Texas A&M And University of Arkansas Collaborate, Along With Texas Tech, In Teaching Students With “Second Life”
Faculty from Texas A&M University, the University of Arkansas and Texas Tech University are using “Second Life” (SL) to prepare agricultural communications students for real-life crisis situations.
The project, “Educational Effectiveness of Utilizing Second Life in Teaching Graduate-Level Agricultural Crisis Communications,” was initiated in 2009 and funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. It came to fruition with the help of Texas A&M Associate Professor Tracy Rutherford, who is the associate department head for undergraduate programs in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications, Texas Tech Professor David Doerfert and University of Arkansas Assistant Professor Leslie Edgar.
“Our goal was to find out if it is effective to use a virtual world to teach crisis communications,” Rutherford says. “Second Life is a 3-D virtual environment, also known as a multi-user virtual environment, which allows users to create new content and interact with content through the use of an avatar. So, in our simulation, we can put students through a hurricane or a food safety crisis without ever putting them in any real danger.”
Rutherford learned about Second Life while attending a workshop by Instructional Technology Services and was encouraged to find a way to incorporate it into the agricultural communications and journalism curriculum. Edgar, Rutherford’s former student, was also very interested in looking at Second Life as a teaching tool. Doerfert, who teaches a crisis communications class at Texas Tech, wanted to take his instruction of crisis communication beyond case studies.
“The most unique component of the SL project is that future agricultural communicators have the opportunity to plan for, experience and respond to a crisis in a controlled environment in-world,” Edgar notes. “Crises can have devastating effects on unimaginable amounts of people, animals, land, food supplies and resources. Because these possible crises are so potentially damaging, particularly to agriculture, the importance of preparedness and effective training are crucial.”
Additional disciplines are turning to Second Life to deliver training and content, leading to the potential for future collaboration.
“Other faculty members on campus are using Second Life ― Vet Med, the Health Science Center and the College of Education. We are looking at ways we can use Second Life for problem solving and critical thinking,” Rutherford says. “Because of our ability to really control the scenario and participate as actors, we can build interdisciplinary projects where students have to think outside of their major, work with people in other disciplines to solve problems and anticipate issues that might come up in the real world.”
Doerfert’s class, “Risk and Crisis Communications,” is being taught at Texas Tech for the third consecutive semester this fall. “The class is taught at Tech, but it allows us to bring in collaborators from anywhere,” Rutherford explains. “We have had participants from D.C. and students from both inside and outside of Texas, so we have students who are on campus and off campus all sharing one environment.”
Students who have participated in Second Life instruction are grateful for the opportunity to be put into real-life scenarios.
“One of the responses that we’ve gotten from students after participating in the simulations is that it caused a much more emotional response in them than they anticipated,” Rutherford emphasizes. “More so than they believe would have occurred just in the classroom because there are all these other actors, like faculty members and people from industry. You’re going to be asked questions and put into situations where you have to respond and you have to react. You don’t have time to spend a week preparing and thinking about the presentation. Students have told us it feels more like the real world than when they have had to do presentations in class because it is in this much bigger context.”
The research team continues to explore new outlets of incorporating Second Life into the classroom and speaks highly of the opportunity to work with colleagues from other campuses.
“We all have different resources and we can maximize our resources by working together,” Rutherford says. “It is important for our students to see the value of collaboration.”
Edgar also notes the importance of collaboration between the universities. “Collaboration is a critical component of academia,” she says. “Recently, higher education has experienced additional budget cuts at both the federal and state level. However, effective teaching to educate our future workforce and research to solve complex issues impacting the world are critical to the success of all universities. Therefore, collaborations between universities and across academic disciplines are necessary to do more with less financial support.”
Rutherford notes she is also proud to be working side-by-side with one of her former Ph.D. students on this project.
“Seeing her being successful and working with her as a colleague now is a great way to continue our relationship and know that we are building our discipline,” Rutherford says. “Each of us has our area of expertise, but it makes a project stronger when we work together.”
Article written by Mollie Lastovica, agricultural communications and journalism major at Texas A&M