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Virtual pioneer

Marlene Brooks

By Courtenay Griffin

Marlene Brooks is not a gamer. But now she finds herself immersed in a virtual world in which you can be anything you want, create whatever you want, and socialize with people from around the world.

“I never played games — I can remember when my brothers would play Battleship for hours, but it was something I was just not interested in,” said Ms. Brooks, of Memorial’s Distance Education and Learning Technologies (DELT). “But almost three years ago I was introduced to the virtual world of Second Life.”

On her first visit to this online 3D environment, Ms. Brooks took notice of Harvard University’s presence and their application of virtual world technology for law students. As an adult educator, she was intrigued by the potential use of Second Life as a teaching and learning tool, and found herself asking questions that she wanted answered. What was the purpose of such an environment? How can it be effective as a teaching tool? And how can educators leverage this environment to engage students in their learning at Memorial?

In 2007, she began her first year of research completely immersed in the Second Life environment, abandoning her real life to explore and answer these questions. More than two years later she is still exploring, but she’s not the only one. There are currently more than 6,000 educators and researchers in universities, colleges, and business training programs around the globe who are also examining the use of virtual world technology for teaching and learning.

“At Memorial, we have integrated Second Life into several courses in various disciplines such as engineering, business and women’s studies,” said Ms. Brooks. “Our team at DELT provides the land, materials and knowledge of Second Life, while faculty members supply the content expertise.”

She and her team won a national award from the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education with the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science for the integration of Second Life in an engineering course. Since then, she’s been contacted by educators from Australia, Brazil, England, France and other countries who are fascinated with her work in pioneering Second Life as an educational tool.

“I have learned there are a number of ways to use virtual world environments to enhance student learning, where students are active rather than passive learners,” she said.

As a researcher, Ms. Brooks’ focus is on enhancing the university experience for students through the creation of immersive teaching and learning environments. Her aim is to promote virtual world technology as an opportunity for students to get excited about their learning and to realize that learning can be fun.

“Learning is more than paper and pencil, multiple choice tests and writing papers,” she added. “And we are only at the beginning of our exploration with this technology. What we create now will appear modest to what we will be able to create in the future … as technology improves along with our understanding.”