Online classes just got funkier

The professor extends his arms, lifts off the ground and flies across campus before gently landing his sandaled feet in the center of the classroom to start his lesson.

A half-dozen of his students in this section of Psychology 110 already are seated. With bright flashes, two more teleport in just as the professor, John Story of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, starts his lecture about Sigmund Freud.

If this sounds like a school of the future, well, it might just be, Story said.

"We're living in a very electronic, socially connected world, and we want our learning environment to match that," Story said to an observer during a recent class.

Story conducts his class entirely in the virtual world Second Life, an online social-networking program in which players become characters known as avatars.

That makes for an odd teaching environment.

Some of Story's students decked out their avatars with non-human features, such as wings that can be picked up at the Second Life "store." One student's avatar tested out a series of different hairstyles in the middle of a recent lecture before finally settling on a light-red bob cut. Another student's alter ego in the 10 p.m. class is a dragon.

Story has been teaching courses for the past two semesters in this virtual landscape, constructed by a team of programmers at the Lexington-based community college.

Using Second Life is more than a teaching novelty for Story.

He has been researching how students fare in a Second Life setting compared to other online course formats, such as a popular program called Blackboard and chat rooms, as well as traditional in-person classes.

Story and a friend, Jimmy Bush, a graduate student at Iowa State University who is studying human-computer interaction, are tracking trends such as students' opinions, class participation and learning patterns through a series of surveys.

Story will present his initial findings at Kentucky Community and Technical College's New Horizons Conference in May to show his colleagues the benefits and drawbacks of Second Life classes.

"Our hypothesis is that a more socially interactive environment will create a better learning environment and more student engagement," Story said.

Second Life, which launched in 2003 as an online community program, has increasingly found a role in education. Hundreds of schools and colleges have carved out places in its virtual landscape for classes and learning, according to Second Life creator Linden Lab's Web site.

Last week, Barbara Alving, director of the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Research Resources, said during a visit to Lexington that universities and researchers must embrace programs like Second Life to better engage up-and-coming generations and improve teaching.

Many students in Story's psychology classes raved about how the format compares to other online classes they've taken.

"I think Second Life holds the teacher accountable for more, especially in an online class," said Marie Templin, 21, an equine science major. "Plus it's just fun and gives you that face time you don't get otherwise online."

Templin is known in her Second Life class as Ella Arentire and is one of the most frequent to type in questions to the professor as he delivers his lectures through a microphone, which students listen to through their computers.

"I hope the college will continue to fund programs like this. It really could make a difference in the level of learning," said Carol Dodson, 46, a mother of two college students, whose avatar is called Callie Kozlov.

Dodson, a psychology major, also likes the veil of anonymity that Second Life provides.

"The alter identities gives a chance to really express yourself," she said.

Like most of their fellow students, Templin and Dodson hadn't tried Second Life until this class.

Story, however, was familiar with the virtual world. A self-professed technology enthusiast and an avid gamer, Story said he has been fascinated with keeping up with technology since he discovered the Atari 2600 three decades ago.

For this project, the community college put up the money less than $1,000 — to buy and develop the virtual real estate now known in Second Life as BCTC Island. The virtual two-story building has an open-air first floor, complete with a billiards table. Upstairs is a classroom set up in the round with a screen for video clips, a lounge area and a beach ball.

"It is a random creation," Story said of the beach ball, "but I have used it to demonstrate phobias, and in the fall semester I had a student that loved to sit on it."

He said the potential for Second Life and similar technologies is limitless and a relatively inexpensive way for schools to keep pace with technology.

"Plus," he said, "it's horribly fun."