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.