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Virtual visitors examine classwork posted by ECU interior design students in a Second Life classroom on East Carolina University’s 3-D virtual reality campus. In addition to classrooms, the virtual reality campus includes realistic representations of campus locations such as the clock tower, the cupola and the Wright Building. Visitors may use avatars - lifelike representations of people - to walk around and interact on the campus. (Photo by Joy Holster)

ECU Hosts Second Life in Virtual World

By Christine Neff

East Carolina University students can now meet, “face-to-face,” with classmates living in other time zones, teleport to a foreign country, even hold class discussions in a waterfall – all from the comfort of their computer desks.

Through an online program called Second Life, ECU has created a virtual campus to enhance communication and academic experiences for students and faculty.

“Everybody is so excited about this technology,” said Sharon Collins of ECU’s Academic Outreach, who oversees the Second Life project. “It just opens up a world of learning.”

Second Life, www.secondlife.com, is a popular, 3-D virtual reality program with more than 14 million users, or “residents,” worldwide. The colorful, interactive environment can be accessed, free of charge, by anyone who downloads the program.

ECU opened its campus in Second Life in October 2007. Staff and student employees in the Academic Outreach department designed ECU’s online presence.

The 3-D rendition looks remarkably similar to its real-world model.

ECU students hold class discussions with their avatars seated around a table in the Second Life virtual reality campus. (Contributed photo)

At a virtual bookstore, students’ “avatars,” their 3-D representations, can take purple and gold ECU shirts. A recognizable Flanagan Building, cupola and clock tower stand out. And, the Wright Building looks like a spitting image of the original, except for one thing: the virtual version has no roof.

“The hardest part,” said Travis Hufford, an ECU senior, “was trying to get away from real life a little bit while making it look like the real campus.” Collins noted the “difference in thinking between the real world and the virtual world.”

In the virtual world, she pointed out, students don’t have to sit behind walls, although classrooms do exist. Students – or, rather, their avatars – can meet in the clouds or underwater for discussions, she said.

“I’m for learning outside of boundaries, and I would have been so thrilled to have this in college. This allows you to express yourself with a little bit more freedom, and you can learn so much from other people this way,” Collins said.

The technology has been used primarily by distance education courses. Elizabeth Hodge, an associate professor in the Department of Business and Information Technologies Education, has taught several courses within the virtual environment and received positive feedback from her students.

The program enhances group work and class discussions, and increases their connection to each other and the university, she has been told.

“A lot of students said, ‘it’s the first time I felt like a part of the university,’” Hodge said, adding that most of her distance education students will not set foot on campus until graduation day.

ECU faculty and staff are applying the technology in other ways, too.

Some faculty members hold virtual office hours in Second Life. Others use it as a tool for professional development, attending conferences online and chatting with their counterparts at universities around the world.

ECU students designed a campus in Second Life that mimics the real thing. (Contributed photo)

Distance Education Coordinators at ECU’s Joyner and Laupus libraries have developed library resources in the Second Life campus. The virtual, three-floor library has a reference desk, instructional rooms and links to academic journals and other research resources available at the click of a mouse.

Yolanda Hollingsworth of Joyner Library called Second Life an “extra outreach” for both distance education and traditional students. “It provides another access point for existing material, which is always good to have,” she said.

Academic Outreach assists faculty in developing and hosting courses in virtual classrooms. Between 15 and 20 faculty in a variety of disciplines use the technology now, and many others have shown an interest, Collins said

A Second Life task force established this summer at ECU has been looking at ways to incorporate the technology in the classroom.

The variety of resources and relative ease of the program makes the program accessible to students – even non-traditional ones, Collins said. “It’s not for everybody, but it is one of the pieces of technology we can give students to help them be successful.”

ECU will host a conference, “Real Education in a Virtual World: Using Online Virtual Environments for Teaching and Learning,” entirely in Second Life on Nov. 10 and 11. For information about the conference or to learn more about ECU’s virtual campus, contact Sharon Collins at 328-9126.


This page originally appeared in the Oct. 3, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/Arch.cfm.