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Chris Calvert-Minor
UW-Whitewater professor Chris Calvert-Minor (right) will be teaching an online class in which students will watch his avatar (left), named Prof. Cerise, do the lecturing. Chris Calvert-Minor photos

His students will know him this summer as Prof Cerise, a philosophy guru who wears sunglasses, has uber-cool spiky black hair and orates from a soaring stone lecture hall.

In reality, UW-Whitewater professor Chris Calvert-Minor will be sitting in front of a computer — as will his students — and they will meet only virtually in the world of Second Life.

Students will sit in an animated classroom with cushy armchairs and couches. And they will be able to interact through their avatars without leaving home.

Calvert-Minor will be the first UW-Whitewater faculty member to teach a full course on Second Life this summer with his class on introduction to philosophy, which is free and open to the public.

Second Life debuted as a virtual three-dimensional world in 2003 and since then, it has become an increasingly popular tool in academia. But as some of the initial hype over the technology has leveled, experts on educational technology are now focusing on how to use it effectively to help students learn.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the University of Wisconsin System held a two-day seminar — in Second Life — to talk about when educators should consider using a virtual world, and when in-person is still best.

“I think we’re still seeing a diffusion of this across college campuses, but I think we’re seeing more strategic, sensible use of the technology,” said Tanya Joosten, interim associate director of the Learning Technology Center at UW-Milwaukee.

Joosten said the point isn’t to replicate a traditional college campus, but to offer learning opportunities that would be difficult or impossible in a physical classroom. For instance, an occupational therapy instructor at UW-Milwaukee has her students put their avatars in wheelchairs so they can experience the challenges of having a disability, she said.

UW-Milwaukee, Whitewater, Madison, Green Bay, Stout and Oshkosh are some of the UW System campuses using Second Life. There are more than 750 educational institutions using it, according to a Second Life spokeswoman.

At UW-Whitewater, Calvert-Minor is one of eight faculty members who plan to use Second Life in the 2010-11 academic year, according to Karen Skibba, an instructional design specialist in the Learning Technology Center. She said the university recently got a $14,000 grant from the UW System to explore the use of Second Life in college courses and get feedback from students and faculty.

Calvert-Minor said he still prefers teaching courses in person, but online courses are beneficial because it expands the audience. In Second Life, students can hear him, raise their hands, and ask questions by voice or text.

“I was always of the mind that you can never do philosophy class online, because how do you ever get the kind of in-depth discussion that really is required in a philosophy class?” he said. “Well, here you go: Second Life actually affords it to you. Because you can use your voices in Second Life as well.”

Calvert-Minor will go over major philosophical issues such as free will versus determinism and the existence of God in his class.

He’ll also pose “The Matrix” question to students: How do we know we’re not living in a virtual world?