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IU Northwest professors take classrooms into virtual world

Despite video game-feel, ‘Second Life’ adds another dimension to online learning

Thursday Dec 13, 2012


A decade ago, the concept of connecting with professors remotely, and collecting and submitting assignments and exams via the internet, may have seemed far-fetched. Today, not only is  communicating in this way second nature, but entire courses are conducted in this manner, in a society that is growing to love the concept of distance learning.

But what about group projects?The ability to collaborate with others? The experience of debating, face to face and in real time, an idea with a fellow student or professor? It might seem as if these elements of traditional classrooms would have to be sacrificed -- an unavoidable trade-off for the benefit of learning from the comfort of one’s couch.

Not so, say two IU Northwest professors who are now bringing their students together in a virtual classroom known as “Second Life”. This 3-D virtual world (and free website) allows users to interact with each other using “avatars,” animated characters that they create to represent themselves and move about the various digital communities.

On the surface, Second Life appears to be nothing more than a gamer’s paradise, but educators say it is also what’s next in distance learning.  Dorothy Ige, Ph.D., Professor of Communication, and Evalyn Gossett, MSN, RN, Clinical Assistant Professor of Nursing, are among only a handful of professors in the entire eight-campus IU system that are using Second Life as a teaching tool.

IU Bloomington, in fact, has created a digital campus, “IU Island,” where educators and students at all IU campuses can meet and collaborate simultaneously, whether they are across town or across the globe.

Getting interpersonal

The technology-minded Ige once pioneered a hybrid Interpersonal Communication course in which students met partly by distance and partly in class. While at the time this format seemed to be progressive and innovative, Ige said that, by its very nature, the Interpersonal Communication course is difficult to teach at a distance. Second Life bridges that gap, she explained, and enables students to communicate in the way that is required by the course.

During one recent class session, Ige sat at her office desk, put on a headset and waited for her class to assemble. One by one, the individuals scheduled to present their team project moved their avatars to the front of the class and prepared to address the group.

Ige had divided the students into small groups and asked them to collaborate for a presentation. The group members had scheduled meetings on their own in Second Life and pulled together the project, which they presented one by one. All those in attendance could hear and respond to the presenters.

At the conclusion of their presentations, Ige praised the groups for their ability to work collaboratively to produce one merged Power Point presentation as well as effectively provide feedback to others. She said she was impressed by the leadership and interpersonal skills the students’ exhibited to get all of this done.

“Since this is the first time trying the Second Life approach, I was not sure that students could bond interpersonally at a distance through technology,” Ige said. “I was pleasantly surprised that they not only bonded, but took interpersonal communication to another level.”

Olivia Merifield of Michigan City, one of Ige’s students, admitted that she was a bit apprehensive about the concept at first but said that, after working out some of the technical glitches, she now understands the benefits.

“Because I’m taking mostly online courses, I haven’t had a lot of interaction with classmates,” Merifield said. “With this, we had scheduled meetings, so you would go into Second Life and we would sit there and we would talk, and we would go through the discussions we needed to have and we would work on our projects together. So it wasn’t like you are waiting on an email from someone in your group to proceed further. You could get the things done that you needed to get done. It was really like you were there working with your group which made it a lot easier.”

Bringing nurses and doctors together

Gossett received a grant to teach in Second Life. She decided to create a clinical setting with her senior nursing students and is taking online class collaboration to a new level by bringing faculty together from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) in Scotland.

“Typically, nurses train by themselves and doctors train by themselves. There is a big initiative nationally and worldwide for nurses and doctors to train together,” Gossett said. “Interprofessional Education (IPE) is a priority at IU Northwest, and teams of students from nursing, medicine and social work routinely work together in order to learn how to effectively communicate with one other. Second Life offers yet another great opportunity to do that and to do it across campuses.”

Gossett has partnered with a professor at IUPUI to provide this interprofessional education both for her eight nursing students and IUPUI’s 35 medical students enrolled in the class at both campuses.

Medical students and nursing students come together in a virtual hospital to learn TeamSTEPPS® Strategies and Tools to Enhance Performance and Patient Safety, developed by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Department of Defense. This is a national initiative aimed at improving communication and teamwork skills among healthcare professionals.   

“I wanted to use Second Life to teach TeamSTEPPS® and use the TeamSTEPPS® protocol and strategies to create scenarios where the doctors and nurses can train together,” Gossett said.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) reports that an estimated 100,000 people die annually because of preventable errors, and about 66 percent of those errors stem from poor communication. In Second Life, Gossett asks students from both disciplines to role-play scenarios in order to improve their doctor-nurse communication skills.

The way nursing and medical educations are currently structured, Gossett said, this kind of training in real life isn’t easy to accomplish. Even clinical experiences at area hospitals do not have nursing students interact with doctors and medical students. Meeting in the virtual reality of Second Life makes such preparation more feasible. Second Life visitors not affiliated with the university sometimes even agree to role-play as patients.

“Second Life can be used very appropriately for simulation and role-play as an adjunct to clinical training for healthcare providers,” Gossett said.

Technological support

As with any new technology, Second Life brings inherent technical challenges and a steep learning curve.

IU Northwest Instructional Technology Specialist William Radell and IU Kokomo Information Technology Training Manager Greg Ogle are present during classes to make sure technology glitches and user difficulties do not interfere with instruction.

“They have been very helpful to our project in assisting the nursing and medical students to learn the navigation skills needed,” Gossett said. “This eliminates the learning curve involved in being ‘in world.’”

As one example, Ige accidentally walked across a table in her Second Life class instead of across the floor, which undoubtedly drew chuckles from her class. Occasionally, uninvited guests stumble or barge into a class in session and need to be blocked or asked to leave.

Merifield said that no special equipment is needed to interact in Second Life. Most standard laptop computers are equipped with a webcam and microphone.

The experience opened her eyes to all of the previously untapped ways to learn online.

“I think it could be a good tool in any of your classes, especially if you are working on a project together,” she said. “You can really talk to that person in real time. It was something I never really thought of before doing this. There are chat functions and there is Skype. There are all kinds of things that you can use to communicate and I never really thought of using those aspects of technology before doing this.”

Ige said she will use Second Life again as a teaching tool.

“The S122 online students have been great pioneers in helping chart a new course that will only get better. As a ‘digital immigrant’ (per author Marc Prensky), I am happy to be on the front end of such cutting-edge technology that allows some visual interpersonal interactions among younger ‘digital natives’ from a distance. While Second Life is not as developed as our real first lives, it will get there.”

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