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Second Life: Transforming the Way UT Arlington Engages Online Students

Submitted by on February 15, 2013 – 8:13 pm4 Comments

The College of Nursing at the University of Texas (UT) at Arlington is known for its innovative use of cutting edge technology, in both the classroom and clinical settings, to improve students’ experiences. As an integral part of their technology initiatives, UT Arlington incorporates Second Life into their online nursing courses. Although Second Life is not inherently an educational tool, UT Arlington has found the 3D virtual world to be an effective platform for mimicking real-life community and interaction. To dig deeper into the use of Second Life at UT Arlington, we met with Sarah Jones, Coordinator for Second Life at UT Arlington, for an interview. How and when was Second Life introduced to UT Arlington as a possible learning technology? Starting with September 2009, the University of Texas (UT) System funded a one-year grant under the auspices of its Transforming Undergraduate Education initiative through which all UT System universities and health science centers established a presence in Second Life for their institutions. UT Arlington entered Second Life at that time.

  • Read more about how Second Life was introduced to the UT Systems here and here.

How did the university administration react? And what were your reactions? I had been active in Second Life for 3 years at that time, and I was pleased to have that opportunity. In general, people expressed excitement about the possibilities. How is Second Life used in courses? Currently, the College of Nursing uses it in two ways. In one case, it is a demonstration of a technology platform for interactions over a distance: a place for online meetings, discussions, presentations, and conferences. That class has planned and presented workshops in Second Life, including for continuing education credit, with invited speakers and research poster sessions.

The other use is to provide an online environment for students to participate in a simulation – presenting a scenario in which the students take information and act on it to rehearse a routine or protocol and to demonstrate their knowledge of the correct actions in that scenario.


Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones, Coordinator for Second Life at UT Arlington

Sarah Jones Avatar

Sarah Jones’ Second Life avatar

 What do you think is the most effective use of Second Life? The simplest use of Second Life, which can be very effective, is as an alternative platform for online group meetings. This platform provides a fuller, more engaging experience than asynchronous class forum postings, a greater sense of community than chatting in

a webinar, and introduces a sense of “co-presence” for online students – being “together” in Second Life, seeing each other through their avatars and sharing space and real-time experiences with their classmates. What challenges have students and instructors faced with Second Life? Second Life is challenging. For many, this is their first experience in an online 3D environment being represented by an avatar. For the rest, this is their first time using such an online world for non-recreational purposes. There’s new software to become familiar with, and the unusual experience for adults to have to “learn to walk again” – that is, to direct one’s avatar to do the common things we do physically every day. Instructors may find themselves thinking how their pedagogical approach and even class activities translate into an online environment. Even class management can take on a new twist, with needing to match student names on a class roster with avatar names. What challenges does the university face with Second Life? Scalability. A typical upper limit for avatars to be logged in to the same Second Life location ranges from 40-60, depending on the activity. In addition, if the activity involves a lot of interaction either among students/avatars or between students and things in the environment (such as with an interactive simulation), more than a dozen at a time can present activity management difficulties. It’s important to manage realistic expectations while still explaining the very real benefits with providing this type of immersive learning environment.   (Click image to enlarge.)

UT Arlington class meeting in SecondLife

Bird’s-eye view of UTACON conference setting. UT Arlington uses Second Life with online students for discussions, presentations, and conferences. Image source: Joy Don Baker

  What have students’ reactions been? Some students are excited. Some aren’t. Most find the experience challenging at first. When students have an opportunity to experience Second Life and see how it can enhance their learning activities, they report positive feelings. There is a period of adjustment for a person who doesn’t have experience being represented as an avatar – being a “gamer” doesn’t necessarily help, because Second Life doesn’t have characteristics that are expected in a computer game; there are no specific goals or quests or marks of achievement that are found in games. Also key to the Second Life experience is a feeling of identification with one’s avatar, which is something that develops over a bit of time. With the busy life of a student, and only the specific goals or assignments as required for a course, there often isn’t time for a student to make that adjustment and feel that sense of identification. The Second Life component is included in a current HRSE grant that will fund research to improve connections between nurses and social workers. What other ways is UT Arlington planning on using Second Life in the future? While I can’t speak for future plans, the College of Nursing has contracted for the development of a second simulation scenario, focusing on medication administration, as a follow-up to a pediatric examination scenario that was developed for a previous research project (contact Mindi Anderson for more information). For other universities who may be interested in integrating this technology, what are some tips you could give them? Fearless, energetic faculty members passionate about the potential for an online environment such as Second Life are very important. Enlist at least one person who is already experienced in Second Life, or find someone who is able to devote time to learning both Second Life skills and Second Life culture. If there are other universities to form a Second Life partnership with, developing Second Life environments and meaningful education experiences can be faster and easier. Give students a meaningful reason to participate, beyond “it’s required”. For more information about Second Life at UT Arlington, visit their website.

Share Your Experiences

Melanie Johnson

Have you ever used Second Life or another virtual world in an education setting? If not, how do you think you could implement this tool in the classroom? Share with us in the comments section below.

By Melanie Johnson Manager, Academic Services




  • David Sturges says:

    I have used second life in online classes in business administration for four years. UTPA has a three-parcel island giving the university plenty of room to do whatever the faculty likes to enhance online classes. I currently use Second Life in three courses–graduate organizational behavior (2 sections), undergraduate policy and strategy (capstone BBA course), and Communication Policy and Strategy (undegrad communication, and professional development course). Second Life provides development opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous educational experiences. I am amazed that this discussion has shown up here because when we partnered with AP the concept of SL for courses was poopooed by the AP reps in our orientation meetings. However I have found it to be a tremendous student motivator for group assignment presentations, independent learning experiences (exploring the Learning Module Gallery) and other self-motivating learning among students in these classes. The first two weeks of a class, students are fearful of SL, week two through 4 they become more comfortable with navigation and technical operation, by week five the only question I get is “why don’t more teachers do it this way.” I would be happy to visit with anyone to talk about what is being done in SL here at UTPA.

  • Sarah Linden says:

    Hi, David–thanks for commenting. We love that you’re using Second Life in your courses! The fact that your students enjoy using Second Life makes it a HUGE success. I’m surprised to hear that an AP rep discouraged you from using it–we are big proponents of technology (as you might be able to tell based on our other eCommons posts!). We apologize for any conflicting messages sent your way. I hope that other faculty members reading your comment reach out to you if they are considering Second Life. They would benefit from your experience. 🙂

  • If you have an html 5 compliant browser and would like to see some short samples of student presentations made last night in Second Life select the url.

  • Sarah Linden says:

    These are excellent examples, David. They really bring to life what we covered in the post above–thank you for sharing your experiences with us!