A virtual sounding board for real issues

The Baltimore Sun

Towson University President Robert L. Caret was standing in the middle of a sunny atrium in the school's virtual online campus, holding forth on student life, when he was attacked. An avatar - or online representation of a person - in a blue dress walked right into him.

"An avatar just attacked me, I think," Caret said, laughing. "I'm hoping it was unintentional."

Caret holds monthly "study breaks," where he meets with students to answer questions and hear their concerns. Last week, for the first time, he met with students in the virtual world of Second Life - an online program populated by its own world of animated people and places. Towson University has built an "island" in Second Life, and that's where Caret met with more than 30 students and faculty.

"I thought having one of the study breaks in Second Life, we'd probably get a different group of students," he said. Caret also blogs and has a Facebook page and online podcast as a way of reaching out to students through new technology. He first tried Second Life last year and asked his tech staff to help him create an avatar to represent himself.

In the virtual Towson, he looks remarkably like himself, in a gray suit and with swept-back salt-and-pepper hair. But he joked that the staff made him a little too svelte.

"My wife thought he looked really good and wanted to know who this guy was," he said. "I had them add a few pounds."

Towson has embraced Second Life in its classrooms, using the technology to take students on virtual world tours. A jewelry and metalwork class created marketing campaigns in Second Life for their products. A business professor has students designing and selling T-shirts in Second Life, which has its own form of currency.

"It gives students an opportunity to apply the theories they're learning in class in a low-risk, no-cost or little-cost environment," said LaTonya D. Dyer, an instructional designer/trainer at Towson. She said some professors are holding office hours in Second Life to meet with their students online.

Second Life was created in 2003 by Linden Lab, based in San Francisco. Hundreds of universities have set up a presence in the virtual world, to connect students and professors and offer long-distance learning programs. Second Life has more than 1 million active users. They can own land, start businesses and interact with each other.

In Caret's virtual study break, students raised many of the same topics they do when they meet Caret in person - parking, dorms, tuition and the snow-cancellation policy. But Caret said it appeared that more art and design students showed up for the Second Life meeting, asking about 3-D printers and issues important to them.

More students showed up in the Second Life meeting than the number who show up for Caret's real-life study breaks, said Towson student government president Kristen Guy, who organizes the sessions.

"When I saw how many students were in the [virtual] room, I was overwhelmed," said Guy, 21, a senior from Bucks County, Pa. "I thought it was an innovative new way to increase communication."

Caret fielded the questions in a small conference room off his office, sitting in front of a Macintosh computer outfitted with a microphone. Students listened to his answers through their own computers, wherever they happened to be. Using his keyboard and mouse, Caret controlled his avatar's movements, gesturing, shrugging and checking his watch.

The university set up virtual refreshments outside the atrium, featuring cheese, fruit and hamburgers.

Students seemed to take more liberties than they would in an actual meeting with Caret. Responding to a question about the university's plan to make its campus smoke-free, Caret said he was once a smoker himself. An anonymous student booed at the admission.

Caret maintained a buoyant spirit throughout, inviting students to fly around Towson's island with him after the meeting. The island is populated by tigers - the university's mascot - though they are harmless.

Students said they appreciated Caret's willingness to meet them through a new technology.

"It can be a very effective tool for reaching a large base of students," said Nick DiMarco, a Towson senior from Ellicott City. "More students would be more apt to logging onto their computers and speaking with him that way, as opposed to going to the auditorium, sitting down and waiting for him to speak."

DiMarco, 21, was also impressed with the questions students asked. "A lot were really hard-hitting questions that he was forced to answer on the spot," he said.

After nearly an hour of taking questions, Caret posed for virtual photos with students and faculty.

"I hope you've had a good time today," he told them. "I look forward to seeing you in the real life - or Second Life - in the future."

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