It's an alien world to people who came of age before the Web, but a visit to Second Life, or some other virtual world, is becoming a natural habit for millions of young people.
In an effort to meet those young people on their terms, Ridgewater College is working to develop educational uses for Second Life, according to Jenni Swenson, dean of instruction.
Second Life is a 3-D virtual world on the Internet with its own countries or rooms, called islands, and its own economy and social structure. People who participate in Second Life develop an image to use in the virtual world, called an avatar.
Avatars can look like people or they can look like any creatures their makers can imagine.
More and more young people are participating in virtual reality sites.
Second Life is open to people 18 and older, but many sites offer similar experiences for younger children.
"This is what they're used to," Swenson said. "For kids, I think if we invade their space, we can teach them in their space."
The majority of users of virtual worlds are younger than 15, and it will be important to reach out to those students in Second Life when they start college and bring their computer skills with them. "If we aren't offering it when they get here, they'll think we're dinosaurs," Swenson said. "They're coming, and we've got to be ready."
Second life has games and shopping malls. It has shops where people can change the look of their avatars or learn how to build their own islands.
The virtual world hosts conferences, lectures, discussion groups, art shows and concerts. "It's just a riot to walk into a room and have it filled with strange avatars," she said. For an idea of what it might look like, imagine a bar room scene from Star Wars.
Ridgewater has received a grant from the Minnesota State College and Universities system for the project. Swenson is working with faculty members Mike Kutzke and Amy Jo Maher on the project.
The development efforts in Second Life are similar to efforts when Internet use first became widespread, she said. With access to so many opportunities, educators struggled at first to find the best ways to use it.
Many major universities have islands in Second Life already and more are developing islands.
Swenson said she doesn't like college sites that recreate buildings. "It's just not fun," she said. "Second Life is meant to be able to do things that are not possible in the real world."
MnSCU Island, still under development, is an outdoor paradise floating in the sky, with stone paths, waterfalls and flowerbeds. The hope is that is will be a center that will be useful to all 33 schools in the system, Swenson said.
In the Best Practices Pavilion, instructors will be able to use a rating system that Swenson is helping to create. It will tell them how useful different islands can be.
Swenson conducts a tour of the area, or rather, her avatar does. It's a small woman with long hair, a softly flowing gown and wings. Avatars can fly in Second Life, even if they don't have wings, she said, but she added them just because she liked them. As with the idyllic MnSCU Island, it's something she couldn't do in real life.
"It's very geeky; I will admit that," Swenson said with a smile. "There's nothing that says learning can't be fun."
The educational possibilities are all around.
Second Life has libraries, and volunteers staff them and help people find an island they are seeking.
Students can view medical simulations and science experiments. People studying psychology can visit an area that mimics what it feels like to have schizophrenia.
It's possible to design and test robots in the virtual world, then build them in the real world. "To give (students) that opportunity; who knows what they'll create," Swenson said.
In Second Life, people who speak different languages can have conversations using the translator that is provided. "It's almost like the Star Trek universal translator," Swenson said.
Spanish instructor Vicky Kapitzke holds office hours in Second Life and invites her students to visit her at islands build by people who speak Spanish. Eventually, she hopes her first-year students will use Second Life to meet people from other countries and practice speaking the language -- "an exchange program via a virtual world."
So far, not too many students have joined her in the virtual world, but they've only studied Spanish a few weeks.
"I'm hoping it'll catch on," she said. "I think some are nervous about it, but once they try it they like it."
Swenson said she got interested in Second Life as a way to keep in touch with her sons, who are 20 and 23. They introduced her to Second Life.
Her sons don't always answer their cell phones, and text messaging offers a limited conversation. "If we meet in Second Life, we'll talk for an hour," she said. "They don't necessarily know I'm using it as a Mom tactic."
There can be 60,000 or more users logged in at any one time, and they are from all over the world. More than 1 million users may log in over the course of a couple months.
To try it out, go to secondlife.com. A basic membership is free.