Canadian college turns virtual world creation into real business venture

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This campus of Belleville, Ont.-based Loyalist College is different from most – it has a disco dance floor in the middle of a shark tank, and students fly to classes hosted on platforms that float in the sky.

What makes sense of this picture is that it isn’t Loyalist’s real-life campus, but its Second Life campus.

Loyalist was the first Canadian college to build a virtual campus, and teach on it, in the free multi-user 3D environment constructed by San Francisco-based Linden Lab in 2003.

The hilly island that seats the campus isn’t completely whimsical.

Resemblance to actual Loyalist buildings was maintained to help students feel comfortable, says Ken Hudson, the head of the college’s virtual world design centre.

“It evokes the spirit of where we are in Belleville. But it’s also a fantasy landscape on some level,” he says.”

It’s more of a metaphor for our campus.”

Now teaching more than 300 students across four disciplines on their virtual campus, Loyalist remains ahead of other Canadian post-secondary schools that are just now starting to build campuses in Second Life.

But with the virtual world’s population growing steadily, and analysts predicting that trend will accelerate over the next three years, interest is building.

Loyalist’s college garnered attention from other schools and businesses clamouring for their own virtual presence.

So the college is looking to capitalize on that opportunity by transforming its virtual build department into a commercial venture, Infinite Spaces. They launched in mid-March.

Ohio University’s Second Life Campus

“Over the last six months, every week someone asked me if I could build for them,” Hudson says. “We realized at a certain point last year that we had expertise in designing and building spaces in Virtual Worlds that actually work.”

If the prediction from Stamford, Conn.-based consultant firm Gartner Inc. is correct, then businesses like Infinite Spaces could be very busy very soon. The analysts estimate that by the end of 2011, 80 per cent of Internet users and Fortune 500 enterprises will be participating in some type of virtual world.

Second Life itself has grown quickly to reach 13 million unique users, and 1.2 million unique users that have logged in over the past month. The population has been booming since July 2007, says Christopher Keesey, the project manager for Ohio University Without Boundaries.

There are a slew of newer virtual worlds that target younger audiences – such as Mattel’s Barbie World, which has attracted millions of subscribers – but Second Life remains the favoured destination for educational pursuits.

Part of that reason is that the world is platform agnostic.

“You can be on a PC, on a Mac, or on Linux,” Keesey says. “Which for higher education is very desirable.”

Athens-based Ohio University began development on their Second Life campus in June 2006.

The school used the virtual project as a way to bring together students from different departments. The Fine Arts department and the computer science department were the first to join forces.

“The Fine Arts program provided a lot of the entertainment experience and the computer sciences program a lot of the scripting,” Keesey says. “It is a great experience to not just talk about a concept, but actually throw out building objects and get the feel for it.”

Second Life’s interface includes flexible applications that allow users to create and design objects, then manipulate their behaviour with a basic scripting language. With the applications available, users can be having a conversation one minute, then wave their hands to create an object out of thin air the next.

Dozens of educational institutions from around the world have used these tools to design their virtual campuses. These include several Canadian newcomers such as Nova Scotia Community College, Vancouver’s Great Northern Way Campus, and the University of Saskatchewan.

Toronto-based Humber College is exploring the program’s possibilities for enhancing the educational experience for their distance-learning students. For correspondence students who currently complete course work by mail and through traditional Web portals, it could add some intimacy.

“From what I’ve been exploring in Second Life, I find it makes you feel good and you get a personal touch,” says Naveed Aqeel, a technician at Humber’s open learning centre.

Professors at Humber have considered other projects with Second Life, such as a math laboratory and a broadcast presentation. But while there is interest, no projects have been given the green light yet.

One concern is Second Life’s demand for computing power as a high-end application. Rendering 3D worlds and handling up to 80 different simultaneous users per island tends to be resource intensive.

“The only problem is to run Second Life, you need to have a very powerful machine,” Aqeel says. “Specifically, you need a very high-end video card.”

Costs might pose another barrier for schools looking to get a Second Life. While the client-side software is free to download and operate, buying virtual real estate costs real money.

An island for education purposes costs $837.50 and $150 a month to maintain on Linden Lab’s server. The company is encouraging more educational institutions to establish virtual campuses by giving a 50 per cent discount off their regular commercial pricing.

Educators can purchase area on the mainland – the bulk of the space that makes up the Second Life world – but no discount is offered for this. A temporary offer is currently allowing interested educators a free trial semester-long land grant for a campus region.

Just as in a real-world development project, buying land is just one cost of many. Hudson estimates a cost of $20,000 for Loyalist’s virtual campus – the biggest expense being the manpower needed to build the campus..

“If you were going in and looking for a commercial contractor, you would likely pay anywhere from $15,000 to $80,000.”  

Buying an island gets you 16 virtual acres of space and room to create 15,000 objects, Hudson says. Loyalist makes the most of their acreage by building classroom spaces on platforms in the sky – easily accomplished thanks to flexible laws of gravity in the virtual world.

When Keesey started talking about Ohio University’s experience with Second Life, he met with a fairly positive reaction from educators. But some skeptics questioned him on whether moving from a classroom to virtual interaction was a step in the right direction.

“I don’t propose moving all learning and teaching into a virtual environment,” he explains. “It should be a part of an educator’s toolkit.”

Loyalist gathers students in their Canadian border services program in a computer lab and has them log on to Second Life from there. The classroom watches a large screen at the front of the room as one student dons the role of border guard and goes to work.

“We’ll have a collection of visas, passports and license plates,” Hudson says. “So we put on a persona and do the crossing and they do the routine with us.”

Creating the border simulation on a platform that floats in the sky above the main Loyalist campus has allowed students to practice something they couldn’t do in real life, he adds. The effects are obvious.

“What’s amazing is how quickly they learned,” Hudson says. “They were able to pull together skill sets that they would not have been able to otherwise.”

Creating the virtual objects – from moving vehicles, right down to the guard uniform – helps make the training exercise realistic. But the real world discussion held by the students in the room afterwards is also important for the learning process, the Loyalist teacher adds.

Aside from the concern that learning on Second Life replaces rather than enhances traditional teaching methods, some are worried if older students will be left behind as their younger peers, raised on video games, quickly adapt to the learning system.

But Keesey suggests such anxiety is unfounded. The average Second Life user is age 35, he notes.

“I’ve seen 20-year-old students having a tough time ramping up, and I’ve seen 50 and 60-year-olds go in and love it,” he adds. But the control format does resemble that of many popular video games.

Young adults make up Hudson’s team for the commercial venture just entering its infancy. Currently animation students at Loyalist, the work-study positions will soon be converted into staff positions as students graduate this Spring.

Infinite Spaces promises to fulfill all your virtual needs – from building custom spaces and event planning to scripting behaviours and animating objects.

The company doesn’t want to announce any commercial clients yet, but is awaiting approval on a quote given to a Canadian university, Hudson says. Government agencies in Canada and the U.S. have also voiced interest.

Hudson’s team collaborated with the Canadian Defence Academy as part of a pilot project demonstrating the merits of having a virtual base. To win-over the army brass, the team did a full mock-up of the Canadian’s Kandahar base of operations in Afghanistan.

“There’s actually even a Tim Horton’s on the base, just like in real life,” Hudson says. “We wanted to show them we could do it, and help them out.”

The academy was won over and will soon launch a full-out virtual academy where public education and specific training exercises will be conducted.

As for Loyalist College, the school is expanding their virtual horizons to include a second island. Dubbed Exploration Island, it is currently a sparse and watery extension of the college. But Hudson anticipates it will quickly be populated with buildings and objects, with the number of courses using the virtual campus set to double.

“We’ll spend the summer developing it as we see what projects we have for next year,” Hudson says.

Both the Loyalist campus and Exploration Island are public spaces, so anyone with a Second Life account can visit them.

You can reach the new island from their current campus by wind-surfing across the water. Or try the campus hang-glider. If you’re in a hurry, flying will do.

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