An Internet fantasy universe teeming with faux worlds devoted to socializing and video games is expanding to include virtual classrooms and universities.
A new trend in online education involves students acting through animated characters called "avatars" mingling in simulated school settings and even rocketing off, via the Internet, on quests for knowledge.
San Jose State University in the heart of Silicon Valley has built a campus at Second Life, the popular virtual world created by Linden Lab in San Francisco.
The virtual university spans 16 digital acres dotted with school buildings that Library Sciences Department students use for classes and experiments.
"When I teach with Second Life, I think of it as an experience generator," university professor Jeremy Kemp told AFP.
"I can send a student in to have an experience in an unstructured environment, and then come out and have a conversation about it."
Thirty students signed-up for Kemp's 15-week virtual-world class, which includes learning about the application driving the Second Life program.
"I ask them to volunteer on (an in-world) reference desk, or take a tour of Second Life with snapshots," he said. "Students can even design a library program with a speaker and invite the public."
Kemp is trying to simulate real world experiences by building virtual buildings and audiences so students can learn in realistic, but safe and controlled, settings.
"We're experimenting with using Second Life to prep students to face the terror of public speaking," Kemp said. "That's very difficult to do in any other way."
While Kemp's class simulations are unconventional, industry analysts say his methods are not unique.
"Second Life is just one of those technologies that allow you to have a more robust classroom experience," said Sloan Consortium survey director Jeff Seaman, who researches education trends.
The catch, according to Seaman, is that while teachers are interested in this technology, it is a challenge finding constructive ways to use it.
"I know schools that bought their own land in Second Life to figure out what it was, but never used it," Seaman told AFP.
The University of Phoenix specializes in long-distance learning in the United States and is among schools that invested in virtual property without developing it, according to Provost Adam Honea.
"It's not that we don't think Second Life is good, it's that we can't fit what we've already done into it," Honea said.
Instead, the University of Pheonix has created its own immersive environments, such as a fictitious company websites that contain realistic documents for business students to analyze.
"Most of our systems are proprietary, so it's easier for us to create our own immersive environments than to use commercial products," Honea said.
Only a tiny fraction of the more than 3.5 million people in the United States that took online classes last year did so in virtual worlds, according to the Sloan Consortium.
"I think that it is going to take plenty of time for groups and communities to realize the affordances and limitations of Second Life," said Coye Cheshire, an assistant professor at University of California at Berkeley school of information.
The University of California at Berkeley doesn't have a Second Life campus, but it makes some courses available via webcasts and podcasts, enabling students to stream lectures to their computers or listen on iPods or other MP3 players.
The pace of academic institutions moving into virtual worlds such as Second Life promises to build as students growing up with the technology become educators themselves, according to Kemp.
"This is an adolescent technology that's lurching and pushing in different directions and getting a sense of itself," he said.
"The things we're learning from Second Life will eventually help distance educators do their work. It's very promising."