Internet law class turns to virtual reality

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November 11, 2008

2:07 AM

On Oct. 10, no one showed up to law professor Stacey-Rae Simcox’s classroom, but the lecture went on anyway.

Simcox was not lecturing to an empty classroom but instead leading the first-ever virtual class at the College of William and Mary. The class on internet law was hosted by Second Life, an online world where “residents” can do most anything that can be done in real life and more.

Students logged into Second Life from wherever they found themselves on the Friday before fall break. Some were at home in Williamsburg, some were out of state, and some were even out of the country, but by 10 a.m. local time all of the students had guided their avatars to a virtual classroom in East Carolina University.

The class was held at ECU’s virtual campus because the College does not have its own.

After completing an introductory class to create their virtual identities and familiarize themselves with the virtual environment, the students jumped right into the material, which appropriately reflected the medium in which it was taught — the legal implications of virtual crime.

“Can the laws we currently have on the books adequately deal with these crimes, or do we need new laws to address this issue?” Simcox asked.

According to Simcox, Second Life helps demonstrate online legal disputes while a presenting the legal issues themselves, especially in regard to what constitutes “harm” to an avatar.

“People can spend a good deal of time and energy creating these virtual representations of themselves. Is it murder to terminate this application?” Simcox asked. “Those were the words used last week when a woman in Japan killed her virtual husband’s avatar.”

Murder is not the only virtual vice.

“Is adultery in Second Life really adultery?” Simcox added.

According to Simcox, as more companies allowing employees to telecommute to work to cut costs, programs like Second Life will require lawyers to re-think how preexisting legal thought can or cannot apply to real-life problems of the online world.

Although she had been introduced to Second Life before, Simcox did not think to hold class in Second Life until students in her summer school session prompted her to action. To make her virtual class a reality, Simcox contacted the Information Technology staff, which helped set up the hardware and software to make class in Second Life flow smoothly. Nevertheless, some students still ran into glitches.

“For the class, the voice communication feature would have been great, but my borrowed microphone didn’t work,” Neal Hoffman J.D. ’09 said. “So if you have to type thoughts, as I did, the program became a bit less easy to use.”

Despite the minor glitches, Hoffman and other students found a unique benefit from communicating in Second Life.

“Second Life also allowed students to type comments as other people spoke, so everyone could share their thoughts without having to wait to be called on to speak,” Kaila Gregory J.D. ’09 said. “I think that these features created a more lively class discussion.”

Professor Simcox agreed.

“I did not find it distracting, but interesting — I think it added a new dimension to the [class].”

If offered the chance to take another class in Second Life, students would only do so conditionally.

“It was certainly nice to be at home, but I’d probably only take it if I didn’t have a string of classes in a row so that I could stay at home. Otherwise, it’d really depend on the class,” Hoffman said. “After all, class is really the same no matter where and in what medium.”

Gregory was less keen on the idea.

“Although more people participated in the class discussion, it was strange to participate while sitting alone, unable to see the people you are talking with,” Gregory said. “I do think that Second Life classes could be a useful change of pace, mixed in with class sessions held in the real world.”

Simcox said she plans to teach more classes in Second Life and to use it to perform outreach to military veterans for the law school’s forthcoming Veterans Benefits Clinic.

As for the future of Second Life at the rest of the College, Simcox notes that some schools, including Harvard University, have already created their own “islands” to serve as educational centers in Second Life.

Professors at other universities have also taught classes in Second Life in disciplines ranging from economics to physics. Simcox sees potential for the College to offer similar classes: anthropology students could explore archaeological digs at Giza, art history students could analyze the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and astronomy students could attend class on the moon.

“There are possible uses for the entire campus,” Simcox said. “I gave a presentation to main campus faculty last week and took them to a number of places in Second Life.”

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