Living online: A look the world using Second Life

Professor Paul Lester’s evening Communications 300 class meets every Monday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. His California State University, Fullerton students attend lecture, but as he describes, “It’s just a bit different.”

The thing is, Lester’s class is virtual.

His class, taught entirely online, utilizes a hybrid between Blackboard, a digital course management system, and Second Life, a virtual simulator game that parallels to our real world. This is an example of how technology is changing today’s classrooms. College instructors are creating more courses that include greater technology enhancements.

Second Life is Linux-based and open source, meaning it is experimental software that is openly contributed by the public. Which means, in effect, the program, user, and experience of using the program is constantly changing. This is a truth that is shared with all of today’s online experiences.

Linden Labs, the main developer of Second Life, attempts to integrate its product into life, transforming Second Life into a portal for living, according to its website. Linden sells virtual property that consumers can buy — meaning its a realm with its own virtual economy and currency.

“CSUF bought us an island,” Lester explains. “They came to me and simply said ‘use it.’ So I put our online class on Second Life.”

Lester makes virtual lesson plans for his class everyday.

“There’s a virtual slide presentation and lecture that we do weekly,” he said. “It is mirrored on Blackboard, so students can have the transcripts of our discussion.”

This technology is based on reality, Lester explains.

“[Second Life] is a real place, with a version of my real office with my actual online office hours,” Lester says. “[Other real places] include the Harvard campus [and the] virtual bank accounts of linden dollars, which can be exchanged into real money.”

Lester’s attempt at a virtual world is an extreme example of a distance-learning program, and Fullerton College is attempting to make a similar extension of its campus for teachers online.

For fall 2007, FC had 85 sections of wholly online classes, 19 hybrid classes, and 2 Teleweb classes, most of which use FC’s WebCT service.

Carol Mattson, Dean of Academic Services and a former online teacher, is eager about FC’s online technology growth.

“You don’t physically have to be here,” Mattson says. “You don’t have to deal with parking issues, you don’t have to worry about a certain time of the day or a certain day of the week. There’s usually a flexibility that you couldn’t get in a face to face class.” “It’s almost impossible for someone working 48 hours a week to find a full time schedule in a face to face class, especially as they get closer to graduating- there’s a convenience factor.”

Mattson promises there is no loss in classroom quality, that online classes are just as good with technology.

“For example, our Spanish faculty is using audio [in its online courses]. Students literally speak Spanish into a recorder, which creates a digital file that the teacher listens to and critiques. The students are still listening, still speaking.”

Online Spanish Instructor Rosa Arceo uses WebCT as well as another course management system, Moodle, with a plugin called MoodleSpeex, another experimental open-source, Linux-based software for her courses at FC.

“It’s threaded audio discussion,” Arceo explains. “Students speak into a microphone and post it. The students can listen and respond to each other. It worked really well for us until it just stopped working a while ago.”

Despite the lack of threaded audio, Arceo has other multimedia to use in her two highly developed and multimedia-rich courses, Spanish 201 and Spanish 203. She has made flash games, slide shows, and flash animations with audio recordings of herself.

“I believe that learning a language is like learning how to play the guitar,” Arceo explains. “You aren’t here to hug the guitar, you’re here to play the guitar, and to be good at guitar you have to practice. That face-to-face practice is lost, so online we try to make up for it.”

Arceo says she sympathizes for students that must take online classes, for the single mothers and full-time workers, noting that she is lucky enough to have family to watch her child, or else she would be like many online students, forced to work from home.

“If you are blessed enough to have the ability to come in to class,” Arceo says, “come on in. It is better on you and easier on the teacher.”

Arceo says she taught herself about the technology, learning of her tools through “word of mouth” from friends and fellow faculty.

“I love using what I find,” Arceo says. “I just wish I had more time to implement it all.”

She mentions her temptation over Wimba, an advanced plugin for course management systems like WebCT, Blackboard, and Moodle, integrating audio, video, instant messaging and podcasting.

“I only use things that are free,” Arceo says. “If we could afford it, we’d use Wimba, what other schools use, but it is very expensive compared to what we use now.”

Every one of Arceo’s online students is required to submit audio and engage in the online discussion, she says, meaning everyone talks, whereas in a normal class just some speak. Every student gets “more attention” but it is “far more time consuming.”

Mattson, however, says that online classes are designed to be exactly the same as traditional face-to-face classes.

“The biggest surprise is a lot of students say, ‘Oh, I’ll just take it online, that’ll be easy,” she explains. “But as time passes, they realize it’s not easy, it’s not easier. It’s supposed to be the same content [as a face to face class, and depending on your learning style, it may be more difficult for you to take it online.”

Having taught online, Mattson admits that there is the loss of human touch.

“I taught for a couple of years online, I missed the interaction,” she says. “Not that there wasn’t interaction, but I missed seeing faces in front of me.”

Some students feel the same way – that, just like Second Life, there is only a virtual life in front of them.

Former FC student Morgan McLaughlin is one of Lester’s Second Life students and a communications major at CSUF. She has two part-time jobs and is a full-time student, and she would probably not be able to do it without the help of this class.

“Face-to-face classes have more mutual discussion and more questions,” McLaughlin says. “Being online doesn’t allow for tone of voice, to add in sarcasm and irony.”

McLaughlin notes this same dehumanized feeling in socialization. “If I saw one of my online classmates on campus, I wouldn’t be able to recognize them unless I knew them before,” McLaughlin explains. “Some people at least use a real first name for their avatar, like I did, but you don’t have to. It really is a ‘Second Life.'”

However, McLaughlin says that it doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

“It was hard to get online to Second Life,” she explains. “There were crash problems, the company’s technical service department takes days to get back to you, and today’s technology hasn’t caught up to [Second Life] yet.”

At Palomar College in San Marcos, the use of technology in online math classes is an entirely different story. Palomar College Television broadcasts actual television and webcasting programs based on math and backlogs them for enrolled students to stream at any time anywhere.

“Palomar College Television created the College ‘Mathline’ program back in January of 2005 in cooperation with the math department as a great opportunity to assist many students with their math homework,” says PCTV Producer Bill Wisneski. “We also try to incorporate ‘real world’ examples of how math is used in everyday life so the students can more thoroughly understand the concepts.”

PC Students in north San Diego County can watch Mathline on local cable channel 16 in addition to watching streamed online content, DVD, or iPod-compatible VODCASTs.

“Everyone is encouraged to use the streaming video and animation we have on the site,” Wisneski says. “We have been surprised how many non-students watch the program and use the content available online.”

Terry Gleason, Fullerton College’s Distance Education Manager, said he’s taken more than 25 online classes at various schools, including FC, and even graduating from the one of the largest online universities, University of Phoenix. Gleason hopes to use his experience in assembling a similarly simpler online experience.

“I think our biggest part of our learning [how to develop online] is how to make it more transparent to students-so that when they sign in, they just go to their online class, and not need to deal with technology,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter if they’re on a desktop, laptop, or maybe a handheld device – they just get on, go to class, and get the information and do their classwork.”

However, not everyone is entirely welcoming of this technology in the classroom. Many professors are ambivalent at these advents of technology.

“There is a very clear downside to online classes,” says FC sociology instructor Jim French. “You can read my lecture notes on today’s topic but you might not get my joke. Communication in effect, is lost.”

According to Mattson, a possible loss of course validity is another downside.

“You will hear stories of a student who has transferred somewhere and they go in to talk to a university counselor and for whatever reason, a student admitting it or counselor noticing it, and once in a while there are articulation issues,” she explains. “These are being more and more resolved, despite those old time professors who still believe you can’t value the online experience — you can’t learn as much as good. I would say the majority (or all of) our faculty is very good at addressing the concerns of the quality of our classes.”

The only way to ensure that online classes today are of quality, is to use today’s technology to the best of society’s ability, she says. Technology is remaking college courses – it is slowly being implemented into classes, all while these technologies are still being developed.

How to effectively implement multimedia and traditional course information into a simple, “transparent,” package, as Gleason calls it, is a challenge that course designers and instructors face. It is well accepted and understood that the convenience of online courses comes at a price, that there is a loss of touch, which is amplified with using something that is an “experiment inside an experiment,” as Lester calls it. Just like the Linux-based experimental software they run on, online classes are an experiment that hasn’t found a conclusion yet.

The formula to make a successful online site with appealing content databases, like PC’s Mathline, is admittedly a challenge, and course designers and instructors are still developing methods to integrate new technologies.

“We’re just trying to figure it out,” Mattson explains. “This is a new experience for us at FC.”