Cynthia Davidson, Stony Brook University
Ball State University Second Life parcel, Blackboard integration
Some virtual campuses are less spectacular and more interactive than Vassar’s, such as Ball State University’s virtual campus. Like Vassar, it attempts to replicate the look and feel of the college campus, and succeeds quite well in making you feel like you’re there—except perhaps for the fact that it’s been empty every time I’ve visited. That’s not to say that it isn’t used. But its signs of activity are not in the virtual quad; they are in the signs of hypermedia that one sees everywhere, such as the “billboards” describing the virtual campus’ integration with the Blackboard course management system. If I click on one of these signs, it will take me to a web page explaining that the Institute for Digital Media Arts received a grant from the Blackboard Greenhouse Grant for Virtual Worlds for building a toolkit that integrates Blackboard and Second Life. Faculty can connect their Blackboard rosters and discussion boards with the Second Life interface so that student avatars can participate in the Blackboard site from Second Life; instructors can stay abreast of their students' activities in both platforms. The web page recommends the use of these programs' integration for courses that require the hypermediated environment that Second Life makes possible, such machinima cinematography. Machinima is moviemaking in a game-based or virtual environment, usually created with screen capture software such as FRAPS or iShowU. Ball State’s virtual campus also boasts a miniature virtual reality studio, a marvel of embedded media. If my avatar clicks on a trigger object, I can instantly change the room to bring up a different scene. These chameleon sets can be used for photo shoots with virtual models (posing via scripted gesture balls) or plays with virtual actors or music productions with a virtual band—all of which exist plentifully in Second Life.
Overall, Ball State’s virtual campus provides the virtuosity of a hypermediated environment extant on two levels. One, the virtual campus gives a reasonably collegiate experience—that’s the immersive experience or the transparency that is sought—and two, the embedded media provides heightened awareness of the media's presence. However, most interactive learning is going to take place through the heightened awareness of media. Participants are not clicking on a link and passively absorbing a video that shows them how Rome fell, listening to a lecture on global warming, or taking a multiple-choice exam that appears to them on a virtual stylus—all examples that can happen in virtual classrooms, especially when Second Life is used to manage distance learning courses during which the virtual campus is substituted for the real campus in its entirety. At Ball State's virtual campus, there does not seem to be much replication of non-interactive educational practices occurring in the applications just described. They are developing instead what Bolter and Grusin refer to as mediacy.