To get an idea of the future at the University of New Orleans (UNO), just imagine Barbie, Ken, and hundreds of their clones dropped into the world of The Matrix.

It’s a virtual world, populated by perfectly proportioned people with great hair and cool clothes who strut, stroll, and even fly through an airy virtual building that is UNO’s internet home.

Whether teacher, student, or administrator, each visitor to the site chooses an online alter ego–an avatar, in computer-speak–that is assigned a name and can even be custom-designed.

Merrill Johnson, an associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts who showed off the school’s virtual campus in June, outfitted his avatar with a bright red tie, hip glasses, and a thatch of streaked blond hair.

The system, called Second Life, is tricked out with enough gimmickry to appeal to students who have grown up playing computer games. In a development reminiscent of the movie Being John Malkovich, users can go inside their avatars’ heads to see the world from their point of view as they stroll down virtual brick paths past lush lawns, a gazebo, and stark modern buildings alongside a placid lake.

UNO is among a growing number of schools to buy “islands,” or virtual campuses, in Second Life: Second Life develops education following. But the school has a practical plan for its presence in the online world: If the New Orleans region should be struck by another monster storm that forces students, teachers, and administrators to scatter widely for an indefinite period, Second Life will allow instructors to set up online classrooms overnight, Johnson said–keeping school functions from shutting down, as they did after Hurricane Katrina, and helping the university hold on to its students.

Most New Orleans-area institutions of higher learning can do that already, because they have moved their computer servers out of state and because they are equipped with Blackboard, a system that can not only set up online classes but also store records, post documents, and allow text-message chats among students and teachers.

But Second Life, by Linden Lab of San Francisco, goes a step further. Johnson sums up the difference with one word: presence.

Because each student and teacher has an avatar, every participant can watch the class in action–virtually speaking, of course–on the nearest computer monitor. The system will be adding sound, Johnson said, and two classes will be offered in this format in the fall, as the system is phased in.

Jim Mokhiber, an assistant professor of history, spoke excitedly about using software to build authentic African villages for his students to explore.

Because many UNO teachers already conduct internet classes, the transition should be relatively smooth, said Valeria Hallett, a Spanish instructor. Her online students include a woman who fled to Kuwait after the storm and has not returned to New Orleans.

Students and teachers aren’t the only ones who will be able to use Second Life; the site also will have areas for admissions and academic advising.

Even though the campus will exist only in electronic form, students who enroll this way still have to pay out-of-state fees if they aren’t Louisiana residents, Johnson said to a round of chuckles.

During his tour of the virtual four-story building that represents UNO, Johnson swooped into the sleek office of Liberal Arts Dean Susan Krantz.

“This is much nicer than my real office,” she cracked as she sized up the gray walls, the spiffy furniture, and the absence of clutter.

Inside Krantz’s virtual suite was an oval conference table surrounded by big, expensive-looking black chairs. The outer part of the oval seemed to be made of steel; the center was clear, except for a blue UNO logo in the middle.

Such a setting would be an ideal site for a meeting, Johnson said, especially if the participants were far away.

Even though the virtual campus, with the white-columned building and perfect trees, looks like the setting for a Martha Stewart program, the investment was relatively low. The software was free, Johnson said. UNO paid $980 for its island and pays a monthly fee of $150 to $200.

When UNO’s avatars set up housekeeping on their island, they will not be alone in this virtual universe: There are already about 6.5 million avatars on other islands, Johnson said.

Other universities that have snapped up islands include Ball State University, Ohio University, and the University of North Carolina, which has a library with a perky librarian avatar.

Links:

Second Life Business & Education
http://secondlife.com/businesseducation