February 15, 2013

Jessica Pope
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator

VSU Professor Explores Teaching, Learning in the Virtual World

VALDOSTA — Two years ago, Valdosta State University purchased an island in the largest virtual world on the World Wide Web. One-third of the 16-acre campus is a replica of West Hall; the remaining two-thirds features offices for university faculty members and an outdoor space that resembles South Georgia.

Dr. Cindy Tandy, an associate professor in VSU’s Division of Social Work, has been working with Second Life for roughly five years. She was the driving force behind the university creating a virtual campus.   

“Overwhelmingly, the students like it,” she said. “Once you get them using it, they see the value in it.”

Second Life is not a game, noted Tandy. It does not have a specific objective nor does it have traditional game-play mechanics or rules. It is a three-dimensional, extensive world imagined and created by the everyday people who use it, a world that can be both interacted with and explored. The avatars seen in the virtual world represent real people; many of the destinations in the virtual world are replicas of real-world locations, like the Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel or London’s Shakespeare’s Globe.

“It’s an environment,” she said, one launched in 2003 with tens of millions of square meters of virtual lands, more than 13 million registered users (or residents), and a thriving economy.

There is no charge for creating a Second Life account or for making use of the world for any period of time. However, the virtual world does have its own economy and currency, the Linden dollar (L$), named for Linden Research Inc., the virtual world’s developers, for those who want to do more. The Linden dollar can be used to buy, sell, rent, or trade land or goods and services with other users. Basically, residents exchange real money for virtual assets, and some users actually make money.

Avatars may take any form a user chooses. They are completely customizable and can travel via walking, running, vehicular access, flying, or, as in the Star Trek world, teleportation from one location (or island) to another in search of entertainment, education, commerce, and socialization. They can communicate by way of local chat, group chat, global instant messaging, and voice.

On VSU’s virtual campus, Tandy and her Master of Social Work students have access to learning opportunities that are not often possible in the real world due to federal regulations regarding the protection of patient privacy. The technology allows the students to practice real-life situations they might encounter as professional social workers in a variety of virtual settings, from a mental health clinic to a dirty home, from a hospital room to a prison cell. They also have access to virtual individual and group counseling rooms and a conference room for meetings.

In the hospital room, for example, Tandy is better able to teach her students some introductory counseling skills. Working in pairs, one student assumes the role of the patient in the hospital bed, while the other sits in the bedside chair and assumes the role of the social worker. Then they switch roles. Unlike the real world, she said that Second Life gives her students some perspective by allowing them to experience the situation as both the patient/client and the practitioner.

“The possibilities are endless,” she added.

Tandy also discusses the therapeutic uses of Second Life with her students. She said that there are over 100 nonprofit agencies in the virtual world; there is an island for military personnel who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Individuals with physical disabilities and shut-ins can use the technology to do things they otherwise might not be able to do in real life. They can attend art exhibits, as well as live music and theater performances. They can travel around the world and tour museums and historic sites. They can attend continuing education classes and support groups and even learn to sail a boat or fly an airplane. They can jump off Paris’ Eifel Tower with a parachute. They can make friends.

On the flipside, artists can show their works in virtual galleries on Second Life, and musicians can host performances. Churches can establish virtual congregations and hold worship services, and professional therapists can offer counseling services, all through avatars. Companies can use the technology to simulate business processes and test new products. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders can receive training in uncommon but still possible scenarios.

Tandy said that she would like to see more VSU instructors using Second Life. She noted that the technology allows them to network and collaborate with instructors and professionals across the country and around the world, leading to co-teaching opportunities. In terms of better preparing students for life after college in the real world, she said that Second Life can help. Criminal justice majors, for example, can practice their skills in a virtual crime scene house. Psychology majors can spend time in a virtual hallucinations setting to gain a better understand of what life is like for someone with certain mental illnesses. Biology majors can take a roller coaster ride through the body and learn how sperm is made. Foreign language and history majors can take their avatars to Diplomacy Island where several countries have established virtual embassies, allowing users to speak to representatives about their culture and history. Business majors can create a shopping center and buy and sell their goods to other Second Life users or see how things like product placement or music or color influence shopper’s habits.   

“If VSU does this right, I think this could be a really great tool for student retention and recruitment,” Tandy added. “I had one student who said she would have left the program if not for Second Life.”

Contact Dr. Cindy Tandy at cctandy@valdosta.edu to learn more.