'Settle down avatars; classes are under way'

16th January 2009 at 00:00
School not yet built? That's no bar to settling into a new environment, reports William Stewart

Teachers at a Middlesbrough comprehensive will be the first in England to take lessons in an online 3D replica of their school.

Acklam Grange School has had its new Building Schools for the Future (BSF) site recreated in Second Life - an internet-based virtual world with 13 million users - 18 months before the real development is complete.

And at cost of Pounds 10,000, compared with more than Pounds 25m for the real version, it is a lot cheaper. It will allow teachers and pupils to explore their new building before it is open, and even stage virtual school plays there.

The idea came from staff at Middlesbrough City Learning Centre, who were unhappy with the existing virtual learning environments available to the schools they served.

Mark Mullis, its deputy director, said: "I was quite frustrated because they are fairly linear - you have a page of text that links to other pages of text. They are a bit like having a book."

Second Life, a world where your virtual "avatar" can walk round, shop, listen to concerts and interact with other people's avatars, is anything but.

Mr Mullis says it is better suited to pupils with a variety of learning styles. And to immerse them even further in the virtual school, he has used a new 3D vision system - which he believes to be a world first.

John Bate, Acklam Grange's head, said: "This project offers us the opportunity not only to plan in fine detail every aspect of our new school and experience - it is as though it already exists - but also to use the environment to allow pupils, parents and other stakeholders to know and have a real feel for the new school in a unique and very exciting way.

"Staff are already exploring their learning areas to plan the impact and learning opportunities.

"We are already considering a virtual school play, by pupil avatars, in a virtual drama studio, in a new school that is not even built yet. By the time we open, our pupils should certainly not get lost."

Last year, Manchester Council announced it had bought land in Second Life and built its own virtual school. But it was a generic school designed to allow pupils to suggest ideas about a series of BSF projects.

By contrast, the Acklam Grange Second Life school is built to the exact dimensions of the architects' plans for the real building.

It has allowed different fixtures and fittings to be tried out and helped staff to find the best place to install CCTV cameras.

And it will still have plenty of uses once the real school opens in September 2010. Primary pupils will be able to get to know their future school's layout before they arrive, while Acklam Grange students can learn how to act in a virtual world.

Mr Mullis said: "Research suggests that by 2011, 80 per cent of internet users will have an avatar in a virtual world. I see it as our responsibility to hold our pupils' hands and show what this might mean for them."

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