Universities register for virtual future

Students may soon meet with professors once a week and then use simulations, virtual worlds and downloads to complete coursework.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
Universities register for virtual future SAN FRANCISCO--If you want to know what higher education will look like in a few years, you might ask Charles Reed, chancellor of the largest four-year university system in the United States.

As head of the California State University system--with 23 campuses, 46,000 employees and more than 400,000 students--Reed says he's worried about classroom space in the future because of, among other reasons, expanding enrollment.

Consequently, Reed said he envisions students becoming more like telecommuters. They might meet with faculty and peers one day a week on campus, and then use simulations, virtual worlds and downloaded information the rest of the week to complete coursework.

"It's not an either-or thing. We need the 'high touch,' but we need the high tech at the same time," Reed said Tuesday at Sun Microsystem's Worldwide Education and Research Conference here.

The three-day conference kicked off Tuesday to a packed hotel ballroom of roughly 400 attendees hailing from universities around the world. Sun devoted a large part of the day to selling educators on its open-source technology for classroom computing. Sun Chairman Scott McNealy himself promoted a range of Sun efforts, including Project Blackbox, which creates data centers packaged in stackable shipping containers, and Curriki.org, which focuses on creating free curriculum in the mold of Wikipedia.

"It's not an either-or thing. We need the 'high touch,' but we need the high tech at the same time."
--Charles Reed,
California State University

"Technology has to play a huge role in education. (It's) changed commerce...publishing...banking. It's got to change education big time," McNealy said during a keynote speech.

Virtual worlds are already beginning to change higher education, according to several educators.

For example, more than 70 universities have built island campuses in Second Life, according to Stuart Sim, CTO and chief architect of Moodlerooms, which builds structures in virtual worlds and offers course management software. Sim said his company is currently developing tools to help universities better manage students and courses delivered in Second Life. That way, universities can have an application to control adding or removing a student avatar to the island campus, he said. The project is dubbed Sloodle.com.

Gerri Sinclair, executive director of the master's degree program for digital media at the Great Northern Way Campus in Vancouver, Canada, said her group is building a Second Life virtual campus alongside its physical one. "Our students are digital natives, and they don't want to be reached in traditional ways. So we're creating a virtual campus as we're building our real campus," Sinclair said.

Jane Kagon, director of UCLA's Extension Department of Entertainment Studies and Performing Arts, also announced during the conference that the university has opened a Second Life island for its digital-film students.

"It's an interesting time" to be part of gaming, noted Chris Melissinos, Sun's chief gaming officer. "There's an opportunity to grab this technology and new modes of communication and use them for a greater purpose."

In that vein, Melissinos discussed Sun's Project Darkstar, which is designed to help developers of online games via server-side technology. With this technology, developers can create multiplayer online games that can be run on any game device, he said. Sun plans to demonstrate the technology at a game conference next month and will offer a free license for it to schools and universities, he said.

Still, there are downsides to mixing virtual worlds and education. For example, Sinclair said that her school held a seminar in Second Life and an avatar entered the room and began shooting at all the other avatars. "We didn't know if we should duck," she said. An administrator in the seminar left the room and figured out how to ban the offender.

Melissinos said Sun is working on open-source client-side software, called Project Wonderland, so developers can build applications on top of its server-side software. That presumably could solve security issues.

"We wouldn't do business in Second Life there because it is insecure. That (security is) necessary for education, too," Melissinos said.

Ultimately, Reed said, he cannot talk about where education is headed without talking about the future of technology because "it's shaping how we reach out to students and team (with) them in every way," he said.

The California State University system, for example, plans to finish in 2008 a new so-called common management system, which will combine financial information, human resources and student services for all 23 campuses on one network. It will let students and faculty access information from any location.

CSU also has systems in place for admission applications, teacher training and college prep tools. Reed said that schools' biggest challenges are in keeping costs down, getting teachers and students linked on the systems, updating outdated technology and keeping the system secure. For example, he said CSU gets as many as 100,000 hits a day from hackers trying to access personal, financial data on students and faculty in its system.

"Many of the challenges we face today," he said, "are similar to ones the rest of the country's universities will face in the next 8 to 10 years."