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« Pushing Beyond the Design of a Building

Whether an educator or school planner, one would be hard pressed to not take notice of this recent provocation from CNN:

The classroom of the future isn’t on a college campus. It’s in the virtual world of “Second Life.”

For those not in the-know, “Second Life” is a virtual world where:

…virtual residents — cartoonish-looking characters controlled via keyboard and mouse — create anything their hearts desire.

Also known as avatars, the residents start up businesses, stage their own concerts, sell real estate and design fashion lines. Reuters news agency even has a correspondent based in the cyber community.

But what impact does this have in the world of education?

A growing number of educators are getting caught up in the wave. More than 60 schools and educational organizations have set up shop in the virtual world and are exploring ways it can be used to promote learning.

The three-dimensional virtual world makes it possible for students taking a distance course to develop a real sense of community, said Rebecca Nesson, who leads a class jointly offered by Harvard Law School and Harvard Extension School in the world of “Second Life.”

“Students interact with each other and there’s a regular sense of classroom interaction. It feels like a college campus,” she said.

She holds class discussions in “Second Life” as well as office hours for extension students. Some class-related events are also open to the public — or basically anyone with a broadband connection.

Heck, when a Harvard Law class is begin taught in “Second Life” complete with a professor avatar and each student taking on the virtual identify of their choice, all while participating in the full classroom experience, you know something is beginning to gain momentum.

One of the critical ‘drawbacks’ for many who challenge alternatives to the ‘real’ F2F experience of attending classes — whether it be via a virtual university or a “Second Life” course — lies in whether or not the student is actually participating, and whether the participation affects the other members of the course. The following is offered as a testament to the potential of “Second Life” courses:

Most people think online learning doesn’t require participation or engagement with course material, he said. But in “Second Life” there’s real-time interaction, which means students need to engage in the discussion — much as if they were sitting in a brick and mortar classroom.

John Lester, community and education manager at Linden Lab, the creator of “Second Life,” echoed that view. “There is a real human being behind every avatar — the people are very real. It’s just the medium is different,” he said.

This, of course, calls into question whether or not this rising trend of virtual education, from the University of Phoenix to avatar-filled “Second Life” courses will have an impact of note upon the school planning/design community. In otherwords, as more and more educational experiences can be given robust life in a virtual context, what impact does this have on brick-n-mortar facility decisions?

Your thoughts?

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