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Second Life a first for UH department of health and human performance

The University of Houston department of health and human performance is expanding into the virtual world of Second Life (SL) thanks to grants from the UH Faculty Development Initiative Program (FDIP) and the Network Culture Project of the University of Southern California-Annenberg School for Communication.

"These funds will allow our faculty to stake ground in Second Life for the benefit of our students and our community," said Charles Layne, professor and department chair. Layne received a $30,000 Technology and Retention Research award from the FDIP to investigate whether students who use SL for academic reasons get better grades than those who do not, or if they earn their degrees sooner (or at all) than those who do not.

"We know young people easily accept new technology, but we want to know if using technology like Second Life, which immerses participants in a new world, can create an environment that is supportive of students' academic endeavors," Layne said. "There isn't a lot of literature on the use of virtual environments in this way." This program evaluation began during summer 2007 and will continue for at least the next three years and may become a permanent fixture if it proves to be successful.

Brian McFarlin, assistant professor of health and human performance, is no stranger to instructional technology. His study on 'hybrid classes' found that students who took a hybrid exercise physiology class earned a letter grade higher than their counterparts who took the class in traditional settings. He's now received $25,000 from the FDIP to move an entire class, Public Health Issues in Physical Activity and Obesity, into Second Life. He says SL technology will allow him to present material in ways that are not possible with traditional online teaching tools.

"For example, in discussions on how obesity impacts the heart, I can make a 3-D model of a healthy heart and a diseased heart and allow the students to view the inside of the left ventricle to demonstrate how blood flow is altered by disease," McFarlin said. "I want to be mindful of what students want. It's about them and trying to give them a better learning experience." He anticipates the SL section of his course will be offered in spring 2009.

The Texas Obesity Research Center (TORC), housed in the department, will move some of its research to SL in hopes of using its international reach to promote healthful dietary habits and physical activity. TORC was the winner of the Network Culture Project contest, sponsored by the University of Southern California-Annenberg School for Communication. The contest solicited proposals from around the world for ways to use SL to promote the public good. TORC received 300,000 Linden, the currency of SL, for its proposal to use the medium to prevent and treat obesity through education, skills training and outreach.

"We hope to develop multi-national collaborations in SL to increase awareness, knowledge, skills and support for healthy living," Rebecca Lee, TORC director and associate professor, said. "Reducing obesity is an international priority, and SL provides a portal to an international community." The program will emphasize learning and virtual sampling of healthful lifestyle habits. Lee's study will enroll 500 resident avatars and invite them to participate in educational games and activities to help them learn to adopt a healthier lifestyle in real life.

"Technology presents many opportunities to creatively use new venues to improve the way we live and learn," Layne said. "UH and our department want to be at the forefront of those opportunities so that we can make a positive contribution to our community and world."


Contact: Marisa Ramirez
University of Houston

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