Pupils help create school that's just out of this world

25th April 2008 at 01:00
A striking new school, sparkling facilities and a landscaped garden - all for less than pound;10,000: it sounds too good to be true

A striking new school, sparkling facilities and a landscaped garden - all for less than pound;10,000: it sounds too good to be true.

Unfortunately, in the real world it is. But in the virtual world, the first schools are opening their doors in a bid to grab pupils' attention and steal some of their ideas.

Manchester city council has become the first in England to buy a piece of land and build a school in Second Life, the internet-based world that boasts around 13 million users. It wants to use its virtual presence to involve pupils in plans to rebuild and refurbish its real-life secondary schools.

John Lorimer, the authority's capital programme director, said: "We decided to build a concept school with key elements we were looking at, like improving the overall design, toilets and eating areas.

"When pupils looked at it, they took to it straight away. They related to it so quickly it was awesome. That's a compelling argument to do more.

"Looking at a school in Second Life gives you a real feeling for a building that you don't get anywhere else."

Manchester's virtual school was launched at a technology conference, where pupils tried out the system. Mr Lorimer said he wanted to use the school to glean more ideas from pupils about what they want from the new schools that will be built in the city. Securing the virtual land and building the school had cost less than pound;10,000.

Julie Dang, a Year 10 pupil at Cedar Mount High School in the city, who visited the virtual school, said: "To take a tour around and explore the new facilities and modern technology is amazing. You can do virtual science experiments at the touch of a button."

Tracey Bishop, the assistant head, said: "It's a great way of engaging young people in design, and opening their minds to what's possible."

Residents of Second Life are represented by "avatars". These have the option of being wheelchair users, making it possible to assess the suitability of a school design for disabled pupils.

The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, and the Open University, have already opened an "educational island" within Second Life, in which almost 150 teenagers have signed up for physics, archaeology and philosophy lessons.

There are strict age barriers in the virtual world, however, with separate "grids" for under-18s and adults which may make fully interactive lessons difficult. But such age concerns will not be a factor in colleges and universities.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, told an IT conference recently that he faced difficult decisions in creating his Second Life avatar. "How honest about hair loss should we be?" the balding politician asked.

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