Room to learn in cyberspace

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I'm standing at the entrance to the College of North West London. OK, it was a bit of a hassle getting here, what with having to be teleported from the mainland and all, but I'm optimistic that all the effort was worth it.

You may now have guessed this is not the better-known, earthly incarnation of the college - which can generally be reached by bus or tube. This, in fact, is CNWL in a parallel universe, and very possibly a sign of things to come as colleges reach out to potential students in the one place where potential customers are increasingly to be found - online.

The college has built an island and campus in the internet-based virtual world known as Second Life.

For millions, this virtual world is anything they want to make it. You can walk, talk, build towns, even fly like Superman. Of course, just like our "first life", this version contains the root of all evil: money. Linden dollars - named after Linden Lab, the US-based company behind the simulation - can be bought using real cash, via credit card.

And where there's money, there are people who can spot a nice little earner. Reputedly, Second Life has attracted its own virtual property developers and even currency speculators who buy and sell the Linden dollar.

I arrived in Second Life as a newbie. My avatar - the techie term for a virtual person - is called "basic Burnstein", a name hastily chosen from a list provided when I registered on the site.

"He's a bit muscular," my wife tells me, somewhat amused by the computer's interpretation of my physical being and bewildered by a journalistic assignment which looks suspiciously like sitting on the sofa playing computer games.

I've arranged to be shown around by Martin Biron, a plumbing, heating and ventilation lecturer. Martin created the college's cyberspace presence on a virtual island bought by the college for amp;#163;800. His avatar name is MJB Hax.

I have no idea how I would have found the college without having been "teleported" in by Martin. But, at last, we're "face-to-face".

His avatar looks as if it's been working out even more obsessively than mine, and is wearing a T-shirt bearing the college logo. He looks as though he could take me down with a single punch, and it is difficult to reconcile this with the rather considered and intellectual-sounding voice that comes through the headphones as he speaks.

With him is a female Dutch friend, also sporting the college logo. Being Dutch, of course, she is blonde and, shall we stay, somewhat stereotypical in appearance. In Second Life, we're all beautiful people.

Her avatar name is Taana Welles. She may be on the other side of the North Sea, but in cyberspace she proves to be a great help, showing me how to do the highly technical stuff such as sitting and standing up again - things I haven't had to learn since I was a toddler.

But MJB (aka Martin) is clearly in his element, even if he is still on a learning curve, guided by Taana.

"I think we can look at this in some ways as being a bit of fun," says Martin. "But I think it will intensify with the graphics we will have in five or 10 years' time and it will become more of a virtual reality experience when you have 3D glasses."

The three of us walk into a classroom. In this space, Martin and his real- life students have been dipping their toes into something which looks suspiciously like the future: virtual reality lessons.

Up to eight students at a time have parked their backsides on the virtual reality seats and watched and listened to Martin's avatar presenting lessons with the aid of a fully functional virtual whiteboard.

The surrounding airspace has been disabled to prevent avatars flying past and distracting the students at theirlessons.

Equipped with headsets, or just using the speakers on their computers, they can converse with each other as in a real classroom. There are even some tables to the side where they can sit and have a more cosy chat with one another or with their tutor.

At the moment, the virtual lessons are only available to existing CNWL students, and you could be forgiven for thinking they could just as easily use the facilities in the real college. After all, Martin is actually teaching and communicating in real time - albeit via a computer.

So is this all just a novelty?

The excitement in Martin's voice betrays more than a childlike fascination with online simulation. He clearly senses he is in at the beginning of something big.

For example, the basic reading and writing problems that exist in our country are due in no small part to the reluctance of adults to admit that they have problems.

The anonymity of a virtual campus is one possible solution - and a first step towards entering a college proper.

But Martin reckons that one day some qualifications could be earned online without the student ever setting foot in a real college.

"NVQs may be difficult," he says, "but I can see it working for English as a second language or some art and media courses, where you might get a qualification entirely this way."

Then there is the prospect of luring the casual visitor into taking up a course. One such potential convert soon appears as we see in the distance an avatar who has just arrived on the campus, a woman who is practising her building skills. We walk over for a chat.

Initially, I feel reluctant to speak to her. It's as if in this second life I'm starting all over again, and as if, just as I have to think about how to sit down and stand up, my social skills need to be developed all over again. Or maybe I just feel silly speaking to a picture on my computer screen.

The person behind the screen name of Kierra Latte is in fact at home in front of her computer in Florida. I didn't ask her real name; it felt as if that would have been the social equivalent of asking a woman her age in the real world.

So what attracted her to the college?

"It feels safe here," she says, "and people don't take their clothes off or let off smoke bombs."

This is where the virtual world departs from real world. Even in The Netherlands I suspect people keep their clothes on in public places.

When in future the college can take purely online students, it is possible that Kierra could be signed up for a course - and even be charged a fee.

But going seriously online with FE colleges will mean getting around the simulation's over-18 rule.

Martin already has a plan to counter this - moving the campus on to the college's own computer server, where the age range could be lowered and the college would police behaviour.

Within this sanctuary, the college could offer courses and information for the full student age range - as long as Martin's colleagues get with the program, as it were.

You can't help thinking they should, because the first college to make this work on a big scale will very quickly achieve that special status that is so elusive to educational institutions. It will become "cool".

Stephen Jones is away.

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