On a recent January morning, five students at Kinston High School in North Carolina were attending their first class at East Carolina University despite being virtually locked out of the lecture hall.
But they weren’t stranded out in the cold; they weren’t even on the Greenville, N.C., campus. The students—who are earning three credit hours in a website design and maintenance course—were sitting comfortably in Kinston High School’s cyber campus, working their way around the campus as avatars in the virtual world of Second Life.
Although distance education is nothing new in North Carolina, the Kinston High seniors are taking advantage of a new approach to online education, the university’s Early College Second Life Program. The students are attending a virtual college—built to resemble ECU—in the virtual world.
Second Life is a cyber world that launched in 2003. A free client program called the Second Life Viewer enables its users, called residents, to interact with each other through avatars.
Sharon Collins, the director of the early-college high school program at ECU, said the course is designed to combine the convenience of online education and the atmosphere of a college classroom.“What we found in distance education classes is that students didn’t feel like they were part of the university, they felt isolated and wanted more connections,” Ms. Collins said. “Second Life works because we can connect [the student] with a faculty member and they actually have class with their avatars.”
Campus Technology magazine reported that it’s estimated that at least 200 universities have some sort of Second Life presence, but only a portion of them use the simulation for course delivery.
Ms. Collins said she knows of no other institutions employing it in similar early-college programs. At ECU, she said, the idea was conceived after it became apparent the university wouldn’t be able to finance a traditional early-college high school program, which requires its own on-campus space and other resources.
“It’s actually kind of spun off from all this funding going south in education, and finding alternate methods,” Ms. Collins said. “We actually think it’s a little bit more beneficial [than an on-campus program]. When we bring [students] on campus, we have to worry about so many things.”
Ms. Collins said the program has been successful in the 23,000-student Pitt County school system, the county where ECU is located, and Kinston High’s involvement is the first for the 9,200-student Lenoir County school system. She hopes to involve the other high schools in Lenoir next school year.
Students had set up avatars to help the recent January class run smoothly, but hit a road bump when they could not gain access to the virtual building—hence being locked out. Fortunately, the entire class was able to move their avatars outside the virtual building and class continued. Kinston High School senior Jeremy Merritt said he had no experience with Second Life before the course, but said he’s always liked computers.
“I thought [the course itself] would be cool because I’d be able to learn how to make websites and stuff like that,” Mr. Merritt said. “Second Life just makes it a little bit more fun because you are in a game. Obviously, that’s going to be a little better than sitting in a class looking at a professor.”
Kinston school counselor Jennifer Hollingsworth said the course’s daily time doesn’t align perfectly with the school’s period schedule, but by using part of their remediation time after first period, students would not miss time in either their high school or college classes.
For Steve Hill, the director of secondary education in Lenoir County, the program is an example of the county working around the looming budget cuts at the K-12 level.
“You’ve got two options: You can quit and give up or you can get innovative,” Mr. Hill said. “We’re having to rewrite ourselves on how we do things, because we don’t have the money anymore. We’re looking for any and every opportunity, and ECU was able to step up and help us with that.”
Tyquan Dove said the class is a way for him to prepare for college before physically arriving on campus.
“I want to go to ECU anyway,” said Mr. Dove, a senior at Kinston High. “I just wanted to experience college to get ready before I [graduate].”
Education Week Staff Writer Ian Quillen contributed to this report.
Copyright (c) 2011, The Free Press. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as High Schoolers Attend College in ‘Second Life’