Pushing Virtual Boundaries

a new, private version of second life redraws the borders of the classroom

William Deal wants his students to push a man off a bridge.

Second Life

Vignettes featuring glimpses into lives and activities on Second Life. Photo: Second Life

Well, not literally. The Case Western Reserve University professor of religion plans on using the university's new private version of Second Life to better illustrate ethical dilemmas.

For instance, do you let a runaway trolley hit four workers down the line, or do you pull a lever and have the trolley hit just one worker on another line? Or, if you could instead push a man off a bridge to save the same four workers, would you?

"The nature of the rational and emotional differences is what we're examining here," Deal says.

Second Life lets Deal and his students explore these nuances in a virtual environment that simulates real life, and this summer, Case Western Reserve became the first educational institution in the world to host a standalone version behind its firewall. The university has been involved with Second Life since 2005, and this new version comes with all the standard features, including rich media and voice capabilities. Yet, because it is hosted on the institution's own servers behind a firewall, the program offers additional security.

The new version offers the creation of completely customizable virtual environments, allowing students in Carolina Perera's Spanish class to socialize with native speakers from other universities in a Spanish plaza complete with tapas and Salsa music. Her students can also capture any of their interactions in a video to later share with other students.

"We're pulling the virtual and the real together," says Wendy Shapiro, the university's senior academic technology officer.

"It truly takes you beyond what you can do in the classroom."