Learning in a Virtual World

UTA students use digital avatars to explore Second Life

The University of Texas at Arlington is taking advantage of an online virtual world.

Second Life, the 3D online world that Linden Lab launched nine years ago, brings UTA students as close to real-life experience as possible.

They use digital avatars to move around in the world.

"An avatar is a digital representation of a real person, and it's through that avatar that a real-life person experiences a virtual world," said Sarah Jones, a UTA digital library services librarian.

Nursing students can practice in a virtual hospital what they might see in a real-life hospital. They can talk to users who can be from anywhere in the world.

Jones said Second Life is a major asset for distance-education students, who now rely on webcams, Internet-based blackboards and Skype.

"But even with those, there's still something missing -- a sense of immersion, that you are in a place with people and that you can share experiences with them in real time in a way that goes beyond just watching their head in a webcam," she said.

The worlds in Second Life are created by its users. A teacher can identify students' needs and create a world to address them, from a hospital room to a virtual version of the Alamo.

Jones said classes go through a virtual representation of the Alamo in Second Life on a regular basis.

"I was on here one time, and it looked like there was a whole class from New Jersey who was here," she said.

Avatars can go anywhere, talk to anyone and learn anything -- including go on a 21st century field trip or attend a class presentation, staff conference or art exhibit.

"In our last workshop, we had people from the Australia, Germany, and we had people from the Netherlands," said Denise Couble, a UTA graduate research assistant who uses Second Life.

While the traditional classroom experience isn't going anywhere, it's good to know that time, place and distance are no longer obstacles for those who want to learn, she said.

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