Gunnar Schwede is a Systems Analyst with AU’s School of Business, and has played a major role in the development of a virtual AU Island in Second Life. Schwede recently took the time to discuss his efforts, and explain just how this work could benefit students.
?Second Life (SL) is a virtual world developed by Linden Lab that launched on June 23, 2003 and is accessible via the Internet,? Schwede explains. ?A free client program called the Second Life Viewer enables its users, called Residents, to interact with each other through avatars. Residents can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another, or travel throughout the world.?
And this interactive technology could be of key importance to AU students in the future. ?As a distance education provider, AU is challenged with making course materials relevant and engaging for individual learners distributed across Canada and, increasingly, the world,? says Schwede. ?Second Life (or more broadly, virtual worlds) allows AU to bring learners to a common space where they can interact with other learners and participate in immersive learning activities.?
One way that students can experience this type of immersive learning environment for themselves is by visiting the AU Island in Second Life, which ?was developed with a bit of our university in mind,? Schwede says.
?There are office buildings where we hold our ?In World? meetings, an amphitheatre for learning sessions, lectures, demonstrations and life music events. There is also the main AU building. It can be used as a marketing and information area for students.? The island also features ?a freebie kiosk where one can pick up free items like T-shirts and other things for your avatar.?
Great care has been used to faithfully duplicate aspects of the main AU campus in the virtual world. ?A quarter of the island has been turned into the boreal forest and part of our Muskeg Creek trail,? Schwede notes, adding that this trail leads ?all the way to the AU Observatory, which is a 3D Model of the original here at the university.?
Second Life also allows for the creation of multiple ?layers? of development, and as such, ?about 200 metres above the island surface is a classroom area, individualized by subject or course.? This area also contains the home of the Freudbot, a project developed by Bob Heller and Mike Procter of the Centre for Psychology. Through this tool, ?students can learn about Freudian concepts and theories by ?wandering through the iceberg? and chatting with Freud in his office.?
?Bob Heller and Mike Procter are also involved with a related project called Virtual Patients in collaboration with medical educators at Ohio State University and Florida State University. In this project, medical students practice their interview skills and differential diagnosis skills by visiting with a virtual patient. Health builds are one of the fastest growing areas within the education sector of Second Life,? says Schwede.
Also above the surface of the AU Island is a labyrinth ?stretching over 150 metres each way? that ?can only be conquered by choosing the right answer out of three possible choices,? as well as ?a Mayan pyramid, surrounded by a jungle with hidden tombs, an urban shopping mall, and a forest, which is still in development.?
?At 500 meters, the highest developed height, you will find the AU Library platform containing pyramids showing the history of Athabasca and area in the form of 3D objects, images, and sound recordings,? says Schwede. ?Other attractions are a pirate ship, floating above the sunken ruins of Atlantis, a beach where waves gently roll on shore, a 300-metre zip line from the highest lookout point down to the edge of the beach, a working hang-glider, guided tour vehicles, our Lil? AU Shoppe and much more.?
Schwede encourages AU students to visit and experience the island for themselves, and believes that the possibility of using virtual worlds like Second Life as educational tools should be thoroughly investigated by distance education providers such as AU.
?Virtual worlds are not going away,? he says. ?Exploring their role in distance education will be critical for AU and all distance educators.?