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Virtual Worlds for Educators

Second Life creates a new dimension for K12 learning and collaboration.

A relatively new online experience has not only created a fantasy world for the general public, but it has enabled some tech-savvy educators to create virtual educational opportunities. Second Life, or SL, is a 3-D Internet-based virtual world created by Linden Lab and populated by nearly 1,000,000 active users worldwide since 2003.

Anyone can log on, download the software, create an avatar—or graphical representation of oneself, which can be changed with a few clicks of a mouse—and anyone can build a business or home on a parcel of land within the world busy with people, entertainment and experiences. Many organizations use Second Life to enhance productivity by focusing on internal business uses such as training and simulation. Others engage customers through interviews and recruiting.


With a few clicks of the mouse, teachers and administrators can congregate at Discovery Education’s amphitheater on Edu-Island II, a virtual property that Discovery Education is renting and where about 700 educators congregate to receive alerts about upcoming events and professional learning opportunities.They also visit to gain experience in virtual worlds or just be social. Some interaction among educators has little to do with Second Life; they might learn, for example, about differentiated instruction and live video streaming on a weekly basis.


The Discovery Education headquarters in Second Life is a towering spire that looks like something Alexandre Gustave Eiffel would have created had he not been bound by the laws of physics. Inside, the decorations adorning the walls serve a dual purpose. Discovery Education posters open up browser windows, providing visitors with more information about services. For example, when visiting NASA’s tribute to the space program in Second Life, visitors can do more than just see scale models of each rocket launched. By clicking on the accompanying posters, NASA’s Web site opens, providing additional information.

"The 45 minutes flew each class as the kids were feverishly doing their math, calculating discounts, recommending certain items over others (in IM!) and helping each other manage their budgets." -Michele McKiernan, teacher, Suffern (N.Y.) Middle School, Ramapo Central School District

Second Life draws the most educators, but it isn’t the only virtual world available. Dozens of others include Club Penguin, Disney’s virtual world, which allows children to chat, socialize, and play games with other children around the globe; Lively, where users can customize their avatars’ appearance, decorate meeting rooms, and then invite others to join them there; and  There, which is similar to Second Life but has less of a learning curve and is less popular. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are close to releasing fully immersive virtual worlds for their online communities.

Another alternative cropping up among educators is Open-Simulator, which is a virtual worlds server that allows users to build worlds locally and then connect them to other local worlds in classrooms as desired, according to Will Richardson, who is a DA columnist. It can be used to create a Second Life-like environment. Richardson says there is potential for learning in such worlds, but education is still “quite a few years away from any large-scale adoption” on the K12 level. “We’re still struggling to get our brains and our practice around the idea of publishing to and collaborating on the Web, much less delivering content or workshops in these synchronous, online, user-created spaces,” he says. “Until we are able in some systemic way to re-envision teaching and schooling to embrace the potentials of anytime, anywhere learning, we’re going to have a very difficult time understanding how to leverage the possibilities.”

Two Versions of Second Life

SL has two versions. The main grid is designed for mature adults over 18 years old and offers an array of virtual realities, such as those from NASA. The second version is Teen Second Life, which is a safe place for education projects for youths 13 to 18 years old. Unlike main SL, Teen Second Life restricts entry and activities only to educators or those conducting educational projects there.

Linden Lab only allows adults in the Teen Second Life who come clean under a background check and who are educators responsible for an educational project, or who are assisting in developing projects or managing activities on business islands. Educators can create their own islands and bring students to them through their own Web sites.

Academic Success

At Ramapo Central School District in Hillburn, N.Y., library media specialist Peggy Sheehy is using Teen Second Life with Suffern Middle School students to enhance classroom lessons. For example, after reading the novel Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, the students held a mock trial for the character Lennie Small, who accidentally kills another character. Students researched the judicial system at the time (the 1930s) and the characteristics of prison, Sheehy says. In another lesson, as part of an eighth-grade health and wellness unit, the class also explored social issues, mostly related to body image.

At, examples of lessons run for pages. Teacher Michele McKiernan used Teen Second Life with her students to learn how to budget their money in order to attend a Beach Bash in a virtual world. Students were given L$100, or lindens, the monetary unit of Second Life, to buy a bathing suit, suntan lotion, towel, surfboard, beach blanket, cooler and shoes. They needed to have six lindens left over after shopping to get to the beach party.

“The 45 minutes flew each class as the kids were feverishly doing their math, calculating discounts, recommending certain items over others (in IM!) and helping each other manage their budgets,” states McKiernan. “Theere was a lot of laughter, some complaints about prices, and comments that truly attested to the learning going on:

‘Don’t buy that one—the blue one is a better deal!’ ‘But I want the red one to match my surfboard!’ ‘If I get this I won’t have enough L$ for the ticket for the party!’”

McKiernan adds, “I think this is incredibly fun. The kids are engaged, they’re doing math, and they are making choices they would encounter in real life.”

While Sheehy and McKiernan are among just a handful of teachers using SL in lessons now, they demonstrate how powerful it is for educator collaboration and what it could be for many students if they were allowed access to it. More and more educators are becoming well-versed in virtual worlds because of their educational implications.


Social Perks

In addition to the academic potential of virtual worlds, the social experiences are also significant to education.

In a recent report, Creating and Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social and Educational Networking, the National School Boards Association recommends that school districts take a proactive approach to educating students about social networking. Educators who have spent time collaborating within a virtual world are better equipped to explore these issues with students. Interactions in an environment where appearances, gender, race, and species can be changed with just a few clicks provide an ideal setting to challenge social biases.

For example, would students react differently to their female teacher if she used a male avatar, or to their white teacher if he changed his race within the virtual world? Would the teacher’s behavior change along with the physical characteristics?


Assisting Educators

In just over a year, SL has hosted more than 60 events, drawing thousands of educators interested in learning more about the new life in these virtual worlds. At the helm of Discovery Education in Second Life is the Discovery Educator Network Leadership Council, a group of volunteer educators who assist other educators in beginning their own journey into the virtual world. While the interface is not overly complex, basic tasks such as modifying one’s appearance and navigating to educationfriendly locations can be challenging for newcomers. They share tips for starting out and setting them on the right path to begin their own explorations in the virtual world.

The potential for virtual worlds in education is undeniable, despite their limited use in public K12 lessons. Users can walk through ancient Rome or explore the parts of a human cell from the inside. Catherine Parsons, aka Victoria Gloucester in Second Life, views virtual worlds as a new, critical literacy. As assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and pupil personnel services for Pine Plains (N.Y.) Central School District, Parsons believes that administrators need to be aware of virtual worlds and how profesionals use them in education and business. “These are real people having real experiences in ‘real’ places,” Parsons says. “Students and teachers are already in these virtual worlds. They need to know how to maintain a positive presence.”

From watching a hurricane develop from beneath the ocean, to stepping inside Van Gogh’s Starry Night and walking through the village that he made brilliant with his brushstrokes, many rich educational experiences are within the virtual world.

And last fall, the executive producer of Meerkat Manor hosted a Web seminar for nearly 1,000 teachers and students. The DEN team in SL organized complementary trivia contests and scavenger hunts featuring the popular mongoose for educators.

And to celebrate Discovery Channel’s Shark Week 2008, 50 educators toured sharks’ natural habitats, including in the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast, recreated within the virtual world. Scuba gear was provided to all attendees, but of course, the gear was merely decorative. Still, it helped viewers believe the illusion and feel, to some extent, like they were there.


Teaching Teachers

Anne Truger, an instructional technology specialist for a special education co-op north of Chicago, believes Second Life is best suited for educators and professional learning. Forward-thinking districts are ensuring their teachers become accustomed to interacting in virtual environments so they can leverage these technologies as they become increasingly available.

Kathy Schrock, technology director at Nauset (Mass.) Public Schools, is leading a multidistrict initiative to train teachers to create educational experiences within Teen Second Life.

Interactions in an environment where gender, race and species can be changed with a few clicks provide an ideal setting to challenge social biases.

Conducting professional development workshops within the virtual environment allows teachers to collaborate “face to face” when meeting in person is not feasible. The personal connections associated with such interactions make the virtual world an ideal medium for distance learning with colleagues who may be overseas or in an adjacent county.

Teachers participating in this project immerse themselves in SL over a 10-week period. They begin by learning basic tasks, such as how to modify their appearance and navigate the virtual world. And then they summarize and present their professional learning to other educators in Second Life.

Steve Dembo is online community manager at Discovery Educator Network, Discovery Education. Angela Pascopella, senior features editor, helped report this story.