An Empty ClassroomHave you taken an online class before? Maybe you used WebCT, Blackboard, or Moodle to check your assignments and read new instructional materials. Well hang on to your keyboards. The next step in the evolution of online distance education is here, and it looks strangely familiar.

 

Many people believe that online distance learning environments may be the future of education for our country. Across the world hundreds of schools are actively producing and accrediting online classes as substitutes or suppliments to real life classes. Until now most of these online classes have focused around rich text environments and distance education software tools such as Blackboard , WebCT , and the open source contender Moodle . Using any of these pieces of software a teacher can quickly and easily translate a traditional class into an online version of itself that can then be offered to anyone with access to a computer and the Internet. While distance learning has taken off in recent years, a new iteration on the same theme may be poised to take our students into a learning environment closer to real life than one could imagine.

What is Second Life?

Second Life is an three dimensional online community produced by a company called Linden Research. Second Life is one of the most popular and realistic online environments in existence today, and boasts a virtual population of over five million users. When logged in to Second Life a person can create their own unique and personalized representation of themselves, called an Avatar, and then allow this avatar to interact with other people in the world. To the uninitiated it seems to be a lame waste of time. To those who have tried Second Life playing and "living," in this online community can become akin to an obsession.

What does Second Life have to do with Distance and Online Education?

Recently, some schools and Universities have begun to take note of the Second Life phenomenon and have attempted to use it as a conduit to reach a new group of students. Such educational heavyweights as Harvard and dozens of other schools have thrown their erasers into the ring, coughing up thousands of dollars to Linden Labs to purchase virtual real estate inside the game and host real full credit college classes inside the virtual world of Second Life. Even the New York Times has recognized this phenomenon in a January 2007 story calling the Harvard venture the "ultimate in distance learning ."

The YouTube video shown here will give you a little primer on how one college is using Second Life.

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Non-collegiate teachers can also participate in this online virtual edcuation community. Via a wiki site called SimTeach, interested educators can view the many opportunities and ideas others have created .

Are Second Life and other online virtual 3d environments the future of distance education and online learning? One has to consider it as a very good possibility. The current state of online education is almost draconian in contrast to the possibilities that this new platform provides. One can only expect it to grow in popularity and viability in the coming years.

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