Mar 22, 2010

Virtual World Enhances Students’ Real Learning

By Harsh Kalan

Seventeen undergraduate students huddled in front of classroom screens displaying the online world of Second Life. They logged into separate computers and worked out the details of building an online ocean-survey vessel. This was not a group of virtual pirate hobbyists or an online gaming group. It was Riley Triggs’ Design Technology II class at the University of Texas at Austin, which met three hours a week in the fall of 2009.

Triggs, a lecturer in the College of Fine Arts, guided his students through this three-dimensional environment as they worked on their semester project, building a vessel for a second class to be taught by marine biology professor Tracy Villareal. SimTeach, an online resource for teachers that use multi-user environments like Second Life, cites two dozen colleges and universities around the world actively using the technology, including the University of Houston. Hundreds of other schools, including Texas A&M and Texas State, exist as virtual campuses on the site. Users do everything from designing architecture to playing games with simple navigation commands from a mouse and keyboard, using familiar tools to do extraordinary things.

Villareal is working on an oceanographic survey in Port Aransas, Texas. He and his students communicate online through Second Life, using the vessel they created to simulate real-time ocean survey conditions.

5210virtual1“It provides an opportunity to do things in Second Life that you can’t do in real life,” Triggs said. “This class is about 3D computer modeling, and this provides a way of creating objects in an environment versus just creating objects that don’t have any context or relation to anything else.”

Leslie Jarmon, a faculty development specialist in the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment at UT, introduced Triggs and Villareal. Jarmon researches Second Life as a teaching tool and has conducted classes in the virtual world.

“About two and a half years ago I read an article in Wired regarding how Second Life can be used for communicating remotely,” Jarmon said. “We at the DIIA now try to use it pretty extensively, especially for distance education.”

DIIA helps professors and instructors with technology for teaching, such as Google Maps, Twitter and iClicker. The division’s 70-person staff researches ways to apply those tools in the classroom. “For some people doing anything more than just lecturing is innovating,” said Lynn Jones Eaton, DIIA associate director. “For those who are interested in technology, we like to be on the cusp and cutting edge so that we can provide solutions to them.”

Triggs’ class evolved from the DIIA’s efforts. He first introduced Second Life as a three-dimensional modeling tool. Students created the shapes of their objects online but they still had to go to the wood shop and translate their designs into real-world objects. But when Triggs collaborated with Villareal, they eliminated the wood shop and made it a purely virtual design class.

The Design Division has allowed Triggs room to conduct his lectures through the interface of his choice. “The most drastic reaction was from the students” Triggs said. “Some of them thought Second Life was a bad idea, since they are not into gaming or online stuff. And [they] didn’t like it when they first saw it and thought it was confusing. But now when they work on it together it’s much more fun and rewarding, something they are looking forward to every time.”

Design junior Michael Linen had never heard of Second Life before taking the class. He was skeptical, but eventually he warmed to the more interactive way of designing.

5210virtual2“In the other classes we do stuff by hand, and here we spend so much time on the computer. We can talk to anybody in the world,” Linen said. “The bad thing is that it is hard to focus, since we are in the same room together but we are talking to each other through computers. I guess it may take away a little bit of our creativity, since it’s hard to model what you want and what you think as you are limited to what you know and how to do it.”

Second Life has limitations, mostly in the complicated process involved in designing objects that students in wood shops and labs could design easily and quickly.

For these design students, however, this class presents an opportunity to work on not only objects but also the syllabus for the marine biology class.

“We, as undergrads, have the opportunity to design somebody else’s study plan. It’s not just an experience or a social experiment. The program is much more conceptual. This is the only class that goes this far with technology,” said Katrina Repman, a junior design student. Not everyone agrees. Design senior Felipe Sarmiento says Second Life takes away the hands-on aspect of designing. Sarmiento took Triggs’ class two years ago before it was computerized. He preferred that version, and thought it gave him an upper hand in pursuing a career in industrial design.

But most of Triggs’ students now seem to favor the Second Life environment, saying that it allows them to construct and communicate beyond the classroom, and to work on something that will likely affect how technology can bring together two fields as distinct as design and marine biology. “After getting over the initial discomfort, the students still get frustrated with Second Life,” Triggs said. “But this frustration is about being able to do more advanced things with the program. It’s positive frustration.”