With the Internet seemingly conquered, and significant space travel still a far away dream, a virtual world called Second Life has become the newest frontier, and University of Richmond administrators have purchased an island in Second Life in order to pursue possible conduits for education.
Second Life, a virtual world based on the Internet and created in 2003 by Linden Research, Inc., allows people to log on to the Internet and live virtual lives in a rapidly expanding online community.
But what makes Second Life so different from Internet conference rooms and live chatting is that users can create avatars that represent themselves in Second Life. The avatars, known as residents, can do anything from opening up a clothing store to flying through the clouds.
Second Life even has a currency called the Linden Dollar, which fluctuates according to world rates. Currently $1 is equivalent to about 270 Lindens. People pay actual money to acquire things such as land and clothing in Second Life, and some have even made a substantial living from this virtual world.
In 2006, German Ailin Graef announced that she had become the first person with a net worth of more than $1 million stemming from a virtual world. Her avatar's name, Anshe Chung, is actually more well-known than her real name. Because of Second Life's quickly growing popularity, many academic institutions have been swift to sign up and purchase virtual islands for academic purposes.
According to Kevin Creamer, the interim director of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, the university never ceases to investigate different ways to enhance the student's academic experience at Richmond.
"We are always looking at new technologies and seeing how they can apply," Creamer said. "We are trying to find a way to present scholarship that is going on at the university."
Creamer purchased the island this past spring, and since then he has added different touches such as a lake and a gazebo, that make the island look a little more like Richmond's campus. He even built a building that he named Boatwright Tower.
Inside Boatwright Tower, residents can look at posters from last year's Arts and Sciences symposium. Creamer said users also have the ability to set up streaming video. He calls it a "space for scholarship."
The point of the island is to have some sort of introductory center for students and faculty to commence their Second Life experience in a safe and controllable environment, Creamer said. Because Second Life is so expansive and open to anybody, it is very much like a world that the law has not completely caught up to yet.
Joseph Essid, director of the Writing Center, has already incorporated Second Life into his English 103 classroom. During the 2007 spring semester, he sent his students into Second Life to interview residents and write a report about communication.
"In Second Life, it was very hard for my students to walk up to people they didn't even know," Essid said. "They were a little put off by it at first." One of his students, sophomore Amy Mueller, agreed that it was initially awkward.
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"I didn't really like the idea of it because I had the mindset that doing things online like this was kind of weird," she said.
Although Mueller was originally a little uneasy about Second Life, she quickly found the entire experience to be interesting and very different from what she was used to.
"I thought it was good to learn about different types of communication online," Mueller said. "It was interesting. I never thought I'd have an avatar."
Mueller said that those she interviewed in Second Life for her report were very quick to defend the virtual world.
One of Essid's Second Life friends, known as "Twyla Tomorrow," was willing to answer a few questions about Second Life while inside the interactive world.
When asked what it is like interacting with people online when you can never be sure who they actually are, Twyla responded, "I do it all day, and since this is Second Life, then all that matters to me is who they are in Second Life."
Although Essid was only "born" into Second Life late in 2006, he has been able to develop some pretty significant relationships. He was even able to meet one resident in the real world.
"I'm a job reference for [somebody] now ... because she helped my class quite a bit," Essid said.
It is still much too early to tell what the future holds for Second Life. But many businesses including Coca Cola, which held a press conference in Second Life, have recognized the virtual world's potential and have spent a considerable amount of money in advertising.
One technology analyst group based in Stamford, Conn., has even stated in an April 2007 study that 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies will have a presence in a virtual world by 2011.
Although some might not understand how people could spend so much time and money in this intangible world, Creamer said he thought Second Life was no different from many other aspects of life.
Creamer said students go to college and pay for knowledge, which is not tangible, so why should the experiences gained in Second Life be any different?
Essid added that he thought doubters will soon be silenced.
"They were saying the same things about the Internet 10 to 11 years ago," he said. Essid also plans to use Second Life even more extensively next semester in his English 216 class -- Literature, Technology and Society.
"The strongest projects will be exhibited in two places: the Arts and Sciences Symposium on campus and in an 'opening' on UR Island in Second Life," Essid said. "The goal for this would be to allow international visitors the opportunity to not only see student work but to interact"
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