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  • Manon of Second LifeTeaching in the Virtual World
  • Molly W. Berger (bio)

It was a dark and stormy night. As the wind howled outside my window, I put on my bright magenta suit and stiletto heels. Soon I was striding down an empty two-lane highway. I saw no one until I returned home to find a scruffy-looking, bearded man leaning against a short stone wall. I approached him with my best conversational opener. "Do you hang out here often?" "Sometimes," he answered. After about twenty minutes of chitchat I learned he lived not far away and had earned his M.B.A. from the university where I teach. With tension niggling at my stomach, I quickly did the math to see if I might have had him in class. I typed furiously. "Did you ever take MGMT 462?" His reply was a typical student's. "What class was that?" Another lesson learned: virtual or real, it's a small world. Flying around Second Life (, where more than ten million people from around the world may come and go at all hours of the day, my alter ego had managed to meet someone from down the road who, thankfully, was not one of my former students.1 But truth be told, I was there precisely because I had conducted a course in Second Life (SL), in an experiential exploration of virtual communication to see how three-dimensional web interaction lived up to its hype.

Second Life is the new darling of the media and of tech enthusiasts, a virtual, 3-D graphical world where people adopt avatars that may or may not [End Page 430] resemble their real-life personas. Corporations as well as educational and cultural institutions are setting up shop there, hoping to attract customers and serve patrons and students in a hip, twenty-first-century kind of way. On the Saturday night before my encounter with my shaggy new friend, in the company of a group of people from around the world, I had attended a live digital simulcast in Second Life of a concert performed by Red {an orchestra}, a Cleveland-based classical ensemble.2 Many people, including Philip Rosedale, its founder, are quick to say that Second Life is not a game, like the popular World of Warcraft, although gaming communities do exist in Second Life.3 Rather, it is a virtual environment inhabited by all kinds of people, from staid professors such as myself to (more typically) people in their twenties and thirties who were born to the virtual life. Second Life distinguishes itself from other virtual worlds by its economy,where Linden dollars (named after Second Life's developer, the Linden Lab) convert to real U.S. dollars. (As I write this, the exchange rate is about L$265 to US$1.) Enterprising Second Life residents have been known to earn as much as a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year selling virtual real estate, clothing, cars, hairdos, and other representations of consumer society.4

All of this can be gleaned from the dozens of articles that pepper newspapers and the internet each time a major corporation sets up a hotel (Star-wood's Aloft Hotel), a car dealership (Pontiac, Mercedes-Benz), or a news bureau (Reuters) in Second Life. In March 2007, a violent virtual attack (using exploding pig grenades) against the virtual political offices there of the extremist French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen rated a front-page story in the Washington Post.5 Universities have been experimenting with classroom and other activities in Second Life. Distance-learning instructors report that the graphical virtual classroom can create a community for learners, bridging the gap between asynchronous online-course participation and the experience of a real-life classroom. Institutions with islands in Second Life include Case Western Reserve University (where I work), Harvard, Ball State University, Pepperdine, and New York University.6 The Office of Undergraduate Admissions at Case Western Reserve has started inviting admitted and prospective students to a virtual campus that includes [End Page 431] representations of the library, a local diner, and the residential village, and I recently gave a presentation with...


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