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Christian Leadership to Change the World

Virtual Leadership

By Victoria Walker
Regent University

CBN.comI was introduced to the 3-D virtual world known as Second Life (SL) at an educator’s conference. Awed by the computerized environment the speaker presented, I thought, “This environment could solve an educational dilemma.” I surmised that instructors could use technology with strong visual and customization abilities to create an environment in which students can develop specific skills.

Virtual worlds like SL simulate a real or imaginary world, using virtual reality (VR) technology that enables a user to interact with the computer- simulated environment.

Since completing a few research studies using SL, I believe a 3-D virtual world can have limitless potential. In one study, student counselors used a virtual counselor-training facility and patient avatars (computer-generated graphic representation of a person or his/her alter ego) to develop their mental health interviewing and diagnostic skills. Despite my findings, other Christians are wary of the new and different.

As Christian leaders, should we write off the potential good of new technologies like virtual worlds without investigating how educational institutions, companies and governments have implemented these new and mysterious virtual places positively? Should we create locked and secure learning and working settings for our students and employees? If so, does this truly prepare potential Christians leaders to change a world they are protected from?

For nearly a decade, virtual worlds have provided millions of users with a place to participate in educational or training opportunities, business endeavors, and entertainment activities. The total population of Internet-based virtual worlds at the end of the second quarter of 2009 was approaching 600 million people.

Second Life, one of the most well-known virtual worlds, is geared toward adults, and hundreds of educational institutions use the SL environment. The Smithsonian, NASA, IBM, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. military use SL for meetings, events and training opportunities.

When explaining SL to my colleagues, they often respond wide-eyed with jaws dropped— unable to imagine what I am describing. Most people need to see and experience SL to understand its potential.

An Internet user accesses SL by logging into the environment using an account and free software. Using an avatar, the user can communicate and complete activities.

While many people expect “game” to be in the description, SL does not have a specific objective. Instead, participants can explore, interact with other users or content, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property. This creates a perfect environment for completing simulations and interactive activities or for those needing a low-cost alternative for conducting business.

“Really, is it too real?” a colleague asked me. However, this “realness” is what makes the environment practical for instances such as testing a product, holding a meeting, simulating the human respiratory system or training a student counselor to interview a patient exhibiting the traits of a mentally ill person.

Often when I ask others about their SL experiences, they have none, yet they can reiterate a negative report from a media source or a friend. The reactions emulate many of society’s reactions to various technologies: the World Wide Web, blogs, wikis, etc.

Many people said the Web would never become useful. Likewise, several organizations refused to invest in building and maintaining a website and learning to use the technologies offered. Now, few organizations lack a website. Today, millions of blogs and wikis fill the Web, but some people are still scratching their heads, wondering why people invest so much time in these personal sites.

Ultimately, the early adopters and innovators provide the foundation and leadership for those who follow, and most everyone else eventually jumps on board. So I ask, are we leading, following or not even on the path?

According to Gartner Research, 80 percent of active Internet users will have a “second life” in the virtual world by the end of 2011. KZero Research estimates that by the end 2012, nearly 900 virtual worlds will exist. Are we as leaders prepared to serve others using new technologies? Without isolating ourselves from reality, how can our organizations provide leadership and help our students or employees develop skills to work with new technologies?

Dr. Victoria Walker is director of continuing education and web development in Regent University’s School of Psychology & Counseling.

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