EXPERIMENTAL WAYS of teaching teenagers are being tested in an online virtual world.
The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth and the Open University have teamed up to create an educational island within Second Life, a cult internet programme in which a 3D virtual world is built and owned entirely by its residents.
Since Second Life was launched four years ago, more than five million people have entered it to create "avatars" - computer figures that represent them and allow them to move around and chat to others.
The virtual world contains an area specifically for teenagers, which adults are unable to visit without clearance. It is here that Schome Park has been created, an island where 147 teenagers have signed up to take part in physics, archaeology and philosophy lessons.
The island is named after the Open University's "schome" project, which looks at alternatives to school or home education.
Lessons at Schome Park are not constrained by distance, time or expense in the same way as those in the real world. So pupils can explore a recreated section of Hadrian's Wall and examine a giant gravity well, a type of curved funnel used to study the effects of gravity, designed by the San Francisco Exploratorium.
Keiron Sheehy, a senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the Open University, said: "It would be difficult to build a life-size model of Hadrian's Wall in the real world, but in Second Life the teenagers can dress up as a Roman and walk around it."
Crucially, the students have some control over running their island and its amenities, which include a library and a shop. They have also created a classroom 250m above the island called SkyBase@250.
Dr Sheehy said: "There are some real debates over the method of governance and appropriate behaviour. What is the fairest and best way to set rules?
"We are encouraging the students to have a democratic approach."
The teenagers' real identities are kept anonymous. "Trixxie" has been helping to set up a library as well as lessons on physics and philosophy at Schome Park.
"Some of the things I've done - organising meetings and making so many new friends - I would find harder in real life," she said. "Doing it virtually, where people seem to judge you less, has given me the confidence to think that I could do it in real life too."
Some 85 of the 147 students have been unable to visit the island because of practical problems such as incompatible school computers. A spokeswoman for the gifted youth academy said that one reason for the pilot scheme was to resolve such problems.