BGSU creates a virtual campus in Second Life

BOWLING GREEN, O.—Bowling Green State University is creating an educational environment on its own virtual island.

“It's like an empty canvas; you can do anything,” says Bonnie Mitchell about BGSU's home in Second Life, a three-dimensional, virtual environment open to multiple users. “That's why it's really good for education—we can define a new direction.”

Mitchell is an associate professor of digital art at Bowling Green and co-administrator of the island with Anthony Fontana, an instructor of art. They are also co-facilitators of BGSU's Second Life Learning Community, which was seeded with a $6,000 grant from the Ohio Learning Network and is studying how the technology can be used educationally.

Some University faculty members who have joined the community have also begun exploring the possibilities. For one of her classes, Dr. Linda Mandlebaum, an associate professor in the School of Intervention Services, interviewed the owner of “Wheelies,” a Second Life social space for people in wheelchairs. The interview was conducted using digital representations, or avatars, controlled by real people.

Communication in Second Life is through voice or text chat—“much like any other instant messaging application,” Fontana points out. For the interview, Mandlebaum typed questions submitted by her students and projected the virtual environment on her classroom wall for the class of 60 to see the exchange.

Elsewhere on campus, Dr. Terry Herman, an assistant professor of visual communication technology, has had her students do presentations on BGSU's island, and Dr. Radhika Gajjala, an associate professor of interpersonal communication, has formed a group researching the concept of embodiment via avatars. Also, Fontana and Mandlebaum hold office hours in their virtual offices.

Mitchell is taking advantage of the technology as well. She has displayed her students' digital art work in a virtual “vertical gallery” whose patrons use their avatars' ability to fly in order to view the art. A second gallery hosts art exhibits from around the world, including one from Perth, Australia, in which Mitchell participated. The actual art is scanned into the virtual environment, and “note cards” projected on the computer screen provide information about the works.

Streaming media, movies and PowerPoint presentations can be seen in a virtual conference room. Various media can also be viewed in a newly built virtual theatre. Approaching the theatre recently, Mitchell's avatar met a counterpart from James Madison University in Virginia. “It's all very impressive,” the visitor texted, adding this reaction to the BGSU island: “A little jealous.”

The Web site SimTeach.com lists Bowling Green among fewer than 90 universities, colleges and schools worldwide that are, in Fontana's words, “investigating or using SL in some way.” Only “a fraction” of them, he says, own an island. The BGSU island was purchased in April with the support of the Office of the Chief Information Officer.   

While it looks like a video game, Fontana and Mitchell say the difference with Second Life is the lack of levels, strategies or goals. In addition, says Mitchell, the companies that sell video games create all the architecture and objects in their virtual worlds. Not so with Second Life, which was developed by San Francisco-based Linden Lab but lets participants create everything, Fontana notes, except their avatars' bodies and the land around them.

The BGSU island allows students and other visitors to build in the “sandbox,” which Mitchell calls “the most popular part of our island.” But new creations don't stay there indefinitely. After a few hours, what's built in the sandbox goes into the builder's digital inventory.

“Every week, we add new architecture and new learning objects,” says Mitchell, noting that BGSU's neighbors on what she terms “the 3D Internet” include Princeton, Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We're out there with the top dogs. It's an exciting place to be.”

Bowling Green's virtual campus is an open, “PG island” in a university sector of Second Life. A visit by a University of Oklahoma class interested in the technology is an example of the benefits of having an island open to the public, according to Mitchell. At the same time, she points out, “we have full control,” with the ability to set permissions and eject and ban problem users.

Mitchell compares her excitement about Second Life to her interest in the World Wide Web when it was introduced. “I could just see the potential,” she recalls. “That's what's happening with Second Life right now. It's in its infancy, and the potential is huge.”

“We're creating an environment that is very interactive and engaging,” she adds, echoing Fontana's assertion that a traditional classroom and lecture format “really doesn't fly” in Second Life.

“I just love it,” says Mitchell, “because I know we're at the forefront of something big.”

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Note: BGSU's Second Life virtual campus will be on display from 4-7 p.m. Friday (Nov. 9) in the Lenhart Grand Ballroom of the Bowen-Thompson Student Union. The grand opening will feature live musical performances by students and tours of the virtual campus, including its art galleries and media theatre. For more information, contact Bonnie Mitchell at bonniem@bgsu.edu or Anthony Fontana at afontan@bgsu.edu.

Media Contacts:   Scott Borgelt at 419-372-8582 or Teri Sharp at 419-372-8587 in the BGSU Office of Marketing & Communications.

(Posted November 09, 2007 )