Second Life lands B.C. campus

Second Life lands B.C. campus

Four of the Lower Mainland's major postsecondary educational institutions will simultaneously open a virtual campus in the online cyberworld Second Life and a new realworld
$40-million digital media school on Great Northern Way.

The Masters of Digital Media Program is a collaboration between the University of B.C., Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr Institute and BCIT, and is due to welcome its first cohort of 35 students in September 2007. An open house for prospective students is scheduled for Nov. 25 at the Vancouver campus and the virtual campus now being built in the three-dimensional metaverse, peopled by more than one million registered users worldwide.

"I want students to be comfortable in every form of virtual reality there is, and Second Life is the dominant platform, at least currently," said Bruce Clayman, CEO of the new campus.

The school's senior staff will be hosting the open house at both the real and virtual campuses.

People, using their home computers, appear in the Second Life cyberworld as digital avatars, animated characters that move, gesture and communicate through text both one-on-one and in groups.

"We will be able to meet and greet students from all over the world," Clayman said. The decision to take the new masters program into the virtual world was an easy one, Clayman says. "Most of the students are already there. They live their lives in a variety f virtual places, games, animations and in Second Life."

The program is intended to make Vancouver a world leader in digital effects and platforms for computer games and the film industry. Students come from diverse arts backgrounds as well as computer programming.

An interactive virtual world is an ideal place for them to combine their unique isciplines, he said. The virtual world has fenced off areas called sandboxes, where people can test experimental scripts, programs and structures. Second Life citizens can create everything from custom virtual jewelry and clothing to cottages and condominiums on their own computers and upload their work into the game to use, give to other users or even sel goods.l

While the curriculum, developed in collaboration with local new media companies like Blast Radius and Electronic Arts, is still at the outline stage, Clayman can envision holding classes and interactive labs at the virtual campus.

The aim of the program is to groom the world's best digital animators and effects creators and that makes Second Life an obvious place to recruit students from all over the world, said program director Gerri Sinclair.

"All kinds of amazing creativity and talent in this very field of digital media is very much in evidence there," she said.

In addition to taking classes, students will help design and create the virtual campus in Second Life, Sinclair added. Having students create their own learning environment "is the future of educational research," she said.

A virtual world removes many of the boundaries of the real world including gender, age, geography, learning style, even gravity she says. (In-world avatars can fly and even teleport instantly to different locations in the Second Life environment.) Some people learn through text, others through visual, and still others by doing, Sinclair said. And in the virtual environment you can use one or all in the way that works best for you.

Sinclair believes the new masters program will be the first to employ avatars as graduate research assistants on a virtual campus.

Students will pay $20,000 a year to participate in the masters program. It's a premium tuition for a premium program," Clayman said.

Mark Hawkes, e-learning coordinator for the B.C. ministry of education, will be watching with interest the Digital Media Program's virtual experiment.

Hawkes is actively researching the potential of virtual worlds for use in the province's istance education program with school-aged students. The ministry's efforts to develop virtual learning environments has been limited mainly to a pilot project dating back to 1997.

"I'm very encouraged every time a major institution goes into the virtual world because it helps to legitimize the area for other educators," Hawkes said. Second Life's active nature, in which users can interact with each other, build projects
and even create their own learning environment, is "one of the platform's great strengths," he said.

"What kids really like is the social nature of Second Life and the high degree of ownership over what they create, because they can actually build the world, as it were."

rshore@png.canwest.com

© The Vancouver Sun 2006