Learning Abstract Graphic

Using Second Life to Enhance Teaching and Learning

Robert Walker

Although online teaching and learning is a wonderful educational advancement, in some disciplines, it creates as many challenges as it solves. For example, how does one practice speaking in front of an audience in an online speech class? Can there be an online chemistry or biology lab? Online teaching and learning causes educators to discover new digital ways to successfully accomplish what they have been doing in the classroom for years.

1Teaching Music Appreciation online has always been a challenge. One area that seems particularly difficult for students is listening. Identifying composers, names of pieces, themes, and even musical concepts is often difficult for the best of nonmusic majors in a traditional onground class. Currently in Music Appreciation online, instead of having someone guide them through the listening process, students listen to a sound file while reading a listening guide. Students in this situation are at a disadvantage when compared to those in a classroom, who experience guided listening with a teacher highlighting the important facts and answering questions as they arise.

Early virtual classrooms were only synchronous in terms of text communications, not simultaneous listening. Most were awkward and disappointing. With the advent of virtual world games and the platforms that are developing out of them, this situation is changing. Second Life (SL), is an online, virtual world into which music and video can be streamed and people can meet synchronously for real-time discussion. Additionally, the rich, immersive environments SL creates allow for art, history, and music to be intertwined in an exciting and engaging way.

Developing a humanities oasis in SL fosters the combination of synchronous listening and discussion with the rich world of the humanities that surrounds the music. This paper describes the process used in and the outcomes expected from using Second Life to deliver the listening portion of an online Music Appreciation class taught at Labette Community College.

2Discovery of Second Life. Second Life is a virtual world in which individuals create a persona, or avatar, and then use that avatar to operate in the highly interactive and socially oriented world. New users are introduced to the world through Orientation Island, where they learn the basics of navigating and existing in SL. After completing the orientation, users are free to travel anywhere they wish in the world unless limited by the landowner of that site.

Second Life already has a strong and growing educational community. After interacting with this community, it is easy to see the possibilities for use in music appreciation. There are many educational institutions in SL willing to help other educators get started. The Second Life educator’s mail list, SLED, is a wealth of information and assistance. Institutions regularly offer other educators classroom space for little or no cost. Ideas and aids are shared freely. New SL users can quickly obtain an arsenal of education knowledge and tools.

Process. Because of the nature of the buildings and size of the music appreciation project, free classroom space wouldn’t sustain the environment; therefore, virtual land was purchased for the project. Premium membership allows an individual to own 512 square meters of land. The first project was to build a space for listening to music of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The concept was to purchase and create a building that would represent a space in which one might hear the music of this period. In SL, a thriving community of builders constructs a variety of structures, and less experienced users can purchase ready-made buildings. A dark, gothic cathedral was purchased for the property, and pews, banners, and an altar furnish the space.

3The course instructor used a script to stream musical examples into the land. The script also allows students to return and review the materials whenever they want.

Wall hangings were created with web images of art from the period. Scripts were added so that virtually touching these wall hangings offers the students a link to the original website. Website owners were contacted for permission to use their images and links; they were all happy to have more traffic directed to their websites.

The pilot study began in the summer of 2007. The class had 14 students, but only two decided to try this new delivery method. Issues that surfaced early were the need for broadband, a steep learning curve, and the students’ impression that using the platform was too much trouble.

After two participants created avatars and learned how to work in the environment, they joined the instructor to listen and discuss the music. The students and the instructor were able to listen to music synchronously, and discuss it in real time as they listened. Student reaction was very good:

  • “It was hard at first, but it didn’t take long to get the hang of it. The orientation land really helped.”
  • “It made it much more interesting.”
  • “It was a lot of fun; I wish more students would have joined in.”
  • “I wouldn’t have paid as much attention to the music if I had to listen to it by myself.”

4Second Life students were tested with an interactive script that guided them through playing the pieces and answering the questions. Completed tests were sent to the instructor electronically. Students scored well on the test, but with such a small group of students, no conclusions could be drawn. The successful completion of tests and positive commentary about the platform encouraged further development of the project.

Further Developments

To continue developing the project, the class needed more period buildings. Building, furnishing, and then replacing period buildings on a small piece of land was time intensive, so more virtual land was purchased. This new space allowed for five period buildings, a traditional classroom space, and testing areas, as well as landscaping to give the area a park-like appearance.

The instructor was now ready to assemble his own buildings; a Renaissance cathedral was the first attempt. In addition to music, art, and history of the period, a replica of a 16th-century altarpiece was placed inside. Touching the piece links users back to a website with more information.

For the Baroque period, an Italian opera house based on one in Venice was constructed; the image shows the interior. Furnishing buildings becomes an ongoing process. The balconies are simply textures on the wall, giving the impression of a large multitiered opera house. Artwork and historical information will be designed and added to this area.

5For the Classical period, the instructor found a builder to design a replica of an existing building, the Esterhazy Palace in Austria, where Haydn worked for most of his career. An inworld designer worked from a photograph of the palace and was asked to design something similar.

This image shows the newest building. It will be used to represent music of the Romantic period. A working grand piano is visible through the lower left window.

Next Phase. The fall 2007 online Music Appreciation class is now participating in the project. This time, students are required to use Second Life unless their computer or internet connection cannot support it. Students can access the system on campus if necessary.

Eight of thirteen students have been able to create avatars and access SL from home. The other five students are allowed to complete assignments in the usual manner. Entry and exit tests will provide an analysis of the effects.

6The instructor created a scavenger hunt to help the students become better acquainted with some of the remarkable places in Second Life and to further develop their skills with the platform. Students are directed to the Paris 1900 build and asked to take a snapshot of themselves at the Arc de Triomphe; then, they must travel to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to see the hurricane plane. They later proceed to Renaissance Island’s Globe Theatre. Finally, they must research and travel somewhere that interests them.

For the first session, students were invited to an introduction to music listening in which basic terminology for analyzing and describing musical examples was provided. A PowerPoint presentation was created and brought into Second Life and the students were guided through it while listening to selected examples.

This introductory session lasted approximately one hour and led to good discussion. Students comment on the experience:

I thought it was really interesting. I have never actually attended class on the computer, or not in a way like that. I was able to learn just as well on Second Life as I would in a classroom. I didn’t have any problems figuring out how to do the class. I am hoping we can get more people in the class next time. It is also nice because it is easier to participate because you do not have the pressures that you would have in a classroom. I am excited about the next session we have.

I loved the session. It was very interesting and new and really not hard to handle at all. I felt like we were all really right there. The pace of it all was awesome and it made me feel a lot more comfortable. It also made it easier to learn having you tell us what you wanted us to notice specifically. Can’t wait for the next session! My favorite part of the class so far!

After three exams, the aggregate test scores follow:

Student Type

Average Exam Scores

Traditional onground students (n = 10)


Second Life online students (n = 8)


Non-Second Life online students (n = 5)


Although the effects of Second Life on the class outcomes are uncertain, a positive trend seems to be developing. For Second Life users, student satisfaction is high, though most students expressed initial concern over using the new technology. They also reported that it was difficult to maneuver in the environment. Overwhelmingly, they report that they enjoyed the sessions and felt that they learned from them.

Continued Exploration. At this point in the study, it appears that using Second Life to teach and augment the listening portion of this online music appreciation course is helping to increase student scores over those not using Second Life. Furthermore, scores of students using Second Life are closer to those of the students in the traditional onground class.

It is expected that by enhancing the environment with more arts, history, and general humanities information, stronger ties to all the humanities will be formed. The ultimate goal of this project is to develop a system for enhanced learning opportunities for these students.

Robert Walker is an Associate Professor of Music at Labette Community College.

Pictures are courtesy of Labette Community College.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor

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