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Friday, August 10, 2007

UNCP journalism class gains experience in virtual world

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke has joined more than 100 colleges and universities in a new educational environment – the virtual world known as Second Life (SL).

Dr. Anthony Curtis, a professor of  Mass Communications, led 13 members of his online journalism class into the sprawling Internet simulation that is currently inhabited by some seven million people worldwide.

Virtual reporter Amanda Hickey

Virtual reporter Amanda Hickey

Black Line

Second Life, a 3-D virtual world published and maintained online by Linden Research, Inc., of San Francisco, Calif., provides a tremendous opportunity to educators for experimentation, instruction and guidance in using individualized instruction or for an entire class at the same time, Dr. Curtis said.

“SL is an exciting new space for distance learning and educational collaboration,” he said. “The environment is a cutting edge teaching tool.

“It's useful as a platform for virtual classrooms, for research into new concepts and for real-time communication among multiple participants,” he said.

The students explored the SL world. Their goal was to identify prospective subjects for feature stories to be published by the class in its traditional Web news magazine called Brave News World.

“Second Life offers broad potential for using simulations to prepare for real-world experiences in a safe environment. It’s a good way to enhance experiential learning under guidance, allow individuals to practice skills with mentors, try out new ideas, and learn from their mistakes,” Dr. Curtis explained.

That magazine is in its third year, and this is the first time published in a virtual world. The students told The Pine Needle campus newspaper that they were energized by the thought of one virtual world covering another in a mass media project for the real world.

The class was diverse, including Native American, African American and Hispanic American as well as Caucasian students. Many of the students reported having poor technology access at their residences, especially limited access to broadband services. The high-speed wireless technology provided in Old Main by University Computing and Information Services (UCIS) was vital to the success of the project.

To carry out the project, students enthusiastically climbed what for some was a steep learning curve into the SL world. After a period of exploring for familiarization, they identified possible news stories on several unusual and interesting areas of social, cultural, political and commercial life. They proceeded to locate reporting resources including persons in SL to interview, places to investigate, and sites to photograph.

Real-world classroom activities were highly interactive and employed peer learning, Dr. Curtis said.

“In addition, student excitement with the project promoted a great deal of peer support outside of class,” he said. “Students brought back to class news of experiences they shared while exploring the SL world with each other.”

Class Photo

Class Photo

Black Line

One example that reveals SL’s impact on the professor’s teaching appeared in the way the simulations provided wonderful opportunities for interview experiences.

People in SL appear as graphic avatars on the computer screen. Each student created an avatar reporter to travel the SL world and conduct interviews. They found real people with real aspirations behind the avatars they encountered, so the responses to interview questions were real and variable.

Thus, students learned how to form relevant questions and employ feedback while interviewing. For instance, one class member would log on while others watched via overhead projection. They would seek an interviewee. As the student who was logged on engaged the interviewee, the class discussed and proposed relevant questions to be posed. The interviewee was told about the class participation. Dr. Curtis frequently used the moment to act as guide and mentor as the students developed and polished their interviewing skills.

Another example among many was the photojournalism aspect of the experience.

“Photojournalism is about people, places and things, and Second Life is teeming with those,” Dr. Curtis said. “Real-world photojournalists record the human condition in good times and bad. My students were able to do that using the sophisticated “snapshot” feature in the SL viewer to illustrate the articles they wrote.”

Second Life is a visual adventure in which the students were able to learn and practice the basic visual and technical aspects of “seeing’ photos and recording images, he explained.

“The last thing I expected was to get a glimpse into the future of human interaction, which is exactly what SL is,” said junior journalism major Dan Kelly, of Fayetteville, N.C., who researched and reported on games in SL. “I've discovered that there are many creative people in the world and SL gives them a unique medium to work with.” Kelly is sports editor of The Pine Needle.

Students in the class learned that while there are many differences, there are also similarities between RL (real life) and SL journalism, according to junior journalism major Amanda Hickey, of Jacksonville, N.C., a class member who will be editor of The Pine Needle for 2007-08.

Publication was the ultimate goal of the semester project. Altogether, more than 40 articles were published online along with about 70 photos and illustrations.

Even as they dug up and reported stories from SL, the same students were learning how to prepare what now has become a traditional Web news site for their magazine as part of the Online Journalism course.

As in past semesters, the spring 2007 issue of Brave News World was composed of the feature stories about social, cultural, political and commercial aspects of SL as written and edited by the students.

Senior public relations major Rachelle Milbank from Winston-Salem, N.C., improved her portfolio with her SL articles.

“I think it’s beneficial to use this class as a way to expand Web skills, and I never thought I would be interested in writing for the Web until taking this class,” Milbank said.

Articles she wrote for class attracted the interest of an SL publisher and she planned to freelance them to his newspaper.

Milbank served as editor for the Web edition of while junior journalism major Michael Graham of Whiteville, N.C., was editor for the SL edition. Senior broadcasting major Chris Frease of Wagram, N.C., created and prepared the Web pages for Brave News World.

Business management interested some class members who worked to add a simultaneously published Second Life edition of Brave News World. They repurposed the real-world Web magazine for circulation inside SL. To do that, they designed newspaper-style vending boxes and figured out where to place them across the SL virtual world.

“The whole class was intensely motivated to complete the project, even to the extent that they carried out a plan to Photoshop a group picture of their 13 avatars standing in front of UNCP’s Old Main building for the Web magazine,” Dr. Curtis said. “One in that series of photos was published by The Pine Needle newspaper with a story about the class."

“I think this project has put UNCP in the forefront of academic technology alongside such major universities in Second Life as Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Harvard, Stanford and more than 100 other universities and colleges,” Curtis said.

Others in the class were senior journalism majors Kelly Freeman of Lumberton, N.C., David McGee of Pembroke, N.C.,  and Whitney Dudley of Wilmington, N.C.; senior public relations major Amy Jacobs of Pembroke; senior broadcasting major Camron Rawls of Pembroke; junior journalism majors Ashley Cuthill of Hope Mills, N.C., Tashieka Hammond of Pembroke; and sophomore journalism major Rob Kelley of Lumberton.

With the spring semester experiment completed successfully, what’s next for the project?

“I am planning how to deliver other courses in the future using the Second Life space in my otherwise traditional classroom and distance education courses,” he said, “and to establish a UNCP outpost in the SL campus region.

“I also am discussing with colleagues at universities in the UNC System, in the Midwest and on the West Coast the possibilities for collaborative conference presentations, papers and articles on this topic,” Dr. Curtis said.

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