ARLINGTON -- In the virtual world, nurses in training from Texas, New York and Denmark can practice alongside other emergency personnel before an anthrax attack, pandemic or tornado grabs headlines.
Via computer, students participate in a simulated event that provides a role rehearsal, say experts at the University of Texas at Arlington's College of Nursing, where educators are taking lessons, discussions and conferences into the 3-D virtual world of Second Life.
Second Life allows people to create avatars and environments in spaces called islands. Avatars, which are free, can interact on the islands (which cost real money). Second Life received much hype about six years ago as a fantasy place to re-invent oneself. Now, it provides an educational tool for many universities.
"People have created games, but the platform allows for the creation of pretty much everything," said Sarah Jones, librarian and UT Arlington's coordinator for Second Life.
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Faculty and students meet. Students work on projects. And workshops and conferences can be held without spending money on travel or facilities. Educators said it is more engaging than a typical slideshow in a Web-based seminar.
"You feel like you are there with them," Jones said. "Even though, in reality, they may be thousands of miles away."
Universities, community colleges, nonprofit groups and government are using Second Life, according to Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based company that developed the online community. Through it, Texas State Technical College offers an online certificate and associates degree in digital media; the Mayo Clinic has conference facilities and a bookstore; and an international pandemic exercise has been played out by Idaho State University at Pocatello.
Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago who researches Internet history, said virtual gaming often builds on the spirit of collaboration, and that suits education.
"It's a really useful tool for role playing," he said. A simulated terrorist attack involves hundreds of people and victims, which can be better coordinated in Second Life rather than in real life, he added.
He said that practice opportunities will likely become more sophisticated as the program improves.
"Second Life today is sort of what the Internet was like in 1992," he said.
UT Arlington stepped into Second Life in 2009 with a grant through the University of Texas System, Sarah Jones said. Eventually, it was placed under the College of Nursing. UT Arlington pays about $3,500 a year to maintain its Second Life space.
In Second Life, people are learning in real time, Jones said. They experience every sound and motion at the same time. In fall 2010, a nursing workshop included a speaker from Boise State University and an audience member from Poland.
On April 14, nurses can attend a conference, "Therapeutic and Ethical Implications of Genomics for Nursing Practice," at a virtual UT Arlington. Participants will take part via avatar in specialized discussions about the genetics of drugs commonly used in the elderly or terminally ill.
Patricia Newcomb, assistant professor and director of UT Arlington's genomics translational research lab in the College of Nursing, said Second Life provides a good venue for the upcoming conference since the topic is very specialized.
"There is not a huge mass of nurses interested in that in a single geographic area," Newcomb said. "We are not concentrated. We need ways to connect with each other."
The virtual conference also works because it is easier on pocketbooks. Since the recession, it has been more difficult to pay for trips, conferences or continuing education opportunities that are a must for practicing nurses.
"It's a way for us to network," Newcomb said. "It's easy and it's free."
Newcomb said she also holds a series of journal club meetings in Second Life that allow people to discuss research and publications.
Joy Don Baker, a clinical associate professor at UT Arlington, teaches a graduate course in Second Life. She said figuring out how the platform can provide opportunities for simulated practice for nurses is important. She likens it to pilots practicing flight in simulation before taking to the air. Eventually, online simulations can create the one-in-a-million healthcare scenario so nurses can be ready to respond when asked, "What do you do?"
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675