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© 2008 Benjamin Digman

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 43, no. 5 (September/October 2008)


Benjamin Digman

Benjamin Digman is an eLearning Specialist in the Teaching & Learning Technologies Department at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Comments on this article can be sent to the author at <[email protected]> and/or can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

The University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) officially entered Second Life following a number of years of exploration and experimentation in the virtual world. Its virtual island, KUMC Isle, is managed by the university’s educational technology group, Teaching and Learning Technology (TLT), and hosts a number of classes and projects each semester for both on-campus and online students.

The decision to purchase an island allowed the university to have enough virtual real estate to provide space for classrooms, exam rooms, exhibition halls for displaying student work and research findings, an auditorium for hosting speakers and presentations, and any number of additional special project facilities.

One such special project, the Jayhawk Community Living Center, was born of collaboration between instructors in the university’s School of Nursing and TLT. The living center was designed for online students who, each semester, are tasked with creating a database for a fictional living center. The students are expected to design a database that includes both the background information on residents and details of the center itself, such as nursing facilities, workstations, and exam rooms.

Before moving into Second Life, the project was particularly challenging. Instructors created resident background information, including medical histories and family contact information, providing students with significant data on the center’s fictional residents. However, students were asked to consider personal knowledge or tour a local, real-world adult living center to discern what additional details would need to be included in their database.

This last request was both the key learning piece for the students—displaying their ability to scrutinize the environment and data to determine what was important for their databases—and the most uncontrollable aspect. While some students had previous history with adult living centers and others had access to local facilities, several students had neither access nor history. This was especially challenging for international students, many of whom had resided in areas in which such facilities were rare or completely unheard of.

When the university made the jump into Second Life in 2007, the creators of the project—School of Nursing and KU Center for Healthcare Informatics instructors Juliana Brixey and Judith Warren—were two of the first to embrace the virtual world. Their view of a fictional adult-community living center could now move to a controlled virtual environment that would allow them to create both the residents and the details of the center itself, down to the most minor technicality. This would also benefit the students, who would no longer have to rely on memory or on varying local facilities but would have an opportunity to physically explore a specific environment.

The instructors worked closely with the TLT group to create a blueprint of the virtual living center, which TLT then built from the ground up in Second Life. The facility includes multiple residents’ rooms, entertainment areas, an exam room, a business office, a dining area, a medical records room, and a conference room, all encircling a nurses’ station and a fully equipped medical supply room.

From the perspective of TLT, the ideal outcome was to create a virtual facility that not only fulfilled the vision of the instructors but also served as an exemplary use of Second Life. A core philosophy in TLT’s design of the island in Second Life was to allow the instruction to push the technology, rather than force the technology into the coursework. The Jayhawk Community Living Center, an environment that could not be reproduced so clearly in any other online format, exemplified this principle.

The living center project was designed and managed with a carefully considered and specific strategy to accommodate students who had previous experience with Second Life and others who were entering the virtual world for the first time. Students were first given instructions on using Second Life and asked to explore the metaverse on their own to familiarize themselves with the basics of communicating and getting around. Next, students were provided with a link and were invited to join the instructors on the university’s island for an initial introduction to the Jayhawk Community Living Center. Once comfortable with the basics and familiar with the location of the project, students visited the center on their own to explore and to obtain virtual notecards with patient biographies and medical histories. They were invited to visit the center as often as they liked, at any time that was convenient, so that they could both analyze the provided data and take note of any facility details they felt were important to include in their databases.

While Second Life is often used educationally for synchronous person-to-person and person-to-object interaction, this project was designed to utilize Second Life in an asynchronous, experiential manner. Students were given the ability to enter the virtual environment on their own terms; they were given all of the information they needed to complete their task; and the completion of the project, though done completely online, replicated a real-world task that they might be asked to undertake later in their careers.

Since the Jayhawk Community Living Center was established in Second Life, the results of the project have improved notably over previous iterations. Students have shown increased understanding of the expectations for the project and of the connection between the project and their professional roles. TLT, along with the course instructors, continues to monitor students’ experiences and feedback to improve the project for the future.