In the Fall 07 semester, I took three classes of Otis digital sophomore students into the virtual world of "Second Life" where they developed and created content based on a class-developed theme. A Technology Grant from the College and further funding from M. Ragsdale Wright Studios supported the project.
My personal process… getting up to speed.
Sue Maberry, Otis College’s Director of Instructional Technology, introduced me to Second Life with the idea of developing classes in world. I do present the concept of virtual reality in my LAS class "Concepts and Issues in New Media" but was not aware of Second Life at the time. Therefore, in Oct 2006, I set up an account and jumped in to this strange place where you could teleport, fly, and be who and whatever you wanted to be. I spent most of a weekend stumbling around and came back not knowing how one would do a class in this environment. Nevertheless, I was fascinated with this virtual world being that it seemed to way beyond "MySpace" and "Facebook". It is actually more a combination of say Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, but with real-time social interaction. I could see the potential but didn’t know how to go about using it.
There are many classes in Second Life that help one get up to speed. I choose another route. I approached it more like how I approach software. I jump right in and use it before I look at a users manual. So I didn’t stay on Info Island long but plugged in places in the search area of my browser and went exploring. On the way and over time, I met avatars that gave me things to use and taught me how to do things like building, keyboard shortcuts, and told me about cool places to go. In my case, for the kind of experience I desired, I felt that to get up to speed quickly would require total emersion and the spending of money. I also found that I was working with people from all over the globe. So, from Oct 2006 to the beginning of fall semester 2007, with the support of the college and specifically the Library/Teaching Learning Center (i.e. Sue and Shelly Forbes), I put together a team of builders from the UK and Europe. I acquired land, and established several galleries where I placed my work, participated in several in-world art events, and gathered the knowledge to put together a class project.
Otis acquired an island (16 sq miles of virtual land) in the early summer 2007. By August I was savvy enough to make Second Life the focus of my artist residency at SIGGRAPH 07 in San Diego where we officially opened the Otis Island to the public. I also delivered a talk, “Art and Art Education in Virtual Worlds.” Even though I had yet to run a class project in Second Life, I did unveil my plans and the process that I would use to move forward at that SIGGRAPH presentation.
In September, I began the project in my three sections of "Concept and Issues." I was assisted in this project by Shelly Forbes (aka Porterhouse Dobbs), Library staff and master builder in Second Life. I could not have pulled off this project without her support, help and friendship.
The project was to develop and create content for an environment based on a class-developed theme on the Otis Island in Second Life. The project required students to use team building, out-of-the-box creative thinking, 3D and 2D virtual tools as well as to work with a budget (3000 lindens per class), and with a limited amount of building blocks (3100 primitives per class). Each team/class proceeded to develop a production pipeline and a theme for their area. Three hours of in-class time and ten hours of outside of class time were devoted to this project. None of the 55 students had previous Second Life experience.
They were required to learn the Second Life software to engage in the process and then to create and design their own personal avatar. After creating the avatar, each had to manage to get to Otis Island at an assigned time. At the island they were given brief introductions to movement, flying and building. The production pipeline began with brainstorming sessions. Once the themes were established the teams went to work creating content for their individual areas. The themes developed were "Heaven and Hell," "Pirates and Atlantis," and "Lost World and Mythology."
At the end of the semester I asked the students to evaluate the experience both good and bad. The positive comments far outweighed the negative.
On the positive side the students found working in teams on a group project a great icebreaker in getting to know one another. They enjoyed the social interaction from the class brainstorming to learning to work with each other as avatars in world. Deeper friendships were developed and a joy of seeing what each one would come up with in a creative manner. This project could not have been successful without the social interaction and teamwork.
Students enjoyed having control of their environment and loved the idea that changes would have happened when they logged on. Most students responded to introduction of new concepts. The feeling of being a pioneer and working in a cutting edge technology excited many. A number of students discovered they liked working in a 3D virtual environment and will take more classes in that area. Students who were familiar with programs such as Maya and Lightwave felt that Second Life was a good introduction to 3D modeling. It was not as complex as a full-on modeling program, yet introduced the use and concept of the x, y, and z-axes as well as working with primitives.
Many of the students felt the project provided a template of an industry project. They were excited by the blending of real life through brain storming and sketching with the virtual technology that allowed them to customize their environment and avatars and bring their ideas to life for all to see. The project pushed students to be inventive while working within the limitations of the environment. They loved the experience of success and felt that they would be able to handle anything the digital curriculum would throw at them in the future.
A number of students found the research of interest, feeling that they were putting their art history classes to work. Several noted that they responded to the synergy between themselves and the staff administrators. Shelly Forbes, in particular, was of great help to many who had questions about building and scripting.
Some students, who took the time to explore Second Life by visiting other regions and exploring other places, could not stop talking about what they found in-world. They were inspired.
On the negative side, many students were frustrated by the lack of Internet speed especially at the college. The largest complaint was the lag time, caching and the time it took to log back on. Some found the newness of the experience a bit overwhelming. The constant updating of the program was a pain to many. There were at least four updates of the software during the semester. Many could not work at home due to the lack of up-to-date equipment and Internet speed at home. The gamers of the classes hated the look of environment and the movement of the avatars, feeling that the game engine was outdated. Some came around when they realized Second Life is not a game. Some did not give it a chance.
Lastly, one class ran into copyright issues. The class started to do a Mario Bros. environment and had to shut it down about third of the way into the creation when they were informed that they could not do it without violating copyright. This was a double-edged sword. It really took the wind out of their sails. But on the other hand, as we cover copyright in the class extensively, they had a first-hand experience with the issue.