Tech-savvy educators connect via virtual classrooms

With avatars and online games, students can interact with professors, curriculum and each other

As pens and legal pads have given way to laptops in the lecture hall, professors who are usually incensed by key tapping and the annoyances of technology have gradually adjusted – or at least accepted that such gizmos are here to stay.

The most innovative of the bunch have turned the distractions of technology to their advantage.

These tech-savvy educators are transplanting the classroom into the digital realm, shifting eager students into cyber-classes and shedding teaching limitations of the past.

Lyle Wetsch is one of those professors. Last year, he joined at least 10 other Canadian educational institutions inhabiting Second Life, an online virtual world, to teach an MBA class for students at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L.

Interacting via his lifelike representation – called an avatar – Wetsch led students on virtual visits of the headquarters of major car companies. He also had virtual office hours and encouraged students to meet and practise presentations before the real deal.

“One of the advantages of education in the virtual world is you’re not limited to what you’re stuck with in the real world,” he said.

Indeed, entirely new demographics are being reached. Online learning opens doors for the sick, disabled and shy, to those living in remote areas or who are financially disadvantaged, and to students being home-schooled.

For students in grade school and high school, online tutoring is being offered for free through programs such as TV Ontario’s Ask a Teacher service, or for a fee by services such as newly launched TutorJam.

“There are students who for some reason got left behind,” said TutorJam founder Ajit Singh, who is also a professor at the University of Waterloo. “They cannot clearly state that they are not ‘getting it.’ And this tutoring service is right in the privacy of their homes, so kids can just open up.”

Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., Canada’s first school to build a campus in Second Life, has used the platform successfully.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, students hoping to become border guards saw their grades drop after practice sessions at the Canada-U.S. border were cut back.

The creation of a realistic simulation in Second Life provided a way for the students to attain the same skills. Students later tested in mock interview scenarios of people passing between countries saw their marks jump 28 per cent.

“It really feels real, this odd idea that technology sort of disappears and people get into the experience of it,” said Ken Hudson, the college’s manager of academic and new media services who spearheaded the online initiative.

“They really didn’t devote extra time to it, it’s just the students learned much more quickly. We see not only a commitment to the learning, which is dramatically increased, but also the engagement with the process.”

Some 5,000 educators worldwide are active in Second Life. They represent more than 300 institutions around the world – including Harvard, Princeton and MIT in the U.S. – and offer an array of learning services.

Other Canadian schools with a presence in Second Life include the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, the University of Saskatchewan, Ontario’s McMaster and York universities, Nova Scotia Community College, LaSalle College in Montreal, the University of British Columbia, B.C.’s Simon Fraser University and Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

While Second Life has seemingly become the most popular platform, other developing virtual worlds include the Active Worlds Educational Universe and the Education Grid.

At Great Northern Way Campus, a collaborative institution formed from four leading B.C. schools, students in the master of digital media program had a Second Life meeting centre even before its real-world incarnation was complete.

Some of the students are designing projects meant to advance learning.

Patrick Bakerjian, 24, and Stephen Marmion, 39, are building a virtual reading room that allows avatars to click on a book to reveal a 3-D encyclopedia of information.

“We’re going to make learning more interesting and more engaging, (rather) than simply throwing textbooks at people,” Marmion said.

The two say Second Life empowers them in a way that wouldn’t happen in traditional face-to-face education.

“It’s amazing how you open up to other people, how the shy factor’s not there,” Bakerjian said. “There’s no nervous tensions when you’re meeting someone.”

From a teacher’s perspective, Second Life also makes learning cool, Wetsch said.

“Students have this expectation when they come into a classroom with an older professor, like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re not up to date,”‘ he said. “But when you’re more up to date on some of the emerging technologies, it starts to lend some credibility.”

As youth become increasingly reliant on new media, it’s crucial to harness online technologies to keep the teaching process relevant, Wetsch said. He cited a report that says undergraduate students currently arrive at university having spent 20,000 hours watching TV, 10,000 hours playing video games, but only 5,000 hours reading.

“Yet when we get them into the university, we take the least experienced media that they have in far as reading and try and say, ‘OK, this is the way you have to learn.”‘

While the bricks and mortar campus will always have its place, a day will come when some students complete entire degrees via virtual worlds, Hudson predicted.

“Sure it’s cool and sure it’s novel, and that’s a great thing,” he said. “But unless it plays out and actually has a value for education, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

– The Canadian Press