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Lancaster University has invested £4,000 in land on Second Life, a virtual world where prospective students can experience the campus before they arrive.
The ‘residents’ will design an avatar, through which they are able to live and socialise on Lancaster University Island. It is mainly aimed at international students, who won’t get a chance to visit before they enrol at the start of the year.
It could also prove beneficial if the university’s estimation of a 30% increase in applicants is correct, as it would support the induction process and allow students to meet each other before they arrive.
The university hopes to use the site for teaching and research, something which has already been initiated in the Management School where PhD student Michele Ryan has used it as part of her research. Courses offering training in Second Life have also been set up, aimed at the teaching staff.
Julia Gillen, of the Literacy Research Centre, runs such courses and advocates widespread use of the program.
“It is fun and allows Lancaster students to communicate with each other on the island,” she said. “Other universities have set up pretty elaborate simulations on it, for instance for medical courses. You’d need to devote an hour to learning how to use it, and you need a computer with the right graphics card, but other than that it’s available to everyone.”
Gillen also argues that more institutional support is needed to promote it, as students are unaware it is currently available and free to use.
However, the cost of maintaining the program is £1,200 per year, a sum that has, up until recently, been covered by research funding in support of Ryan’s project. Lancaster University Island is currently empty, and the cost of hiring someone to create a replica campus, and the price of the virtual build itself, would be high. Now that the research grant has been exhausted, the maintenance will be paid for by the university itself, a move Danny Ovens, LUSU VP (Academic Affairs), criticised during a recent meeting of the Learning Technology Advisory Group.
“With all the cutbacks facing Higher Education and our university, the money could easily be spent on something more student facing and beneficial,” he said.
It appears that the international students it is aimed at are also less than keen to embrace the new technology. Jessica Leng, of Fylde College, said, ‘I’d rather use other social networking sites to meet people. I might use Second Life if the university use it to tell me things, like which text books to bring over from China, but otherwise I’d rather stick to something I already know.”
Second Life was developed by American internet company, Linden Lab, and launched in 2003. Since then, the software has been used for scientific research, educational support and as a site for virtual meeting places. Countries such as Malta and Estonia have also set up embassies on Second Life.