Learning in a Digital Age

Note: I wrote this for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, where it was published on Aug. 8, 2007. I reproduce it here because it has my byline on it and because I think it’s pertinent to the blog’s subject.

In a studio full of drafting tables, T-squares and cardboard architectural models n Montana State University’s Cheever Hall, a paper sign reading “Creative Research Lab” is taped beside a door.

Amid all those traditional tools, it’s hard to imagine that behind that door lies a digital world roamed by a professor who has learned the magic of being in two places at once.

Terry Beaubois spent 30 years as an architect in California, watching the rise of personal computers and imagining ways to combine them with architectural practices.

“I was always fascinated with the relationship between technological advancements, architects incorporating them, the design and what it does to communities,” he said.

Then, in 2005, MSU invited Beaubois to teach an eight-week class on digital collaboration and architecture. He accepted, but the job put him in a predicament. He had two businesses in California and was slated to teach a half-semester in Montana.

How could he be in two places at once?

The answer was Second Life, a computer program developed by the San Franciscobased company Linden Labs. Second Life is an online world, similar to games like Everquest and World of Warcraft. Anyone can sign up for a free account, download the software and explore the world via their “avatar,” a virtual character they control.

There are no game objectives or bad guys to fight, only a landscape to explore and develop.

The world is divided into “islands,” the equivalent of Web sites represented in 3D. Users may teleport or fly from island to island, interacting with other people’s avatars along the way.

When Beaubois learned about Second Life in 2005, roughly 30,000 people had registered accounts. Now that number is 8.6 million and includes more than 250 island-owning colleges and universities, such as Harvard and MIT.

“I became fascinated with the possibility that you could have an existence in a world that existed even if you were not there,” he said. “It was an architect’s dream, a 3D world where you can fly and build things for free.”

A mountain of questions

It was also his solution to being in two places at once. But Beaubois had doubts. Would there be connection problems? Would students’ computers be powerful enough? Would they think of it as a game? Would they want to use it at all? Beaubois offered Second Life as an option to his class of fifth-year architecture grad students. In the lab, he introduced them to the world gently, showing them how to log-in and navigate.

Within 90 minutes, some of the students were doing work that was two weeks into the lesson plan. The success shocked Beaubois, but his doubts didn’t subside until the day his students sat on the stairs.

One class day, student Adam Feldner conceived a project in the morning, then designed and built it within Second Life. By midmorning, he had the other students come into his building and look around.

The funny thing was, all of the digital avatars sat down on the building’s stairs because they resembled seats. A few minutes later, after some more work on the structure, Feldner called the students back over. He had corrected the problem.

In an e-mail to Beaubois, Feldner said, “I never expected to have the experience I had today in a semester of architecture studio, let alone in four hours.”

In just a few hours, Feldner had conceived, designed, built and received feedback on a project.

“If there was any question in my mind prior to that e-mail about whether this was a good environment for students to come into, I feel like that’s no longer a question,” Beaubois said.

Beaubois bought two 16-acre digital islands for MSU within Second Life. Each is a playground-cum-workshop. Student projects, buildings of all levels of complexity and size, litter the pixilated landscape.

Users construct items out of “prims,” primitive geometric forms that can be stretched, skewed, tortured and twisted to suit the builder’s needs.

While students work on their projects, they communicate with each other through text chat or an instant-messaging system built into Second Life. They also can just yell across the table.

Classroom discussions have become so complex at times that students invented a way to keep things straight. Hold up one finger to signify that you’re talking about the real world. Hold up two for Second Life.

Beaubois said Second Life opened possibilities that were otherwise impractical. Students could build without having to worry about materials or cost and listen to guest lecturers from as far away as England.

“Second Life is a lot bigger than my class, just as real life is a lot bigger than my class,” he said. “We’re taking this technology and saying, how can this help you be a better architect in your teaching and learning.”

Another tool in toolbox

But can students learn in an online environment as well as in a “brick and mortar” classroom? Nick Yee, a doctoral graduate of Stanford University who studies social interaction in online environments thinks so, if they are well used.

“Fundamentally, to me, it’s like asking whether students can learn on a school bus,” he said.

Yee said the effectiveness of a learning environment has less to do with where it is and more to do with what students do. The real question is whether education can use the unique features of virtual environments to enhance other activities and interactions.

“It’s not the case that everything is better in 3D,” he said. “Virtual environments are simply another tool in the toolbox. There are certain things a wrench is good for, but not every problem needs a wrench.”

Susan Agre-Kippenhan, dean of MSU’s College of Arts and Architecture, has followed Beaubois’ work in Second Life from the beginning and believes the software is capable of interesting things, so long as it doesn’t try to replace traditional education outright.

“If we think of it as a re-creation of the traditional educational settings, it’s probably not of as much value,” she said.

Part of that has to do with the openness of the Second Life world. Unless certain restrictions are put in place, any user can show up on any island at any time.

“We’re not proposing that you try to teach someone in the middle of Main Street, which is the equivalent of trying to teach in Second Life,” she said. “But if you have the opportunity to potentially bring in a person who would never commit to what it takes to get to Montana, you increase the chances of a meaningful collaboration.”

Agre-Kippenhan said the university is considering adopting Second Life as an extension of existing classroom work. Landscape design classes have already begun to poke around inside the world, and undergraduate architecture students might soon join them in Second Life.

“Would I advocate we scrap everything and do this? I wouldn’t advocate that,” Agre-Kippenhan said. “I don’t think it’s an advantage for every course. This is going to be useful if we use it with a lot of imagination.”

Beaubois said architecture is a good fit with Second Life, as are other courses with lab work or that use 3D rendering.

“If you were trying to teach law in here, it would be difficult,” he said. “I’m not saying impossible, but I think that for people who don’t have physical construction as part of the core curriculum focus, it’s a little more difficult to think of what to do in this environment.”

For the past two years, all of the class presentations have been done in Second Life. No paper copies have been printed. Instead, the presentation boards are scanned into the world, where they are presented in high-resolution.

“It’s allowed us to interact in a way that’s really quite remarkable,” Beaubois said. “I cannot tell you which classes I was in California for and which classes I was in Montana for.”

In 2005, Beaubois’ students voted him off the island because they wanted all the real estate for their projects. Now the professor keeps his workshop in a space floating a hundred feet above the digital ground. From there, he has conducted meetings with editors in New York and has even entertained a reporter from Newsweek.

“Now it’s gaining a little more ground and becoming of interest to more people,” Beaubois said.


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