It all started with World of Warcraft.
The year was 2004, and Mary Anne Clark, a professor of Biology at Texas Wesleyan University, had logged into the massive online role playing game for the first time. Having not been much of a gamer before, Clark had been brought to WoW by her husband after much prompting. Yet after her first experience in a virtual world, Clark was hooked—not just by the prospect of nearly unlimited quests, but also by the novel research opportunities afforded by an environment in which real people interacted in a virtual space.
Although others have made use of WoW for research purposes (such as the epidemiologists who studied the 'corrupted blood incident' to model real world disease transmission), according to Clark, the WoW environment proved to be too limiting for doing the type of hard science she had in mind. Fortunately, at around the same time, a mutual friend introduced Clark and her husband to Second Life, a massive virtual world launched by Linden Lab in 2003.
Unlike WoW, the virtual world of Second Life is almost entirely user generated. By making use of a specially tailored scripting language, the 'residents' of Second Life can make an unlimited number of modifications to their environment. It was this degree of freedom that drew Clark to Second Life as a virtual world fit for pedagogy, and after some short scripting tutorials she set about making the community's first genetics lab: Genome Island.
Today, visitors to Genome Island will find a beautiful virtual genetics laboratory, packed full of dozens of genetic simulation experiments and rendered with an astonishing attention to aesthetic detail. They can stroll through the Genome Garden or dine in the Chromosome Cafe, yet when Clark was first starting her pet project in 2005, Genome Island was little more than an interactive cell model housed in a crude rendition of St. Thomas' Abbey, the old haunting grounds of renowned geneticist Gregor Mendel.
"Genome is a model of my own mental landscape when I am thinking about genetics," said Clark. "However, I did want to produce simulations of real experiments, both historical and contemporary, that would generate data that could then be analyzed according to scientific principles. And I wanted it to be pretty."
According to Clark, who has built the vast majority of Genome Island and its experiments herself, the core structure of Genome Island took a few years to complete. She worked on it in her free time and funded the project from her own pockets.
Before long, Genome Island was a full-fledged member of SciLands, a once thriving community of science oriented projects hosted by institutions ranging from NASA to NPR. It began to host a number of far-reaching tutorials and experiments, which allow users do everything from play dress up in their own genetic code to learning about sex linkage at the Island's Cattery, Clark's homage to Judith Kinnear's CatLab.
By 2007, Genome Island was ready for a test run with a group of advanced genetics students. Clark would have her students perform experiments in the virtual environment and over the course of her trial run found that virtual environment significantly helped facilitate learning. Yet as Genome Island continued to grow and house more experiments, so did the costs associated with maintaining the virtual laboratory. Despite her enthusiasm about teaching in a virtual environment, it became clear that if Clark was unable to find funding for the Island, all of her hard work would collapse under the weight of server fees. Fortunately, relief came following the successful trial run in the form of a grant from Texas Wesleyan University in 2007, which has footed the nearly $2,000 annual bill for Genome Island ever since.
In 2009, Clark began hosting entire semester-long courses entirely in the virtual environment, an approach she has kept up to this day. Genome Island quickly became a popular resource among educators and according to Clark, the Island is now frequented by professors and their pupils from a number of different institutions.
As Clark sees it, there are a number of advantages to taking genetics education into a virtual space. For starters, it allows for students to participate in far more experiments than would be possible to host in any one particular course held in a brick-and-mortar setting. Moreover, the ability for students to be embodied in avatars adds a more 'social' element to online learning, which outside of experiments like Genome Island, often occurs on text-based message boards.
Genome Island wasn't the only university to use Second Life as a virtual classroom and lab, but it is certainly one of the longest lasting. At over a decade-old, Genome Island has managed to avoid the fate of similar institutions, such as Woodbury University, which was shut down by Linden Lab after it became a haven for harassment and various forms of griefing.
Although Clark has seen her fair share of trolls on Genome Island (she had just finished clearing out a herd of My Little Ponies which had mysteriously come to occupy the Island's Population Genetics Platform when we spoke), she partly attributes the Island's lack of trolls to its relatively low traffic rate, as compared with other virtual learning spaces like Woodbury.
Considering the amount of educational material and research potential harbored on Genome Island, its low user traffic rate is a marvel in itself, but Clark said she isn't surprised. Despite her successes with taking science education virtual, her colleagues have been less receptive to the idea than she had hoped, something she chalks up to the learning curve associated with scripting in Second Life.
Still, Clark is quick to cite a number of other projects, such as Virtual Islands for Better Education, as examples of the increasing recognition of virtual worlds as viable education spaces.
"The advantages of learning in a virtual world are related to working in an active learning environment that encourages exploration and discovery," said Clark. "Second Life is adaptable to many disciplines and Second Life still has an active educational community."
While the proliferation of virtual learning environments bodes well for the future of online education (or at least promises to make it significantly less boring), it is unlikely that any new virtual institution will ever come close to matching the awesome originality of Genome Island.