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Project Background

 The University of Idaho virtual campus in Second Life® was funded by a NorthWest Academic Computing Consortium (NWACC) Proof of Concept Program Grant and an Idaho State Board of Education, Idaho Technology Incentive Grant (ITIG).

The goal of NWACC's Proof of Concept Program is to stimulate new curricular uses of leading edge information technologies. This program objective is to enhance learning environments at institutions of higher education through the development of models that can be used to guide full implementation of new technologies into the curricula of NWACC member institutions and their peers.

The intent of the ITIG program is to demonstrate innovative approaches for integrating technology into teaching and learning while focusing on clearly defined learning outcomes and a well-developed assessment plan. The program seeks bold new ideas that are sustainable and can provide educational access beyond the institution.  



Project Proposal

3-D Avatar-Based, Virtual World Learning in a Second Life® Educational Metaverse
Gregory Möller, Food Science and Toxicology, University of Idaho


The overall goal of this project is to advance 3-D interactive, avatar-based, collaborative learning environments to increase student access and learning. We propose to develop a unique educational metaverse (a synthetic online universe) in Second Life® for students in two upper division toxicology courses as a proof of concept. This island metaverse, named "Idahonia," will allow 3-D collaborative-interactive learning for registered students, significantly beyond the potential and capability of learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard®. Second Life® ( is an interactive virtual world that currently has over three million subscribers world-wide. The academic applications of the 3-D environments of Second Life® are just starting to be explored. The First Second Life® Education Workshop was held in August 2006. Early analysis of this approach suggests that this new tool may provide additional social warmth and class interactivity that has been missing in most current approaches to online and web-assisted education. Interactive learning environments are correlated to higher learning outcome assessments. The proposed project will offer a highly integrated learning environment that will merge the lectures and open courseware resources of two successful video webcast/podcast courses, Principles of Environmental Toxicology-Etox ( and Food Toxicology-FoodTox ( into this interactive environment. ETox has been a live-webcast lecture course since 1999 and has had enrolled students from twelve US states and eight countries joining our on-campus students. FoodTox is a joint course offering of the University of Idaho and Washington State University. The ETox open courseware has been formally used by over a dozen universities and government agencies across the globe. We plan that "Idahonia" will be the start of a future Second Life® metaverse for the University of Idaho.


(1) Justification of need.   

Our students face a future that will be increasingly dominated by global digital communication and support systems, and thus they should be skilled at learning, interacting, and problem solving in both the digital and real-time environments. Without abandoning the critical warmth and inspiration of real-time group process and social interaction, our students will be also required to develop highly functional partnerships and collaborations with people they will never or rarely meet, except across the bits and bytes of the Web. The possibilities are profound. The recent and future development of social networking and Web 2.0/3.0 approaches testify that students of today and tomorrow will need an educational support system that adapts to these new possibilities and anticipates the future.  

Throughout educational history, technology developments - from stone tablets to the silicon microchip - have had a positive impact on increasing educational access and learning. Today’s university students, comprised mainly of the Gen-Next, X and Y generations, and the future Millennials, have witnessed a fantastic growth in computer capability. Some futurists, such as Raymond Kurzweil, predict this growth will accelerate a 21st Century singularity of extreme and non-predictable technological and social progress. The question for educators is how do we adapt and advance our teaching to increase access and learning as technological progress and social change accelerate beyond the point of prediction? One way is to observe the students and their responses to recent changes. Although experience does not necessarily predict the future in the shadow of singularity, we may be better able to reliably predict, the incremental near-term changes in learning modalities that will yield increases in student access and learning.

The premise of this prediction is that students will adapt and evolve as educators increasingly challenge students and augment access. We find some support for this premise in the oft-cited “thumb tribe” study (Plant 2002) that demonstrated a dominant digit shift from the index finger to the thumb among intense video game players. The “London taxi driver” study (Maguire et al. 2000) that demonstrated a concomitant increase in brain hypothalamus size with visual mapping and memory challenge yields additional evidence of adaptation. These and other behavioral and physiological studies give credence to the notion that human adaptation and evolution to accommodate change in the short term is demonstrable and observable. Our students are changing, and thus as teachers, we must adapt and anticipate.

How students access higher education is evolving. We have witnessed that accessibility can challenge learning opportunities at the university level. In an era where lifelong learning is a recognized requirement for personal and professional growth, decreasing accessibility due to rising educational costs, dual work-learn tracks, personal responsibilities, and place-bound students can result in lowered goals and diminished achievement. Thus opening up the digital gates of higher education through Web-accessible courses and degrees while enhancing the learning opportunities for traditional residential students is a challenge we must try to address.


(2) Project audience.    

This project targets on-campus and off-campus students interested in environmental science, food science and toxicology, at the upper division and graduate levels. The project will also direct focused, peer-to-peer familiarization and training to interested faculty members. Additional peer academic communication and validation of project outcomes in the area of scholarship of teaching and learning will be accomplished by publication of a journal paper. UI units such as the Library, Art, and Architecture will be active cooperators. We will communicate with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) on our project and outcomes. We will present project updates to our toxicology education contacts and collaborators at the US National Library of Medicine and the Society of Toxicology. We will coordinate our learning space development with the New Media Consortium.

(3) Project and methods.  

Objective a)  Development of "Idahonia"

The PI of this project will design, develop, and deliver 2 courses with a Second Life® metaverse adjunct in Fall semester of the 2007-2008 academic year. A technical assistant will be hired to assist in the design and development of the virtual world. The existing digital resources of the courses (course web site and lecture podcasts) will be linked into the new course interface. Existing course web site resources will have SLurls (direct teleport links to locations in Second Life®) developed for rapid courseware and metaverse interactive learning. Skype will be used for free, professor-students, real time voice conversations over the internet during regular student assemblies in Second Life®. The resources currently available on the ETox/FoodTox course web sites will be creatively laid out on the Idahonia metaverse as a digital Aristotelian peripatetic (walk-about). In one possible approach the instructor can actively lead the class down a “path” discussing pre-positioned course “discovery” materials (SL notecards and HeadsUpDisplay information) along the way. The students will also have the ability to self-navigate the resources. The courses (which currently have almost 3 GB of digitally available resources) are:

> EnvS/FST 409/509 Principles of Environmental Toxicology, 3 cr. An existing course, with live on-campus classroom lectures that are video webcast/podcast.

> FST 464/564 Food Toxicology, 3 cr. An existing, webcast/podcast course cooperatively offered with Washington State University as FSHN 464/564

Objective b)  Student interactive activity
Each webcast/podcast video lecture module in the ETox and FoodTox course has 1-3 discussion questions. Student assemblies will be organized in SL to discuss the current set of questions. The time of these assemblies, typically 7pm PT, will be adjusted to maximize student access. Since students will be members of the ETox/FoodTox Course Group in SL, they will all be able to view course IMs and the presence of other students as “friends” when ever they are logged into SL. Asynchronousity for some students, often working professionals with travel demands and some international students in particularly inconvenient time zones, will be managed with a blog from Second Life® “SL-Pod-Blog” tool interfaced with the student course discussion blog at Since the subject matter and workload of these courses are regarded as difficult by most students, we will use SL primarily for students as a social-learning adjunct to the courses. This will help preserve the academic integrity of the courses during this proof of concept exploration.

Objective c)  Peer-to-peer training of faculty
As many as five faculty will be recruited to participate in active demonstrations of the related technologies in this courseware development. This group will focus on courseware and digital presentation techniques. We will specifically target College of Education faculty that work with K-12 educational technology approaches. 

Objective d)  Assessment
Project assessment will use formal student course evaluations, anonymous student surveys, and peer faculty analysis. The PI will tabulate and analyze results in a formal project report. We will submit project methodology, significant observations, and project conclusions in a manuscript to an appropriate journal. Learning outcomes will be assessed using surveys and an analysis of exam performance compared with previous year’s students. As an assessment adjunct, students enrolled in the Principles of Environmental Toxicology and Food Toxicology courses, will be anonymously surveyed by a third party using a Blackboard® questionnaire. 

(4) Anticipated outcomes/results.   

This project will yield initial deployment of two University of Idaho courses into a Second Life® learning environment in the Fall 2007 semester. The project assessment will assist in validating 3-D active learning environments as an approach to enhance student access and learning. This phase of the project will focus on support for student interaction and access of course materials. Thus we will create a minimal but functional virtual learning space that has visual appeal and attention to human factors. In our assessments, we will specifically analyze the ability of avatar-based learning environments to address gender, cultural, and racial stereotypes in the classroom. This multi-platform audio-visual approach will have the disabled student limitations and advantages typical of computer-based instruction. Student specific adaptation is possible within the spirit of enhancing access and learning. This Second Life® initiative has the ability to assist a University-wide, and multi-institutional courseware delivery interface. 


Funding Sources:

NWACC - Northwest Academic Computing Consortium


SBOE - Idaho Technology Incentive Grants (ITIG)