The scenery is unmistakable: a clock tower rising up over a sea of buildings, lamp posts lining every path and let’s not forget the golf carts, a constant reminder of something we can’t have.
If you’re thinking this is Sam Houston State University, you’re only partly right.
In an effort to teach developmental readers using a familiar medium, Melissa Burgess, a specialist in the Reading Center and doctoral student at Sam, has recreated the SHSU campus on Second Life – a popular, virtual-reality Internet game.
Burgess plans on using the virtual SHSU environment to help students with reading assignments and attain flow – an intense state of concentration.
“The incoming freshman are adept in social technology skills,” she said. “We [will take] those skills and maximize them in this virtual environment.”
REAL LIFE INSPIRATION
Burgess was introduced to the game at a College Reading and Learning Association conference in Portland last year.
Burgess and Wally Barnes, director of the Reading Center, were inspired to create an island for SHSU after discovering Texas State University was experimenting with Second Life in their teaching methods.
“We felt for the most part, this really was a great opportunity for an extension of distance learning,” she said.
Burgess decided to use Second Life in her dissertation, which will examine the use of Second Life in teaching developmental readers with modern social technology skills.
For her research, which has currently been put on hold, students will complete reading activities that focus on identifying point of view and inferencing – concepts Burgess said are covered in face-to-face classes.
She will also see if students are able to focus more using the Second Life game.
Burgess said she plans on dividing the students into pairs. They will be able to communicate with each other using a variety of Second Life tools, such as instant message and local chat.
” The tools on here have that instant, synchronous collaboration with each other,” Burgess said. “It’s one component that is unlike Blackboard, because Blackboard is assychronous – not in real time.”
CREATING THE VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT
Burgess enlisted the help of an outside contractor recommended by Texas State to create the SHSU campus on Second Life.
She purchased two islands for $1,400, which the contractor merged together.
Burgess said Bearkat Island only able to hold about 80 residents at a time.
It took about four to six weeks to complete the islands, Burgess said. The buildings had to be divided up into the five main colleges so there would be enough room.
Bearkat Island currently comprises the library, several of the academic buildings, the clock tower and the statue of Sam Houston. Burgess’s 13-year-old son even created a working golf cart.
The buildings do not have hallways or offices, however. Instead, there are auditoriums equip with powerpoint and audio, visual capabilities. Burgess said she wanted open spaces, so an avatar would be able to move around quickly.
“I tried to take features of each college and incorporate in each building,” she said. “Just a taste of it – not duplicate it completely.”
Burgess used her avatar, Yoka Suka, to meet with the contractor in Second Life and discuss the campus. The contractor created the campus from pictures Burgess sent him of the real-life Sam Houston State.
“When we had meetings, we would meet on our island to discuss,” Burgess said. “I’ve never actually met him.”
Burgess said there is also a sandbox, where users can build things and experiment with their avatars and tools. The sandbox is floating above the clouds. And don’t worry – avatars can fly.
Right now, the island belongs to the Reading Center. But both Burgess and Barnes think the concept has a lot of potential.
Several organizations and professors have already shown interest in using Bearkat Island, such as the American Democracy Project.
“We thought we could do something with it that’s valuable to the university,” Barnes said.