Santa Clara enters virtual world in 'Second Life'
Simulation game replicates campus buildings online
Published: Thursday, May 24, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 15:01
With the completion of "Santa Clara Island" imminent, the Santa Clara campus will expand into the online world of bits and bytes and claim a spot in the Internet game called "Second Life."
Over 100 universities already have campuses in this virtual world of five million residents, according to Michael Ballen, an instructional technology resource specialist at Santa Clara, who is heading the project and sees the future of the communications technology in environments like "Second Life."
"This is going to supersede the Internet," said Ballen. "If you want a pair of pants, you're going to go to the virtual Gap, try on a pair and order it right there."
Ballen received a one-year grant from the Technology Steering Committee for the project. Part of the grant paid for an island within the "Second Life" game world, which cost $980 to purchase after an educational discount and $150 per month in maintenance. "It's like rent," said Ballen.
Real money commonly changes hands in "Second Life." One dollar buys you around 180 Linden dollars from the Linden Company. You can spend your virtual money on clothes, accessories, furniture, homes and other items for your in-game "avatar," or you can make, and even sell, your own.
Ballen hired the nonprofit New Media Consortium to design and program the virtual university, which they expect to complete over the summer and open in the fall.
"Santa Clara Island" features three digital replicas of campus buildings: the de Saisset Museum, Mission Church and a completed version of the library currently under construction.
"We're going to put student-produced art in the museum. We'll have some in the library, too," said Ballen.
"The opportunity for students to create their own content is really exciting," said Karen Kienzle, assistant director at de Saisset, who wants to partner with the art department to create a new venue for student art and involvement.
The Mission Church of "Santa Clara Island" is a 21st century copy of the oldest building on campus. "Theoretically, we could stream services in there for people who are shut-ins and can't get there," said Ballen.
The virtual library has the most functionality of the three buildings. A small staff of librarians and assistants can help visitors through chatting and possibly voice communications when that feature is added to the game.
Ballen, who worked on planning the new library, tried to make the "Second Life" version as accurate as possible. "My hope was that students would walk around in here and give them a sense of having a library before it opens," he said.
Classrooms inside the library provide a virtual alternative for teachers, who can teach classes by pre-recording lectures and screening them in "Second Life," which allows video and audio streaming.
"Our main emphasis was teaching and learning," said Ballen, who has already demonstrated the uses of "Second Life" to several professors. "It's a way to get to the people who like to game and get them exposed to educational material."
"A lot of students are sort of shy to come into a professor's office," said political science professor Bill Stover. "If they got on here, they could probably have a better conversation anonymously than they could in real life."
Stover, who already uses several Web sites for his classes, is no stranger to Internet technology. "This is a university, and a university should have all sorts of activities for all sorts of people," he said.
Stover also sees "Second Life" as a venue for political discussion.
"In other communities they talk about politics. Here, we don't do that," said Stover. "That's something that they can do (online) that they can't do in the Bronco."
Stover said he wants to set up a Middle Eastern-style coffee shop in "Second Life" where students can discuss politics. That is, if he has time. "I'm so busy in my first life here that I'm not sure how that's going to work out."
Marc Bousquet already utilizes the game's creative potential for his English course, "Internet Culture and the Information Society."
"I think that there are real opportunities for passionate individuals to create truly meaningful artwork on a budget of zero," said Bousquet. His students must use "Second Life" to make a short film, acting out scenes with their avatars inside the virtual world.
Kira Johnson's group made a film where a girl is too busy listening to her iPod to pay attention to a homeless man, and a mom on a cell phone ignores her daughter.
"It's about how technology can distance you from human interaction," said Johnson. "If you have a balance, then it's fine, but when it becomes all virtual interaction, then I think there's a problem."
Johnson's group did encounter problems in making their subtle critique on technology when filming in a coffee shop. "This naked guy comes in, well endowed, and starts peeing on us out of nowhere," she said. "It was terrible."
Create a free "Second Life" account and download the game at www.secondlife.com.
Contact Jon McDonald at (408) 551-1918 or firstname.lastname@example.org.