A Virtual Reality for SJU

Friday, October 5, 2007

Why, in the middle of a waning housing market, has Saint Joseph's University decided to invest in real estate?

The University recently purchased two "islands" in the vibrant universe of Second Life. The Haub School of Business is the campus' first investor in the project, which will eventually culminate in the construction of a number of buildings on campus in this virtual world.

Saint Joseph's joins more than 60 higher education institutions around the globe with addresses in Second Life. Marketing's Michael Solomon, Ph.D., and Natalie Wood, Ph.D., are driving the University's efforts and have contracted with InWorld Studios to design and build Saint Joseph's virtual campus.

HSB's graduate programs are early investors in this project and hope their participation will advance strategic marketing efforts as well as provide students with a virtual view of classrooms and give visitors access to lectures.

"One of our goals with Second Life is to use the medium as an aid in supplementing what's being taught in the classroom," said HSB Dean Joseph DiAngelo, Ed.D. '70. "Students will soon be able to meet with their professors, collaborate with each other for group projects, network with alumni, and participate in simulated business scenarios."

Registration is free and once the program is downloaded, students, faculty and alumni can login to Second Life and create an avatar – an online persona used to navigate the virtual universe.  "Avatars first became popular in games and online communities in the 1990s, but their use has recently exploded in e-commerce and Second Life," explained Wood, who researches the tool.

When Saint Joseph's islands go public in mid-November, visitors' avatars will be greeted by the University's mascot. While flapping his virtual wings, the Hawk will take these individuals on a tour of the Saint Joseph's campus and explain unique programs and initiatives at the University.

Solomon sees great potential for Second Life in marketing to prospective students and allowing them to tour the University when a physical tour isn't possible. "We also hope alumni will visit our virtual campus and use the resources available through Second Life to connect with former classmates and retain close ties with their alma mater," he said. "I'm not aware of another University whose efforts are as comprehensive as ours."

Of Second Life, a recent Newsweek article said: "It may be the Internet's next big thing." Solomon says that since 2006, membership has spiked from 1.5 million users to more than 9 million. Second Life even has its own currency – Linden dollars – which can be cashed out for U.S. dollars. Entrepreneurs and businesses like IBM and Coca Cola are earning profits through innovative marketing efforts. Dean DiAngelo sees enormous potential here for education.  "With what I've been exposed to so far, we're in for an exciting journey," he said.

If you are interested in being a part of Saint Joseph's virtual campus, contact Natalie Wood, Ph.D., at nwood@sju.edu.

--Carolyn Steigleman

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