Think Second Life and images of fantastical avatars or electronic shopping malls leap to mind. David Phang, from the School of Computing, offers another facet of the 3D multi-user online world – that of a virtual classroom.
NUS has had an official presence in Second Life for over a year. NUS is by no means the first tertiary institution to venture there. Neither will it be the last. Part of the attraction is the ability to gather students in one place, regardless of their physical location.
David shares that several tutorial classes for IT1001 Introduction to Computing were held in Second Life during the past semester.
“We thought it would be a good idea because this course is about introducing students to current concepts of computing and also emerging concepts and applications,” David explains, “we wanted to let students experience how it was like to have class discussions in the Second Life setting. Quite a number of universities do this and organizations like IBM hold meetings in Second Life.”
As an introductory course open to students from different schools and faculties, the Second Life tutorials also enabled the students to attend the class without having to traverse the campus. It also helped cross-faculty students to find a common time and place to meet for projects and discussions without having to factor in travel time.
During the designated sessions, students log in to Second Life at the time they would normally attend their real-world tutorial for the week. During the tutorial, David would facilitate the discussion of the tutorial questions via in-world text chat.
Here, things take a slight departure from the norm. Instead of taking turns to speak, David allows more than one discussion to take place at the same time. He explains, “We want to tap on the capability of this kind of virtual world by allowing conversations to flow, even if it is multiple parties talking at the same time, so that students don’t lose their train of thought. I moderate the discussions by asking students to slow down or to focus attention on certain threads of discussion.”
What, then, is the advantage of Second Life over text chat or instant messaging since the classes make use of text feature in Second Life?
David concedes that students tend to be more expressive over both text chat and Second Life. However, he feels students tend to be more careful and thorough in answering questions through text in Second Life.
He surmises two opposing things are going on. One is that the virtual, avatar-based environment provides a non-threatening space for students to speak up. The other is the familiarity of a classroom – the virtual space where the class is conducted represents a physical one – makes them feel that they should be contributing in a constructive and comprehensive manner.
At the end of the tutorials, the text-chats are saved and distributed among the students of that class.
The Second Life tutorials look set to stay, as long as NUS maintains its presence in that virtual environment.