As digital natives, today’s college students have instigated a transformation of the learning process. The Internet and immersive user-generated online worlds like Second Life are changing the way that college students gather and process information in all aspects of their lives. At a time when students will turn to Google rather than visit the library, or search Wikipedia instead of asking for a reference librarian, professors need to rethink how we use technology in our classrooms.
As an anthropologist, I often wished that more of my students were able to experience another culture. Now, thanks to Second Life, students in my computer-mediated communication course at St. Lawrence University can experience other cultures without leaving the classroom let alone leaving the country. By virtually traveling to Second Life they can exercise the same skills needed to navigate a different culture as their more traditional study-abroad experience.
One student commented in their course journal: “I spent a semester abroad in France in real life, and I visited many tourist hotspots, many of which I was able to teleport back to in Second Life, which was a very exciting experience. But what amazed me even more was how accurate the landscape was.”
Another similar experience: “I visited the Estonian Embassy where I learned more about the country in 15 minutes than I ever have in 15 years.”
They must also learn the linguistic, social, political, and economic conventions of online communicating and techniques for communicating effectively on the Internet.
It is increasingly difficult to separate the digital from the physical worlds. Our Blackberries, iPhones and PDAs tether us to the digital. This virtual world exercise gives my students an opportunity to experience community, communication and identity in a way similar to study-abroad programs, but in this case the students’ bodies never leave the computer lab.
No passport required: Second Life in higher education
Virtual worlds engage my students in higher-order intellectual activity by requiring them to make and defend judgments. Ultimately, they are left with more questions to answer, a key outcome of liberal arts education. And as they immerse themselves in another culture — even a virtual one — they have physical emotional reactions to what’s happening on their screen:
“I entered a Buddhist meditation site, and I felt like I was entering a sacred place completely foreign to me. The (Buddhist) avatar explained the art of meditation. To my surprise I felt my heart rate slow as I breathed in and out, focusing on my posture, the images emerging from my screen. I was amazed by the physical and mental rewards of practicing meditation within Second Life.”
Another hallmark of liberal arts education is encouragement of exploring new identities, to experiment without being judged. Second Life is perfect for this. Students learn about relationships, race, gender and other cultures not only in an intellectual, but also visceral, way, and it can be a real shock.
One detriment is that it can be frustrating from time-to-time holding class within Second Life. Similarly to taking students into the field, you can’t always control for random passersby or unplanned events. If comparing Second Life to New York City one could ask, “Why even try to hold class in Times Square?” I would respond, because the whole city is my classroom.
As more colleges experiment with this kind of learning, they will begin to appreciate that it has the potential to help students already adept at using email, instant messaging, and other forms of digital communication to understand why they are using them and what benefits may be gained through their use.
Matthew Trevett-Smith, Ph.D., is a visiting professor of performance and communication arts at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.