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It's life, Jim, but not as we know it

If you were told you could virtually bring the past to life, would you be interested? We thought so. Mark Piesing reveals a fun, and very unusual, approach to history

If children can not only learn about, but actually participate in, events from history, it would be, at the very least, a stimulating and unusual approach to learning.

It is this sort of thing that Second Life, a computer-generated virtual world, was created for. Its users can employ the 3D website to make graphic representations of themselves, known as avatars, which move around and interact with others, mainly by text.

A total of 40,000 of its estimated four million registered users are members of Teen Second Life, a separate section for 13 to 17-year-olds.

Adults are barred, except for teachers on special projects who have purchased "islands". Reg-istration is free for any pupil, but creating an island in Teen Second Life can cost up to pound;1,000 and developing it could cost more than 10 times that.

As reported in The TES last month, the National Academy for Gifted And Talented Youth and the Open University have set up Schome Park within Teen Second Life for gifted pupils working online. But could Second Life potentially be used for an entire class? Two secondary schools in North Wales are working on creating an island for the next academic year. So what can they expect?

Second Life resembles a game, which may be the best way to inject the virtual world into the real one. In history, for example, pupils can explore the causes of the First World War - one group constructing a virtual maze with clues for another group to follow.

They can construct a virtual Ellis Island to explore how immigrants were viewed by Americans and experience what it was like to arrive in New York.

Or a virtual Campsfield House, the detention centre for immigrants near Oxford, for a more contemporary twist. A section of Hadrian's Wall, meanwhile, illuminates archaeology as a living process.

The virtual world has its problems. It needs a lot of computing power, which may be beyond many schools' PCs, and many education firewalls will prevent the software downloading.

But the main worry is that, when pupils have registered, the teacher can't control where they go or who they talk to - even in the middle of a virtual class. After all, if the school doesn't have its own island, the teacher isn't even allowed into the virtual world.

It remains to be seen whether Second Life is a passing fad or will turn out to have real educational benefits. But the participation and role-play is certainly an important and distinctive aspect.

Pupils in business studies, for example, could manufacture their dream car in their perfect showroom and sell them in a global marketplace. And preparing the defence and prosecution in a courtroom setting can help with traditional literacy and speaking skills Mark Piesing is head of communication studies at d'Overbroecks Sixth Form College in Oxford

TIPS FOR SCHOOL USE

Take some time to get used to how Second Life works. It would be best to have someone technical on hand to help you get started.

Check beforehand that the school's PCs can handle it and that the firewall isn't going to block the program.

Decide whether you're going to have your own island or not.

Come up with specific goals for the session.

Encourage pupils to play with their avatars and don't be afraid to let your pupils teach you.

www.secondlife.comeducation

www.schome.open.ac.uk

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