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JMU Gains Virtual Foothold in Second Life

jmu campus in second life
Click on image for a sample tour of JMU in Second Life

Getting to JMU in Second Life
(200 mb download required)

1.    Visit www.secondlife.com to read all about the virtual world
2.    Click the "Get Started" button to join Second Life
3.    Pick your avatar and complete registration (it's free!)
4.    Download and install the client to your computer
5.    Open and sign in to the installed program
6.    Explore the world, or go directly to JMU's campus by clicking the "Search" button and searching places for "James Madison University"
7.    Select "James Madison University" and click the "Teleport" button
8.    You're here!
9.    For questions, suggestions or to request membership in the JMU group, email Kate Stevens at stevenke@jmu.edu

Ever wish you could stay in bed all morning without missing your 10 a.m. lecture? Invite your friends from across the globe to hang out with you on the Quad? Fly over Wilson Hall to recreate the view from that famous "100" photo from the JMU Centennial Celebration?

Now you can.

Thanks to an interdisciplinary team of JMU faculty, the James Madison University campus is open for classes, hanging out and, yes, flying, 24 hours a day, in the virtual world of Second Life.

A Whole New World

JMU established a presence in Second Life, or SL, the virtual world in which anyone on the internet can create an 'avatar' and interact with others throughout the globe, about two years ago. The initial venture was a small rented space at a virtual learning center in SL used for small group meetings and student projects.

Within a few months and through training workshops, the virtual world had garnered enough interest from JMU faculty members to create a bigger, more functional and permanent virtual campus.

"There really became a need to have a permanent place where JMU could be in Second Life," said Dr. Kate Stevens, an assistant professor of art history at JMU and one of the core faculty members responsible for building JMU's SL campus. "We kept finding more and more support as people realized how it can be used."

Today JMU boasts one of the finest working campuses in SL, one that has garnered recognition from publications including Campus Technology magazine.

Form and Function

Aside from being a stunning place where your avatar can hang out, pick up free JMU memorabilia and inner tube down a virtual lazy river, the SL campus is proving its utility as a meeting place for classes, learning tool and virtual front door to the university for non-JMU affiliated visitors.

"It's about social interaction. It's about engagement at a community level, and that was incredibly fascinating to me," Stevens said. "Right now we have a mix of students, faculty and administration as well as alumni. There are all types of things that it can be used for."

Stevens uses the SL campus in her museum studies class to take her students to museums in Europe and Asia without leaving Harrisonburg as well as allowing them to design and construct whole museums on SL.

Kate Smith


I teach in Second Life, I have my students do projects in Second Life. We hold meetings and open houses in Second Life. Some faculty hold office hours in SL.—Kate Stevens

"I teach in Second Life, I have my students do projects in Second Life. We hold meetings and open houses in Second Life. Some faculty hold office hours in SL," Stevens said. "As far as teaching in Second Life, as of now not too many faculty are dedicated to teaching an entire semester or summer session class in Second Life, but a lot of faculty are bringing their students through it and integrating Second Life into the classroom."

Teaching in Second Life eliminates the disconnect inherent in traditional distance learning, Stevens said, because though individual participants are in different places in the physical world, they are interacting in a real space in the virtual world.

"When I'm trying, for example, to teach my students about Stonehenge, we can look at a picture on the screen, we can look at pictures in a textbook, but when you talk about a progression through space, unless you're able to experience that, you're never really able to quite understand it," Stevens said. "My students do get it once they go through there, but I can't take them all to the real Stonehenge. But with Second Life, it's something I can build in a couple of days, and it's something they can access any time."

It's the same principle that makes the SL campus attractive to prospective students, Stevens said. While a student from across the country can learn about JMU's programs from traditional Web sites and brochures, touring some of the most recognizable buildings at JMU via SL is the next best thing to coming here in person.

Stevens said she's been introduced to several members of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham community and is working to forge working relationships with them through SL as well as alumni seeking to reconnect with campus from a distance.

Even people who may never have heard of JMU are learning about campus. Stevens said the virtual campus attracts between 100 to 150 visitors a week who have no affiliation to the university, including several from the international community.

It's also a valuable tool for professional networking. One alumna visitor was so impressed with the look of the campus that she contacted Stevens to discuss hiring a JMU student to design a SL presence for her company.

Academic Gaming

A world full of animated avatars who can change appearance, fly and teleport to anywhere on the globe may seem to some to have no place in the higher education world. But it's serious business in academia, said Suzie Baker, a JMU professor of psychology and a member of team responsible for JMU's SL campus.

Baker presented on Second Life at the American Psychological Association and the Southeastern Teaching of Psychology Conference last year.

From the art and computer science applications of building a virtual world to the psychological, social and philosophical implications of creating an identity in a true second life to immersive study in foreign languages, using SL has merit for disciplines across the academic spectrum, Baker said.

"What interests me is that we still don't know everything it can work for. We're still feeling our way through, as with any new technology," Baker said. "Second Life is not very old. The number of people who are exploring how it can best be used is growing. When I first started using it, you really couldn't find any published literature about it, but now people have been able to start doing the research, collecting the data about what they're using it for and how it's working. And that's really the next step for educators."

Faculty from the University of Florida have asked JMU for guidance as they seek a grant to build their SL campus, Stevens said. In addition, Stevens, Baker and fellow JMU SL builders Susan Kruck, professor of computer information systems, and Jeremy Hawkins, director of university unions, have written a chapter for a book. The chapter, "Second Life as a Tool for Engaging Students Across the Curriculum," will appear in "Design and Implementation of Educational Games: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives," an academic book edited by JMU faculty members Pavel Zemliansky and Diane Wilcox and scheduled for publication in about a year.

But getting students and colleagues to buy into the technology isn't always easy, said Dr. Monica Reis-Bergan, a psychology professor who uses SL in her personality and social psychology courses.

"You do get that 'ooh-ahh' effect. There's definitely the 'wow' factor the first time you present it because SL is visually stimulating. The campus is beautiful, but there is often a skepticism," Reis-Bergan said. "Most of my students probably aren't going to spend their free time or their whole summer on SL, but most of the feedback from my classes was that they thought it was an excellent way to demonstrate the things we were learning."

As the global society grows more interconnected through technology, programs like SL will play a larger and larger role in our lives, Stevens said.

"I think Second Life is going to continue to grow. They're constantly updating their software, making things much more interesting and attractive, being much more user-friendly," Stevens said. "As a result, I think particularly as we see language studies applications, international studies applications, it's only going to be more useful to JMU."

"High school and middle school students today are already using blogs, they're getting information off the internet, using web resources, using virtual worlds," said Reis-Bergen. "They're going to come to college ... prepared to use all these resources that are out there."


Published May 2009