AUSTRALIA: Strangers help university succeed, virtually

An Australian university has been inspired to develop its virtual world services, by unknown digital 'avatars' operated by computer users outside its walls. The University of Western Australia calls these helpers 'angels' and they have assisted it to develop a presence on virtual world Second Life.

So much so much so that, nominated by Second Life peers, the university's work in the 3D virtual online community earned it a spot as one of the 2010 finalists for Second Life's second annual Linden Prize.

Chosen from over 130 entrants, the University of Western Australia (UWA) was among 10 finalists worldwide - and the only university in this list.

Since it began in 2009, UWA's Second Life presence has unfolded serendipitously, says founder Jay Jay Jegathesan, manager of the School of Physics. The virtual version of the Perth-based institution now focuses its activities on four main elements - architecture, teaching, research and arts.

The university's efforts to beyond a simple institutional presence in the online world, into the four main elements, is another reason it was nominated for the Linden Prize.

"The UWA presence is comprehensive and caters to every strata of society, ranging from the general public, current and prospective students, alumni, visitors, and researchers," Jegathesan said.

Being open within the virtual world, instead of just opening up a university and closing it to everyone except our students, was another important aspect of UWA in Second Life and made the online campus as accessible as its real campus, he added.

"None of this would be possible without the incredible support of all the 'angels' who have dropped in at various points in the evolution of UWA within the Virtual world," Jegathesan continued, referring to Second Life users outside the university who have communicated with him via their avatars - a computerised representation of real people.

Many of the 'angels' have helped Jegathesan in fields he was not so familiar with, assisting the university to participate in a Second Life 3D Art and Design Challenge. They also helped UWA host a 'Machinima' short video contest in its Second Life theatre.

"[Second Life member White Lebed] encouraged me to do a Machinima competition, which is a video competition to go into the virtual world and take video footage of the virtual world and put it on YouTube," Jegathesan said.

Without White Lebed's help, he would not have run the Machinima contest, which has become an important tool in securing the long-term presence of UWA in Second Life.

Apart from running contests, UWA in Second Life helps the university collaborate with business students and schools worldwide. They recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Texas in San Antonio that will open the door to online lectures back and forth between the two institutions.

"It's more about pushing the awareness," Jegathesan says. "We have some really strong foundations that can continue.

* UWA assistant Professor Wade Halvorson, of the School of Business, won the Pearson Education Prize for the best case study paper at the July 2010 UK Academy of Marketing Conference. His paper focused on 'Virtual Dublin' as a successful online business on Second Life.

Thank you for a wonderful article on the University of Western Australia's programs in Second Life. The many artists who have contributed work to the UWA Design Challenges comprise some of the best digital designers and architects currently working, and UWA has done amazing work in promoting not only the arts but the interchange of ideas with other universities and schools across the world.

However, I must say that "unknown digital avatars" is not my experience; I have met and made many interesting, engaging and thoughtful people through the university and her efforts (and Jayjay's) and they are not unknown to me at all.

Miso Susanowa