Students ‘get their game on’ in class
Digital imaging allows Dr. Ed Lamoureux to be shown with his avatar, Professor Beliveau, in Second Life, an online community where he recently conducted class.
Dr. Ed Lamoureux, associate professor for the Multimedia Program, sported a new look and a new name when he walked into class to teach Multimedia 490 over the January interim. No one put on coats for a cold walk across campus. Instead, the professor and students logged onto their computers from the comfort of their own homes. Unlike typical distance learning classes, each member of the class chose a digital alias and avatar (visual presence), and “met” in a virtual classroom that appears to be floating about 300 meters above a college campus in the digital world of Second Life (SL).
Last summer, Lamoureux attended a conference hosted by the New Media Consortium (NMC), a group representing about 200 universities and other learning institutions dedicated to exploring and using new media and new technologies in education. NMC unveiled its virtual campus on one of the islands in SL as part of the consortium’s effort to understand how teaching and learning work in a virtual environment.
Lamoureux offered Multimedia 490 as a three-week January interim course that combines his background in field research with his role in teaching multimedia. He says, “The class taught qualitative field research methods, sometimes called ethnography, so students can study people who are interested in a mutual activity (in this case, activities inside SL) by looking at the social and cultural structure of their activities as a ‘community of practice.’”
“SL is a great place to do a study like this because it’s a user-created world with communities that people online have formed. It’s as if we had a nuclear war and were asked to start all over,” he adds.
Known as Professor Beliveau in SL, Lamoureux is skeptical of typical virtual games that involve myth, quest, and violence. However, he says most multimedia majors aspire to be game designers or work in some sort of virtual environment. This class allows students to work within a virtual environment that is conducive to education. For the class, each student chose to study a special interest group within SL, such as music enthusiasts; those who teach residents to build objects in SL; “goons,” a group of trouble-making hacks; and “furries,” a segment of the population, both in real life and in SL, that dresses in animal costumes. A fifth student served as class videographer.
Ryan Culp ’07 is shown with his avatar, Judge Cannned, inside the classroom where he and fellow students “met” with Dr. Ed Lamoureux for class.
Ryan Culp ’07 researched people who teach classes on creating objects in SL. Objects range from clothing to jewelry to rocket boots. “I’ve always been interested in objects in other virtual games. I wanted to see how teaching to build objects worked with using them.”
Culp says, “I realize how field research, at least in basic terms, is done. Most classes I’ve taken didn’t really talk about research. By doing research in SL, we can learn from people from around the world. SL is so big, and there are so many things to do.”
Culp also appreciated the distance learning aspect of the course. A Chicago area native, he could attend class while staying home during the semester break.
Lamoureux says he could be more in tune with his students in SL than in typical distance learning classes that employ e-mail and programs like Blackboard. With the audio capabilities, he could have more rapport with students as he lectured, asked and answered questions, and listened to the class. He could see the students’ avatars, both in the classroom and as they conducted research, and even knew if students stepped away from their computers because the avatars began sleeping or tying their shoes. “It’s not the same as having eye contact, but it’s better than some other ways of doing distance learning,” he says.
Lamoureux plans to offer the class again in May and will open it to all Communications and Fine Arts students. “I need to make sure they are technologically savvy and have the equipment needed,” he says. Visit nmc.org/sl/2007/01/24/summary/ to view Lamoureux’s report on the class. Visit secondlife.com to experience SL first-hand.
What is Second Life?
Second Life (SL) is a virtual international community where residents work, relax, buy and develop land, shop and sell, dance, attend classes, and do just about anything people can do in their real lives—plus a few extras like flying and teleporting. Gamers might compare SL to “The Sims,” but it differs in that residents go about their lives in a virtual world where they set their own goals or time constraints. There is no “game over.” Just as in real life, everything from work and play to friendships and lifestyles are chosen and achieved by each individual.
Developed in 2003 by Linden Lab in San Francisco, SL has over 3 million residents. Residents choose an avatar, or visual presence, from a variety of body styles available at the Welcome Center. Then they create any first name and choose a last name from a list. Individuals customize their avatars’ appearance. They create or buy new clothing, objects ranging from rocket boots to hot air balloons, and homes with assorted furnishings.
Becoming an SL resident is free. Many objects are free, while others must be purchased with Linden dollars, which have a 300:1 ratio to U.S. dollars.