Interaction in Second Life, where avatars “talk” to one another in real time through text and sound, is rich research material for Sherblom, whose scholarship centers on computer-mediated communication.
“The fact that Second Life is a three-dimensional virtual world, yet it’s text-based, opens up communication avenues, both nonverbal and verbal,” Sherblom says. “There are paralinguistic cues not available to older styles of text-based computer-mediated communication media, such as e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, or through Web pages.”
Because Second Life is entirely user-created, the world is a playground for the imagination. Avatars often take human form, but they don’t always. It’s not uncommon to strike up a perfectly civilized conversation with a vampire, a furry creature or an angry squirrel. (Yes, an angry squirrel.) The faces behind the avatars hail from all over the world and all walks of life, but in Second Life, none of that matters.
Though there is a body of research that focuses on the recreational side of Second Life, Sherblom has little interest in that. He and his collaborators in research and teaching — UMaine alumna Lesley Withers of Central Michigan University and Lynnette Leonard of the University of Nebraska– Omaha — are drawn to Second Life’s more practical applications.
“I don’t care about furries or angry squirrels in Second Life,” Sherblom says. “I’m interested in its educational use and the way it can facilitate group work in general, and for businesses and nonprofits.”
In the last academic year, Sherblom and Withers shared a virtual classroom and campus that Leonard created for her university. Here, their undergraduate students — or their avatars, anyway — worked among themselves and with other peers.
This fall, with a grant from UMaine’s Center for Teaching Excellence, Sherblom will have his own campus in Second Life.
Through this active learning experience, students gain a more global perspective, master new technology and enhance their communication skills, Sherblom says. And because no lecture or textbook can prepare students for the unknown terrain of Second Life, they learn to take charge.
“I’m there to help resolve a problem, but it’s their responsibility to share what they’ve learned with their classmates,” Sherblom says. “Over the semester, we became a networked group of expert learners. We learned as a group, and I think that’s what worked for us.”