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Leading a ‘Second Life’

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Students who are learning about "The Canterbury Tales" in British literature class at Lehigh Carbon Community College go on a virtual pilgrimage in their class.

Beth Ritter-Guth, who teaches the class at the Schnecksville, Pa., college, said the students use "Second Life," a 3-D online world similar to the computer game "The Sims." Students create avatars, their "Second Life" characters, to answer questions from "The Canterbury Tales."

Each student is assigned a certain character from the book, which their avatar secretly symbolizes. The students visit 12 stations, representing different parts of the book. Students must respond to each other in a manner they think their characters would. At the end, students guess each others' character's identities, Ritter-Guth said.

"I use 'Second Life' as an enhancement tool," Ritter-Guth said. "I don't replace the content with technology."

Other universities are also using "Second Life" as a classroom tool.

"Second Life," created in 1999 by Linden Lab, now boasts 10,972,772 residents, according to its Web site. Earlier this fall the game was featured in an episode of the NBC show "The Office."

Professors use "Second Life" to teach students about designing buildings, fashion, commerce, science and other subjects.

Jean-Claude Bradley, an associate professor of chemistry at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said he uses "Second Life" for quizzes. Drexel University has its own island, which is like a server, where students meet to take the quiz, Bradley said.

Different molecules appear and students guess which ones are correct, he said.

"It adds a new dimension to social interaction," Bradley said. "When you can stare at somebody and talk to them, it's a much richer experience to have involuntary movements, the kind we would do naturally when we're speaking."

Bradley, whose avatar is a cat, said he also organizes conferences on "Second Life" in which attendees can chat with each other simultaneously.

Rodney Collins, president of Collins Architects in Houston and a former professor at the University of Houston, said he uses "Second Life" to design buildings.

He said it's hard to interest architecture majors in the business side of their profession and "Second Life" sparks their interest.

"The feedback is so fast," Collins said. "You can build something and put it for sale and have people buying it in minutes."

He said students receive immediate feedback on their designs and receive Linden dollars – a virtual form of money used in the game – if they sell a building or land.

"Second Life" is free to join, but costs money if users want to buy land or upgrade to a premium account to receive land to build on, according to its Web site. One Linden dollar is equal to 31 U.S. cents. As of Monday afternoon, users spent $1,380,617 U.S. dollars on the site in the past 24 hours.

"Second Life" gives architecture students real life experience, Collins said.

"You can't have an academic studio to work in that fast and these are people working in a free market, getting real live experience and people in real-life decisions judging your design is valuable," Collins said.

Collins said he also used "Second Life" to coordinate live fashion runway shows, to go clubs to listen to live music and even to have parties.

He said he and "Second Life" friends from all over the world are getting together at a certain time to have a party and eat cake digitally.

"The perception is everybody's a geek on a computer game," Collins said. "But that's not true – these are architects and fashion designers and school teachers."

Catherine Winters, who works on Web development and "Second Life" projects at Great Northern Way Campus' Centre for Digital Media in British Columbia, uses "Second Life" as a recruiting tool to find people interested in the digital media and animation field.

She said it's easy for students to use "Second Life" because the students do not have to build everything from scratch but still can create their own rules.

"'Second Life' is well-positioned to allow quick, easy experimentation of games without a lot of technical programming," Winters said.

She said students began using "Second Life" in September, after faculty used it for a year.

"They're using it to do things that I don't think the original developers of 'Second Life' expected them to do," Winters said. "They're pushing the limits."

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