Alexander Frean, Education Editor
The real thing may be a pasty-faced, greasy-haired science student but on a virtual campus he could be an Adonis.
Increasing numbers of British universities are setting up shop in Second Life, the virtual world where users can design exactly how they look – and where the educational establishments say that there are boundless new opportunities for teaching and research.
At Edinburgh University, one of the first in Britain to build its own island there, students from all around the world take part in tutorial groups sitting on a virtual beach around a campfire.
Andy Powell, of the research foundation Eduserv, which has commissioned a £300,000 research project on education in new virtual worlds, said that online universes were emerging as a cutting-edge teaching tool, using virtual classrooms to do things that may be dangerous, expensive or simply impossible in the real world.
Second Life is the leading internet-based virtual world. It allows users, called residents, to interact with each other through avatars, which are graphical representations of themselves that can communicate with each other.
Mr Powell said: “We are still at a relatively early stage in understanding how virtual worlds can be used in education. It is a bit like the early days of the internet – everybody knows that it has huge potential, but they are still figuring out what the best uses will be.”
Tomorrow the Royal Institution will host a discussion with Nature Network London, a scientific networking group, to try to come up with some answers. The biggest challenge, according to Martin Oliver, a researcher at the London Knowledge Lab, will be to find completely new educational uses for online universes.
Karl Harrison, IT co-ordinator for Oxford University’s chemistry department, is creating virtual science lessons that will enable students’ avatars to interact with molecules and atoms the same size as themselves. “The students could move a molecule and attach it to another molecule to make a chemical reaction. The main thrust of our work is . . . to see if we can find a new way of doing drug screening,” he said.
Sain Bayne, a lecturer in education at Edinburgh University, has created a rural waterfront setting called Holyrood Park for her distance-learning MSC students, who sit around a campfire to discuss their reading. She added that all of her virtual students were very attractive. “I suspect a lot of the avatars are taller and slimmer and ten years younger than they are in real life,” she said.
Austin Tate, of VUE, the virtual University of Edinburgh, said that this fun element was an important part of Second Life. His own avatar conducts lectures wearing a skydiving suit. Professor Tate, whose research specialism is the application of artificial intelligence to search and rescue work, is also creating a virtual diorama, where students will be able to extract survivors from burning buildings or blocked tunnels.
— FBI agents created their own avatars to visit casinos run within Second Life as part of a crackdown on online gambling
— Reuters opened a virtual news agency there last year. The bureau is staffed by reporter Adam Pasick, and modelled on the agency’s London and New York offices
— The Front National, the far-right French group, opened a virtual headquarters – which protesters then attacked with guns and exploding pigs
— The virtual world even has its own terrorist group – the Second Life Liberation Army. It detonated an atomic bomb at an American Apparel clothes shop
— British police have posted virtual posters of Madeleine McCann, the missing 4-year-old on the site
Source: Times archive
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