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Real learning in a virtual world

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They may be college teachers and students, but they're also pioneers – exploring strange new worlds that exist nowhere on Earth. That's because their classes and field trips take place only on computers, using an online digital world called Second Life (http://secondlife.com/).

Some 60 schools and universities have set up shop inside Second Life – most in the past year. They join a population that includes real-world business people, politicians, entertainers, and more than 800,000 other "residents" of the virtual world.

For the first time this fall, a Harvard University class is meeting on its own "Berkman Island" within Second Life (SL). "Avatars," visual images that represent the students and teachers, gather in an "outdoor" amphitheater, head inside a virtual replica of Harvard Law School's Austin Hall, and travel to complete assignments all over the digital world. (If SL could be magically brought into the "real world," it would cover about 85 square miles.)

Some 90 Harvard law and extension school students taking the course, called "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion," can receive real college credit. But anyone on earth with a computer connection can also take the course for free. Students are participating from as far away as South Korea and China.

While virtual classrooms lack certain advantages of real ones, they are advancing online teaching methods, especially in the way they can make students thousands of miles apart feel like they've really gathered together for a class.

"The typical experience in a distance-education class is to go to a website, watch a video, [and] correspond by e-mail ... usually just with the instructor and even then only intermittently," says Rebecca Nesson, a Harvard law school graduate who is teaching the class along with her father, law school professor Charles Nesson. "Second Life gives us the capability to really have a classroom experience with the students."

Having the avatars meet, Ms. Nesson says, "really changes the way the classroom conversation proceeds because you have a sense of all of these people being there participating in one way or another.... It somehow gives people a sense of community that they're not by themselves doing this."

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