Second Life opens new world of opportunity to Ontario students

Canadian public school and post-secondary teachers are using Web 2.0 sites and technologies to engage students and help them pick up real life skills and experiences.

One educator doing this in a big way is Ken Hudson, managing director of the Virtual World Design Centre at Loyalist College in Belleville Ont.

Hudson shared his experiences on Tuesday at a panel on Web 2.0 and learning at “Powering Innovation”, a national summit held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto.

Held over two days, the summit brought together innovators in science, research, education and IT from Canada and across the world to discuss and showcase technologies that are transforming the way we conduct research, collaborate, teach and learn.

Hudson said he was hired by Loyalist College two years ago to bring the benefits of innovative technologies to the institute. The most obvious way to do this, he said, was to delve into the virtual world.

“Virtual worlds have been used as training environments for many years,” Hudson said. “In the past 30 years, if you’ve ever flown on an airplane, the pilot was probably trained in a virtual world – on a simulator.”

Hudson calls it “practice in a non-threatening environment.”

And one such environment that Hudson has used extensively to train his own students is Second Life, a 3-D virtual world created by its “residents”, where users can socialize, connect and create using voice and text chat.

Read about how Hudson has turned Loyalist’s Second Life experience into a business: Canadian college turns virtual world creation into real business venture

Second Life’s world – called “the grid” – is divided into 256x256m areas of land, called Regions or Sims, short for “Simulators”.

Hudson said he purchased two Sims in Second Life and on it built a life-like replica of Loyalist College.

More than 350 of the college’s students have used the program in the past two years. They did this with the conviction that the virtual world could provide an experience similar to real life, Hudson said.

For instance, the College’s Canadian Borders Services program allowed students to gain real-life experience through Second Life, without being physically present at the border.  Since 9/11, program students can no longer complete an internship at the border.

Hudson said he wanted students to engage in the program in a way that would yield results. “So we took a drive down to the nearest border crossing in the Thousand Islands (near Kingston, Ont.), took photographs, and went ahead and built a replica in Second Life.”

Students found the whole experience fascinating and far more realistic than role playing.

They learned from watching classmates question drivers at each border crossing, Hudson said. Each crossing generated five to eight minutes of discussion that wouldn’t have been uncovered without the virtual experience. 

And the students gained some very real benefits through their involvement in this virtual world.

One of these was improved interview skills.  Following their participation in Second Life, students’ average grade increased from 58 per cent to 86 per cent in the very first year the program was used.

Hudson said initially the students – who were in their final year – weren’t thrilled at the prospect of handling what they thought was a highly complex tool.

“But  opinions flipped completely at the end.”

In response to requests from other learning facilities across the country, Loyalist created the Virtual World Design Centre, which now builds and designs virtual worlds for clients across North America.

The Centre is currently working on a project with Indiana University School of Business and Queen’s University and is in discussion with the Canadian Services Border Agency to bring simulation to its training, Hudson said.

Mark Matchen, a teacher at Stephen Lewis Secondary School in the York Region District School Board is trying to increase use of Web 2.0 technologies, including Second Life, at the public school board.

Read related article: Ontario Public Service woos young recruits with Second Life

With the financial support of York University’s Advanced Broadband Enabled Learning program, he taught a complete course on introductory computer programming in Second Life alone, he said.

“We have a private island in a teen world of Second Life and rather than have students program math equations, I had [them] build their own high rise buildings and elevators.”  

Matchen challenged the general misconception that Web 2.0 technology makes students anti-social and isolationist. The  
exact opposite is true with his students, he said.

“I ask students how many hours they spend online at night. Most spend two hours or more, but they are on there chatting with friends, sharing music and notes.”

And you don’t have to go to Second Life to participate in a virtual environment, he said. “If you spend enough time on the computer or with a handheld device you are living in a virtual space.”

Educators should aim at using these “hyper-collaborative tools” to foster creativity and sharing, he said.

Panel participants noted that here are many Web 2.0 applications teachers can use without worrying about the financial cost of buying virtual land and employing staff to keep the virtual space up to date.

Social bookmarking with Web 2.0 tools such as lets users store favourite bookmarks online and share with other users who have similar interests.

Or students can grab Web pages and videos and stick them into Google Notebook – which is also shared, allowing students to work collaboratively on research.

Matchen also encourages students to blog. “Instead of giving them dreaded chapter questions, I set up a blog and each week the kids visit it and enter their responses.”

This practice allows students to their colleagues’ responses and engage with one another. “This is my third or fourth year doing it and I see a higher volume of writing being done with much greater satisfaction on the students’ part,” Matchen said.

Stubbornness on the part of school boards is the biggest challenge for educators furthering research in Web 2.0 strategies is, he said.

There is also the challenge of acquiring computers strong enough to run the graphics-intensive Second Life program.

Second Life cannot run on Citrix, or with thin client hardware. A school will need a lab of PCs, he said.

Anne Kerr, superintendent for the Toronto District School Board said a national innovation strategy is the next logical step for continuing investment in young learners.

“We have dynamic, enthusiastic teachers who are trying to give students greater opportunity to become involved in their own learning process, but the country is not supporting this on a national level.”

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