The University of the Incarnate Word is renowned for its international campuses: UIW students call Guangzhou, China, Mexico City, and now, Heidelberg, Germany home.
Thanks to the work of Computer Information Systems Program Director Phil Youngblood, Incarnate Word can include two more outposts in its list of campuses: UIW Cardinal and STEM Island, in Second Life.
Second Life is a 3D virtual world in which users adopt personas, or "avatars," in the language of the medium, and interact with one another, and the virtual environment.
The environments in Second Life can be replicas of real-world places, or places that exist in the imagination. Everything in Second Life – the shape of the land, every flower, every building, all the clothing, every interaction, is built or scripted by "residents" (as Second Life users are called).
"There's much more immersion and engagement in Second Life than in e-mail, chat, or other social media," Youngblood said recently. "Much more of a feeling of presence. There are trees, and the wind blows, and you can open a door, and hear a fireplace crackling."
Youngblood began exploring 3D virtual worlds over 10 years ago and discovered Second Life 5 years ago, and what he found surprised him.
"I started exploring, and found all of these very notable universities represented, there," he said. "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, MIT, CalTech… they were all conducting real classes and meetings and doing research in Second Life." He also met people there for other reasons, including a woman whose husband was serving with the U.S. Military in Iraq. They maintained a virtual home in Second Life, and were able to meet and interact there.
"I realized the medium had a purpose, both personal, and professional," he said.
Back in 2007 on the DePaul University "campus" in Second Life, Youngblood's avatar (named "Vic Michalak") met a small dragon; the dragon was actually the avatar of a computer science professor who had designed DePaul's Second Life presence. The dragon took Youngblood under his wing, so to speak, and helped him to learn about Second Life and to build before as Incarnate Word's island took shape.
Academic uses for the medium are limitless, Youngblood said, with every UIW College and School having used the medium for some purpose to date, including undergraduate and graduate courses, research, student orientation, art shows, and meetings.
In 2008 and again in 2009, Youngblood jointly taught classes in programming and project management as part of the CIS curriculum with faculty from Université Catholique in Lille, France and DePaul University and students in France and at the Universidad de Monterey. With instruction in both French and English, planning was intense, Youngblood said.
"We started with a cultural scavenger hunt, in both languages," Youngblood said. "That really broke the ice."
In 2009 Youngblood assisted the Interior Environmental Design (INTD) architecture course in using Second Life to visualize their house plans, turning blueprints into home into which an avatar could ring the doorbell, open doors, change colors of the carpet or walls, and get a feel for what the house would look like inside and out.
From 2010 through 2012, the Ila Faye Miller School of Nursing and Health Professions and Feik School of Pharmacy have used the virtual worlds in graduate health care education and the Dreeben School of Education has explored the use of this technology for general education.
"There's all kinds of cool medical stuff out there," Youngblood said. "Things like nursing simulations, 3D models, and interactive educational exhibits."
In January 2011, while UIW's renovated nursing school was being rededicated, a parallel ribbon-cutting ceremony was conducted for UIW's virtual nursing school on UIW Cardinal island.
"UIW has also used Second Life for recruiting and for extending brand identity," Youngblood added. UIW participated in virtual international College Fairs in 2007-2009 and UIW Cardinal has had over 75,000 visits since it was opened to the public in the Fall of 2008.
In the summer of 2011, new student orientation for Feik School of Pharmacy students was supplemented through the virtual school of pharmacy building on UIW Cardinal island and incoming Spring 2012 students at the Rosenberg School of Optometry could visit their school on STEM Island in Second Life.
In both instances, new and prospective pharmacy and optometry students could "walk" around the principal spaces of their schools, see the library and computer labs and student dining facilities and laboratories and classrooms, as well as click on photos of faculty and support personnel to see their jobs and send them an email if they wanted.
Youngblood has also facilitated academic discussions through his Kira Interdisciplinary Science Seminar (KISS) (www.kira.org), shares knowledge on computer hardware and telecommunications with The Science Circle (www.sciencecircle.org), and presents at international conferences in Second Life, such as the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education (http://www.vwbpe.org/).
In addition to UIW's principal virtual campus, the CIS program owns STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Island, which currently features a working hydroelectric dam, nuclear power plant, a one-half scale pyramid, a Maglev train, and other replicas of real-life science and technology innovations. STEM Island is part of the SciLands, an area of Second Life that hosts the virtual presence of many well-known scientific, medical, and governmental organizations.
Among the primary advantages of Second Life in an academic setting, Youngblood said: virtual replicas of existing or historical facilities can be built and visited and you can meet with people from around the world without the cost of leaving the campus.
Youngblood said that future plans include work with the H-E-B school of Business and marketing students at the University of Jordan in Amman and there has been an ongoing project to connect students of the UIW Prep online high school through the 3D virtual world.
"It's a technical world of convergent media and a parallel social world of real people," Youngblood said. "Just about anything you can find in real life, you can find in Second Life.
It is also a world where people collaborate, explained Youngblood. "I could not have done this alone, and am grateful for the support of the Provost and my Dean, UIW's Tech Division, Dr. Berthiaume of DePaul University, Judith Vance, a UIW alumnus who helped build much of UIW Cardinal and STEM Island and worked on many projects, and Deb Youngblood, who built imaginative alternative learning spaces on our island, for helping make all of this possible. I am always open to helping others discover the potential of this excellent and amazing learning space."