8 May 2008

If you thought UQ only existed within sandstone and mortar locations, you'd be mistaken.

Thanks to Dr Helen Farley, a Studies in Religion lecturer, the University is soon to have a virtual presence as well.

Dr Farley and Dr Rick Strelan, from the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, were last year awarded a $30,000 UQ Strategic Teaching and Learning Grant to construct a Studies in Religion Island in Second Life.

Their plan is to create different religious spaces – such as a mosque, a Hindu temple and Freemasons’ lodge – allowing students the opportunity to visit places of worship which may be inaccessible in real life.

“For students to get to a Hindu Temple or a Taoist Temple, for example, it could mean an expensive trip,” Dr Farley said.

“There’s also an ethical consideration – people don’t really want students gawking at them and disturbing their genuine religious practice.

“Creating these spaces in Second Life gets rid of those types of problems.”

Second Life is an internet-based virtual world that enables its users, called residents, to interact with each other using their online personas, known as avatars.

The UQ Island will form part of the New Media Consortium (NMC) Education Precinct where 250 educational institutions are located, including Harvard and Princeton.

As well as creating religious spaces for students to visit, Dr Farley said she hoped to build teaching spaces where virtual lectures and tutorials could be held.

“I actually taught a meditation class at my apartment in Second Life, just to see if conducting a virtual tutorial was possible,” she said.

“I’ve also had some of my students visit different religious spaces, and then meet at my apartment for a debrief session.”

A virtual learning environment could be particularly beneficial to students who lack confidence in a classroom situation, who don’t speak English as their first language, or who have a disability.

Dr Farley said there was also the potential to bring together students who are geographically distant.

“I supervise a PhD student who lives in Melbourne and we have regular meetings at different places in Second Life,” she said.

In late 2007 Dr Farley completed a course on teaching in Second Life, offered through Boise State University, and is currently undertaking a Masters in Education in Information and Communication Technology.

The UQ Studies in Religion Island is expected to be accessible to all avatars by semester two.

To listen to Dr Farley speak about the project on ABC's Life Matters program, click here.

MEDIA: Dr Farley (h.farley@uq.edu.au, 07 3365 6324, 0401 878 880) or Penny Robinson at UQ Communications (penny.robinson@uq.edu.au, 07 3365 9723).