Swoop around Bryan Hall clock tower like Superman. Examine tiny details of the Sistine Chapel murals. Enter Tut’s tomb. Float in a cell next to the mitochondria. All within 15 minutes.

What sounds like a fever dream becomes a reality within the virtual three-dimensional world Second Life, a world now joined by a replica of part of WSU’s Pullman campus.

WSU joins hundreds of universities and colleges with a presence in Second Life. Many of these institutions have classes, conferences, experiments, art galleries, and innovative 3-D displays. The virtual WSU will host distance degree classes beginning this fall.

Second Life, one of the most prominent “virtual worlds,” has about a million active users who use avatars as representations of themselves. Called by its founder “the world’s largest Lego set,” Second Life is built entirely by residents.

David Cillay, assistant dean of the Center for Distance and Professional Education and coordinator of the Second Life project, says distance classes could be just the beginning for events on WSU’s virtual campus.

“We could have an Alive! summer orientation session, alumni events, music concerts, conferences, even a functioning nuclear reactor,” says Cillay. “On the fun side, why not a virtual golf course?”

Cillay points out that students designed and built much of the virtual campus, which encompasses about a third of the real world WSU. Representations of Bryan Hall, the CUB, Holland and Terrell Libraries, Van Doren Hall, the Museum of Art, and other recognizable buildings give a sense of familiarity to the online campus.

Faculty and students might find other innovative uses for Second Life, from architectural modeling to health education to physics experiments. One student, Heather Losey McGeachey, created a master of fine arts exhibition last spring at both the Museum of Art and its digital counterpart.

Another innovative use of the WSU campus in Second Life was the world’s first virtual journalism summit last April, which coincided with the annual Murrow Symposium. The summit, held in both the real CUB and the virtual WSU, examined news reporting in 3-D worlds and telling stories within those virtual spaces.

“There’s a lot of curiosity about Second Life within my department,” says Murrow College of Communication faculty Brett Atwood, who organized the summit and uses Second Life in his journalism and public relations classes.

“The idea of journalism and reporting in 3-D spaces is kind of amazing. It’s a relatively young phenomenon. From a sociological point of view, with human beings behind each avatar, aren’t they worthy of news coverage?” says Atwood.

The summit featured prominent real-world journalists and 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award recipients Helen Thomas and Bob Schieffer, along with virtual world journalists and others, discussing the convergence of journalism and virtual reality and what could be the future of this technology.

Among the speakers was Philip Rosedale, who founded Second Life in 1999. He said he sees virtual worlds gaining ground like earlier forms of communication—such as television or e-mail—from early entrepreneurial adopters, to educators, to professional users, and finally to mass adoption.

“We are currently seeing a rapid evolution toward different forms of education,” said Rosedale. He cited the example of a border crossing model used to train future Canadian agents to find contraband. Students who practiced in the Second Life border crossing model saw test scores increase as much as 28 percent.

Real-world news organizations—including Reuters, CNN, and Nature magazine—have already established “bureaus” within Second Life and other virtual worlds. Another summit presenter, senior CNN producer Lila King, said virtual journalism wasn’t just about packaging a story like in traditional journalism, but rather an ongoing conversation in the community.

“In Second Life, CNN’s strategy is about citizen journalism and experimentation,” said King, “We can speak openly and in real time with people, something journalists aren’t necessarily adept at doing.”

Still, Helen Thomas and Bob Schieffer expressed concern that journalistic skills will be lost with the death of many newspapers and mainstream media outlets. Schieffer said newspaper’s editorial functions are crucial, and new media should follow old standards of quality.

“We don’t publish until we’re convinced it’s true. Journalists need to answer ‘How did you know about this? Did you ask somebody about this?’” he said.

Second Life and other virtual worlds can also be used to train journalists about those standards and provide them with a safe forum, an idea developed by the new founding dean of the Murrow College and veteran correspondent Dr. Lawrence Pintak.

While serving as director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism and Research at the American University in Cairo, Pintak helped build the first virtual newsroom. In one instance, he connected eight Egyptian bloggers with then-U.S. Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James K. Glassman for a press conference to discuss Egypt and the conflict in Gaza, where the bloggers could ask hard questions without fear of reprisal.

“Journalism evolves in its environment,” Pintak said at the end of a documentary about the newsroom experiment, which debuted at the virtual journalism summit. “It molds itself to the realities on the ground.”

Atwood acknowledges there’s some bias about the virtual experience. “I’ve gotten the eye rolls about Second Life, put off perhaps by the cartoon-like aspects. I think there are misconceptions about virtual worlds, but legitimate uses are increasing, there are new innovations in the education and enterprise sectors, and there’s rich research happening.”

Web extras

Video tour of WSU in Second Life (and a few other Second Life locations)

On the Web

WSU II – the Second Life home of Washington State University (requires Second Life)

Second Life

Center for Distance and Professional Education

Virtual Journalism Summit home page

New Media Consortium

CNN’s iReport.com

Canadian border crossing model