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Visual culture class goes virtual

A screenshot of Professor Jane Cera’s avatar at the IU Second Life Campus Gate. Cera is using the Second Life program to help teach her visual culture course.

A screenshot of Professor Jane Cera’s avatar at the IU Second Life Campus Gate. Cera is using the Second Life program to help teach her visual culture course.

By: BEKKA OXLEY
Staff Writer

Imagine a world where gaming in class is not only acceptable, but also encouraged. For some students at IU South Bend, using gaming software during class is anything but imaginary.

Jane Cera, assistant professor of art education and department chair of fine arts, uses Second Life as a teaching tool in her FINA-A190 visual culture class.

In a nutshell, Second Life is a virtual world where different organizations can buy land. Indiana University owns an island in the program called Indiana University Second Life (IUSL) where all the regional campuses are represented.

“Visual culture is paramount in identity formation. We are the images we see and they influence us in social ways,” Cera said. “I do a lot with identity formation as part of the course, and one way to put those two ideas together is for students to create avatars because they’re using visual culture to create an online identity.”

After students create an account with Second Life, they start with a basic avatar they can use to represent themselves in the game. Users can opt to change their avatars any way they want, from altering their eye shape to dressing it in fashionable clothing.

“It’s interesting for me to see what kind of modifications students want to make to their avatars,” Cera said. “I think a lot more men change body type than women tend to when they get a standard avatar. There are a lot of gender-specific, feminist implications to why that happens.”

Cera said sometimes students will adopt a different gender or skin color just to see what it’s like to walk around as a different person in a virtual world.

“Most students, however, want their avatars to look as much like them as possible and I think that’s very interesting,” Cera said. “They’ll change some things and not others. Like, they’ll go to great lengths to get hair color, eye color and fashion the way they want it, but they’ll still leave them in a skinny little Barbie figure.”

After students create and modify their avatars, Cera encourages them to explore the virtual world of IUSL to see what it has to offer.

The Campus Gate is a starting point for users new to IUSL. There’s a map that shows students the different places they can go on the island. If users make their avatars walk down the brick road past the Campus Gate, they will find Campus Row, where every regional campus has its own building representing their school. For IUSB, it’s the Franklin D. Schurz Library.

Rodger Wigent, a sophomore studying elementary education, is currently enrolled in Cera’s visual culture class. He said that before the class, he didn’t have any experience with the game, but now he’s finding it enjoyable to play.

“I still am learning new things every time I play the game,” Wigent said. “When I am playing, I sometimes feel like I become a part of it and the things I do are actually happening. A learning experience that I have acquired is that when you play this game, there are no limits to what you do, it literally is another world to be in.”

For Cera’s class, students are required to explore IUSL and complete certain assignments as they do so.

“One of the things that my students do for class is pull up the search window and search for art galleries or museums, then they take virtual field trips all over the place,” Cera said. “They go to these places and then come back to class and say if they would recommend that field trip for others or not, what kind of art they saw there, and look at the concepts we are working on in class.”

Since photography is a large part of Cera’s visual culture class, she also has her students experiment with screenshots within the game. Some of her student assignments include experimenting with the different viewpoints users can have, taking screenshots of students’ favorite places in IUSL, and taking photographs from unusual angles.

“My objective is that they use visual culture to create an online identity and that they become familiar with some of the possibilities of technology that they might not already know about,” Cera said.

Those interested in learning more about Second Life and downloading the software can visit www.secondlife.com.

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