Leslie Bank, a tenth grader at Turlock High School, in California's Central Valley, has a favorite place to visit. "It's a cool lake, and it's up in the sky," she says. "I like to go there and explore."
Her gravity-defying getaway is located in Second Life, the online, 3-D virtual world developed by San Francisco-based Linden Labs. (See "The School of Second Life: Education Online.") Second Life participants create avatars, or customizable digital selves, to navigate a virtual landscape with an over-the-shoulder screen view of their persona as it walks, runs, or flies through or over mountains, forests, buildings, and all manner of objects created by users employing Second Life's internal 3-D modeling tools.
But Bank's involvement with the virtual world goes beyond extraterrestrial rambling. She's one of the first students to participate in the Pacific Rim Exchange (dubbed PacRimX), a cross-cultural project that will link several high schools in the Modesto, California, area to Kyoto Gakuen High School, in Kyoto, Japan, via a group of private "islands" in the Teen Second Life Grid (a separate Second Life space that exists apart from the Main Grid and is open only to kids 13-17 and approved adults).
The PacRimX program was initiated by Stan Trevena, director of technology for Modesto City Schools, as a means of allowing students to interact digitally before they meet in person: About twenty students from Modesto will visit Kyoto in April 2008 during their spring break, and fifty Japanese students will come to Modesto that summer.
In the meantime, they'll hang out in virtual reality.
"The whole point of the project is to allow kids to get to know each other before they go through their exchange," says Trevena, who initiated the project after a dinner conversation with a group of teachers from both Modesto's school district and the Japanese school.
In discussing the potential for videoconferencing before the exchange, the group realized that the seventeen-hour time difference presented logistical challenges for live video. Trevena, who has long been interested in and involved with computer gaming and virtual realities (and was a beta tester for Second Life), suggested that Linden Labs's digital world might offer an exciting alternative for students to collaborate and communicate.
After extensive discussions and explanations, the teachers agreed.
Trevena purchased land in the Teen Grid (Second Life real estate sells for Linden dollars, which can be bought -- at a fluctuating exchange rate -- with U.S. currency) and set up a skeletal layout and a welcome center. Right now, he says, three or four Modesto teachers are exploring the island, and the virtual world will really start to take shape this spring, when Kyoto Gakuen's school year begins and the Japanese and American students are all online.
When everyone is in-world (Second Life parlance for being in virtual reality), students will collaborate to build the island's environment, as well as organize and attend activities. "A lot of the innovative use of the island will come from the kids," Trevena says.
To prepare for their arrival, though, he's set up a few elements, such as a floating theater with a screen where students can share videos they've made, and a space where participants can post photos such as shots of favorite places in their hometowns. He says a sample collaboration assignment might pair one student from each nation to build a virtual bridge across a Second Life river or re-create a Japanese temple. Trevena speculates that "between those kinds of projects and the play that goes on, there will be a lot of interaction."
Second Life's interface features an instant-messaging chat bar, and the students will have access to a Japanese-English translation device. Linden Labs recently announced it will introduce an integrated voice feature in June, which would allow users to talk to others in real-time audio. Trevena has asked the company to allow PacRimX participants to act as beta testers for the voice technology before June -- he thinks voice support will "make the experience even more effective as an immersive language-learning environment."
Yasuaki Kuromiya, director of education in information and communication technology (ICT) and international education at Kyoto Gakuen, expects that the students' differing second-language skills may determine how and when the interactions take shape. Those fluent in both languages, he says, might begin a joint project right away. Alternatively, if students want to strengthen their Japanese or English first, Kuromiya adds, the respective groups could "work on their own campus at first and then, as their language skills grow stronger, they can start collaborating with each other."
The educational possibilities in Second Life are vast, says Chris Flesuras, liaison in Kyoto Gakuen's international-affairs department and an English and ICT instructor there; Flesuras is heading up the Japanese school's end of PacRimX. He says the virtual space will allow teachers to "turn a geometry or algebra lesson into a more efficient way of building a roof on your virtual house.
"You can use the Second Life physics engine to run a gravity experiment by dropping your avatar to the earth from a point 3,000 meters above the island," Flesuras adds. "You can build your own museum, complete with interactive avatars dressed up like famous figures in history, with costumes created by students. The only real limitations are the imagination and time of the people involved."
Flesuras says Second Life also has the pedagogical advantage of being an interactive environment, one that "promotes learning and creating rather than just simply observing." This element of engagement is especially important, he argues, when teaching students who've become accustomed to flashy technology: "As all of us in education know, it's not easy to compete with video games and iPods for a teenager's attention anymore. So, let's use that same technology but infuse it with some substance."
Kuromiya is equally sanguine about Second Life's potential for virtual interactivity. "Where else," he asks, "could people living thousands of miles away from each other work together and learn from each other?"
Stan Trevena and his team of teachers have recruited an advance group of eleven students from Modesto-area high schools to join the project in early March to help prepare the island for the exchange launch. They will join the other student participants so far: Leslie Bank, who had no prior experience with virtual worlds before becoming involved, and Trevena's own fourteen-year-old triplets, Corey, Mark, and Brian, who have been using Second Life for about a year, following their dad's lead and honing their skills at creating alternate realities.
Corey Trevena, a ninth grader at Lodi High School, says he first watched his dad explore Second Life and eventually taught himself how to script -- a means of adding attributes and behaviors to the digital objects in the virtual world. He says he's been creating jewelry and other objects the exchange students can use to customize their avatars when they come online.
The teenager adds that because he and his brothers have had a head start in Second Life, he hopes they can use what they've learned to "create interesting stuff for the exchange students, and maybe inspire them."
"It's fun to build things" in the virtual world, he says. "If you have an idea, you can create it."
Rob Baedeker is a writer and performer living in Berkeley, California. He is a former college English instructor and the author, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: The Catalog Parody.