Huge brown doors cover the entrance to one of Alice Academy’s many buildings. Stones overlay the walls on the inside and out. Complete with an auditorium, multiple study rooms, a virtual safari, indoor classroom, and patio classroom, Alice Academy is not a typical education building. Its location is not typical either. Packed inside the world of Second Life, Alice Academy serves as a virtual institution for the University of Oregon’s Oregon Writing Project.
The Oregon Writing Project is a program run by the University of Oregon’s College of Education, with the purpose of improving state teacher’s ability to teach writing, as well understanding of technology.
The program serves under the National Writing Project, a national professional development program that focuses on the teaching of writing. Annually, the National Writing Project reaches over one million students and has 200 university-based Writing Project sites.
While the Oregon Writing Project serves a similar mission as the National Writing Project, Peggy Marconi, one of the programs leaders, has taken the project to new heights, putting an emphasis on technology as a resource for teaching.
Her idea to implement the use of Second Life, a virtual world where users can explore, interact, and live where ever they want, has changed the program, taking it into a new direction. In Second Lift, users can build or purchase buildings in the world and also have their own “island,” a place where they reside and hold gatherings.
To get started, users must first create an avatar. An avatar is the character users create to represent them in the world Second Life. Avatars can walk, run or fly to any destination.
Once a user has an avatar, Marconi says teachers meet at Alice Academy every Wednesday. Alice Academy serves as the meeting area for teachers who are a part of the Oregon Writing Project. This is where all the work gets done. “We bring groups of teachers together and have them reflect on their practice, and not only share their best practice with the group, but we also ask them to think about some areas they would like to improve in,” says Marconi.
Usually at each meeting a speaker is present to give a lecture and to help teachers. Second Life provides its users with the option of holding one-on-one conversations, something Marconi says teachers take advantage of. For instance, if a speaker is give a lecture and two teachers what to trade ideas without being disruptive, they can hold a private conversation in typed chat form.
The Oregon Writing Project members come from a wide range of backgrounds, but are mostly comprised of teachers who come from rural areas. Marconi says this is important because teachers from rural areas rarely get that social connection with other teachers.
“Sometimes you have teachers who are 40 miles away from the next, and it’s hard for them to have someone to talk to,” says Marconi. “Second Life and the Oregon Writing Project provide them with the opportunity to come and talk to other teachers, share ideas, and get feedback.”
Coming from rural areas, the teachers typically have little to no technological background. These teachers are nervous about using programs that they know nothing about. One example Marconi uses is a teacher who came to the Oregon Writing Project with a band-aid over the built in camera on her laptop. The teacher believed that anyone, with proper knowledge, could use the camera to see what she was doing. After being a part of the project for a little while, Marconi says the teacher now is a star, prime example of what the Oregon Writing Project can do for teachers.
“I think 40% of teachers that go into education stay in education. 90% of project (Oregon Writing Project) teachers stay in education,” says Marconi. “Their students have higher test scores, not that we focus on test scores, we focus on writing and social justice issues, but it’s a very powerful program.”
The teaching practices that are learned in shared within the program help teachers in the classroom by giving them more effective ways to instruct their students in writing. The students, like their teachers, also get to learn about technology on a more frequent basis.
When not in Second Life, the project holds retreats to the beach where teachers can meet face to face and work on teaching ideas as well as their own writing. “In the past we’ve held writing workshop. For the weekend will go to the coast and invite teachers to come and do an intense retreat,” says Marconi.
Summer is also a time where they get together and meet. “During the summer they look at some possible solutions for in their classroom and teaching practices. They request help from the group, and they also write. They write everyday and they write many, many pages, and actually after improving their own writing, they become better teachers.”
Because of the big impact Second Life has had on its teachers, the summer workshops are going to be done in Second Life now. Also, the Oregon Writing Project has received contact from places as far away as Africa. “We decided to offer it globally, and I’m pretty excited because we got a request from Nigeria and will have teachers from there attend a summer institute from online.” “That was kind of exciting. Little baby steps here and there,” says Marconi.
Tom Layton, who has worked closely with the University of Oregon and the Oregon Writing Project, believes that Second Life is vital to improving education.
In 1984, Layton was selected as Electronic Learning Magazine’s Educator of the year. In 1994 he created CyberSchool, the first online public high school, which was in Eugene, Oregon.
Like some of the teachers in the Oregon Writing Project who were first introduced to Second Life, Layton was also skeptical. “I got into Second Life about six or seven years at the insistence of one of my colleagues,” says Layton. “. . . I didn’t like it, I thought it really sucked, big time, stupid, and he kept after me and then finally I got I, you know, I just got it.”
Now Layton is a key figure, using Second Life in conjunction with education. Using the wonderful geographic settings in Second Life, Layton is putting teachers in places that they would never teach in, enhancing the learning experience.
“Right now I have four teachers in four houses on an island (in Second Life) and they’re teaching in these beautiful houses that I bought. There gorgeous houses, I furnished them all with gorgeous furniture,” says Layton.
Another benefit, Layton says, is that students feel more comfortable expressing their opinions on Second Life than they would if it was a real classroom setting. “What I’m hearing from teachers is that students talk more because they feel less at risk. In other words, you don’t want to stand up in front of 80 people and give your opinion because you’re nervous.”
More than anything, Layton believes that Second Life can be used to bring people together to learn. Unlike college kids who are typically segregated to their respectful universities, Second Life provides the opportunity to meet with anyone in the world, at any time. There is no barrier to where a user can travel and who a user can meet. The Oregon Writing Project utilizes that on a smaller scale, giving teachers access to people they would never have the chance to meet in the real world.
“It is kind of a beloved activity for teachers in this area,” says Peggy Marconi. “It’s kind of one of those career life changing events that happen.”
Sidebar 1: The island of Alice Academy
Alice Academy is a small island in the virtual world of Second Life. The island has anything a user can imagine. It is not a world for the boring, as classrooms reside in big castle-like structures with outdoor classrooms and secret passage ways. Tom Layton is responsible for buying most of the property on Alice Academy. Among the other structures are 8-story office buildings, giant tree houses, and book houses dedicated to various dead authors. These book houses are buildings that on the outside, look like books stacked up against each other, similar to books on shelf in a library. An outdoor classroom where students sit on floating cards can also be seen on Alice Academy. The possibilities are endless.
Sidebar 2: Avatars
Avatars are important in Second Life. Not only is it your virtual presence but it also is a representation of who a user is. A user wants their avatar to depict who they are as a person, or just their funny personality. The average height for a female in Second Life is 7 feet tall. Some people create two avatars. One for personal pleasure, which usually is done in a funny manner, and one for professional purposes that is more like the user themselves. Avatars have the ability to walk, run, and fly, leaving any place in the world of Second Life at a user’s disposal.