SCOTT SIMON, host:
For some students at New Mexico State University, attending class means visiting a sun-soaked island surrounded by deep waters, as their professor sits next to them in the sand. The students have class in this space, called Second Life, once a week - or at least their avatars do.
Now, avatars, as you may know, are digital versions of people. They can walk, talk, run - even fly. Before we introduce their professor, Michael Demers of New Mexico State, I want to tell you that my avatar - which kind of looks like Anderson Cooper in a wetsuit - is running over this island on our Web site, NPR.org.
Now, Michael Demers, professor of geography, joins us from his campus. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.
Professor MICHAEL DEMERS (Geography, New Mexico State University): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Now, you hold classes in what's called Second Life. For those of us who aren't familiar - and I wasn't until I began to read the introduction - what is Second Life? And, you know, isn't First Life hard enough?
(Sound bite of laughter)
Professor DEMERS: Well, sometimes it is. The whole idea is that Second Life is a virtual world, and it started out more as a game than anything, but it has evolved over the years. It's approximately five years old now. And what has happened over the years is that people like me have noticed that the students coming into the universities are gamers, and they're familiar with living inside the computer. And so my idea was if they're in the computer, that's where I need to be as well.
SIMON: So you've created what amounts to a virtual world on this small island.
Professor DEMERS: Well, I didn't set up a whole island, just so you know. I set up this classroom space that you see behind you. The island is...
SIMON: When you say you see behind me, let me explain to our radio audience -our first and last responsibility here - that I guess we're probably both looking at screens.
Professor DEMERS: Yes, we are.
SIMON: And I'm looking at an island with sand and mountains and water behind it. And there's a sign in the distance that welcomes me to New Mexico State, or welcomes my avatar.
Who's the handsome buck standing in front of me?
Professor DEMERS: That's me. That's Gadget Loon. That's my alter ego.
SIMON: Your alter ego. So you don't really look like this. This guy looks like Fabio used to look.
Professor DEMERS: Well, I am 6-foot-10 in Second Life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: All right. And you're standing on - like a disco dance floor.
Professor DEMERS: Yes, in fact, one of my students is sitting on the dance ball behind you - behind your avatar.
SIMON: Behind my avatar. I think I can rotate my avatar to take a look. Right, if I'm not mistaken?
Professor DEMERS: You are.
SIMON: Oh, yes. That's one of your students, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Professor DEMERS: That is one of my students, yes.
SIMON: Excuse me. You must be Anna Patterson, right?
Ms. ANNA PATTERSON (Student, University of New Mexico): Yes, sir.
SIMON: Do you need to go to class this way to learn something, as the professor indicated? Is this more fun? Do you learn more?
Ms. PATTERSON: I find that especially for visual labs, it's actually very helpful since I'm a more tactile learner than a visual or audio learner. And because it's actually in-game and you can build in here, you can actually do more interaction with what you would, than you would necessarily just sitting in the lab looking at different map projections as opposed to creating the different map projections.
SIMON: 'Cause this Second Life, Island, this has desert, this has mountains, this has all kinds of topography and geography that you can see, I guess. What's the logic of all these topographical features in the island? And, you know, by the way, I mean, when you get to certain areas, you know, you can hear the wind blowing. You can hear the whoosh of the waves, that sort of thing.
Professor DEMERS: Yes. Yes. It's designed to make you feel like you're in a real environment.
Professor DEMERS: For example, I have that campfire setting over by my slide presenter, and I use that for when I want to sit down and talk about projects and stuff like that.
SIMON: I'm walking - or my avatar is walking towards the campfire.
Professor DEMERS: So you can come over here.
Professor DEMERS: And you can sit down and chat, and you can hear the fire crackling.
(Soundbite of a fire)
Professor DEMERS: And it literally puts the student at ease.
SIMON: That's a fire crackling, all right.
Professor DEMERS: Yes.
SIMON: I'm going to sit down. I think I'm going to sit down. Okay...
Professor DEMERS: Yup, there you go.
SIMON: ... there we are, sitting next to each other on a log.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: So what do we learn by sitting here - you and me in front of the crackling campfire?
Professor DEMERS: Well, it depends on who your, you know, audience is and what you're trying to teach. We have, for example, there are some people who are teaching ballet inside Second Life. And they're literally going through the various motions using their avatars.
SIMON: Yeah, but teaching your damn avatar how to dance ballet isn't going to get you a job at the Joffrey.
Professor DEMERS: That may be true, but it does teach you all the various movements because you have to know the movements in gory detail in order to get them to do - get an avatar to do what the human body does.
SIMON: All right. Well, the...
Professor DEMERS: It's actually much harder to do.
SIMON: Well, I, but I, okay. My point is - in the end, have you learned something that's really useful when you've learned something in Second Life?
Professor DEMERS: Oh, I hope so. Absolutely. One of the things we're finding is that, and you've actually suggested this, we have people who do not know how to interact with each other.
Professor DEMERS: And yet inside Second Life, they are, in fact, interacting with each other. We're finding, for example, some classes, the students come in - in fact, my students come in here without my even asking them.
They're here, and they're getting together and they're learning things. They're exchanging information. They are creating what we call a learning community, and that's really important.
SIMON: Professor, it's been very good talking to you. I'm very grateful for all of your time. And I'm very grateful for your avatar's time, too.
Professor DEMERS: Thank you.
SIMON: And if you could thank Anna Patterson and her avatar, too.
Professor DEMERS: I will do that.
SIMON: Michael Demers is a geography professor at New Mexico State University. You can see a video of Professor Demers' avatar trying to get my avatar a cup of coffee. You can see a picture of Liane Hansen's avatar. You know, kind of sultry. And you can learn how to make your own avatar - all on our blog npr.org/soapbox.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, in first life, from NPR News.