Cyberspace College: N.Y. college takes courses to Second Life

Hilary Smith

In real life, Larry Dugan is a well-dressed computer science professor at Finger Lakes Community College. On "Finger Lakes Island" — a virtual island that exists online in the Second Life Internet universe — Dugan sports bleach-blond hair, jeans and a Hawaiian shirt.

Dugan's online character will be just one of many "avatars" populating Finger Lakes Island this semester, as students in Dugan's CSC-102 class, Tools for Internet Users, conduct their entire course — lectures, discussion sections, projects — in a virtual universe, online.

Classes held on the island are not like your average online courses, where students seldom interact with one another or their professor. In Second Life, students actually walk around as digital characters and can explore the space "on foot," having face-to-face conversations with each other's avatars. Avatars communicate by typing or by voice. They can post their projects on "prims," or canvases, for other users to see, and they can build new features or furnishings onto the island.

Second Life, launched in 2003 by the San Francisco-based Linden Lab, combines the interactive aspects of video games like World of Warcraft with the social interaction of sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

"What's different about Second Life is it isn't like going to a traditional lecture," said Dugan. "It encourages students to participate in their learning."

Though Second Life has been used successfully in both online and traditional classes, Dugan said that "the greatest benefits are for online students."

"Online learning can be lonely. One of the things that we're seeing is that when you're talking to an avatar, you can actually sense their presence," he said.

To join Second Life, students don't need to pay a fee but must download free user software. Owning "virtual land" like Finger Lakes Island costs $9.95 per month.

Buildings on Finger Lakes Island clone their brick-and-mortar twins on the Hopewell campus, right down to a virtual Constellation Brands- Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, where online musical and theatrical events might take place in the future.

There are also virtual offices, galleries for displaying student projects, an amphitheater-like lecture area and mixing studios for music-recording students. Matching the virtual to the physical buildings gives the online students "a feeling of presence and connectivity to the college," said Dugan.

Dugan built the island himself and began experimenting with the online universe last fall. FLCC game-programming students tried it out this spring, and Dugan's students will use it this fall.

"The next step will be getting past the beta, or test, stage and putting Second Life into more mainstream classes," said Dugan, who will make a presentation about the Island to the entire teaching faculty before the semester starts.

One of Dugan's online colleagues, Ball State University Professor Sarah Robbins, has used Second Life to conduct sociological experiments. She once sent her students out into the virtual world disguised as obese people, for example. The students socialized in different places around the Second Life world, then returned to report their experiences. For many, it was their first such walk in someone else's shoes.

"It really changes the way we teach. Second Life allows us to collaborate with students," said Robbins.

Other colleges have used Second Life for recruitment purposes, offering tours of virtual campuses that match their physical counterparts down to the smallest detail.

More than 300 colleges are now in the system. Though other online universes exist, Dugan prefers Second Life because it has the largest membership: about 9 million users.

Second Life is not without its downfalls. Its "highly technical and resource-heavy" software crashes from time to time, and access is blocked every Wednesday morning while Linden Lab installs updates, Dugan said.

Further, only certain computers can handle the Second Life software, which makes it difficult to use the program in school computer labs. There are no moves to make Second Life more accessible; instead, users just count on prices coming down for those higher-end computers, said Robbins.

Dugan sees Second Life, and online teaching in general, as the way of the future for college and even K-12 students. But will it ever replace tried-and-true book learning and lectures?

"Clearly not," he said. But as his own survey of "a local school district" revealed that 97 percent of students have a computer at home and 78 percent have high-speed Internet access, he believes that teachers need to "incorporate some of the students' world — including Second Life, blogs and podcasts — into their classes."

Hilary Smith can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 343, or at