Several days ago I completed the major assignment for “Advanced Second Life for Educators,” the last of three Sloan Consortium workshops on teaching in virtual worlds. The task involved planning a 3D learning environment that supports other modes of teaching and learning. I took that opportunity to begin designing a 1-credit supplemental course for a 3-credit course on introduction to political philosophy.
I’m convinced that 3D immersive experiences can bring a concreteness to abstract subjects like philosophy and lead to deeper learning. However, most students at my two-year college have no experience with virtual worlds like Second Life (SL), and many do not have ready access to computers powerful enough to get into SL nor the time it takes to learn how to navigate comfortably within it. Offering an optional course for students with SL capabilities and with interests in applying political theory to issues in environmental politics seems like a good bet for my first time out bringing students inworld.
The plan I submitted listed 10 topics that fall under the umbrella of environmental politics, with suggested SL destinations for field trips (e.g., Deep Down Virtual Mine, Etopia Eco Village, NOAA Island, and OneClimate). For a detailed example of what students could do in SL that is not possible in real life, I focused on two field trips to the Four Bridges Project for a unit on environmental justice and activism.
The Four Bridges Project (4B) is “a virtual sustainable global community model founded on the four principles of respect for nature, universal human rights, economic and social justice, and a culture of peace.” In a March 2011 interview, 4B founder Millay Freshchi told Nazz Lane that the “4B complex in Second Life now comprises four sims and is the home to fifteen groups,” including Amnesty International-E, Veterans for Peace, Peace Train, and Coalition of Women for Peace. It also hosts events and shares resources, including its space and time, with other nonprofit groups that hold values similar to 4B’s.
Later in the Lane interview Freshchi says, “My original goal in Second Life was/is to create an international school where people can come together and teach and learn from each other skills that they can use in their own communities … water collection and distribution … solar panel making and maintenance, college prep courses, kitchen gardening, forgiveness, conflict resolution, mediation, yoga … the list goes on and on.” She expresses hope that more educators will become involved in 4B. In fact, on the 4B website she offers to work with educators to set up and customize guided tours for students, an offer I plan to accept if my institution approves my course proposal.
Four Bridges also encourages educational involvement through its Student Volunteer Program (SVP): “We provide a space for learning through creative exhibits in which students will work with organizations…. to design, create, and implement their ideas, working with the group and mentors.” The organizations, the website says, “are registered nonprofits committed to the Four Bridges principles.” SVP has five departments: Art; Media – Curation and Exhibition; Group Participation, Leadership; Entertainment; and Universal Design.
My first visit to 4B took place shortly after I joined SL and began looking for environmentally themed sims. I clicked on the 4B teleport given in a destination guide and landed in a dystopia. 4B scared me. Buildings and infrastructure were in ruins; posters and graffiti expressed rage; anarchic disorder seemed to reign. Doom and gloom under a bright blue sky! I didn’t stick around long.
Two recent multiday SL events drew me back to take a longer and this time an admiring look at 4B: Imagine Peacefest and 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Although the activities I was able to attend were not held at 4B, on the event schedules I saw its name among the hosts. On my second and third visits, as well as a visit to its website, I discovered that 4B has a great deal to offer educators and their students.
Geographically, 4B is divided into two parts, separated by a mountain range. On one side is the dystopian landscape, the idyllic on the other. The idyllic includes Serenity Ridge (where you can meditate and do tai chi), the amazing Garden for Change (including a compost pile), and artist installations and performance areas. I meditated. I stretched. I walked in the gardens identifying flowers and vegetables. I sat in a swing and watched a loon with two chicks on her back paddle around a pond. I loved it.
But the dystopian side seems to be where most of the social justice activism takes place. I haven’t yet experienced all 4B has to offer (e.g., I want to spend some time at its Afghanistan Cultural Museum); and it appears that new exhibits and activities are being planned right now. But I have visited the State of Mind and War and Peace Exhibits and looked around the Zinn Centre (where I found the most information), the Speak Easy (where events such as Poetically Speaking are held every Sunday), and the Radio FreeLife station (on a tall metal tower) – among a few other spots shown in my snapshots. I also enjoyed swinging outside the Resource Center and taking the hot-air balloon tour. In short, I’m totally intrigued by the 4B sims and have joined the 4B group, as well as Amnesty International-E, which Millay Freshchi leads.
Visually, the contrast between 4B’s two major parts is stark and exciting. 4B seems to be showing us two possible futures – indeed, two nows in some of our major cities – as well as two states of mind and being. I’m hoping to bring a group of students to 4B to experience and reflect on this contrast and hoping to collaborate with Millay Freshchi on making their experiences informative, enjoyable, thought-provoking, and global thinking.
One of the things that greatly impresses me about Millay Freshchi and her Four Bridges colleagues is their eagerness to include others in their mission to further the “four principles of respect for nature, universal human rights, economic and social justice, and a culture of peace.” The mission section of the 4B website ends with these words:
There is no separation between what we do in virtual worlds and what happens through our efforts in the physical world. We bring awareness, community, and hope to all the worlds. Our organization is constantly seeking new ideas, new projects, and new organizations to add to the mix. The Four Bridges Project is a shining example of how we can use the virtual world to connect internationally and confront the most pressing issues.