At UF, distance learning moves off the planet
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There’s no excuse for being late to Paul Fishwick’s class, even though it’s held on an island, one that does not appear on the map of the landlocked University of Florida in Gainesville.
That’s because students can just teleport in.
Fishwick, a computer science and engineering professor, is teaching one of at least two classes offered at UF this semester largely in cyberspace — specifically, the trendy three-dimensional online world called Second Life. There, Fishwick’s “avatar,” the character that represents each player in Second Life, leads discussions among some 30 other avatars controlled by upper-level UF undergraduate and graduate students in CAP 4403/CAP 6402, Aesthetic Computing.
“I like the potential for collaboration, immersion, aesthetics, creativity, social interaction,” Fishwick said. “There are a lot of different dimensions I think are valuable to educators.”
With distance learning decades old, classes on computer are nothing new. But Second Life, which has more than 2 million users worldwide, opens a wealth of fresh possibilities, one educators nationwide are increasingly experimenting with.
At the heart of the potential, these educators say, is the online world’s canny blend of real life, science fiction and fantasy, one that creates a place at once familiar and very strange. There are trees, rivers and buildings, and most avatars look like people — albeit tall, thin, attractive and highly stylized versions. (Fishwick’s is hardly professorial: He’s bushy-tailed and has a raccoon face.) But unlike their human counterparts, avatars can fly, teleport and change their appearance at will … or hop on a unicorn and gallop up to a pentagon-shaped building hovering over a glimmering city.
Two other UF professors began co-teaching a Second Life interdisciplinary research class this semester, and others are considering the possibility. UF has at least two islands in the Second Life “grid” as well as several buildings. The Biomedical Sciences Building, under construction in real life, is already in use on Second Life’s Gator Nation Island.
Attending class in Second Life is, well … otherworldly.
Students assembled for one of Fishwick’s classes recently by teleporting in to Aesthetica, a small island that Fishwick created. Although anyone can create an avatar and participate in Second Life for free, some activities cost money, and creating islands or buying land is one. UF paid Linden Labs, the company that created and supports Second Life, about $1,000 for Aesthetica and maintains the island with a $150 monthly fee.
Students in Fishwick’s class also meet in a real world classroom. But for this class, Fishwick’s avatar, Frederich Courier, assembled everyone at an airy platform levitating over an ocean marked with a sign, “University of Florida Simulation Gallery.”
There, Courier led a tour and discussion of digital objects students created for the class, which is devoted to the idea of making abstract ideas “real” through physical or graphically generated devices. Avatars examined a collection of cylinders, squares and cones built to represent a finite state machine, a set of commands used in computer programming. Some avatars occasionally zoomed skyward, evidently testing their flight abilities.
Fishwick said the possibility for collaboration is one of Second Life’s biggest attractions.
“The reason it’s different than what I did last year is that everyone can join in projects. We can all collaboratively build a computer program,” he said.
Also, he said, Second Life’s feature allowing users to create objects makes it uniquely suited for his class. In most computer games, the game world is established and the character deals with what he or she finds, he said. “It’s ‘I can create a dragon, I can create people, I can move around in space … I can do all these things I maybe couldn’t do before,’” he said.
The other UF class in Second Life — taught by James Oliverio, a professor and director of the UF Digital Worlds Institute, and Bill Ditto, a professor and chairman of the UF Biomedical Engineering Department — taps the program for entirely different purposes. The goal of BME 5937/DIG 5930, or Interdisciplinary Research Seminar, is to bring together upper-level students in biomedical engineering, business, film and the arts to work collaboratively on research, Oliverio said. In one recent real-life meeting, students divided into two groups discussed plans to open a bank in Second Life and start a club there.
“Second Life,” said Ditto, “will make you think about the real world rules and possibilities a little bit differently.”