After Frustrations in Second Life, Colleges Look to New Virtual Worlds

The hype is gone, but not the interest, and professors think some emerging projects may have instructional staying power

Open Cobalt Project

Open Cobalt, a virtual world being developed by researchers at Duke U., may be more enticing to colleges than are commercial ventures because it gives educators more control over the environment.
February 14, 2010

Some colleges that have built virtual classrooms in Second Life—the online environment where people walk around as avatars in a cartoonlike world—have started looking for an exit strategy.

The virtual world has not lived up to the hype that peaked in 2007, when just about every day brought a new announcement from a college entering Second Life. Today, disenchanted with commercial virtual worlds but still convinced of their educational value, a few colleges have started to build their own, where they have more control.

After sitting in on Second Life classes and touring several campuses in virtual worlds, I see why they appealed to college leaders. Many are fantasy versions of traditional campuses—grand lecture halls or outdoor amphitheaters, with podiums front and center for professors to hold forth. Online education can seem foreign to professors trained in physical classrooms, but these look like regular classrooms, so they must be good, right?

Well, not necessarily, it turns out. Moving around in Second Life can be so clunky that some professors and students have decided that it's just not worth the hassle. I regularly get stuck between pieces of virtual furniture, wander around aimlessly looking for the person I'm trying to meet up with, or lose patience as I wait for my online avatar to walk between virtual classrooms. If all you need to do is chat with far-flung students, there are many easier ways to do it.

Plus, a lot of decidedly nonacademic activity goes on in Second Life, and it's difficult to limit access so that only students can enter a classroom there. Online vandalism is so common that there's a name for it ("griefing"), and it's easy to stumble into areas designed for virtual sex that is, ahem, graphic.

Then there are worries about what would happen if the company behind Second Life, Linden Lab, went out of business. All those digital classrooms could vanish in the flip of a server switch.

That has happened to some of Second Life's competitors: In late December, a company called Metaplace announced that its virtual world would self-destruct because of financial difficulties. "A lot of people got burned," one official who relied on the system for part of a course he teaches on virtual worlds told me. Even the tech giant Google couldn't keep its experimental virtual world going. Google ended Lively, its graphical Web environment, in late 2008.

Linden Lab recently swapped in a new leader to replace its founding chief executive, and it now appears more focused on selling a new "enterprise" service to companies than supporting discounted server space for colleges. John Lester, a Linden Lab official, told me that the company's new strategy will make its world bigger and better than ever, for educators and everybody else, and that Second Life had suffered from overheated expectations.

What surprised me the most was that, despite these challenges, educators appear more interested than ever in the idea of teaching in video-game-like realms. A group of college folks interested in virtual environments organized by Educause, the higher-education-technology organization, has a growing membership. Tellingly, though, it recently changed its name from the Second Life group to the Virtual Worlds group, in part reflecting an eagerness to find alternatives.

And colleges are rethinking some of those first experiments in their palatial virtual campuses. At Case Western Reserve University, for instance, the admissions office has stopped giving virtual tours of its Second Life campus to prospective students who couldn't make it to the real campus. There were few takers for the virtual tours.

It turns out that virtual worlds are at their best when they look nothing like a traditional campus. Professors are finding that they can stage medical simulations, guide students through the inside of cell structures, or pre­sent other imaginative teaching exercises that cannot be done in a physical classroom.

But for that, they need more control than Second Life gives them.

A Community Model

The most ambitious attempt to build an education-friendly virtual world is a project called Open Cobalt, whose leaders plan to announce an initial release in April.

The project is led by researchers at Duke University. Their vision is to create a system that operates with data stored on people's own computers. That will eliminate the need for expensive centralized servers and allow more people to inhabit the system at any given time.

The Open Cobalt effort has won more than half a million dollars in grants from the National Science Foundation, as well as support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The project has already hit some snags, though. Disagreements about direction set back the timeline of the open-source effort by about a year, said Julian Lombardi, an assistant vice president for information technology at Duke.

And because the project's developers have spent most of their time building the underlying platform, they have not yet forged the easy-to-use tools that will let most professors try the system. Right now it takes some hard-core tech skills to install it.

Another open-source effort is already up and running. It's called OpenSimulator, and it is essentially a free knockoff of Second Life. Any college with a spare server and some staff time can use the OpenSimulator software and play God to a virtual world. Or colleges can rent access to the system from a company that has set up servers with the software. ReactionGrid, a company that sells space on OpenSimulator worlds, says professors are switching to their service from Second Life. For $75 per month, plus a $150 set-up fee, a college or department can lease four worlds packed with virtual classrooms.

Professors can also call the Immersive Education Initiative, an organization in Boston that gives away free land in OpenSimulator and other open-source virtual worlds for educators and helps them design simulations and other teaching activities there.

The project was founded by Aaron E. Walsh, a professor of advancing studies at Boston College, who believes so much in the educational power of virtual worlds, he says, that he pays most of the bills for the institute out of his own pocket.

He said more than 2,000 educators have set up accounts on his OpenSimulator world, called Education Grid. About 80 percent of those are college professors, while the rest are schoolteachers, he said. Many of them are former Second Life users. "Now they're saying, I want to do this, and this, and this that Second Life can't do for me. Can you do that?" The main request is the ability to limit access to students in a course, which the group can do.

Still, some who have tried OpenSimulator have been underwhelmed. "It looks just like Second Life," said Larry Johnson, chief executive of the New Media Consortium, a Texas-based higher-education-technology group. "The difference is that not everything works. It's more buggy." Open-source efforts often stabilize over time, however.

To counter these new options, Linden Lab is testing a product that would let colleges install a world on their own servers and limit access to students and professors. Case Western is among those trying it out for its virtual campus.

Of course, there's a chance that the very notion of virtual worlds is flawed. Maybe 3-D online environments are just one of those technologies that sound cool but never fully materialize, like personal jetpacks. Trying to make the World Wide Web look like the real world misses the new kinds of things the Internet can do. Maybe it's time to retire the word cyberspace altogether.

Indeed, a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 4 percent of American adults spend time in virtual worlds.

But that same survey shows another telling statistic. Almost 40 percent of adults own video-game consoles, where players explore fictional 3-D spaces.

Defenders of virtual worlds say that's the important number, showing that the idea of a virtual world for specific activities is already mainstream—the trick is creating a platform that will work for education. "We don't ­really understand what we can do and what we can't do with this tool for education yet, so it's more exploratory now," said Peter J. Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University who studies virtual worlds. "We know there's something here, but we don't know what yet."

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