Second Life Used for Distant Learning

Published September 2007 in the OCCurrence

The Emerging World of Distance Learning at Oakton
Jason Page

Colleges and universities have been exploring distance learning with video conferencing since the early 1990s.

According to Bob Burton of Media Services, Oakton Community College played a leading role as part of a state wide initiative to connect Illinois' institutions of higher learning using video conferencing as of 1995. According to Mr. Burton, the project was funded by the state to "improve students' access to the best educational opportunities, regardless of physical location and in a cost-effective way." This semester, there are three courses taught using this system as well as regular video conference meetings between the two campuses. Although this system is still being used, newer technologies that can potentially facilitate the student better are emerging. And these new technologies need nothing more than a personal computer and dedicated software.

In recent years, new World Wide Web technologies established platforms for bringing people located in separate countries together. These technologies are attractive to academia because they resolve the need to travel and perhaps the need to have a physical campus.

Two technologies Oakton is exploring are Second Life and Elluminate. While Second Life is focused on a 3D social network with a complete economic system, Elluminate focuses on the sharing of resources between computers.

In Second Life you communicate with other people either by voice or chat in four basic ways: 1) Communicate openly to all who are in your immediate area; 2) Communicate to one person privately; 3) Communicate to everyone online who is registered in a special interest group; 4) Send a message to someone who is not online. Because of the many ways to communication through Second Life, not only does the communication occur between long distances but those communication options offered there are more ways to stay in touch with your classmates and teachers.

In Second Life, you design the way you want people to see you. You also complete a profile where other users are able to read about who you are in Second Life, as well as who you are in real life. The benefit of having this social network and atmosphere in the classroom is the opportunity to get to know your peers better, and interact with them within their special interest groups. A person's profile will list what special interest groups they are in. One student might find a common interest in another student on any number of subjects, and begin to interact with them after they see this. This type of social networking broadens the student's awareness of other student's interests and cultures. And by making this atmosphere available to students, it encourages them to collaborate more with their colleagues outside of class in Second Life.

The school or teacher designs the classroom space and how different objects interact with the students using Second Life's built in programming engine called Linden Scripting Language (LSL). A programmer, such as a teacher, may use LSL to add functionality to virtual objects, called prims, that can in turn share information with students or websites. More sophisticated applications would include controlling a real robot arm from within Second Life. This can be useful if a student is physically handicapped and unable to participate in the real life classroom. Another application would be if a student wants to participate in robotics from an area that does not have one. Other applications could include data output from a computer simulation on a server that can, for instance, represent chemical properties and behaviors as objects in Second Life. All students in a classroom setting can observe the same chemical behaviors, or one student can interact with the behaviors by subjecting the chemical representations to another chemical representation to generate a different behavior for all to observe.

Other advantages that Second Life provides for the classroom are the in class study of real life strategies and behaviors simulated in a virtual world. Besides the application of conducting class inside Second Life, the student could use the program as their lab for experiments in subjects such as economics, social sciences, physics and more.

Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, initiated in February of 2004, a series of university lectures advocating the use of Second Life as material for class instruction. In 2005, Dr. Megan S. Conklin at the Elon University published a guide for colleges and universities on the "101 Uses for Second Life in the College Classroom." Of those 101 applications, Dr. Conklin includes: Economics, Experiments in Government, Law, Physics, Language and Culture, and Art. These different subjects are simulated in Second Life and the student gains data from these experiments that correlate to real life situations.

Pamela Hegg, Professor of Math, is currently taking a sabbatical to investigate what applications Oakton could use Second Life for. She first signed on to Second Life last January. Having seen the schools that were already there, she started to put together her sabbatical proposal to "do more research and establish a starting point for Oakton." She teaches computer literacy and believes that students would benefit in computer literacy with applications of Second Life included in the course. "[Second Life] is certainly an example of computer literacy today" explains Dr. Hegg.

Dr. Hegg describes Second Life in an e-mail as:
"A world containing many types of places, commerce and people. It can be instructor guided, and in my belief should be, for the initial learning experience. Once the basic skills are learned, the student has a whole wold to explore with their avatar. It becomes the difference between learning from one textbook, single faculty member or single class versus an educational experience enhanced by libraries of material, Internet searches and documentation presented by a large variety of sources and authors. Second Life is full of models of libraries and three dimensional models of buildings, people and entities."

Currently, Oakton's firewall does not permit the use of Second Life at either campus. John Wade, Director of Systems and Network Services, says that the default security configuration is to block everything and only permit services that have been explicitly requested. However he also mentioned, "if there is an appropriate academic need for the software, we will find a way to implement it in as safe of a manner as possible..." For now, the college has Elluminate as its new distance learning tool.

Elluminate, according to Gary Newhouse of library services, is a program that would allow a person in another country to grant rights to a teacher at Oakton to view his or her screen to provide better consultation between teacher and student. Other features include granting rights to use the other computer's keyboard, webcam or other device.

However, what Elluminate lacks is not just the social community network and atmosphere that the college student would find attractive, but the feel of actually being and interacting in a classroom.

While the applications of Second Life are still being researched, trial runs for Elluminate have finished and the application is being used in classes this semester. Mr. Stryker is currently using the application with his students in Computer Information Systems 210 and World Wide Web 210. He uses it for lectures and demonstrations. "With the ability to show - and  share - applications, it is a very powerful tool for teaching any computer class. When students have to miss a class because of emergencies or other obligations, they can go and view the recording of the class."

According to Mr. Stryker, Elluminate gives students an in class like learning experience where ever they are at. 
It creates a recording of the class in case the student needs to review, and the ability to have classes outside of college hours. He considers Elluminate a richer learning environment than any other online learning method he has seen before. However, he does not think it should necessarily be of higher priority than Second Life. "Different tools have different purposes and different benefits," he said. "As Pam investigates Second Life, she will find many things to bring back to Oakton." "Elluminate," Stryker continued, "is just something that we are able to use now..."
According to Mr. Newhouse of Library Services, "Given available resources, we have given Elluminate a higher priority than Second Life. We are still interested, but Second Life is not yet a top priority."

Dr. Hegg hopes that Oakton will offer both Elluminate and Second Life. "Elluminate is immediately here. Second Life is in the beginning stages of use for distance learning."

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