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Using Second Life to Help Students in Real Life

PharmD student Aaron Webb was waiting to greet the next faculty member who came to see his research poster. He was dressed to impress in his crisp white shirt, gold tie, and black suit.

Then Dean Bob Blouin appeared out of nowhere — donning a white T-shirt, washed-out jeans, and sandals — and started talking to Webb about his research. When they were done, Blouin vanished into thin air again.

Oh, and Webb’s poster was three stories high and hung in a room hovering a few hundred feet above Beard Hall.

Obviously, this wasn’t real life. It was Second Life, and Webb was participating in an experiment at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy to use the virtual-reality application to help students prepare for poster presentations in the real world.

“What was funny was that we made the students dress up their avatars in professional attire, but I hadn’t thought to get the dean into Second Life earlier so we could work on his outfit,” says Pete Koval, PharmD, the clinical associate professor who hatched the idea of doing a virtual poster presentation. “So I said, ‘Let’s not worry about that,’ and he was cool with it and went up to talk to students in his jeans and T-shirt.”

Casual clothes and levitating venues aside, Koval says one of the project’s aims was to simulate a real poster-presentation environment. The other goal, he says, was just to show that a poster presentation can be successfully pulled off in Second Life.

“I hope the poster project allowed faculty and students to get a glimpse of how this technology can enable us to have people interact without spending travel dollars or registration fees, yet provide a similar, synchronous learning experience,” says Koval, the assistant director of pharmacotherapy, education, and research at the Greensboro Area Health Education Center.

“It’s not identical to a real poster session, but it’s very similar.”

The project, Koval says, is part of the School’s effort to explore new approaches and environments for learning.

“Our attitude at the School has been that there will be an educational evolution of other dynamic learning environments, including virtual spaces and simulation technology,” he says. “The dean and I have discussed the reality that it is not going to be just one thing — it’s not going to be only Second Life or only something else. We’re probably looking at a variety of technologies moving forward.”

Preparing Students for NCAP

With funding from a Lenovo Innovation grant and help from Second Life developer Larry Taylor, Koval created a virtual setting where students can do a trial run of their presentations with synchronous participation and feedback from faculty. For the project, he enlisted students from the School’s Clinical Scholars Program, who present posters about their research each year at the spring meeting of the North Carolina Association of Pharmacists. Koval says this is often the first professional presentation of research data for many students.

To gauge the effectiveness of the Second Life project, Koval surveyed students both after the virtual session, which was held in March 2010, and after the NCAP meeting in April to see if they felt the trial run made them more prepared. He also compared responses from the eight students who took part in the Second Life project with responses from the fourteen students who presented at NCAP but did not participate in the virtual presentation.

The survey asked the students whether they felt unprepared for the NCAP presentation. Of the fourteen students in the control group, three were neutral on the subject and two said they felt unprepared. On the other hand, all eight of the students who participated in the Second Life project said they felt prepared. Moreover, all eight also said they felt confident in their ability to present a poster.

Koval also surveyed the faculty who took part in the Second Life presentations and found consistent agreement among them that the medium could be a reasonable way to evaluate posters in situations where they cannot travel. He also notes that all the faculty members and students completed the orientation on how to use Second Life in less than an hour — a relatively small learning curve considering none of them had used the program before.

Where Two Lives Diverge

As both Koval and the student participants point out, there are some key differences between Second Life and real life, such as having a more difficult time pointing to a particular section of the poster while talking and the lack of nonverbal communication.

“One disadvantage is that there’s no body language or posture to interpret,” Koval says. “But with this project, we are trying to train the students on their verbal communication and their physical poster. We wanted to see if we can give them feedback on the major aspects of the poster, but not every aspect.”

On the other hand, there's an upside to not being exactly like real life.

“One of the biggest advantages was being able to be seated and be comfortable presenting my poster,” Webb says. “Usually you are standing in front of your poster for an hour or two, lock-kneed, not breathing very well, and just feeling uncomfortable, maybe because of the environment. Being in Second Life gives you more of a laidback feel, and it probably makes it an easier environment in which to present your poster.”

Holding the presentation online also allowed faculty from all around the state to attend, something that Koval says is rare in real life.

“For instance, Bruce Canaday from Wilmington and Mollie Scott from Asheville both attended the virtual poster session,” he says. “So we had two faculty members from the opposite ends of the state who got to participate in the review of posters, and they were home in time for dinner.”

Students say one of the biggest positives of the virtual session was being able to present their work to faculty other than their own AHEC mentors.

“It was very nice to hear from faculty that I had met only a couple of times,” Webb says. “Without this opportunity, I don’t know if I would have ever gotten feedback from them. So this allows more people to come and see the work you’ve done and give you more constructive criticism.”

Kathryn Merkel, the first student to use the virtual environment, says it was helpful to be able to present to people from many different disciplines.

“Most of the time, we go to a pharmacy meeting, but I have taken my poster to another meeting where there were people who weren’t pharmacists, and those people had different questions,” she says. “So having faculty from many different backgrounds and disciplines participate made me have to think about different ways in which to talk about my research.”