Imagine a scenario in which people create the world they live in. The creators determine whether they're happy or sad, thrive or falter, play or work.
Such a place exists. Second Life, a 3-D virtual world created entirely by its residents, opened to the public in 2003. It now has more than 11 million users in more than 100 countries. Anybody can join at www.secondlife.com.
At UT Arlington, faculty, staff and students have discovered ways to meld Second Life and learning.
Joshua Been, geographic information systems librarian and instructor, created a Second Life world-replete with avatars-to answer technological questions about GIS. Avatars are created beings in the virtual world that represent its inhabitants.
"It's an environment where we can interact with each other just as we would in person but without coming to campus in a room," Been said. "It's much more interactive than a chat room, though."
Jenny Jopling, director of the Center for Distance Education, said the creation and use of avatars and Second Life is on the rise in academia. "It does create an alternative life," she said. "It puts people more at ease."
She said avatars are part of only virtual worlds now, but the time is coming when "real" things will happen as people are using their avatars.
Many higher education institutions are embracing the technology. Ohio University has an entire Second Life campus, as does Harvard Law School.
Sarah Jones, UT Arlington's interim coordinator for digital library services, compares the technology to talking on the phone or instant messaging. But instead of "staring at the office wall, we are looking at representations of ourselves and experiencing the same things in the same room. We share the environment. It could be four people in that virtual world, but physically they could be on four continents."
Graduate student Jenni Moore, who plans to earn her Certificate in Spatial Information Systems this spring, said Been's virtual world helped her solve a problem with a model she created.
"The best feature about assistance provided this way is the ability to receive aid in real time, unlike responses to e-mails that may linger between recipients, often for days," she said.
Been said a few students came for the novelty of the technology at first but soon determined it was a great way to get questions answered.
In an article for Inside Higher Education, Spanish Associate Professor Chris Conway noted that an increasing number of technologically inclined faculty members have their avatars teach the avatars of their students.
They can be powerful teaching tools, he wrote, "not in the sense that it is inherently good to substitute an authentic, teacherly self with a virtual one, but in the sense of allowing the live, teaching self to have more qualitative, spontaneous and fruitful interaction in the classroom."
He said the teaching avatar can free the "real" teacher to spend more class time on discussion and group work.
That has been the case in Been's GIS virtual world.
"We've fielded questions from many disciplines-city planning, real estate research, earth science-often wherever public data is available," he said. "My favorite moments are when large groups of students interact and I step back and watch."
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University’s early models contained no data storage devices