Cory Ondrejka, the co-founder of the virtual world Second Life who is now a visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, said in a speech today that virtual worlds are here to stay, and that professors are among the most active pioneers.
“In my view the academy has been blazing the trail of adoption of virtual worlds far more than gamers or industry,” said Mr. Ondrejka, who spoke at a conference at Case Western Reserve University called Collaboration Technology and Engaging the Campus 2008.
Naturally, the event was broadcast within Second Life, in Case Western’s campus in the virtual world. I attended the conference virtually, and was able to ask Mr. Ondrejka what the biggest challenge for Second Life was in being able to be more than just a passing fad in higher education.
“The challenges with Second Life is it has significant technical challenges for use,” he said, noting that it takes powerful computers and fast network connections for Second Life to function properly. “You can’t assume that your students are going to be able to run Second Life within the school’s network infrastructure.”
He argued that some form of 3-D virtual environment will catch on, though he admitted that it might not be Second Life that wins the race. The reason that the idea is powerful, he said, is that studies show that humans respond to a visual Internet, and that they express greater trust for the people they communicate with when they see a virtual representation of the person. “Learning in a place in 3-D affects us differently than text,” he said.
Mr. Ondrejka said that when professors first build a virtual campus, they usually try to exactly replicate a classroom in Second Life, with desks, chairs, and walls. But then they realize that the world allows different kinds of movement and communication than the real world. “You realize that in a world where you can fly, classrooms aren’t really that useful,” he said. So professors have built new kinds of classrooms online with no roofs. “Suddenly you see this explosion of classroom forms that matches what they’re trying to teach,” he added.
Organizers of the conference set up a booth for The Chronicle in Case Western’s Second Life campus during the event (shown below), and I manned our table between panel sessions and chatted with a couple of conference participants.
At one point my virtual avatar got stuck between a virtual chair and the wall of the booth, however, and I had to reboot my computer to get that sorted out. Luckily that’s never happened to me in real life. —Jeffrey R. Young