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.