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Photo by Amanda Hickey as Manda Flanagan
Members of Dr. Anthony Curtis’ Media and Society class have fun and do course work during their class meetings.  The group got together for class photos before walking and flying over to the outdoor classroom where they discussed their upcoming projects.

UNCP students work at virtual campus

By Amanda Hickey

            UNCP's Online Journalism class conquered the virtual world Second Life last spring while on a mission to write articles and take photographs for Brave News World, the class's online magazine.

            This fall, the students in Dr. Anthony Curtis’ Media and Society class are back in Second Life, but this time with an advantage: the professor has built a large UNCP campus in SL.

What is it?
            Second Life is a 3-D virtual world online that is built and owned by its residents. It is growing at the rate of about a million new residents a month, with a total of 9,670,778 at press time.

            The virtual brick and mortar facility is composed of four platforms stacked high in the virtual sky. Their grassy lawns are crossed by brick sidewalks dotted with flowers and classic street lamps.

            Each level models Pembroke's Third Street entrance with the curved black UNCP signs, and is full of Braves spirit.  There even is a scoreboard so visitors can keep up with football.

            Entering the first level of the campus, a visitor walks into a building with a classroom set up like a conference room with seminar table and black and gold chairs.

            Outside, there is a rest area for students in a courtyard with a pond so students can relax with their feet in the water.

            “Students at every university I have taught at have places where they just hang out between classes, catch a few rays, eat a snack, chat with friends.  [It is] a place to relax,” said Dr. Curtis, professor of Mass Communications.

Classrooms and a shoppe
            The platform on the second level has the same general look, but a different building with more rooms.

            Indoor classes there have more privacy, but there is a major difference: an outdoor classroom with 42 seats that can be expanded to 100 seats in 30 seconds, a podium and a large projection screen where PowerPoints can be shown.

            “If [there is] a really big class, and the chairs are filled, others can sit on the grass or put more chairs out there,” Dr. Curtis explained.

            There are 20 students in the Media and Society class but, according to Dr. Curtis, “there will be a time when a larger group might meet in here.”

            Also on the second platform is the Braves Spirit Shoppe and another student relaxation area with picnic tables and food baskets.

            The Shoppe gives away Braves t-shirts, beach towels and hanging banners.

SL Library
            Higher up, Dr. Curtis has finished construction of a library in the building on the third level. Now he is adding research resources, instructional videos and other presentation materials, and learning objects delivering knowledge people need to live and work in Second Life.

            “All across the U.S., libraries are coming into SL and setting up places," Dr. Curtis said while at the campus last week. “There are just tons of public and private and local and regional libraries in here.”

            “Just one example is the Alliance Library System, which is a group of around 250 libraries in Illinois. Thay have a huge installation in here,” he continued.

            For the professor, building a branch of UNCP's Livermore Library in SL is a logical decision.

            “I've been around libraries all of my life and I think we have a wonderful library at Pembroke. I think many of its service areas could be branched to here,” he said.

            What could it offer to virtual students and faculty?

            “Access to the information resources in various rooms of the real-life library, reading rooms for study and leisure, assistance from the reference librarians,” he said.
Pigskin world
            The fourth level of the campus is in place, but has no building. For the time being, a football gridiron takes up about half of its space

            “Our top level has yet to be defined,” Dr. Curtis said.  “It's a place where other UNCP faculty and administrators immediately can bring their vision of higher education into the virtual world.”

Technological forefront
            “Second Life is becoming huge everywhere,” according to Dr. Curtis. “More than 100 universities and colleges have sites here in SL.

            “For example, UNC-CH and State and Penn State and Ohio State and Indiana and Harvard and Stanford and on and on.
            “Many have their own islands in the ocean," he noted. “I'm drawing up a plan for an island for UNCP and, hopefully, we'll see it later this school year. I'm very grateful to the Chancellor and the Provost for encouraging my ideas.”

Second-generation campus
            UNCP’s presence in SL has grown dramatically in the last four months.

            “The first campus I built here last [school] year was on the ground on a piece of land that measured 1024 sqm. It had one small building,” the professor explained.

            “Now this second-generation campus is on land that is 4096 sqm and four levels tall with multiple large buildings and other outdoor areas,” he said.

            Sqm is short for square meters, which is the measurement of land in Second Life. The virtual world is a grid of thousands of regions, sometimes referred to as sims or simulations. Each region is 65,536 sqm. A region is composed of 128 small plots of land measuring 512 sqm each. Much of the land in SL is owned by the residents, who have built everything there is in the virtual world.

Third-generation campus
            The current UNCP campus is on the “mainland,” which is a huge continent in the virtual world.

            “An island is a smaller region in the ocean away from the mainland,” Dr. Curtis said. “At about 66,000 sqm it's a vast expanse, but there will be many specialized academic buildings and much more extensive landscaping if UNCP has its own island.”

Imagine your own world
            Any department or office of the university is able to use the SL campus.

            “It takes a bit of imagination at first to see some courses being taught in here, but almost anything you can think of may already be underway in here at some university or another,” Dr. Curtis said. “In Second Life, they say if you can imagine it, you can build it.”

            “All of the courses I teach can be taught in here, I would say,” he continued. “But also courses in disciplines such as history and biology and business administration and physical training and education and political science and sociology and physics and chemistry.

            “I know it sounds funny to hear those mentioned, but someone is doing them somewhere in here already,” he said.

             “It seems to me the library could have a large operation with an extensive presence on the island,” Dr. Curtis said.

Media and Society
            Media and Society is an online class offered with the purpose of “analyzing critically the role of mass media in contemporary society with some emphasis on state-of-the-art media technology,” according to Dr. Curtis’ introduction on Blackboard.

            When the professor introduced his Online Journalism students to SL in the spring, the course was taught in a traditional classroom on the real life campus in Pembroke, so in-class instruction and assistance was available.  This time, students are working alone to complete the coursework mostly in Blackboard with field trips into the virtual world simulation for observation and interviews with media managers and consumers.

            “I am posting a lot of information, but also having a lot of one-on-one individual meetings in here as people need individualized help,” Dr. Curtis said. “That has been fun, of course, and at every opportunity I get to relate all this to the general content of the course.  It is a great benefit when I get the opportunity for more individualized instruction.”

            “When students go to newspaper, magazine, TV and radio station sites, I can tag along and mentor or facilitate or guide if needed, and only as needed.  So those are individual assignments,” Dr. Curtis continued.

            When Angelia Taylor, a public relations major, signed up for the course she expected to “gain as much knowledge as I possibly can about technology and media and how they interconnect.”

            While those expectations are coming true, she had been nervous about getting on SL.

            “I wasn't sure about this type of social networking, if it was a good thing or a bad thing,” Taylor said. “I am learning more than I ever thought I would in this class. This can be a real positive and helpful experience for my major.”

            “I just feel that more and more businesses will start using SL to gain insight into what products will sell before spending the money in RL,” she explained.

SL is the future
            SL is the future of social networking sites, according to Dr. Curtis.

            “This does all those [Facebook, MySpace and Blackboard] do and Second Life adds the ‘real’ aspect of it, the social side like students sitting here at the picnic table having a collaborative learning meeting,” he said.



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Updated: Wednesday, November 7, 2007
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