On a Tuesday night, Beth Ritter-Guth joins her eight literature students for class. Next to a grave.
Well, not a real grave. She teaches her contemporary literature course online, in Second Life.
The class met on Willow Springs-Mama Day Island, designed around the novel that the class was reading, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. The students visited the grave of a character, then wrote obituaries.
"I build environments where students can really explore the literature," says Ritter-Guth, of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, Pa. "It's the novel in 3-D."
Second Life is a four-year-old virtual world owned by Linden Labs. Users create avatars — images of characters they can use to move around and interact with other users.
More than 300 universities, including Harvard and Duke, use Second Life as an educational tool, says Claudia L'Amoreaux of Linden Labs. Some educators conduct entire distance-learning courses there; others supplement classes.
Jean-Claude Bradley, chemistry professor and e-learning coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University, says he uses it as an optional study tool but wouldn't be comfortable teaching a class exclusively in Second Life.
Bradley says only about 10 of his 200 organic chemistry students used Second Life more than once last spring. But those who did found it an effective way to study.
"This is a new way to interact with me and each other," he says. "I can show them molecules in three dimensions. We can walk around the molecule and discuss it."
"Kids who used Second Life put more time into the class," says chemistry major Tim Bohinski.
Bradley is trying to get more departments to use the "land" the university bought in Second Life; Drexel Island is shaped like a dragon, the school's mascot.
Universities and other academic institutions pay a reduced rate to buy land to build structures and develop the environment. The first-time cost for a 16-acre private university island is $980, and monthly land fees are $150.
Drexel also pays for developers to build up the island, Bradley says. Students can sign up for free basic membership and use Second Life at no cost, just as anyone can.
But professors have found that not every student is interested in using the technology.
Joe Sanchez, an assistant instructor in the School of Information at the University of Texas-Austin, studied an English class of 19 students using Second Life. He found they don't like it for activities that can be done in a real classroom, such as lectures or slide shows. But they do like to use it to visit new places or do group activities.
For example, Sanchez says his students enjoyed learning about leadership by building avatars to look like a personal role model, such as Mother Teresa, and conducting small group conversations between the avatars in the personae of the characters.
After the Virginia Tech shootings, he took his students to a memorial that had been built in Second Life. When they arrived, conversations became hushed, he says. "They felt like they were in a sacred place."
Some students get frustrated that the system is not faster-paced, like a video game, Sanchez says. L'Amoreaux adds that educators say older students are not as comfortable with technology.
But Sue Kern, 52, a student at Lehigh Carbon Community College, says Second Life "taught me a lot about the computer."
Kern graduated in May but says she continues to use Second Life for entertainment and education.