Professor uses computer game to teach class

Tim Miller

Keeping on the cutting edge of technology is tough.

Teaching how to use these new technologies can be tougher.

Brian Mennecke, associate professor of logistics operations and management information systems, is using one current technology, a computer game called “Second Life,” to teach business principles.

“Second Life” is a free downloadable game that allows a person to live a virtual second life. In Second Life, people can own property, interact with a wide variety of other people and even trade the in-game currency, Linden dollars, for real money. “Second Life” is a streaming environment in which most of the content is created by the user.

“Things can change drastically from the time you leave,” Mennecke said.

The class, MIS 534, E-Commerce, is about teaching how to use social media as a way to network with clients and how online economies work.

“[‘Second Life’] has a lot of opportunities to see what business is like firsthand,” Mennecke said.

One advantage to using “Second Life” is it allows Mennecke to bring in many different speakers, even some from other countries.

“‘Second Life’ increases the opportunities for students to experience things outside the classroom,” Mennecke said.

Mennecke’s idea for using “Second Life” as a teaching tool started last fall. He heard a news story about someone using “Second Life” in economics research. Economists were looking at giving people in-game currency, then observed how the money was spent. Mennecke said he spoke with another professor who said it would be a good thing to use in the classroom.

Mennecke’s goal for the class is that students will be creative and build content in “Second Life.”

“‘Second Life’ is a good way to express new ideas,” Mennecke said.

MIS 534 is taught in a distance format through the Engineering Distance Education program.

“We just do our lectures and record them,” Mennecke said. “Students can watch them on their leisure.”

Mennecke enjoys using “Second Life” because it promotes team building and exploring outside the classroom.

A couple of problems Mennecke had with using the game in class was not everybody had a powerful enough computer to run the game. “Second Life” also requires a high-speed Internet connection, which not everybody has access to.

“I didn’t want to kick somebody out of class because the game was restricting students from participating,” Mennecke said.

Another problem is that the game is known for mature content. Since it is largely user-created content, there are few restrictions for what you can do in “Second Life.”

“I didn’t want to expose students to mature content if they didn’t want to be,” Mennecke said.

Mennecke said he is teaching this because it could be useful to know for the years to come.

“People view this as a game, but this could be the future of the Web,” Mennecke said.

Lesya Hassall, instructional development specialist for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, has been helping students with their transition into “Second Life.”

“What I am trying to do here is provide justification,” Hassall said. “I talk back and forth with Mennecke about how to make [‘Second Life’] less painful.”

She said she wants students to get excited about the subject matter through “Second Life.” Hassall said she sees “Second Life” as another tool to enhance teaching.

“My role here is to help make these activities meaningful so students can learn from them,” Hassall said.

Right now she is working on a scavenger hunt that takes students to historical places in “Second Life,” while teaching them basic skills that will help them function in game.

She started out going to presentations on how to use “Second Life” to enhance learning. Now she belongs to many educational groups within “Second Life” to enhance her knowledge so she can pass it along to the students.

“‘Second Life’ does have a very steep learning curve,” Hassall said.

Hassall said she was impressed that the three academic units – the College of Business, EDE and CELT – were working together so smoothly. She said it’s amazing to see how dedicated all three were to students.

“That’s what I think is making this successful, all this support for Mennecke’s class,” Hassall said.

Nathan Wright, managing partner of Lava Row, a social media consulting firm, spoke to the class through “Second Life” about his business. Wright shows businesses how to use “Second Life” as a marketing tool to possibly make money.

Wright said he thought it was great that someone was teaching how to use social media, which is any form of media that can be used to network.

“‘Second Life,’ like a lot of social media, is just a new method of collaboration,” Wright said. “Any time a university can introduce their students to new – and entertaining – ways to collaborate, it’s a great thing.”

Wright said “Second Life” can be used for companies to hear consumers’ voices.

“I tell clients that they don’t control their brands any more, their customers do, and now their customers have tools to make their voices heard,” Wright said. “Social media, collaborative media, Web 2.0 – it is critical that companies understand this stuff and the power it has.”

Although “Second Life” is getting more popular, Wright said he believes that businesses who use it, in terms of brand awareness, have reached the critical mass stage.

“I believe businesses will continue to create useful applications with it,” Wright said. “It remains to be seen whether ‘SL’ keeps growing, or something else takes its place.”

Wright had some advice for students who are thinking about using “Second Life” for interviews or business ventures.

“It would be great if students referred to their avatar on resumes; it might capture the right person’s attention and prompt an in-world interview,” Wright said. “If you want to start a venture in-world, I’d recommend getting very skilled at building or scripting.”