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.