September 12, 2008

Virtual Worlds

Second Life Takes SCA to New Frontiers

By Cristy Lytal

The SCA Second Life space for streaming an event, in this case, the 24/7 DIY Video event held last February.
For current SCA students, the four R’s have become reading, writing, arithmetic, and rendering virtual worlds. When it comes to developing this new literacy, Linden Lab’s Second Life — an internet-based platform that enables to users to interact and communicate with each other as avatars in a metaverse — has provided the school with unique opportunities for international exchange, collaboration, and experimentation.

This semester, Professor Steve Anderson’s CTIN 482: Designing Online Multiplayer Game Environments class is creating a virtual SCA campus in Second Life. With support from the Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML), a research unit founded by Dean Elizabeth Daley in conjunction with filmmaker George Lucas, the students are designing and building a virtual meeting place, classroom, and screening area for their peers who are located in LA as well as in Jordan and India. "What Second Life is good for really is social interactions," said Anderson, who also directs the Media Arts and Practice Ph.D. Program (iMAP). "So a key part of what we’re doing in the class is really thinking clearly about how to design and engineer the right kinds of social interactions to create a learning space."

Bjorn Littlefield-Palmer ’01, the lead Second Life designer at the IML, is serving as a key resource and point person for the CTIN 482 class. The virtual SCA space will take some of its cues from her design of the adjacent IML island, a large black box that serves as a center for teaching, learning, and innovation. The forum showcases student work, offers free tools for educators, and even houses a holodeck, which has potential to serve as a crude but cost-effective storyboarding tool for filmmakers. "We didn’t want to just recreate the USC campus," said Littlefield-Palmer. "We wanted to actually start applying the theory, the pedagogy about how we can use the platform in a new way that only a 3D environment can provide."

The SCA Second Life learning object which reimagines a classic text as an immersive environment.
Among the thesis projects currently displayed on the IML island is senior Matthew Lee’s analysis of The Tempest, which demonstrates the potential of Second Life as a performance space as well as a tool for literary criticism. "Theatre is something that is meant to be experienced," said Lee, a theatre and engineering double major in the IML honors program. "And since real-life productions have design with sets, lighting, sound, etc., I thought that if one were to learn about Shakespeare, one should recreate this in a virtual setting." Expressed as a Renaissance building, his thesis initially presents links to mis-readings of the text. As visitors delve deeper into the main room, pierce through a layer of fog, and descend a hidden staircase into a cave, they access links to more complex interpretations of the play as seen through the eyes of the character Sycorax. Further exploration uncovers additional interactive areas.

Based on Lee’s thesis work, Susan Metros, deputy chief information officer and associate vice provost for technology-enhanced learning (TEL), hired him to conceive and build USC’s Second Life island, which will function as both a demonstration of the platform’s capabilities and a portal to the virtual spaces created by the individual schools.

USC is also extending its Second Life efforts into the wider community by welcoming the ninth grade class from the LA Academy of Arts and Enterprise to the IML computer lab. The high schoolers will use the opportunity to participate in an international educational initiative called Skoolaborate, which unites students from across the globe through Teen Second Life in order to develop skills in technology, language, and other areas. "Part of my goal is for the honors students associated with the IML to have that kind of experience where they’re working with people from the community and giving back a little bit," said Holly Willis, the Director of Academic Programs at the IML and a Research Assistant Professor at SCA.

According to Willis, Skoolaborate and CTIN 482 serve an additional purpose, one that is more essential than teaching about 3D modeling tools, delivering educational content in new ways, or facilitating international distance learning. “What we’re seeing with our students is that the literacies of reading and writing don’t give you enough," she said. "You need to think about these other ways of presenting yourself in rhetorical environments that previous generations just didn’t have to think about. Being able to properly behave in these spaces will be increasingly important. I think virtual worlds will be used more and more."