Virtual Varsities

01:43, Jan 31 2009
Alternative learning: Canterbury students attend a real class in a virutal world.

Canterbury University recently announced that 13 academics would lose their jobs in a "back-to-basics" drive. But what is really driving change in education is technology.

What will varsity training look like in the future?

Take a class called Educ 122 from the University of Canterbury's Dr Mick Grimley and you'll learn about memory, information processing and cognitive learning theory through a series of 50-minute video games. "They have a narrative storyline that draws students in," Grimley says. "It's novel. It's 3-D. It's fun."

Design students at Victoria University, in Wellington, make films in an internet-based virtual world called Second Life. They build virtual sets and direct virtual actors in front of virtual film crews.

It's about making films with invisible data made visible through virtual experience and alternative narratives, says Marcia Lyons, Vic's Digital Media Design programme director. "I see it as a Renaissance, a creative cross-pollination of ideas in a networked environment that makes connecting with collaborative partners possible."

Last year, the Texas-based New Media Consortium, which is comprised of 250 international universities, museums and research centres that study media technologies, predicted that educational video games and virtual world classrooms would become mainstream teaching tools in the next two to five years. As the digital natives -- kids who grew up with digital technology -- enter university, teaching methods will have to keep pace with their interactive world.


Lyons explains that the digital generation was born into experiencing the world through video games, laptops, iPods, mobile phones, the internet (and often several of these at one time).

They are not absorbing web content but creating it by writing blogs, designing websites, building MySpace portfolios and posting YouTube videos.

In virtual worlds such as Second Life, they are creating whole new identities for themselves.

Computer-savvy students will require more than diligent note-taking in a beige-coloured lecture theatre to connect with new ideas.

Harvard's staff knows this. Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology faculty knows this. So do lecturers at Japan's University of Aizu. They are all developing and using serious games and Second Life as teaching tools. The University of Wisconsin at Madison and Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer degrees in designing serious games. Technology is a vehicle for education and "we've got to move with the times", Grimley says.

In his modified version of Neverwinter Nights, olde worlde flute melodies accompany a questing student dressed in a purple tunic and leggings as he enters a medieval version of the University of Canterbury's computer science building and approaches a sage dressed in monks' robes.

An ogre, which represents traditional learning theories, appears stage right. Modern pedagogy's knight in shining armour glows stage left.

Students are inspired towards the creative when at play. The music switches to trumpets when the sage and the student enter the ogre's and knight's minds to unravel their secret knowledge. The questing student speaks with them during this journey of discovery, and the sage asks the student what he's learned along the way.

When the student correctly answers the sage's questions and solves her puzzles, he gathers totems that propel him from ignorance to wisdom and, twenty-four video games later, the semester ends. "The novelty kept my interest and concentration levels at a relatively high intensity right throughout the duration of the course, says Russell Tomes, a computer science major at the University of Canterbury. Traditional lectures sometimes lack that kind of energy," he says.

Victoria University was the first in New Zealand to use Second Life as a teaching tool. When the design school decided to teach virtual film-making, it bought a piece of Second Life real estate -- with real money and a real credit card -- from Linden Labs, the San Francisco-based company that established Second Life. (An island with 16 virtual acres costs about 1700 real United States dollars -- schools pay half -- with 300 real US dollars per month in maintenance fees.)

Vic students and staff designed their own virtual personalities, called avatars, then logged onto Second Life at specified dates, times and places for Skype-linked lectures. As everyone interacted through their avatars, which could be human, animal or other, such as gingerbread men, no-one knew the avatars' real-life identities.

The avatars split off into focus groups. Scriptwriters collaborated on dialogue. Set-builders rummaged through a virtual SuperShed to find construction materials.

Talent agents recruited other Second Life avatars as actors and actresses. Videographers visited the Second Life library to learn virtual programming skills.

There, the virtual librarian thumbed through her reference catalogue and found a real person with real, virtual programming experience. The librarian dispatched a real email to a real person; a PDF document with programming hints was returned to Vic students in minutes. They received a free camera to boot, and the obliging avatar scored a back-stage pass to watch the filming. "Students are inspired towards the creative when at play," Lyons says. "They are involved and engaged. They become inventive, less self-conscious."

As far as creating avatars goes, there are no rules that require appearance or personality to match real-life counterparts. Shy people can create extroverted avatars. Men can become women. And vice versa. Heterosexuals can become gay or lesbian. And vice versa. Disabled people can become able-bodied. And vice versa. In a virtual reality, anything is possible. Through their avatars, students can travel internationally and experience different cultures and social structures.

Because there are no boundaries, serious games and virtual classrooms can be adapted to any subject. The University of Minnesota uses its modified version of Neverwinter Nights to teach investigative journalism.

The free online came called Rich Man Game (www. rich mangame. com) pits players against each other to make business deals and increase their wealth. Los Angeles' Otis College of Art and Design created a Second Life art gallery and sculpture garden where students and faculty can exhibit their work. An Indiana University telecommunications professor has developed The World of Shakespeare, which allows players to live and interact with other players in 17th century England.

Of course, university life, like all good things, must come to an end.

Graduation parties will give way to job interviews. Lyons says that companies are already approaching students to build commercially-viable Second Life versions of their companies. "All jobs will have a virtual component in the next 10 years," she says.


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