Having taught an online-only course for undergraduates, I say with some personal experience that higher education has not effectively embraced information technology as much as it could, particularly where teaching is concerned. Which is why I’m encouraged by what I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education about an effort to reconstruct the Galapagos Islands – where Darwin’s work with finches was critical to the formation of evolutionary theory – in Second Life. Now, Second Life may be behind the cool curve where online interaction is concerned, but it is still a useful tool to create spaces in a way that social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace don’t emphasize.
In connection with the 2009 sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the University of Cincinnati is reconstructing the islands, and augmenting the ability to retrace Darwin’s steps with audio and video material shot during field trips to the Islands. Additionally, information kiosks on the Galapagos will be created in in Second Life. Additional details (and images) can be found in the EDUCAUSE Review article two of the participating faculty wrote on the project. The project will continue through the 2009-2010 academic year.
What projects like this do is open up the ways in which educational topics can be communicated. Not only can people outside of the university access the material without travelling to Ohio, but this allows for biology to be presented to students in completely new ways. The biggest policy question would be how to encourage such activity. This is not easily addressed at the federal level, aside from encouraging grants and other support for creating new educational materials and/or research work. The area for big work will be in university policy. This will be particularly difficult for at least two reasons. First, while the usual inhabitants may not be conservative, universities are very conservative – slow to change. Second, the rewards system (tenure first among the rewards) will need to change in order for faculty to be encouraged to do this kind of work. While being slow to change denotes a certain measure of stability, the corresponding reluctance to engage the new can be frustrating.