Adventurous avatars

Drexel opens a new educational frontier in cyberspace.

Drexel University professor Jean-Claude Bradley can log in from his lab or home and teleport to his organic chemistry classroom, fly around his three-dimensional molecular models, and teach wearing a cat suit.

Bradley, 38, uses the virtual world of Drexel Island - an e-campus shaped like a dragon, Drexel's mascot.

"We chose a dragon shape to distinguish ourselves. No one else has done anything like it," said Bradley.

This online Drexel universe - which gets 100 visitors daily - exists in Second Life, a program created by San Francisco-based Linden Labs in late 2003. Second Life is used for both academic and social endeavors, with more than eight million users worldwide interacting with one another and buying e-property to develop sites for uses from academic settings such as Drexel's to a museum promoting artwork.

"We want to be where the students are, where the learning is," said Tim Siftar, information services librarian at Drexel.

More than 200 universities around the globe have colonized virtual property in Second Life, among them Harvard, MIT and Stanford. NASA uses Second Life for simulations and conferences.

Drexel - the first college to require students to have access to a computer, back in 1983 - refused to be left out of the latest e-learning trend and bought its island in May.

The library and the College of Arts and Sciences split the program costs: $150 a month plus the $900 purchase price of the island. Students can access the program for free.

Drexel is still developing its dragon-shaped island, which will be populated with buildings and information pods. At least eight colleges or departments - from the College of Medicine to the College of Business - have signed on to use the program, either to teach classes or to provide study guides.

Second Life uses a gaming interface that allows users to create a virtual character, or avatar, representing themselves. Avatars can fly, teleport, and dress however they like - even in a cat suit.

"It made me laugh sometimes, but I think it makes it really fun and relaxed," said Tim Bohinski, a junior-to-be who used Second Life in Bradley's organic chemistry class.

Bradley does not make Second Life mandatory, but students can take practice quizzes, access lecture clips, look at three-dimensional molecular models, and just chat with other students and faculty.

While Second Life continues to break ground in the e-learning world, several problems remain. The site is inaccessible during program updates, and some universities have trouble running the program on their networks. Linden Labs said it is working to correct those issues.

Although they do not use the program as extensively as does Drexel, Temple University, the University of the Arts, Thomas Jefferson University, and Pennsylvania State University have recently become Second Life sites.

Susan Toth-Cohen, associate professor of occupational therapy at Jefferson, just began a year-long trial lease of two properties in Second Life to test its possible uses for the school.

"I think there's a lot of potential for health education with virtual simulators," she said.

Second Life would be helpful to online degree candidates, she said, because 75 percent of people who start such programs do not finish, often because of the lack of interpersonal interaction.

In addition to its academic applications, Second Life is used for socializing through virtual pool parties, concerts and even nightclubs. Linden Labs could not provide a breakdown of how much Second Life is used socially vs. professionally.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education, said he was exploring Second Life's educational uses.

He said that he was excited about the technology, but that it carried some risks. "If students decided to rely only on Second Life for social interactions, something would definitely be lost in the experience," said Knezek.

Jessica Colditz, a sophomore environmental science major at Drexel, said she did not use the program to socialize, as she does with other networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

"I don't really think a lot of people use Second Life to meet people. It's different from Facebook because most people don't use their real names in Second Life," she said.

Other people use Second Life outside the classroom. Drexel behavioral health counseling director Ron Comer said his wife, Suzanne, often uses her Second Life avatar to tell his avatar that dinner is almost ready - even though the human beings are only one floor apart in the same house.

Toth-Cohen said she enjoyed the social features of the program and uses it to network with other professionals as far away as Japan, using a translation device in the "chat" feature.

Advanced features such as real-time voice translators are being researched constantly, said Claudia L'Amoreaux, community developer at Linden Labs. "The use of voice technology is being introduced, which will definitely enhance discussions and help with language-learning programs," said L'Amoreaux.


Contact staff writer Katie Stuhldreher at 215-854-2601 or