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    Posted March 30, 2010 by
    Perth, Australia
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Stories from Second Life

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    UWA Leads The Way:


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    University of Western Australia Virtual Campus:
    Real Time Education in the Virtual World.


    Interview with Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, Professor Alan Robson, AM


    By Raphaella Nightfire


    In 1962 freshman, Alan Robson left his quiet country town for university. He walked onto a campus brimming with new technology. The university’s computer was a single mainframe and occupied a whole room. Data was bought on punch cards and calculations were made on wind up calculators!


    Fast forward to 2010.


    Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Australia (UWA), Professor Alan Robson AM, walked through the lobby of the auditorium, pausing to listen to the chamber music ensemble and acknowledge guests.  It is a familiar scene for this internationally distinguished academic administrator who is about to formally open the University’s latest campus.  The audience took their seats. A screen came to life showing another audience, this one internationally diverse and in avatar form, also seated.  Professor Robson began to speak from the dais. As he did the audience watched him both in front of them and on a dais on the screen. The avatar Professor was unmistakable as the man on the physical dais.  In both settings, the famous clock tower of Winthrop Hall rose above the beloved Morton Bay Fig trees.   In this moment trapped in time it became clear, this was no computer game. This was in real time (IRT) global communication. Welcome to the University of Western Australia’s virtual campus.


    Raphaella Nightfire: Professor, I sat in the real life auditorium of the launch of the UWA Virtual Campus and heard many comments from audience members who suddenly seemed to gain an understanding of the potential of using virtual worlds for IRT education and community engagement. Several guests marvelled at the impact of this interaction and in particular, that you even looked and moved like the ‘real’ you. What is YOUR reaction to this new and virtual campus?


    Professor Robson: When I began studying so many years ago I think few could envisage the enormous transformation in electronic communication and what it would lead to in terms of information domination and yet now our web page is our most important publication.


    The university has always has the goals of innovation and enterprise and actively seeks international excellence for both academics and students so we are open to any initiative that will help further these goals. When our Physics Faculty Manager, approached me for funding for the virtual campus project I approved it on the basis that the project had to meet further four main areas: Education, Research, Architecture and Arts.


    In terms of education and research, our virtual campus the key word is access.  It not only offers an additional format for learning but also allows access by people not enrolled and who are interested in learning or seeing the work being undertaken.  Training by simulator is not new but teaching real time on a simulator or ‘sim’ is fairly cutting edge.   We chose the Second Life grid to establish our campus as the infrastructure for building and teaching were readily available and the grid community was in place.


    The virtual campus allows us to educate in real time in an additional format. We bring students into the lecture areas for lectures by academics from UWA and even from other universities, some of which are overseas. For example, Professor Wade Halvorson, based overseas at the moment, conducted an entire 2nd year Bachelor of Commerce Unit in our virtual campus Sky Lecture Theatre.  Professor Mark Pegrum of the UWA Graduate School of Education also bases one of that faculty’s courses on the Campus,  and Paul Bourke of the Physics Faculty is conducting Physics Visualisation Research in SL whereby data can be represented automatically rather then in model form, for example, volume rendering of a human cortex.


    In addition our virtual campus has hosted groups of faculty and staff from other universities around the world.  We are also able to undertake collaborations with other Universities. Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with other RL universities including for example, Stanford and the University of Texas, to formalise collaborative relationships and open the way for joint projects using the virtual campus as the meeting place for the types of projects that would otherwise be restricted by sheer distance!


    Raphaella Nightfire: Universities often have an ‘Ivory Tower’ air about them. Is the campus restricted only to enrolled students and faculty?


    Professor Robson: Not at all. The community engagement initiatives allow us to seek and foster international relations and to encourage excellence beyond our own campus.  Within a few weeks of building the virtual campus we initiated 3D Art and Design,  Building and Architectural Challenges. The response from the international community continues to be overwhelming. The Challenges have reached 6 continents of the world, with only Antarctica out of the mix. Canada, the USA, the UK, Scotland, England, Spain, Italy, France, Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Holland, Ireland, Portugal, Austria, Serbia, Tunisia, Germany, Japan and Australia have been represented.  We are thrilled that so many gifted non-professionals as well as professional 3D artists, architects and engineers are participating


    I am delighted with the popularity and the standard of entries in the Challenges. The Flagship Challenge has a specific and unique RL element, that is:


    To design the University of Australia (UWA) Cultural Precinct Flagship Building, a structure which ‘captures the essence of creative engagement’ that is also possible to construct in real life (RL).


    The Challenges also offers the opportunity for a level of international recognition for entrants.


    Raphaella Nightfire: Like the recent MachinimUWA Challenge?


    For the benefit of readers, Machinima is a form of filmmaking using real time 3D graphics to create animated films.  MachinimUWA was launched in mid-December 2009 and the Challenge was to create a machinima ‘up to 5 minutes in length that captures the four main elements that make up the heart of the University of Western Australia’s virtual campus. The film had to focus on the bridge between the virtual and real life campus (http://uwainsl.blogspot.com/). 


    Professor Robson: We had a wonderful response to MachinimUWA.  The judging panel and I were most impressed with all entries and final selection was difficult. The winning entry from 'SEEK' by Cisko Vandeverre of Berlin, Germany had quite a different approach!


    People can still view the winning and finalist entries at http://uwainsl.blogspot.com/2010/02/machinmuwa-winners-announcement.html


    Raphaella Nightfire: I noticed that Machinima judging panel, headed by yourself included, in addition to eight UWA faculty members, Dr Carmen Fies (RL), Assistant Professor, The University of Texas at San Antonio and Torley Linden, Linden Labs Second Life.  Are there any other areas where judges other than those at UWA RL campus may be included?


    Professor Robson: Yes. I am delighted that the selection of the Grand Prize for the Imagine and Flagship Challenges in August of this year, will have an extended judging panel which will include the CEO of Linden Labs, Mark Linden as well as Second Life representatives from the grid’s art, architecture & journalism communities.


    Raphaella Nightfire: What strikes you most about the UWA campus and projects on SL to date?


    Professor Robson: We have and continue to meet our goals of furthering education, research, arts and architecture. In terms of international excellence the UWA Second Life grid virtual campus offers another model of working with overseas universities, individuals, creators and academics. We are continually working on increasing and improving collaboration with the international academic community and business to increase access to learning.


    The world has become so small and every day on the SL campus we have significant international and cultural participation. We are a part of world communities.  This is wonderful and we welcome everyone to visit and to participate in the UWA Second Life Virtual campus.

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