Eugene Weekly : 5.17.07

A Bright, Wonderful Future
Is the campus community ready for the next step in e-learning?
by Aaron Ragan-Fore

Second Life CATE. Courtesy of Jonathon Richter.
Virtual reality room inside of Second Life. Courtesy of Jonathon Richter.
New Media Consortium amphitheatre. Courtesy of Jonathon Richter.

In November 2006, the UO’s Center for Applied Technology in Education (CATE) opened a new satellite campus with little fanfare. The building, contemporary in design, was quietly elegant, with sleek, modern architectural details. A waterfall cascaded down the face of the edifice from the second story, landing almost at the feet of visitors walking up the front path to the wooden double doors. Inside, the sound of moving water mingled with pleasant bird calls filtering in. A six-foot high globe rotated in a front room. The building featured a large classroom devoid of desks and chalkboard, a fitting space for an organization committed to the new and experimental in education. The clean lines looked like they required the work of a major donor.

But the most remarkable feature of CATE headquarters?

It wasn’t real.


Second Life Education

The new CATE, recently redesigned, exists only in Second Life, a three-dimensional, multi-user virtual environment (MUVE), a sort of online video game. This new building and its potential applications in the classroom come from the brain of a man who daily walks the line between what education could be — if it were re-examined, torn apart and reassembled — and the realities of budgets and resources.

The real-life office of research associate Jonathon Richter, located in a 1970s-era building in a CATE suite decidedly more humble than its online counterpart, displays the functional markers of an intellectual engine that powers the shimmering virtual façade.

“I’m definitely a non-linear thinker,” Richter says. He’s an educational futurist. Richter thinks big, outside the box, and that vision is a boon to CATE, an externally supported unit of the College of Education. Richter’s day-to-day job is to implement game plans that wrestle cutting-edge conceptual abstractions into workable realities for the classroom or computer terminal — or culture at large — and to keep it all within budget. Richter and his CATE colleagues are routinely expected to producetangible results from technically challenging hypotheses, funded by grants secured by CATE.

It’s a difficult job, but that tension between the imagined and the concrete is where Richter thrives. Now it appears that Second Life, which Richter describes as “the harbinger of good tidings, if we frame it correctly,” offers a halfway point between the two: all the expansive ideas the bandwidth can hold made reality in a world as small as a computer screen and as big as the user’s imagination.

Users create nearly all Second Life content through a complex process of terraforming, building, molding and tweaking the world they share, seeing the same thing whether their computers are located in Louisville, Lima or Lillis Hall. Second Life boasts more than six million users (or “residents” as San Francisco-based parent company Linden Lab calls them) who design personal characters called “avatars” to interact with fellow residents of this new universe. Second Life provides a place where they can form societies, buy and sell items and services and even create buildings and neighborhoods. Some things are different: Second Life avatars can fly and teleport. But they also engage in more earthbound pursuits — collecting art, driving cars and holding down the virtual jobs that fuel a virtual economy. Avatars hang out in pixelated bars and meet someone nice, engage in the sorts of activities that get people pregnant in real life, and can even become pregnant in Second Life … complete with requisite delivery of a baby avatar. Before he died, Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in Second Life (his avatar had a tiny trademark mustache), and recently rock songstress Suzanne Vega has performed and real-life literary agents held “how to get published” seminars.


Clockwise from top left: Mindy Frisbee, Jonathon Richter, Vlad Slabin,Lynne Anderson, Mark Horney, Tom Layton – and their avatars

Second Life for Ducks?

So what does all of this have to do with the UO?

CATE has joined entertainment, educational and corporate content providers breaking ground with experimental Second Life ventures, including a host of universities, Wired magazine, the Chicago public school system and the Eugene-based International Society for Technology in Education.

Richter’s vision is to offer classes in Second Life, real classes for real university credit, for a student audience that will log on for an immersive experience in a foreign medium. A first step is this term’s graduate course in the School of Education’s Teacher Education division: “Emerging Technologies in Education.” The objective is to train future educators to identify “emerging trends in educational technology” and then “demonstrate they can apply what they know about emerging technologies to students, tools, and topics relevant to their teaching.”

Richter has designed a unique pedagogy structure that bridges real life and the virtual world, with half the lectures taught by him in a real classroom in the UO’s Knight Library and the other half within Second Life itself, taught by Richter’s online alter-ego, a sharply suited gargoyle with stained-glass skin known as Wainbrave Bernal.

Beyond teaching the teachers, Richter sees great promise in Second Life as a teaching tool. Why read what it’s like inside a volcano or the eye of a hurricane, he argues, when an educator can replicate the experience online? What might students learn about identity and diversity if their online avatars wore an enforced, predetermined shell that made them look like everyone else in the class? The possibilities are boundless, Richter thinks.

Richter is given to bombastic discussions of the subject, rattling about new schema in educational philosophy and untested classroom strategies. He’s a tall guy, his former football player’s physique no impediment as he waves his arms and acts out esoteric concepts. Richter’s job may pay his bills and help feed and clothe his wife and children, but his life’s work is more complex, more basic: preaching the gospel of re-imagined educational paradigms and implementing strategies that will engender success in all learners.

“If I could work full-time in Second Life,” he says solemnly, “I would do it.”

The real-life CATE offices are located a couple of blocks east of the main university campus, leaving its staffers cut off from the food at the student union or along 13th Avenue. So Richter and his colleagues have discovered their own college atmosphere in the Villard Street Pub, an upscale watering hole housed in the shell of what appears to be a retrofitted fast food chain restaurant. On Tuesday afternoons, Richter and a fellow CATE research associate named Mark Horney (avatar name Irving Gyllig) have a standing appointment to meet for shop talk over a couple of beers.

Horney is trying to hash out the details of how recreated Second Life environments might operate. “The examples I have been touting of late have all been historical examples,” he says between sips from his pint. “My examples are from history, but they don’t have to be from history.” In fact, nearly all of his examples are from history, and he rapidly toggles among anecdotes involving Alexander Graham Bell, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Parthenon and a John Wayne film.

Richter patiently waits as his friend finishes each thought, nodding along as Horney’s overall themes begin coming together, then makes a quick observation about whether the Second Life format would support each idea.

The two men complement each other’s strengths, bolstering the other’s Second Life-related work projects. Richter’s thoughts are free-ranging, effervescent, floating around the bar like half-formed bubbles of possibility, pristine and untouched “maybes” that educators might tap in a future world. Horney seems to catch Richter’s bubbles and give them a practical spin. Both men are visionaries, and both see promise for education in this new technology. Their styles are completely at odds, yet support each other.

Richter continues to see unlimited potential in the technology. “Wainbrave Bernal is a character who, thus, represents my future,” Richter writes in an email. “I want my avatar to be who I will become. I want to use Second Life as a platform for exploring my possible, preferable, and probable futures.”


Those Who Demur

Of course, not everyone agrees with Richter.

In the basement level of the UO’s Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, a cheery blue flyer is thumbtacked outside a staff office of the teaching effectiveness program. “Pop culture – Your students love it,” the flyer states. “Wouldn’t it be great to tap into this energy and make your examples, activities and illustrations compellingly connected to their values and interests?” The flyer is advertising a seminar for faculty to learn the ins and outs of MySpace, YouTube, graphic novels and other pop cultural media. Second Life is a major component of the seminar curriculum.

Across the face of the flyer, large, scrawled red letters read: “No please! Pop culture is the downfall of society! Do not support pop culture education!”

Leslie Rutberg, UO Academic Learning Services consultant and chief facilitator of the seminar, displays the flyer as an ironic memento but finds the sentiment is sometimes common among faculty.

The seminar goes reasonably well. It’s held in a technology-equipped classroom of Knight Library, where a dozen or so faculty members gather for the presentation. It’s the same classroom where Richter’s class is held. The assembled faculty represent a cross-section of academic disciplines. Most hail from the schools of education and journalism, with the remainder split among the hard sciences, the social sciences and various units such as the campus radio station.

Rutberg and her colleague Robert Voelker-Morris (avatar name Kirby Usher), the seminar’s facilitators, plow through a whirlwind tour of comic books, do-it-yourself zine culture and a cross-section of teen-skewing computer applications. It’s pretty basic stuff, the sorts of applications young adults seem to pick up within a couple of minutes. The instructors touch only on the broad strokes of each medium, but for some of the professors, it still seems like too much.

While most of the faculty members are receptive to the idea of Second Life as a classroom tool, citing simulations of ancient Rome and other recreated historical environments, others scoff at the application’s potential. A pinched-looking professor in the first row seems primarily interested in debunking the various media mentioned in the program. The facilitators seem determined to push past the faculty’s initial gut resistance to the concepts and show them where the students of the 21st century live. Many of the curmudgeonly faculty are more interested in whether the students should be wasting time on this stuff at all, let along dragging their professors down to their level.

Jonathon Richter is accustomed to this sort of resistance, but that doesn’t make him any less frustrated by it. He recently joined in a debate that was being slowly and mannered-ly waged by fellow futurists on a listserv. The content of Second Life, some said, is too frivolous, too sexualized and too inane. I have too many real friends I don’t see often enough, it was argued; why should I network with strangers? Besides, how can a paradigm shift take place when the whole kit and caboodle is owned solely by Linden Lab, a corporation?

The interchange incensed Richter. In response he reminded the critics that Second Life’s content is determined by its users. He rattled off a long list of counterexamples, educational environments including an International Spaceflight Museum with to-scale models of spacecraft, a NOAA tsunami simulation and a giant computer constructed by Dell. Besides, argued Richter, commenting on the actual content was beside the point, since futurists should be investing in the delivery method itself.

“We have, in my opinion, a moral obligation to get involved,” wrote Richter in a characteristically optimistic style, “and to the best of our ability, create the future that we wish to behold.” In addressing the balance between real and virtual lives, Richter stated, “I make a little time for a Second Life not because I have time in my busy First Life — but because it’s all Just Life.”

Richter ended his post with “Peace to all, and a bright, wonderful future.”


Return to CATE

The night sky is clear. A full moon shines down on a couple of spare log cabins huddled in the darkness. An abandoned campfire crackles merrily away near a small stream, emptying into a small pool sheltering a family of ducks, the UO mascot. Twin pine trees sway in the gentle breeze, a banner suspended between them bearing the nautilus-shaped logo of the UO’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education. This is the new Second Life CATE.

The old building was elegant and impressive, but used too much memory, says Richter. Besides, he adds over a plate of salad at Villard Street Pub, the rustic new environment “kind of feels more like Oregon.” The new look hasn’t been up long, but has already inspired a more radical redesign: What if the already square parcel of Second Life land were terraformed to resemble a miniature Oregon, complete with a model-train-sized Portland and a puddle to represent Crater Lake?

Richter grins over the salad as the idea catches hold in his brain. Now he’s thinking out loud, and the grin widens. Could an educational schema be built around the idea of students acting the parts of pioneers, trekking across Second Life to an Oregon-shaped simulation?

The electronic trees sway gently in the breeze, and the tiny fire crackles. The Second Life CATE, for the moment devoid of students, waits for its future.