Rita Raley is a UCSB English professor, but in her second life, she’s known to the world as her online avatar, Gorgon Medusa.

Students in future classes may find themselves learning more about Gorgon and her ilk, thanks to the English Dept.’s Second Life project. Second Life, owned by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, is a virtual, user-created 3-D environment. On the Web site, users design an avatar, which is an online alter ego and graphical representation of themselves.

The massive multiplayer environment is truly a second world, with its own economy, publications and culture. Players can purchase land, clothing and even sexual organs – all for real money.

The English Dept., in conjunction with graduate students from UCSB’s sociology and media arts and technology departments, has built a virtual campus for UCSB “in-world” called UCSB Lane, and also has a land-use partnership with Duke University.

“Second Life is a low-cost way of ensuring collaboration between different campuses,” Raley said. [On the Duke campus,] we’re on a cliff, so we’ll have the landscape of UCSB.”

Funded by a 2007 Instructional Improvement Grant, campus departments will use the land for virtual academic instruction, conferences and field trips, as well as social events. Any individual with a free Second Life account can visit and use UCSB Lane.

In one of Raley’s classes held “in-world,” students initially complained and found the program difficult to use. However, in a moment of inspiration, one student started a countdown for his fellow students to begin flying – one of several unearthly abilities that Second Life’s residents possess. On three, Raley said the entire class took to the virtual air.

“It was just a moment of joy and community,” Raley said. “It introduced a bit of levity in classroom discussion.”

According to Raley, data collected earlier this year indicates 40 percent of Second Lifers are social gamers and 20 percent are fashionistas – those who are interested in online fashion sold both by individual designers and retailers like American Apparel. Additionally, 15 percent are furries – users who sexually experiment as animal characters. About 10 percent are educators. Over 80 universities currently host such electronic educational programs “in-world.”

English professor and project member Alan Liu said the educational possibilities for students in the game are limitless.

“This allows students to share classroom space with students from around the world,” Liu said. “That wouldn’t be possible otherwise.”

As of Sept. 5, UCSB’s Second Life site owns 1,536 square meters on the Kerlingarfjoll landmass, which resembles a continent. In the next phase of development, a campus also will surface on Duke University’s “Duke Metaverse Island.”

UCSB’s virtual campus has many qualities similar to its real world counterpart, including a library, art gallery, lecture room and garden area. However, the Second Life version of UCSB also provides a floating orb and teleporter – technologies that have yet to appear in Santa Barbara.

Media and technology graduate student Haru Ji, the space’s architect, said the aim is to provide students and faculty with a campus only possible in a synthetic world.

“[I tried to create something] we can experience only in virtual space, not in our physical first life” Ji said. “I hope this place can offer you a good place to explore your events and identity.”

According to sociology graduate student Clayton Childress, Second Life offers educators the option of testing new theories and pedagogical tactics.

“This is a place where mistakes can be made … without any real world repercussions,” Childress said.

Childress conducted many interviews with professors currently using Second Life in order to gather information for UCSB’s project.

Several professors noted conduct problems with students in the format, mentioning concerns over students leaving their computers or doing other activities while in the virtual environment.

“You need to give people time and space to explore the world,” Childress said. “Then flying isn’t as novel as it first is in the world.”

As far as other universities are concerned, Childress said some administrators are hesitant to implement the program, due to some if its more sexualized content.

“Administrators said, ‘We heard about furries having sex [in Second Life], and now we have a campus on there?'” Childress said.