UD's Second Life islands paradise for rafts of ideas
A virtual view of Memorial Hall and Mentors' Circle as seen in Second Life.
The East Gallery wing of the University Museums in Second Life highlights the artwork of UD faculty, students and staff.
A virtual harbor joins the two UD islands in Second Life.
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3:07 p.m., Oct. 22, 2008----The reach of UD stretches far and wide, and thanks to initiatives like the partnership with Beijing Normal University and the Study Abroad Program, its academic contributions go far beyond the Mid-Atlantic region. UD is now colonizing two virtual islands; and if the boom of construction continues, the offshore outposts might soon become another campus.

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“Right now we have two islands, and they have two different purposes,” said Debbie Jeffers, an information resource consultant in UD's Information Technology User Services and a chief architect of the Second Life islands virtual world building boom.

One of the first members of the building team assembled in July 2007 for the purpose of sounding out interest on campus for the educational possibilities offered by virtual world technology, Jeffers, in her enthusiasm for Second Life--the software that makes such virtual worlds possible--has been a tidal wave of ideas, and has spent much of her time canvassing for input and giving tutorials in island navigation and avatar mobility techniques.

“When the idea of looking at virtual worlds was first presented, to see if they had any educational value, I talked with a lot of different groups on campus and came up with a lot of great ideas,” Jeffers said. Adding that because UD's Information Technology unit had been a longtime member of the New Media Consortium, an educationally oriented organization that had been championing virtual world technology for years, Jeffers said the push to launch such an initiative at UD got an even bigger boost.

“It's a lot of extra time and work,” said Jeffers, “but we went ahead and got an island, and once we started putting classrooms on it, we quickly ran out of space.” Because (even in the virtual world) islands have limits to the amount of building permits they grant, UD then purchased a second island, for mixed-use space.

Plans for this island, Jeffers said, include using it to showcase some of UD's ongoing research projects and departmental triumphs, the College of Marine and Earth Studies' R/V Hugh R. Sharp being one of the first.

“One fairly recent idea is to have the R/V Hugh R. Sharp rebuilt using Second Life,” Jeffers said, rattling off several additional ideas for simulations that run the gamut from mock-ups of foreign countries (for the purpose of preparing study-abroad students) to mock-ups of viral outbreaks (for the purpose of preparing nursing and pre-med students).

Jeffers, who worked with Ralph J. Begleiter, Rosenberg Professor of Communication and Distinguished Journalist in Residence at UD, in making his Global Agenda lectures accessible to island visitors through a simulcast last semester, added that broadcasting prominent lectures to a worldwide audience is yet another opportunity afforded by Second Life, and is also a good way to draw visitors to the islands.

Rave review

UD's use of Second Life for broadening broadcast options last spring for the Global Agenda lectures so impressed the virtual worlds team at the New Media Consortium that they plugged the effort on their Web site at [http://virtualworlds.nmc.org/portfolio/delaware].

“When the visitor arrives on the University of Delaware island, the first impression is one of tradition blended with innovative, forward-looking technology,” the write-up by the consortium said. “While it is possible--and the landscaping renders it even delightful--to access all buildings by walking (or flying), useful maps allow the visitor to teleport directly to various buildings and sites.”

The review, which went on to highlight some of UD's Second Island replications, including Mentor's Circle and the Lewes Seacoast, also went on to say that, “Attending an event in the stadium is a dramatic experience, not only because the stadium is positioned over the ocean, but also because the events provide interaction between individuals in Second Life, as well as with those in a real-world setting.”

Virtual campus tours

By setting up an e-mail account through the Second Life or New Media Consortium Web sites, choosing an avatar (a virtual world doppelganger) and downloading the Second Life software, potential or actual UD students--as well as casual, curious island-hoppers loose in cyberspace--can touch down any time to tour parts of the campus (Memorial Hall, Mentor's Circle and the Admissions Office are all now represented); catch one of the biology labs or education classes offered on island No. 1; or wander through the University galleries (current exhibitions in both Old College and Mechanical Halls are now showing virtually on island No. 1).

Additionally, options for exploration don't stop there. By the end of this fall, UD's Department of Art Conservation will have a virtual lab on the island, where students can work to repair age-, smoke- and water-damaged paintings. And Jeffers is hoping to get some simulation of the upcoming election represented on island No. 1, as well.

“I have tons of plans and there are tons of things I would love to see done,” said Jeffers, emphasizing that the possibilities for distance learning and learning a foreign language are particularly exciting.

“We can take people from all over the world into classes here,” she said. “We can simulate foreign countries to acclimate study-abroad students; and the possibilities for learning a foreign language are tremendous.”

Also untapped, Jeffers said, are a host of opportunities for collaboration with other universities and learning institutions. “In Second Life, users can interact with their surroundings in a three-dimensional way, instead of in the two-dimension way they're used to on the Web,” Jeffers said. “The way you can think about this initiative is that it's the Web in 3-D, which is ultimately where the Web is going.”

Article by Becca Hutchinson
Graphics courtesy of Debbie Jeffers