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Virtual classroom: IU Kokomo professor teaches class in Second Life

Aug. 15, 2012

I’ve never met Indiana University Kokomo assistant professor of fine arts Gregory Steel in person. And if all goes as planned this fall, neither will his students.

Instead, they’ll interact with Steel in a virtual world known as Second Life.

Gregory Steel

Gregory Steel

Steel is believed to be the first IU professor to teach a class in Second Life, which allows students to create virtual personal representations known as “avatars” and manipulate those characters inside IU’s realistic 3-D virtual campus. He rounds out what he’s dubbed his “digital classroom” by using email, online video chats, social media and the university’s online collaborative system Oncourse to further interact with students.

“There are a variety of ways technology can broaden the educational process,” Steel said. “We don’t yet fully understand the implications of such technologies, but what we do know and understand is the importance of quality education. These new means give us new ways to deliver information, extend the classroom and continue the great tradition of education at Indiana University.”

Steel said he began to consider using Second Life as a teaching method after watching students play video games and witnessing a sense of confidence and personal control. That translates into further involvement in a virtual classroom, he said, while Second Life provides a sense of immediacy that isn’t possible with online courses.

“Students are less inhibited in the virtual environment as opposed to the traditional classroom environment,” he said. “But I like the personal interactions and discussions in the classroom and didn't want to give those up, so Second Life seemed like a perfect option.”

Steel said his virtual classroom looked similar to a traditional class. He still “meets” with his students at a specific time and place on IU's virtual campus, for example, and lectures while monitoring a group chat window to ensure he’s responsive to the discussion.

Steel in Second Life

Steel in Second Life

“Once everybody understands the paradigm of working in a Second Life class, things go pretty much like they do in a normal class,” he said. “It really is very straightforward and simple, and yet it holds very, very powerful possibilities."

Additional technology helps meet student needs.

“In addition to Second Life, I schedule regular Skype conversations with individual students, offer to talk to them on the phone or by email, send them small video lectures and audio bits to supplement course materials, and add Web links, documents, images and other information,” he said.

Think of it as “on demand” education -- as long as students have an Internet connection and a computer, they don’t need to hunt for a parking spot on a busy campus, classes don’t rely on the weather, and there’s no need for everyone to even be on the same continent.

“During my first class in Second Life, I posted an image of our class meeting on Facebook. And within a day or two, I had requests from people in India and Australia asking if they could take my course,” Steel said. “I’m proud to be part of the IU system, where we’re encouraged by our leadership’s commitment to technology education and excellence, and I look forward to sharing my research to help find better ways to educate students from Indiana and beyond.”

-- Bethany Nolan

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