CSULB marketing professors David Horne and Ingrid Martin are avatars, virtual characters they created to demonstrate The Beach World, a new digital campus developed within the realm of Second Life, a free online world imagined and created by its members.
The Beach World was designed by faculty and students within CSULB’s College of Business Administration (CBA) to broaden the classroom setting, to augment the traditional in-classroom instruction and as a means to enable online distance education. It also provides faculty the ability to create and conduct research within a number of marketplace and learning environments.
“By its very nature, The Beach World enhances teaching and learning experiences for faculty and students while providing an interactive context for us to conduct academic research,” said Horne, who with Martin led The Beach World project. “In The Beach World, distance learning moves into the virtual world and becomes even more engaging. Everyone who joins The Beach World gets a chance to build a unique or even offbeat avatar as an alter ego and have some fun at the same time.”
The idea of creating The Beach World came about when a group of marketing faculty who teach within the CBA became interested in finding ways to conduct research in an environment that was flexible enough to address various types of research questions.
The original concept, which was proposed by Associate Professor of Marketing Jonathan Lee, was to build a virtual shopping environment and have students, faculty and targeted groups outside the university enter various types of retail stores to make virtual and real product purchases. The team then outlined how each of its marketing undergraduate and graduate courses could use The Beach World to develop marketing concepts and principles for students.
“What the faculty didn’t realize was the technical challenges of actually building a complete virtual retail environment that had the look and feel of a genuine retail setting,” said Martin. “One of our MBA students, who was also the project manager, suggested using the Second Life platform, which was already being utilized by more than 100 other universities. The idea of a virtual campus grew from there.”
The Beach World has three classrooms that seat up to 40 student avatars and 10 guests, as well as a large 150-seat lecture hall. It also features virtual recreations of on- and off-campus venues, such as coffee houses and a completely replicated “The Beach Store on Second Street.”
The traffic within The Beach World continues to grow, and the design team expects an exponential increase in its use in the next three to five years. Several professors have already used “The Beach Classrooms” to conduct lectures as well as to meet with their students in the surrounding virtual environments.
Students and faculty are also permitted to create custom objects within The Beach World. This flexibility increases the functionality of the virtual community as it is modified to fit users’ requirements.
Horne notes that hundreds of virtual worlds like Second Life are available online, each with a different target audience, focus and popularity. He believes that children who are accustomed to playing within such online communities as Penguin World today at the age of nine or 10 will expect universities in the future to also offer virtual teaching experiences. Horne sees The Beach World as CSULB’s initial jump into this “inevitable” future.