Imagine touching the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, having the power to create anything you can dream up and learning from people across the globe all with the click of a mouse.
This is Second Life (SL), one of many 3-D virtual worlds that are changing the way people interact and how teachers educate and collaborate.
More than 200 universities and institutions around the world are using SL, said Leslie Jarmon, a senior lecturer who is leading the way in SL instruction at The University of Texas at Austin.
SL was created by Linden Labs four years ago and is shaped entirely by its residents, which now totals more than 11 million.
"Linden Labs started with the gaming world and then decided to take the game out of it and have a virtual world, then give people the tools they need to create their own world,"Jarmon said. In SL she is known by her avatar name Bluewave Ogee. An avatar is the persona a person takes on in a virtual world.
"They created the ground and atmosphere and people do the rest," Jarmon said. "We have six-hour days in Second Life and the moon is always full."
Jarmon owns a piece of SL land with graduate student Joe Sanchez, also known as North Lamar.
Jarmon and Sanchez purchased two islands in SL for about $6,300 and started the Educators Coop, the first residential community for educators in SL. The Coop provides educators a place to explore, collaborate, teach and conduct research in SL. They meet weekly to discuss their work and host sessions that teach others how to create things in SL, Sanchez said.
Jarmon and Sanchez believe virtual worlds are the next evolution of the Internet.
"SL or other virtual worlds will continue to become more and more mainstream. I feel that eventually people will have an avatar in the same way that people now have an
e-mail address," Sanchez said.
Jarmon sees limitless educational opportunities in SL with groups for every interest.
"In Second Life there is education and business, art and music, history, science, corporations and government. Whatever you can find here, you can find in virtual worlds," Jarmon said.
She talks at a rapid pace when describing SL and its possibilities. She is excited about what's taking place now and what lies ahead for virtual worlds.
"It extends the communication channels we already use into the 3-D virtual world. It's a world like this world but we don't have to go anywhere to experience it."
Sanchez, whose research focuses on virtual worlds and technology-enhanced learning, said SL is another way to connect people.
"It can provide a social network for people to meet," he said, "a democratic forum to discuss current and political events and an entertainment space where people can watch movies, play games and role-play."
"UT has a rich history of education in SL. Anne Beamish (Architecture) was documented as the first class to ever use Second Life and Jerome Bump (English) was one of the first to measure the effectiveness of Second Life as a learning tool," Sanchez said.
"There are musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, religious groups, museums, libraries, film and literature, history buffs, and, of course, lots of information technology and communications folks," Jarmon said.
"If you use the Internet, there is probably some professional or personal application for you in Second Life that extends that experience into a 3-D virtual experience with others."
Jarmon is using SL with her Interdisciplinary Communication graduate students. They are preparing semester-long final projects in SL.
One team is creating a virtual presence in SL for sustainable, green, low-income housing models designed by the university's BaSiC Initiative for use around the world. Two of the houses are being constructed in East Austin.
"I have been searching for years for a medium whereby I could integrate my academic and scholarly world with my lifelong work with developing countries and community engagement. The 3-D virtual world environment offers just that," Jarmon said.
"The compelling sense of engagement and social presence can be like a magnet," she said, "and isn't that what we want learning experiences to be like?"
Sanchez uses SL as a tool for active learning.
"I rarely 'teach' in Second Life," he said. "Instead I provided opportunities for students to experience my course content."
He said the main advantage of using SL is that it gives the class an experiential lab to work in.
"Before Second Life," he said, "I used to have my students work on problem-based scenarios in small groups. Now, instead of making scenarios, I give them real tasks where they have to work in teams and manage up to 16 people at a time and lead them through a series of events."
Sanchez added that instead of asking students to pretend they are consulting with an organization he can actually have them work with real organizations and people in SL, which is what they did for a final semester project.
"SL affords me the opportunity to connect my students with a large international community outside of my 'classroom,'" he said. "My students are hosting art shows while others are raising money for victims of the San Diego fires. The ability for the students to connect with organizations in such a way and to work with them directly in such a short amount of time wouldn't be possible without SL."