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Program Virtually Puts Students In Classroom

July 2, 2010
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

Students visiting Bearkat Island will find precise virtual replicas of all of the facilities found on campus, including the Newton Gresham Library, seen above on the left on campus and on the right online.


Students who want to take online classes but prefer the structure of the classroom can have the best of both worlds with Bearkat Island, Sam Houston State University’s virtual campus.

Through Second Life, at www.secondlife.com, professors can incorporate any traditional classroom activity, from PowerPoint presentations to lectures to assigning class projects, virtually, and literally. They can even invite speakers from across the globe to guest lecture to their students.

Take, for instance, Bobby Ezell’s master’s course in instructional technology.

Instead of going on campus for his Saturday morning classes last semester and listening to him lecture about Shakespeare in person, students were able to log on to Second Life on their computer and, using an avatar, virtually attend class from wherever they are—even if they are in a different town or still in their pajamas.

“Graduate students in the course are required to participate in a Second Life session in which they attend an instructional session in senior level high school English,” said Ezell, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s curriculum and instruction department. “The graduate students’ avatars assume the role of high school students, sit in a desk, and listen to my teacher avatar lecture, addressing ‘The Life of William Shakespeare.’ The look and feel is much similar to a physical classroom.”

Melissa Burgess, SHSU professor and Bearkat Island administrator, presents a PowerPoint presentation as a guest lecture in George Moore's Administration Supervior Education 579, "Research Methods," summer course. Through Bearkat Island, students can receive traditional classroom instruction from their livingrooms.

The innovative and fresh advantage of Bearkat Island is that it retains traditional learning techniques, but presents them in modern and interesting formats that appeal to the technologically savvy generation of college students, as well as allows professors to extend their knowledge to foreign students, all from on-campus, according to Melissa Burgess, clinical professor in the curriculum and instruction department who helped create Bearkat Island and serves as its administrator.

“The island is a replication of the real-life counterpart. Students and professors are able to communicate with each other via text or via voice chat, like Skype,” she said. “This allows for real-time learning and bridges the gap between learning management systems—like Blackboard, which tends to be asynchronous (not in real time), in a discussion board format—and face-to-face learning.”

Bearkat Island was originally purchased by the SHSU Reading Center to deliver instruction to developmental reading students as a part of Burgess’s dissertation research. It has since attracted the attention of professors who teach in the College of Education, through the curriculum and instruction department’s instructional technology program and the educational leadership and counseling department, as well as in the English and psychology departments.

In addition, it’s transforming and innovating the way college courses are taught and introducing new methods of education that could become a widely used resource for distance learning courses in the future, according to Burgess.

“It is beneficial for professors to use because it’s real-time learning,” Burgess said. “Because of its telepresence—the feeling of almost being there—it truly feels like your students are in the virtual room with you. This teaching and learning platform is engaging for me and my students and supports the 21st century skills our students need.”

Burgess and Hannah Gerber, assistant professor of reading, will travel to South Africa in September to speak at the National Association of Distance Education and Open Learning in South Africa to talk about mobile technologies and to promote the use of SHSU’s virtual campus on Second Life as tool for education in other countries that Sam Houston is associated with.


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