California State University, Long Beach
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‘The Beach World’ Provides Virtual Learning, Meetings and Research

Published: July 15, 2009

Flying like superheroes over CSULB, marketing Professors David Horne and Ingrid Martin loop around the Walter Pyramid on their way toward an outdoor classroom where they land and take a seat next to a transformer robot, then wait for class to begin.

No, this is not a common pre-semester nightmare that professors experience as the summer winds down. Like the transformer, Horne and Martin are avatars, virtual characters they created to demonstrate The Beach World, a new digital CSULB campus developed within the realm of Second Life, a free online world imagined and created by its members. Horne’s avatar is named Rutger Parkin and Martin chose Ingrid Sandalwood as her alter ego.

Beach World was designed by faculty and students within CSULB’s College of Business Administration (CBA) to broaden the classroom setting, to augment the traditional in-classroom instruction and as a means to enable online distance education. It also provides faculty the ability to create and conduct research within a number of marketplace and learning environments.

“By its very nature, The Beach World enhances teaching and learning experiences for faculty and students while providing an interactive context for us to conduct academic research,” said Horne, who, with Martin leads The Beach World project. “In The Beach World, distance learning moves into the virtual world and becomes even more engaging. Everyone who joins The Beach World gets a chance to build a unique or even offbeat avatar as an alter ego and have some fun at the same time.”

The idea of creating The Beach World came about when a group of CBA marketing faculty became interested in finding ways to conduct research in an environment that was flexible enough to address various types of research questions.

The original concept, which was proposed by Associate Professor of Marketing Jonathan Lee, was to build a virtual shopping environment and have students, faculty and targeted groups outside the university enter various types of retail stores to make virtual and real product purchases. The team then outlined how each of its marketing undergraduate and graduate courses could use The Beach World to develop marketing concepts and principles for students.

“What the faculty didn’t realize was the technical challenges of actually building a complete virtual retail environment that had the look and feel of a genuine retail setting,” said Martin. “One of our MBA students, who was also the project manager, suggested using the Second Life platform, which was already being utilized by more than 100 other universities. The idea of a virtual campus grew from there.”

The Beach World currently has three classrooms that seat up to 40 student avatars and 10 guests, as well as a large 150-seat lecture hall. It also features virtual recreations of on- and off-campus venues, such as coffee houses and a completely replicated “The Beach Store on Second Street.”

The traffic within The Beach World continues to grow and the design team expects an exponential increase in its use in the next three to five years. Several professors have already used The Beach Classrooms to conduct lectures as well as to meet with their students in the surrounding virtual environments.

Professor Sayantani Mukherjee, who teaches an Internet marketing course at CSULB, instructed her students to spend several sessions investigating The Beach World. They then presented what they learned as their semester projects in one of the The Beach classrooms. Other faculty members came as invited guests with their newly created avatars so they could listen to the presentations and provide feedback.

CSULB lecturer Glenn Zucman has also dabbled with Second Life and The Beach World for his art appreciation courses and plans to encourage his students to get more involved during the fall semester.

Beach World

 

“I’ve talked about Second Life in my teaching for a couple of years now, but my first experience with it was during winter break. This past spring semester we did a few extra-credit projects in Second Life,” said Zucman. “In the fall, we plan to significantly integrate Second Life into our course curriculum. I hope to reinvent and reinvigorate general education art appreciation through a series of paralleled physical world and virtual art experiences and exercises. Second Life and The Beach World will, I hope, figure prominently in this.”

Students and faculty are also permitted to create custom objects within The Beach World. This flexibility increases the functionality of the virtual community as it is modified to fit users’ requirements.

Horne notes that hundreds of virtual worlds like Second Life are available online, each with a different target audience, focus and popularity. He believes that children who are accustomed to playing within such online communities as Penguin World today at the age of nine or 10 will expect universities in the future to also offer virtual teaching experiences. Horne sees The Beach World as CSULB’s initial jump into this “inevitable” future.

“The Beach World is a distance learning tool, a form of instruction that continues to grow in popularity. This is very useful for working students, both undergraduate and graduate. It also allows faculty to create hybrid courses that are more experiential, which may increase the involvement of students in the learning process,” explained Horne. “Instead of just sitting and reading pages on a screen, more and more students will become virtually present as avatars in the classroom and more involved in classroom discussion. They will potentially be listening to virtual presentations by speakers from all over the world.”

As its popularity grows, The Beach World and its virtual lecture halls will also provide more solutions to the limited space CSULB has on campus to support and teach its more than 38,000 students, such as when instructors need to schedule meetings outside regular class hours.

In addition, The Beach World may be used as a simulation tool for training purposes. The Second Life template enables users to recreate workplace scenarios, such as an emergency room in a hospital to help train nursing students, or for art students interested in developing virtual fashion shows and art galleries. The Beach World is being considered as a portal for creating simulations for various types of emergencies such as a terrorist attacks or pandemic outbreaks, which would be useful for students majoring in emergency management.

The Beach World also enables guest lecturers from a variety of industries to address students from the comfort of their offices, while allowing students to explore their virtual business environments.

“In The Beach World, students will soon be able to virtually tour corporate facilities and operations such as Cisco or IBM. Many advertising agencies conduct tours of their offices, allowing students to watch professional campaigns take shape. This could also be done in the virtual world,” said Martin. “When imagination is applied, the possibilities are endless.”