions among students and do everything in text chat so students can copy the text and paste into a Word document to have the answers to their questions.

  1. Lectures to a group of geographically scattered people

In general, lecturing in virtual worlds should be avoided as it is less dynamic than in RL due to the lack of body language and facial expressions as well as being fraught with problems, such as students cannot access sound, lag when many avatars are at one site, students crashing out of the virtual world, etc.  When students or members of a group, however, cannot be collocated, then a virtual classroom offers a tool to give a virtual presentation.  It is best if the voice presentation is augmented with text entries in chat so attendees with sound problems can still participate.  Questions from the audience will come in chat text.  Slide presenters, whiteboards, and web screens are all available in Second Life as tools to augment the presentation.

  1. Interactive activities for students

With this method, students independently interact with one or more objects in a virtual environment and gather information from collecting data, observing structures or changes occurring in the objects, reading text in notecards, or viewing images.  Using the information learned from interacting with the objects the students then complete a series of questions.  A handout must be provided each student giving detailed directions on how to access and interact with the objects.

  1. Language training

Native English speakers studying a foreign language meet in a virtual world with students who are both native speakers of that language and who are studying English.  The students address given questions in text chat for a set amount of time in the foreign language and an equal amount of time in English.  Then the students can move to a unstructured conversation using voice.  The text chat is copied and sent to their instructors for assessment.

  1. Role play situations

This is used were skills and understanding are acquired by engaging in a simulated real life activity, and is primarily used for training in the health science and legal fields.

  1. Displays

These are panels or slide presentations set in a virtual world where students come and read the panels or view and read the slides.  These have been used to help prepare students for quizzes in the health sciences.  One slide can ask a question providing multiple choice answers and the next slide provide the correct answer.

  1. Student presentations – posters / slides

Students develop a poster or a slide presentation on a topic they independently studied and at a given time discuss their poster or slide presentation to faculty members and other students.  The students send the poster or slides to their professors as 20 x 30 inch JPEG files and the professor can import these into the virtual world and create the poster or slide presentation.

  1. Students develop handouts for activities in a virtual world

One of the best ways to learn a topic is to try to teach it.  Here students not only complete an interactive activity in a virtual world, but they develop a detailed handout to guide other students through this activity.  The students learn more about the topic, get some basics on teaching the topic, and develop better skills in the virtual world.

  1. Student designs and build

Students who have at least basic building skills in the virtual world can design and build and object or scene.  If the students also have at least basic coding skills they can script these objects to do different things.  This can be a useful tool in architecture, engineering, and computer science classes.  Also children in the primary schools find this an exciting activity in virtual worlds such as Minecraft.

  1. Videos (machinima) tutorials

For more difficult interactive activities it is often useful to make and post on YouTube a short video (called machinima when shot in virtual worlds) showing students how to complete the activity.

  1. Tours

Tours offer a fun way to show students recreations of specific environments such as 15th century London or the Grand Canyon.  In addition, tours of campuses or specific educational builds provide a fun and often interesting professional development opportunity for educators active in virtual worlds.  Tours are a nice why to highlight what innovations you have developed on your campus.

  1. Educational games and hunts

Interactive games where students must answer questions to proceed further and get small prizes can be a fun way to learn.  Hunts are when the students must fine different objects spread around the campus and answer the questions associated with each object.  Often one object gives clues to the location of the next object.

  1. Meetings

Virtual worlds offer an easy way for people who are not co-located to meet.  A campus should have designated meeting areas with easy to use chairs to facilitate meetings.  If it is a small group, people can talk in voice.  If a large group, often the chair of the meeting talks in voice and the other attendees use text chat.

  1. Professional presentations

There are many professional groups active in virtual worlds.  Frequently, one member of such a group will provide a presentation on their research or current creative activities.  These are usually slide presentations given in voice with text pasted into chat for those having problems hearing voice.

  1. Conferences.

There are a few organizations which organize multi-day conferences in a virtual world.  One of the best know such organization is the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education (VWBPE) group with has a conference each March.

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Lessons I learned from 7 years of working in education in Second Life

I first entered the virtual world of Second Life (SL) in January of 2010 during a workshop on SL offered at my college (the Northern Virginia Community College).  I came into SL with the expectation I would hold a class in there and teach face to face in a virtual world.  I soon realized that my vision for teaching in SL was not practical, but by visiting many educational regions, I saw that there were in SL exciting, assessable, educational activities that students could benefit from.  It has been a fun journey down a winding path with many unexpected twist and turns. You can read about this journey at my blog http://blogs.nvcc.edu/gperrier/.   The result is a model that works for our college and in 2015, we brought about 800 students to the campus to complete activities in Biology and Health Sciences.

 

The purpose of this list of lessons is to share what I have learned about education in SL over these six years.   I came into SL with the wrong vision and had to change.  Visiting other campuses I saw lovely buildings and classrooms that no one used, but also saw creative novel designs that students were using.  I made mistakes and I learned.  I saw others make mistakes and I also learned.  I saw others successfully using new paradigms of education in virtual worlds and I learned.  I do not claim this list is exhaustive, but it is an attempt to capture and share with others the lessons I learned.  The list focuses on education in institutions of higher education in SL, not on K-12 or other virtual worlds, but I think many of the lessons would also apply to K-12 and other virtual environments.  If you want to discuss these lessons more, please email me at gperrier@nvcc.edu.

 

The lessons are grouped under six different headings: Getting started, Building, Student issues, Instructional issues, Professional development, and Program development.

 

 

Getting started (5 Lessons)

 

Visit a good orientation site during your first week.    This will allow you to understand the basics of SL quickly.  I suggest Caledon Oxbridge, but there are others good sites.  There are often “tutors” available at Oxbridge who will help answer your questions about SL.

 

Understand the different viewers people use to function in SL and select one for use.  I selected Phoenix Firestorm (called Firestorm) because it would still run on older versions after an upgrade was released and thus the IT department had to reinstall it only between semesters.  I found most people eventually use Firestorm.

 

 

Network widely to understand what others are doing, to meet people take advantage of the many educations groups in SL (the Science Circle, VSTE, ISTE, VWER, VWBPE, Virtual Pioneers, and the SLED list serve)

 

Visit as many other campuses and educational regions (sometimes called sims) as possible to see how they present things, what educational activities they have, and to look at their classrooms and meeting areas.  This gives you design ideas.  The Science Circle has an impressive list of such regions and landmarks so you can visit them.

 

Before bringing students to SL explore what others have done, what has worked and what has not worked.

 

 

 

Building (17 Lessons)

 

            When you visit a region in SL realize that everything you see there (buildings and other structures, educational activities, equipment, plants, animals, etc.) was built by someone.  Many of these items can be purchased from the people who built them at stores in SL or on the SL Market Place webpage.  Building is both a skill and art and it takes time to learn. There are regions such as the Builders Brewery that have displays that help you learn to build.  Slowly over your first year or two learn the basics of building.

 

Remember, building is fun and creative but the difficult part is translating the build into an assessable educational activity.  Avoid spending so much time on building that the educational part is neglected.

 

Get people who are skilled at building to do the building.  Focus yourself on the educational component of the build.

 

Do not build activities without first thinking of why and how instructors and students will use them.   Try to get the people who you hope to use the educational build to comment on the design.  Many campuses assumed that if they build something nice, instructors would start to use it.  This has been shown over and over to be incorrect.

 

Do not duplicate the real campus in SL.  SL allows builds to be much more creative.  Duplicating the campus needlessly consumes a lot of funds, time, and prims (Land impact units) and usually has little educational value.

 

There is usually no need to duplicate activities others have already built in SL.  You can ask the region owner to let your students visit those sites.  With approval, you should treat those activities the same as the ones on your campus in terms of how students are expected to use them and be assessed.

 

Unless something has a potential educational value, do not added it to the campus, with the exception of landscaping.

 

Provide a pleasing landscape to the campus, make it visually appealing. Consider lighting for night and other light conditions.

 

When building structures favor open and roomy rather than enclosed and confining. This is in part a personal preference; but I have found that people new to SL function much better in open roomy spaces.  Outdoor office such as a deck or beach with a few chairs work well.

 

Make walkways wide and have doors automatically open as one approaches; moving and opening doors are frequent problems for people new to SL.  Unless necessary, do not have doors on buildings.

 

When students are expected to sit, select seats/chairs/cushions that are very easy to sit in.  Avoid seating that can put students sideways or backwards.  If it is possible to mess up sitting, students will, which can be frustrating for them.

 

To avoid Nearby Chat interference, keep meeting areas and faculty offices at least 25 meters apart.

 

Provide a menu driven teleporter for your campus that makes it easy for students to move to the desired activity or location.  It is amazing how lost students can get.

 

If you have students doing an activity in a forest environment, make the trees phantom so that people can walk through them.  This makes it much easier for people new to SL to navigate in a forest.

 

Consider adding a few fun things to your campus: balloon rides, boats, dance balls, animals, nature sounds, etc. to make it more entertaining for students.

 

Have a visitor counter on the campus and keep good track of who visits, and for how long over the semester.  I download the counter list to an Excel file several times a week.  These numbers are important when documenting use of the campus.  People who visit once for less than 10 minutes are probably not students.  You will find that several avatars with names like Riley, Brenden, Selena, and Natalia often visit for a few seconds.  They seem to be checking on regions, but no one I have talked to knows who they are for sure.

 

If no one is using your region or campus in SL you can expect random people to build on the campus, usually high in the sky. Once you do start to use the campus, you need to find these builds and return the prims.  It is a good idea to check your sky up to 4,000 m every few months and return things that should not be there.  Make your land settings so visitors and students can only build in sandboxes and they cannot move things out of the sandbox.

Student issues (11 Lessons)

 

Not all of your students will be able to access SL from their own computers due to a bad graphics card on their personal computer or a weak internet connection. There are also some types of computers that seem to have problems with SL.

 

When students cannot access the virtual campus from their own computer(s), they will need alternative ways to access the SL program (in my case Firestorm).  Be sure to have the campus IT install the desired SL viewer on some student computers on campus.  These programs will need to be updated a few times a year.

 

Note that students can often do a temporary download of a SL viewer on public or college library computers.

 

When bringing in many students, suggest that students create an Avatar from off campus because there is a limit on the number of avatars that can be made from one internet address per day. I had a few students encounter this problem. This can also be a problem for workshops with many participants signing up for SL.

 

When possible set some times during the first week of the semester or quarter to be available in a student computer room to help students get an avatar and get to the correct region in SL.

 

Offer students the opportunity to complete a SL orientation when they first enter SL.  There are many good orientations in SL; I send them to Caledon Oxbridge, plus I cover the basic commands (moving, camera, zooming, etc.) in handouts the students are given.

 

Provide detailed student handouts that direct students how to: obtain an avatar, download the desired SL viewer, get to an orientation region, get to the campus region, get to the desired activity on the campus, move around, and make some initial setting changes (such as graphics) so their computers can run SL better.

 

Put code of conduct information in your handouts. Ban people who will not stop being disruptive, rude to others, or are consistently inappropriately dressed for your region.  Fortunately, I have only had to ban one student.

 

Allow at least a week for students to complete a SL activity.  This reduces the number of students on campus at any one time, reducing lag, and accommodates students when or if they have technical problems.  Many students will work on the activity at the last minute, complaining they cannot do the assignment if they have technical problems.  You should expect this.  I warn students several times over the period that they have to work on an assignment to not wait until the last minute and that assignments must be in by the due date and time.

 

If you expect many classes to use the campus, keep the campus open.  It is difficult to add student avatar names to security programs when bringing large numbers of students on the campus.  Most instructors will not be able to provide you their student’s avatar names.  Also an open campus allows other educators to visit and promotes networking.  The exception is for K-12 programs, which need very secure regions.

 

Do not expect all students to love SL.  Some will hate working in SL, some will get really excited and tell you it is a great learning experience, but most will just do it because it is an assigned activity.  Very few students will continue in SL after the class.

 

 

Instructional issues (18 Lessons)

 

Use SL for its strengths (see below) and limit things that are best done face-to-face in real life such as class lectures and exams.

 

I have seen SL effectively used with students for: Small lectures, Interactive activities, Medical and legal role play scenarios, Office hours, Review sessions, Slide Presentations, Tours Student-teacher conferences, Poster sessions, Displays, and Hunts.  Students can use the virtual campus for study group meetings, but though I have encouraged this, I have never seen it.

 

Avoid situations where a class of students must attend an activity or lecture in SL at a specific time.  There will always be students with technical difficulties that prohibit them from gaining the full educational value of the activity.  In general, anytime you have a group of students in SL, expect some students to crash and be gone for some of the time, or students to have other technical issues with SL such as with accessing voice, sitting, clothing, etc.  Often when many avatars are in one area in a region, the computer speed slows down (Lag) and things move slowly. This is why holding formal lectures and exams in SL is problematic.

 

Be aware that a region can restart at any time and everyone must leave the region for about 5 minutes or log out of SL.  This can be very disruptive, especially for formal lectures.  You will get a notice 5 minutes before the region closes.  So be prepared to inform students what to do: relocate within SL or log off for 5 minutes.

 

A low stress why to start interacting with students in SL is by holding concurrent office hours in your real office and on your SL campus.  I find that during most semesters more students come to my office hours in SL than to my real office because they can come from home or work. I give students a few points for visiting me in SL during office hours during the first two weeks of the semester so they get into SL and know where to come for help.

 

Learn to use the slide boards, whiteboards, and web-boards in SL.  When marking on a whiteboard in SL using a stylus and tablet attached to your computer works well.

 

When interacting with students in SL, use nearby chat or IM as much as possible.  This allows students to copy and paste the text into a Word doc so they have a record of what was said.  Some students will have problems using or hearing voice.

 

When conducting tours for a group, put everyone in a group and use group voice or group IM to talk to everyone, this allows you to talk to everyone even when they are out of voice range.

 

Do not expect all instructors who are sending students into SL to come into SL themselves.  Most instructors will never be active in or share your enthusiasm for SL.

 

When managing a campus in SL, you need to provide a range of options for instructors, from being active in SL to the opposite extreme of never even having an avatar or coming into SL themselves.  Make it easy for them to send students to the educational activities and get assessable outcomes and they will use it.

 

To make it easy for instructors to use SL, for each activity provide a detailed handout for students that walks them through the activity step by step.  Instructors need simply provide this handout to their students and the students can enter SL to complete the activity.

 

For more difficult activities, consider developing a machinima video of how to do the activity and post this on YouTube.  You can provide the URL in the handout.  Jing and Obsproject (https://obsproject.com) offer free programs for making these videos.

 

Make the handouts easy to modify by instructors, so they can tailor them to their curriculum needs.  My  handouts are all in Word and posted to the Department folder in Blackboard.

 

When possible make the activity handouts available on the virtual campus as a notecard, so visitors can also do the activities.  I find some high schools that are active in SL send students to my campus to complete specific activities.

 

Provide a means to assess student achievement for each activity.  The activity handout can end with a set of questions for the students to complete.  Or if the students make an object (e.g. a glucose molecule on my campus) have the students take an image of that object. If the students are engaged in role play, after the role play, see if the students captured the lessons presented to them.

 

The handouts should direct students to email graded material to their professor.  I also ask them to email an image of their avatar at the site, so I know they at least were in SL at the correct location.

As often as is reasonable, use both formal and informal means to evaluate the educational value of the activities and modify the activities and handouts to improve the educational experience.  I find about 10% of student feedback is useful and modify the handouts each semester based on student comments.

 

When your educational activities are not giving the desired results, determine why and redesign the activity.  If you find that the activity requires a level of faculty involvement you cannot attain, redesign.  If you find that the activity requires students to have a level of skill in SL that few will have, redesign.  This requires that you remain flexible with the vision for the activity.  It is the educational experience and learning that is important, not a specific design.

 

 

Professional Development (3 Lessons)

 

Times for events in SL are usually given in SL time (SLT) which is the time in San Francisco, California on the west coast of the USA where Linden Labs is located. You will need to know the time different between SLT and your local time in order to get to professional development events at the correct time.  SLT changes with the change between Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time in the USA.

 

There are many educational organizations in SL that offer professional development opportunities.  Joining the group associated with each educational organization allows you to get notices of events.  For example, each year VWBPE (Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education) holds a multiday conference in SL.  Also, each Monday night at 5:00 pm SLT VSTE (the Virginia Society for Technology in Education) holds some event on their region.  These are often professional development opportunities.  The Science Circle has weekly presentations on some topic in science.

 

There is a rapidly growing literature on education in SL.  These articles are found in peer-reviewed journals as well as in many other publication venues, both in print and on-line.  These are often focused on specific disciplines: for example, I recently saw to peer-reviewed journal articles on medical role-play in SL and an educational tool.

 

 

Program Development (9 Lessons)

 

Look to where there is a need for on-line instruction at your institution and how the SL environment might provide this: for example make-up labs for snow-day closures, or ways to make hybrid and on-line classes more interactive.  I found that snow-day closures and the need to make up labs online drove many faculty members at my institution to using SL.  During spring semester 2016, at least 25 faculty members at NOVA were sending students to SL to do make-up labs.

 

Foster support from multiple levels within the college or university: president, provost, deans, department chairs, IT.  This was an idea someone shared with me, but it is critical to keep this in mind.  Make sure they are aware of how you are using SL to enhance education and address instructional needs.  Promote the program wildly in your institution.

 

Do not expect many faculty members at our institution to be active in SL.  Faculty members’ reluctance to get involved stems from the steep learning curve associated with SL and the fact that there are many on-line educational tools to select from.  At most educational institutions there are only a few faculty members who will ever be really active in SL.  In part, the frustration with lack of adoption by faculty members led many higher education institutions to close their SL campuses in 2012.

 

When providing workshops and profession develop opportunities to introduce the SL program to faculty and staff at your institution, focus on how VWs can be useful in education and not so much on getting everyone an avatar and having them visit the virtual campus.  I only got workshop participants to follow-up after I stressed the use of VWs in education.  When they have an avatar and are visiting the campus, they  can quickly become overwhelmed with the obvious steep learning curve required to feel comfortable in SL.

 

Have extra avatars you can let people use.  I understand you can have 5 avatars per email address.  I have 20 avatars that I can let people use at SL workshops.  This saves a lot of time at workshops that people spend creating and editing their avatar.  Also there is a limit on how many avatars can be made from one internet address at a time. I have also given these avatars to administrators to have them visit the campus.  I can park the avatar where I want the administrators to appear. I have even let students use these avatars when they were experiencing serious problems with their own avatar.  Note students can make additional avatars if there are problems with their initial one or they forget the password.

 

Once you have students using the campus and a track record of some achievement, look for easy-to-obtained small grants to pay builders to develop new activities or improve existing activities.

 

Have fixed costs, such as the annual payment to Linden Labs or salary support for a campus manager, be included in the institutions budget and dependent on grants.  When the campus is dependent on grants to sustain itself, it has a high risk of closing.

 

So far (2016), Linden Lab continues to provide an educational discount on the annual tithe for a region.   Be sure to ask for it, if it is not offered.  I get an invoice from Linden lab at the end of each January.  For the last several years with the educational discount this has been for $1,770 for one whole region (256 meters by 256 meters).  I work with the controller’s office on campus to make sure a check is cut and mailed to Linden Lab.  In 2012 there was discussion that Linden lab would stop providing the educational discount and many colleges and universities left SL at that time.

 

Do not expect campus IT to be happy about maintaining SL on student, classroom, and lab computers, but do request this as needed.

 

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Further adventures down the winding path of Second Life

My first adventures blog ended with my transition to the administrator of the NOVA campus in Second Life, in January 2012. By the beginning of spring semester 2013 I could look back on a busy year of development on the campus. There were 14 different biology activities, a classroom, and four different meeting areas. The campus had been beautifully landscaped and nature sounds added to give a feel that you are in the gardens and forest of a real campus. I was holding regular office hours at one meeting area and all of my classes were doing at least one activity on the campus. The poster area had posters from my fall 2012 Biology 102 honors students. A few NOVA faculty members were also sending students to conduct activities on the campus. In essence, the campus was up and running, but needed more activity to justify its cost.

In March of that spring semester, I conducted a several hour workshop on using Second Life in education for the IT staff at the Woodbridge Campus. The level of interest seemed high, but none of the participants returned to the virtual campus following the workshop. This was surprising and hinted that such workshops might not be the most successful way to increase activity on the campus.

Use of the virtual campus by the Biology program at the Manassas campus slowly expanded. During fall semester 2013, students from at least 4 different courses were using the campus. These courses were General Biology 1 (BIO 101), General Biology II (BIO 102), Biotechnology Concepts (BIO 256), and General Environmental Science I (ENV 121). The first Monday in September tends to be a college holiday and the Monday labs are not offered. The Second Life campus proved to offer a good alternative to labs not offered because of these holidays. A worksheet for each activity was posted on the Biology Program’s Blackboard page so all faculty members could access them. Professors only needed to provide their students the worksheet for the desired activity and then later receive from the students by email the completed question pages and an image of the student’s avatar at the site in Second Life. This eliminated the large learning curve barrier that tends to keep adoption by faculty members low. I encouraged professors who assigned an activity to their students to create an avatar, visit the Second Life campus, and try the activity in order to be able to answer their students’ questions. However, this was not necessary and many faculty who sent students never visited the virtual campus themselves. To facilitate the use of the campus by students and to observe the difficulties they had I spent many hours on the campus to help students during periods of high use.

The close association with Dr. Mary Clark of Texas Wesleyan University continued and I encouraged NOVA Biology professors to make use of the numerous genetics activities located on Genome Island, Mary’s area in Second Life. To facilitate the use of Genome Island I started to develop worksheets for the activities there. The BIO 102 honors students were assigned a group activity to develop a worksheet for a specific activity. This worked well and has been repeated each semester I have had honor students.

To improve the experience for students, I sent out in fall semester 2013 a student evaluation to all the professors who sent students to the campus. The professors had their students complete the evaluation. I received responses from 110 students. The results from this evaluation are available separately on my blog. About 20 percent of the students did not like doing activities in Second Life, while almost 30 percent said it made learning fun and over 20 percent said they enjoyed working in SL Some of the suggestions from this and other evaluations that were adopted were to provide an orientation opportunity, to add images to the worksheets, to ensure that students had access to the program used to access Second Life in the student computer rooms, and to solve some of the technical issues with the builds.

Each of these issues was addressed. For example, one technical issue was that the sound provided with one activity did not work for about half the students so they could not hear anything. A text copy of the information was provided. There are several good orientation sites in Second Life. I selected to have students visit the Caledon Oxbridge area in Second Life and to go through their excellent orientation. Considerable work went into modifying the worksheets to make these adjustments. I continue to ask my students each semester for suggestions on how to improve the learning experience in Second Life and thus, worksheet modification has become an on-going process.

I offered three workshops about NOVA’s Second Life campus for faculty and staff during fall semester 2013. On the Manassas Campus, I offered a Lunch and Learn session and also a workshop specifically for staff in the Student Services Office. I also offered a workshop for faculty members in Biology at the Annandale Campus. While these workshops helped faculty and staff at NOVA become more aware of the Second Life campus, no one who attended these workshops visit the campus after the workshop. This convinced me that workshops where participants entered Second Life with an avatar and learned the basics were not a useful vehicle for increasing use of the virtual campus. I expect the difficulty in mastering this new program seemed overwhelming to many of the participants. A new approach for outreach was needed.

Over the next few semesters, use of the virtual campus increased. Spring semester in 2014 and 2015 provided a big boost because of the many campus closures due to snow days. Many of the Manassas campus Biology professors turned to Second Life to make up the Biology labs that were missed. During the summer of 2014 a visitor counter was installed on the campus so I could keep track of visitors. During fall semester 2014 there were 322 students active on the virtual campus and four Manassas Biology professors used the campus. This increased to 470 students and 13 professors during spring semester 2015.

Tidewater Community College (TCC) lost their Second Life campus in the spring of 2012. Dr. Michael Mitchell, a faculty member at TCC, had developed a large activity that provided a review for the Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) classes (basically BIO 141 and 142). During the summer of 2014 this activity was recreated at the NOVA campus, giving a total of 15 activities in Biology. The A&P students at the Manassas Campus started to use this activity as a review. This seemed to be particularly useful for the students taking the on-line version of this class. The activity was also used by several TCC students of Dr. Mitchell. To further help the A&P programs I was able to obtain from Caroline Lowey at the Northern Michigan University a large model of a human ear and a large model of a human throat. Students can actually enter these models and identify different structures.

In January 2015, I gave a presentation at the Power up your Pedagogy (PUP) Conference. The presentation focused on using the Second Life campus to enhance education, especially for hybrid and on-line classes. I changed the format for the workshop to focus on the uses of the campus rather than to get participants an avatar and give them a basic orientation on how to operate in Second Life. This approach proved more successful and one faculty member (Donna Freeman) from NOVA’s Medical Education campus has become active on the virtual campus. She worked with a person who builds in Second Life to develop a medical clinic for respiratory therapy role play and recently brought students to the campus for the first time.

During fall semester 2015 we developed two grant proposals to develop new activities on the NOVA campus. Up to that time, only two of the 15 activities on the campus had been built by me. The other 13 activities had been donated to the campus by others. However, to continue to develop new activities that faculty were requesting, we would need to build things on the campus. To build the complex things we now needed in Second Life requires considerable skill and training and is beyond my ability. So the support from these grants would go to compensate a builder to make the required objects.

We have already been awarded The Program Advancement Grant from the Manassas Campus Provost’s office. This grant will allow us to redesign the existing large building on the campus in order to free up prims to build new things. The campus has a total of 15,000 prims, or objects we can build and we have used up over 10,000 on the current builds. Over 900 prims are in the large building that was built in 2007. Newer technology allows us to reduce this to about 200 prims. We will also be developing a recreation of a wall of the Grand Canyon for the Geology Program, a brain and other organs for the Anatomy and Physiology Program, and some biodiversity activities for the Biology 101 classes. Dava Sprouse was contracted to complete these builds.

The other grant proposal submitted to the NOVA Foundation will allow the completion of the medical clinic. The structure is build but quite a bit of specialized equipment needs to be purchased and several complex items built. The awardees for this grant should be announced in February 2016.

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Analysis of Fall 2013 Student Evaluation of Second Life Activities

Analysis of Fall 2013 Second Life Evaluation

            A total of 110 students completed a written evaluation of Second Life (SL) near the end of fall semester 2013.  Of these 15 were in honors Bio 101, 55 were in Bio 102 (3 classes), 15 were in Env 121, and 19 were in Bio 253.  Of the 55 students in Bio 102, 6 mentioned that they had completed additional SL activities in either the Bio 101 or Bio 102 labs.

            The 89 students had completed at least one of 8 biology activities in SL. The Bio 101 students had completed the Mendelian Genetics and Eukaryote Natural Selection activities. The Bio 102 students had completed the Testis/Ovaries activity (50 students) and Forest Ecology activity (17 students).  Five of the Bio 102 students mentioned they had completed the Tissues activity in Bio 102 lab and 1 student mentioned they did the Photosynthesis activity in their Bio 101 lab. The Env 121 students reported completing the Macromolecule activity (15 students) and the Mendelian Genetics activity (14 students).  All 19 of the Bio 253 students said they did an activity in the tower on Genome Island. These activities were spread over 3 sims (locations) in SL.  The Mendelian Genetics activity and tower activity were conducted on Genome Island.  The Testis/Ovaries activity was conducted on the island of Ohio State University, Medical Campus.  The remaining activities were conducted at NOVA’s Campus in SL.

            Almost 60 percent (57%) of the students reported they had no problems loading the Firestorm program and getting an avatar.  This ranged from almost 80 percent for ENV 121 down to just below 50 percent for Bio 253.  Of those reporting problems loading the Firestorm program and getting an avatar about 20 percent mentioned the program ran very slowly on their computer and 5 percent could not load the program on their own computer.   Firestorm crashed the computer of about 5 percent of the students.   Each of the remaining nine problems that students reported were only mentioned by one student.

            A little under half of the students (49%) reported no problems in getting to the right location in SL to carry out the activity.  This ranged from 67 percent for ENV 121 students down to 30 percent for Bio 253 students.  Seven problems in getting to the right location were mentioned by the other students.  About 20 percent of the students had problem figuring out how to move their avatar.  About 10 percent reported that they found the worksheet confusing.  About 5 percent of the students found the program running very slowly (lag) and an additional 5 percent reported that they landed in the lake at NOVA Island and did not know how to get out.  The remaining problems were each reported by less than 3 percent of the students.

            Only 22 percent of the students found no educational value from the SL activity and only 11 percent said they really did not like SL.  This ranged from a low of 12 percent for the ENV 121 class up to almost 35 percent for the Bio 253 class.  The remaining 78 percent enjoyed some aspect of the SL activity. Almost 30 percent said it made learning fun and over 20 percent said they enjoyed working in SL.  The Env 121 class led both the other classes in these categories.  A little over 6 percent reported they liked exploring with their avatar.  About 5 percent said they enjoyed the graphics associated with each activity and both the hands on aspect of learning and the game like aspects of SL were appreciated by a little over 3 percent of the students.  So about 80 percent of the students are benefiting from the SL activities.

            The students were asked how the SL activities could be improved.  Just over 14 percent of all students said no improvements were needed.  This ranged from over 20 percent of the students in Env 121 and Bio 253 and just under 10 percent of the students in Bio 102.  The Bio 102 students mainly had issues with the Ovary part of the Testis/Ovary activity, which offers a tour of these organs.  Just over 20 percent of the Bio 102 students had trouble with the audio on this activity and just over 5 percent thought the tours moved too fast.  Just over 14 percent of the students in all classes found the worksheets unclear.   About 7 percent of the students in all classes had problems with the program being slow and sometimes crashing.  A little over 6 percent suggested an orientation of how to move and function in SL would be very useful and just under 4 percent thought the activities should be more interactive.  Encouragingly, over 4.5 percent of the students thought there should be more SL activities to complete.

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A winding trail in a strange land, my path through Second Life

In 2009 I read an article about college professors lecturing in a virtual world called Second Life.    I envisioned teaching in a virtual classroom, modeled on the real world classrooms I teach in at the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).  I found this possibility intriguing.  At NOVA’s annual Power up Your Pedagogy conference in early January 2010, I was pleased to see a workshop on Second Life offered by Judith Gustafson, an IT professor at NOVA’s Annandale campus.  I soon found myself in a computer lab exploring this strange virtual world.   Little did I know this would be the beginning of an amazing journey. 

            The first thing I did at the workshop was to create an avatar, selecting the name Dodge Threebeards.  I was pleased to learn that NOVA had a campus in Second Life.  Most of the workshop was spent on learning the basics for moving in Second Life and exploring NOVA’s campus.  The campus had a large two-story central building and six kiosks.  The top story of the building was empty, but the bottom story had information on applying to NOVA and student services as well as a student art gallery.  The kiosks had information about specific academic programs. Attached to the large building was a library and in front of the building was a large lake.  On the far shore of the lake was an outside amphitheater. The only educational use of the campus was a building in a distant corner that was used to recreate a crime scene used by Margaret Leary’s forensics science class.  I was disappointed that there was no classroom where I could lecture as I envisioned.

             NOVA’s campus is an island surrounded by water.  Looking at a map I saw that there were other islands nearby.  Over the next several months I explored off of NOVA’s campus and met other people active in Second Life.  On one of my first excursions I happened to find a group from the Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE) on a nearby island.  I found out that VSTE has its own island in Second Life and holds meetings there each Monday night.  They were excited I was from NOVA for they had scheduled a tour of NOVA’s campus as well as the Second Life campus of James Madison University.  I participated in both of these tours and from this group I learned about the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).  ISTE had a large area in Second Life, covering several parcels (sims).  ISTE held many different social and educational events on their sims and often had a docent present to answer questions.  I met many educators who were active in Second Life through VSTE and ISTE.  I also joined the Second Life education list serve (SLED) which proved to be a great resource for learning what other educators were doing in Second Life as well as offering a venue for getting questions answered.

 At this point, I started to visit other college and university campuses in Second Life to see how they designed and built things and to see how they used (or did not use) their campus space. It soon became clear that though a lot of time and effort had gone into designing and building a lovely campus, with gardens, pathways, and building that mimicked those on the real campus; there was very little use of these campuses.  With a few exceptions, often no one was there.  I could not find students or professors.  There were beautiful and expensive campuses devoid of any educational activities.   It was clear that the model of professors lecturing to students in Second Life classrooms was not happening on most campuses

              I tried to figure out why these campuses were not being used.  Several factors contributing to low use became evident.  The campuses were built by computer science specialists who had a sound grasp of building and scripting, but who were not the professors expected to use the campuses.  They failed to ask how would a professor use this space and more importantly, why would a professor use this space.  They worked on the assumption that if they build something beautiful and that looked like the real campus, faculty members would come and use it. They had in fact created a tool that few if any faculty members wanted to use.  The professors did not want to conduct activities in Second Life because there is a large learning curve to be proficient enough to function and work with students comfortably.  No professor wants to stand in front of a class and teach in a virtual world that they do not understand or for which they lack the necessary skills needed to function.  As a result there is very low adoption by faculty members.  To illustrate how great a barrier this is, I offer a 2 to 3 hour workshop that allows people to be proficient enough to function in Second Life and to successfully interact with students.  About 10 faculty and staff members have taking this class, all people who expressed a strong interest in Second Life.  To date, I have not seen even one of these people in second life after the workshop.  The learning curve is daunting, and faculty members are generally reluctant to jump in and make the effort to get to the point they feel comfortable.  Sadly, it takes several months of almost daily activity in Second Life to get to that point.

             There was a wide divergence in the design and structures that I found on the different campuses.  While most colleges and universities tried to mimic the layout and buildings of the real campus, there were a few that were innovative.  It is these latter that intrigued me.  Many of the structural constraints of the real world are absent in Second Life.  It does not rain and is never cold or hot.  There is no need for roofs or walls.  Structures have no weight and can easily be floated in the air, or placed on top of a tree. The more creative campus did not try to mimic the real campus, but had specific activities for students and built to the strengths of virtual worlds.  I was particularly attracted to tree house classrooms; light, airy structures without roofs or walls that sat high on top of a tree.  Since NOVA did not have a classroom, I was determined to build one of these at NOVA.  Little did I know how difficult building in Second Life can be.

 Judith Gustafson managed NOVA’s campus in Second Life.  She had been part of the group that built it and she did not want to see major changes to the design.  She was willing to add things for a professor, but she would do this.  She did not want professors building.  Fortunately I had learned that the campus has vertical space up to 4,000 m and also I learned that Judith was seldom on the campus.  So I started building my classroom at 500 m in the sky, unseen by anyone.  It was a steep learning curve. People I met in Second Life who had much better building skills than me were very helpful.  I also visited the building orientations at two sims called Ivory Tower and Happy Hippo, respectively.  Even with all this help it took me over six months and several restarts to complete my classroom.  It was an open-air structure with a railing around it so people did not fall off.  It would sit about 50 students and it had three screens, one for slides, one for webpages, and a whiteboard for drawing.   I finally had a classroom at NOVA, one that was fun but also functional.

             As I approached the end of my first year in Second Life I was comfortable with the program, had developed basic building skills, and knew several educators active in Second Life.  I was ready to initiate simple educational activities on the NOVA campus.  I decided to use my building skills to develop an activity where students could build simple organic molecules (amino acids and glucose) by moving atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen into their proper place.  To conduct this activity the students must be able to copy one of the atoms into their inventory and then download it (rez it) on the NOVA campus.  To avoid damage to the campus, only a select group of people were able (had permissions) to build there.  Thus Judith created a special area (called a sandbox) where anyone can build on the campus and the different atoms were placed there.  Things built in this sandbox were returned to their owners after four hours.  I also needed to develop a worksheet for the students that told them how to load the Second Life program, how to obtain an avatar, how to get to the sandbox on the NOVA campus in Second Life, as well as gave detailed instructions on how to build a molecule.  The worksheet asked the students to take a photo of the molecule they built and email it to me.  I made this an assignment for my Biology 101 class in spring 2011. Finally I was using Second Life for education.

             From this experience, several things became evident.  Many of the students did not have access off campus to a computer with an adequate graphics card or sufficient band width to run the Second Life program.  This required that Second Life be loaded on NOVA computers in the student computer lab so all students could access the program. The IT staff loaded the standard Second Life viewer on these computers.  The standard viewer, however, caused problems because there were frequent updates requiring a reinstall of the program.  To address this problem, I moved to the Firestorm viewer which was more stable and needed only to be updated between semesters.  The students also had a wide range of computer skills.  Some found the worksheet directions adequate, but others struggled to understand how to make the molecules.  This required that the worksheet instructions be made clearer and more detailed.   I realized at this point that teaching a class in Second Life would be difficult.  My vision of lecturing in a classroom in Second Life to students who attend from their home was unrealistic for NOVA students.  Because they lacked the broadband and graphics card needed to run Second Life, a significant number of my students would not be able to participate from off campus as envisioned.    

             During my orientation as a new faculty at NOVA an experienced faculty member shared how he gave points to students to do an initial visit to his office at the beginning of the semester.  I had adopted this idea, but at this time decided to expand this to include visiting me in Second Life.  To achieve this I set aside an hour each week during which I would be available in Second Life on the NOVA campus for an “office hour”.  I established an office hour area near where students entered the campus and each week I would set out chairs.  Student could get points for visiting me in either my real office or my Second Life office.  Over the semester students would drop into my office hour in Second Life from their home, or work and ask a few questions.  I was surprised to find that more students visited me in Second Life than came to my real office.  This seemed to be a popular option.

 By this time, Dodge Threebeards had a lot of friends in Second Life and people were often contacting him when he was online.   Therefore, I decided to create an avatar just for teaching and working with students.  I gave this avatar a name (Greg Prumier) close to my real name and a very skilled friend made my real face for this avatar from a photo.  So Greg Prumier became the avatar for educational activities and working with students while Dodge Threebeards still did most of the building and interacting with people who were not students.

 One day in spring semester 2011 I received an email from Robert Latham, a teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, asking if I could provide a workshop on Second Life.  He had found my name from the SLED list serve.  The workshop would be part of a week- long professional development conference called JOSTI (Jefferson’s Overseas Technology Institute) aimed at teachers at international schools and funded by the U.S. State Department.  Because I teach at the college level and most of the workshop participants would be teaching in K-12 schools, I contacted Kim Harrison to see if she can help me. Kim is a K-12 teacher in Virginia Beach with years of experience in Second Life whom I met through VSTE.  Together Kim and I mapped out a workshop plan and created 26 avatars that we could let the workshop participants use.  Kim attended in Second Life only initially, but in later workshops we established a Skype link also.  In late June 2011 we offered this workshop and I started training others in Second Life.  We offered this 3-hour workshop again in 2012 but in 2013 we changed to a 90 minute workshop and had as many participants as possible create their own avatar.  Second Life only lets about 10 avatars be created from the same address at one time, so not all workshop participants could create their own avatar.  After offering the 2011 workshop, I went on to give several shorter presentations on Second Life for faculty and staff at NOVA and at conferences.  These workshops gradually developed into a 50 minute workshop that provided an introduction to Second Life and explored NOVA’s Second Life campus as well as a two hour workshop that got participants proficient enough in Second Life to interact with students and to explore the program further.

I continued exploring other colleges and universities in Second Life and meeting people active in biology education in this virtual world.  Several of these sims were very interesting and instructive.  Mary Clark (avatar Max Chatnoir) at Texas Wesleyan University had built a very robust facility called Genome Island that focused on various aspects of genetics, protein synthesis, cell biology and biotechnology.  Genome Island was very creative with a many educational activities for students scattered around the island and no attempt to mimic the real world campus.  Carolyn Lowe (avatar Clowey Greenwood) at Northern Michigan University had developed several interesting biology activities on a sim called Biome.  Biome had a coral reef, a tree of life, and a microscope showing different protists found in pond water.  Like Genome Island, Biome offered specific educational activities for students. Carolyn taught classes in teaching science at the k-12 level in the Education Department at her university and was very interested in how to use virtual worlds for K-12 education.  Michael Mitchell (avatar Leostomas.Carpaccio) had developed a nice review activity for his anatomy and physiology classes (Bio 141 and 142) at Tidewater Community College (TCC), a sister institution to NOVA in the Virginia Community College System.  At Michael’s build on the TCC campus, students were presented with numerous screens, each having several slides that would present a topic, then ask questions, and then on the last slide, provide the answers.  In addition, the medical campus of Ohio State University provided a tour of testis that discussed spermatogenesis in detail and a tour that presented follicle development over several months.  Stephen Gasior then at the University of New Orleans (currently at Ball State University) send a message to the SLED list serve asking biology instructors to view a poster session his biology students were showing.  I attended this and was intrigued at the ease with which a poster could be presented in Second Life and started a long-term collaboration with Stephen.

Rather than try to duplicate the activities created on these sims, I arranged to send NOVA students to these sims to conduct specific activities.  There were 10 cell biology activities on a platform at Genome Island and most of these complimented certain Bio 101 and Bio 102 labs.  Mary Clark graciously invited NOVA students to use Genome Island.  Keeping with the worksheet model I had adopted at NOVA’s island, I developed worksheets for a macromolecule activity as well as an animal tissues activity and started requiring my students completed these worksheets.  Because of holidays the Bio 101 and 102 Monday labs do not meet one week at the beginning of each semester and now these students could complete these labs (macromolecules for Bio 101 and animal tissues for Bio 102) in Second Life.  The instructors for the Monday labs started sending their students to Second Life.  This was easy to do, because the instructors simply had to give the students the worksheet.  Each worksheet had about 20 questions that the students would answer and email to their instructor.  The students also emailed a photo of their avatar doing the activity.  So the students received the worksheet and the instructors received than email from the students with the completed questions and a photo.  During the periods that these assignments were being worked on, I spent as much time as possible on the cell platform at Genome Island helping students and learning what changes were needed to improve the worksheets.  By the end of my second year in Second Life, over 100 NOVA students were augmenting their education with activities in Second Life each semester.

             As the biology professors active in Second Life collaborated more we discussed forming a working group to share information and to help each other.  The group met about every two weeks at the University of New Orleans sim and Stephen Gasior (avatar Stephen Xootfly) became the de-facto chair.  The name BIO-SE (Biological Interactive Objects for Science Education) was selected.  The group started with a few professors, the core being Stephen, Mary Clark, Carolyn Lowe and myself.  Other professors initially attended a few meetings but stop coming.  Eva Comaroski (avatar Kira.Komarov), a computer science doctoral student at UNO (now graduated) and very skilled in building and scripting in Second Life also was a key member of the group and assisted many people with their builds.  Soon others such as Marion Smeltzer, a graduate student in archeology and Rachel Umoren, a professor in public health at Indiana University Medical School joined the group.  Both of these people had been working on their own educational sims.  Dragan Lakic, Joe Graham and Lazaros Papadopoulos also attended at times.  Joe Graham was interested in virtual libraries Lazaros Papadopoulos was interested in dentistry training in virtual worlds and Dragan Lakic is a skilled builder. 

             Through Michael Mitchell at TCC Island I met Lois Radford (avatar Gardenia Mills). She was a librarian at TCC and the administrator of their Second Life island.  Upon hearing about the building constraints at NOVA’s campus, she invited me to build at TCC Island.  I was given a small space all my own to do with as I pleased.   So I purchased trees, found textures, made a large sandbox an built the simple molecule activity, made a large meeting area and two small meeting areas, and put my classroom in a tree.  It took several weeks before everything was in place.  At the end of spring semester 2011, I moved to TCC, removing all of my objects and builds from NOVA’s campus except for the simple molecule activity in the NOVA sandbox.  I finally had a place of my own and thus started a new phase of my Second Life experience. 

 Slowly I developed other worksheets.  The next worksheet was for a Mendelian genetics activity on Genome Island followed by a worksheet for the testis and follicles activities at the OSU Medicine sim.  Over several months I added worksheets for the remaining cell activities on Genome Island and started working on a biodiversity worksheet using the coral reef at Biome.  Carolyn Lowe working with Eva Comaroski created a bacteria (prokaryotic) natural section activity. Stephen Gasior and Eva Comaroski together created a eukaryotic natural selection activity that modeled the change in moth color in the United Kingdom as trees became darker during industrialization.  Worksheets were developed for both of these natural selection activities.

 At this point, I started requiring the students in my BIO 102 and ENV 121 classes to complete two worksheets each semester.  My Biology 102 class initially did the tissues lab at Genome Island and the testis and ovaries activity at the OSU medicine sim.  My ENV 121 class did the macromolecules and the Mendelian genetics activities at Genome Island.  I also held regular office hours at one of my meeting areas at TCC Island.  In addition, four honors students in my honors-option BIO 102 class did a poster session on TCC Island.  They made 2×3 foot PowerPoint slides and sent them to me.  I loaded the slides into Second Life and created a poster for each student.  On a given day biology faculty members from NOVA visited TCC Island and heard the students present their posters.  I had totally given up any vision of lecturing in Second Life and actively promoted the idea of worksheet driven activities that the students did on their own using either their own computers or computers on the NOVA campus. 

In late fall 2012 a shock went through the education community in Second Life when Linden Labs (who owns and administer Second Life) announced they were getting rid of the education discount that institutions paid annually to keep their sims.  Thus instead of paying around $1,600 per year, colleges and universities would have to pay around $3,500.  This caused the administrators at the colleges and universities with a campus in Second Life to reconsider the value they are getting out of their presence in Second Life.  The general trend was to not continue to support campuses that were greatly underused or not used at all.  In addition, many of the staff active in building campuses in Second Life were getting very discouraged at the low level of adoption my faculty.  As a result, many campuses disappeared when they did not pay rent in February.  The faculty members associated with those campuses in Second Life looked for other options.  One such option was to move to a different virtual world called Open Sim.  Open Sim is not as robust as Second Life, but it is much cheaper and the BIO-SE group started moving to Open Sim.  When the Biome sim closed, Carolyn Lowe moved her activities entirely to open sim, which had the additional advantage of being more appropriate for k-12 students..  Eventually most of the people in the BIO-SE group became active in Open Sim on a series of grids that the group managed.  In light of this switch to Open Sim the group changed its name to Virtual Islands for Biology Education (VIBE).

 The NOVA campus was not being used at all.  Margaret Leary and I, the two NOVA faculty members active in education in Second Life, had abandoned the NOVA campus and Judith Gustafson had retired from NOVA and moved out of state.  I received an email from Margaret asking if I would be willing to co-administer NOVA’s campus in Second Life with her and move my programs there.  Since Margaret would not be relocating her activities to NOVA’s campus, this meant that I was de facto the administrator of the campus.  With a bit of sadness I left my TCC space and started to move back to NOVA.  By fall semester 2012, NOVA had well over 200 students doing activities in Second Life.  With this level of use, the administration decided to continue paying for the sim.  It turned out that Linden Labs would still give the educational discount as long as the institutions requested it. NOVA continued to get the discount. So NOVA’s presence in Second Life survived this crises and I started the third phase of my experience in Second Life.

 The NOVA campus had not changed from when I left it.  The simple molecule activity in the sandbox was the only biology activity there.  I moved quickly to bring as many biology activities as possible to the campus.  Mary Clark graciously agreed to recreate all ten of her cell biology activities at NOVA.  This became the cell biology area on the NOVA campus.  Carolyn Low agreed to put her coral reef in the lake and created a treehouse meeting room.  The lake was modified so it connected to the ocean, making it a bay.  Eva Comaroski agreed to put the prokaryotic and eukaryotic natural selection activities at NOVA.  Space was made for the natural selection activities on a skybox at 500 m. I built a forest on the campus for a forest ecology activity.  I also built two meeting areas and an office hour area and set my classroom in a tree.  A friend of mine did extensive landscaping and put in nature sounds, creating a very beautiful campus. 

Starting in spring semester 2013, the worksheets were changed to direct students to the NOVA campus.  Several Biology faculty members from the Manassas Campus of NOVA started sending their students to do one or more activities in Second Life.  During spring semester 2013 there were over 300 NOVA students activity in Second Life.  I finally used the treehouse classroom to hold a review session for students.  This was a make-up review session resulting from a snow day when the real NOVA campus was closed.  Of the 50 students in the class, only about 10 attended this review, confirming my misgivings about lecturing in Second Life.  I set aside a poster area and the honors students did another poster session in fall semester 2013. At the end of fall semester 2013, I had students do a written evaluation of their experience in Second Life.  The results of this evaluation will soon be posted in the blog.   In spring semester 2013, TCC Island closed leaving NOVA as the only community college in Virginia and one of only two institutions of higher education in Virginia with a presence in Second Life.   My journey continues, but I am pleased that NOVA now has a firm foundation in Second Life upon which to expand and improve.

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Learn by doing in Second Life

I have long been interested in the educational opportunities of virtual worlds.  In January of 2009, I attended a training at NOVA for the virtual world Second Life.  I was surprised to find that NOVA had a location (sim) within Second Life and that some NOVA faculty members were using Second Life in their classes.  I made an avatar (avi) called Greg Prumier and started exploring Second Life.  I quickly met other educators active in Second Life.   There is a group of Virginia educators who are members of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE) and organization with a sim in Second Life.  They told me about the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) that also has a sim in Second Life.  Visiting these sims I met many other educators who work in Second Life.  Eventually, I started meeting the biology teachers who are active in Second Life.  Max Chatnoire (avi name) at Texas Wesleyan University has developed a great sim called Genome.  This sim is focused on cell biology and genetics with a variety of activities available for students.  Clowey Greenwood (avi name) at Northern Michigan University developed another sim (Biome) located right next to Genome with an ecology and biodiversity focus.

I spent time exploring these sims and struggling with how best to use Second Life to augment my classes in general biology and environmental science.   I also worked on my building skills and started construction on a classroom.  One of the nice things about Second Life is that the normal laws of physics and weather concerns do not apply allowing for fun designs in buildings.   After checking out several classrooms, I ended up building a tree-house classroom which I began to develop at the NOVA sim.   I also started holding an office hour in Second Life which several students started attending.

I decided that rather than give lectures in Second Life, I would like to have students come into Second Life and do specific activities.  I began to develop worksheets that would allow students to go into Second Life and work through the different activities that are at Genome.  I also built an activity were students would combine hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms together to construct simple molecules like glucose or amino acids.

Frequency Riddler (avi name) in education in Florida introduced me to making videos (called machinima) in Second Life.  I acquired Jing Pro a program that allows you to video whatever is on your computer screen and started playing with shooting video.   Fortunately, NOVA offered a video production class for faculty over the summer of 2011 that I took.  This greatly improved my videos.  I then started making videos to help explain the more difficult parts of the worksheets and posted these videos on Youtube.  I imbedded the URL for these videos into the worksheets.

The management of the NOVA sim in Second Life was confused and building by faculty was discouraged.   In fact, I had to remove the classroom I had almost finished building. I had met the manager and another biology professor of the sim of Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Virginia Beach – a sister institution in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS).  I explained my problems with the NOVA sim to the manager and she invited me to come and build on their sim.  They were kind enough to give me a small island all my own to build on and I transferred all my activity in Second Life to TCC Island.  Over several weeks I was able to complete my classroom, build a large sandbox (an area where students can build things), and develop several different sized meeting areas.  I named this small island Biology Island.

At this point, I have about eight different worksheets students can use to conduct activities in Second Life.   I have nice meeting area where I regularly meet with students.  I have an operational classroom that has a PowerPoint slide screen, and screen linked to the internet, and a whiteboard for drawing.  I have several more worksheets planned, expanding in the area of environmental science.  I plan to take the hybrid class for faculty at NOVA so I can offer the lectures part of one of my classes at my classroom in Second Life.  Hybrid classes have half of the class on-line and the other half (the lab component in my case) in the classroom.

I was invited to join a group of biology faculty working in Second Life and we are working to recreate the best of our biology activities in another virtual world (science sim).  This will offer a virtual environment with many different biology activities available in one area.

I keep learning how to use Second Life better for enhancing the learning experience of NOVA students in biology and environmental science.  I have learned much over the almost two years I have been active in Second Life and met many interesting people doing great things in science education.   I still have much to learn and look forward to developing new skills and overcoming new challenges associated with teaching and learning in this strange 3D environment that is Second Life.

 

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Greetings

This is the blog of Greg Perrier, Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at the Manassas Campus of NOVA.

Here is a little information about myself.  I have a B.S. degree in Zoology from the Univ. of California at Davis.  I then went and spent four years in Cameroon as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Upon my return, I pursed a M.S. degree in Range Science again at U.C. Davis.  After getting my M.S., I returned to Africa working as a Research Fellow at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria.  After two years at ABU, I started working for Tufts University on a U.S. government-funded project in Niger.  Next I started a Ph.D. program in Range Science at Utah State University.   Upon completion of that degree, I went on the faculty at USU as the Director of International Programs for the College of Natural Resources.  I later moved to Virginia and started working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington D.C., a part of the State Department.   Missing academia, I move to NOVA and have been working here ever since.

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