Teaching through virtual world, avatars in alternate reality Second Life

Kathy McColm, Kathy McColm, and Kathy McColm

Zil Jewell strolls past the recliners that face out to the ocean and glances to the left before her slender body lifts off the ground. She flies past the School of Media Arts building on the SBCC Island toward the meeting area. Her cropped, spiky platinum hair shifts slightly in the wind as she lands at a bulletin board and checks the assignments of her Creative Thinking class.

Zil, an avatar created by City College instructor Liz Russotti, lives an active life on SBCC Island in Second Life, an online virtual world. Reality blurs into fantasy when users create their own avatar to fly and teleport to the vast array of islands in this world that has been in development since 2004.

Second Life for Russotti is about fantasy, but it’s also about education. For the past two years, Russotti, co-chair of the graphic design department, has been the push and shove of making SBCC Island in Second Life a reality through grant writing, meetings and long hours of research and development.

Russotti is dedicated to seeing students of occupational fields learn in virtual classrooms and explore careers through role-playing formats. She is convinced the methods used in virtual worlds will transform online education.

But not everyone is as convinced as she is.

Russotti’s Creative Thinking students compare Second Life with popular games like World of Warcraft, and question the value of virtual classrooms.

“I remind them this is not a video game,” Russotti said. “We’re here to create a better sense of community for online students.”

The sleek and modern SoMA building on SBCC Island doesn’t resemble the “real world” building on campus. The building in the virtual world was designed from architect renderings of the future SoMA building, a recent fatality of redistribution of campus funds-a disappointment for Russotti, who has been with the department for more than 10 years.

Before joining the SoMA faculty, Russotti studied printmaking and earned her Masters at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1986. She left a teaching post at Monroe Community College and the blizzard chill of New York in 1998 to take a position in the graphics department of weather-friendly City College.

Russotti was first exposed to Second Life in her own Santa Barbara home. Her husband, Mick, an artist working exclusively in digital art and now mostly in Second Life, was involved with the first grant City College was given to develop a virtual world education platform.

During her 2006-2007 sabbatical, Russotti became intrigued with Mick’s activity in Second Life, both for entertainment and for the possibilities it held for the future of education.

“I really felt that for the online classes, this was a no-brainer,” she said, her multi-colored earrings dangling.

“Mick now uses it for his fine art. He’s sold real art and has shows all the time,” she said. “It’s international and that’s what makes it so amazing.”

Second Life’s international world is where people can make money as well as role-play, explore new lands, attend conferences and events, and socialize with avatars created by people from all over the world.

Originally conceived to benefit business, education has also blossomed in the forum.

“Hundreds of educational institutions from around the world have used Second Life as a compelling and cost effective platform to augment an existing curriculum and explore new models of learning,” said John Lester, a customer outreach advocate at Linden Lab, the developer of Second Life.

After being awarded a “generous grant,” Russotti said, City College purchased three islands in Second Life and has hired savvy experts to design and script various components to accommodate teaching in the future.

Other universities from around the world are already teaching in Second Life, including the University of Australia, University of Edinburgh, USC, Vassar, Virginia Tech, and the University of Texas.

“The system’s virtual collaborative learning community allows participants to learn, share, collaborate and grow alongside one another,” said Dr. Leslie Jarmon, the faculty development specialist leading the University of Texas, Austin, into virtual world environments.

Russotti continues to blaze a path for City College as she collaborates with other interested colleges in California. Still, the City College faculty and students are sluggish to recognize the potential of Second Life education, she said.

“It’s frustrating, but like every new technology, it takes time,” she said. “This is the next step in education, and it’s only going to get better.”

Informational posters about Second Life are all around campus. It’s free to join and explore the possibilities. Users can teleport to SBCC Island, fly by SoMA and visit Zil in the trendy SoMA lounge.

Visitors just might not want to leave.

Russotti, with the spiky platinum hair similar to Zil’s, tells her students: “Someday, you’ll thank me because you’re on the cutting edge here.”