When James Madison University students visit with psychology professor Suzie Baker, PhD, for office hours, they find themselves chatting with a tall woman with red hair—even though Baker is actually 5 feet tall and blonde. That's because Baker holds office hours in the online world Second Life, where through her avatar, she assumes the identity of a redhead.

In other classroom activities, Baker may come as a rat or an African grey parrot, to represent her animal behavior expertise. Students arrive in avatar form, too: They tinker with hair color, body type and clothing, and at a recent online Halloween party, showed up as Greek gods, witches and princesses.

Forays into Second Life are just one of the ways psychology professors are using technology to enhance their teaching and connections with students. There are no solid statistics on how many professors use these technologies. But Second Life, for instance, has several hundred virtual campuses created by their parent institutions—including Princeton, MIT and the University of Kentucky—and houses hundreds of other sites that provide a wide range of educational opportunities across many domains.

Many professors see the technology as a way to lure today's generation of technologically savvy students into the classroom. Others say the technology enables universities to curtail their burgeoning costs.

"Whether we like it or not, technology provides an economically competitive alternative to traditional teaching," says Portland State University cognitive psychologist and game developer Art Kohn, PhD. "As a result of that, there will be an irresistible tendency toward incorporating and delivering education in these ways."

That said, it's unclear which of these educational efforts will benefit learning, adds Keith Millis, PhD, a cognitive psychologist and educational game developer at Northern Illinois University.

"We're in the Wild West when it comes to applying education to technology—a lot of things are happening, but the evidence for learning is still pretty scarce," he says. "It's still an open question about what will work and what won't. It's like natural selection, and we're right in the middle of it."

Intriguing applications

Despite such concerns, educators are rolling up their sleeves and trying out strategies they hope will make both online and on-campus classes more interesting and attractive to students. Besides holding office hours in Second Life, Baker, for example, facilitates small-group discussions with students in Second Life, and has students attend specialty lectures there. Her animal behavior class attended a lecture on manatee conservation at a Second Life site sponsored by the publisher of the science journal Nature. She also has launched a research group that meets in Second Life to explore ways to study human interaction in the virtual world.

At James Madison University, associate professor Monica Reis-Bergan, PhD, uses Second Life in her personality classes to explore personality variables—in particular, "openness to experience," one of the "Big Five" personality traits of active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety and intellectual curiosity. At the beginning of class, students take the Big Five Personality Test and familiarize themselves with Second Life by creating an avatar and learning how to maneuver in that world. Later, Reis-Bergan asks them what it's like to visit various sites and to meet the avatars of people they don't know. The experience has led to interesting discussions, Reis-Bergan says: Some students who thought they were open to experience, for instance, resisted getting involved in a world that they deemed too removed from real life.

"Virtual worlds weren't part of the original consideration for the Big Five, so it made them consider, what does this trait [of openness] really reflect?" she says. "It got them to think about cohort effects and about what 'openness to experience' might look like in another 20 years."

Alien education

Other psychologists are creating research-based educational games they believe may trump existing technologies' ability to bolster student learning.

"Second Life is a blank slate where people can do their own thing, and that's fine," says Millis. "But educational games have a greater potential to enhance education because the designer can include certain features that maximize learning."

These include the ability to individualize instruction with such features as automated tutors and systems that allow students to master subjects at their own pace. The technologies may even promote deep learning by cuing students to build their own knowledge by having them explain concepts, he says. To this end, Millis and educational technology experts Diane Halpern, PhD, of Claremont McKenna University, and Arthur Graesser, PhD, of the University of Memphis, are developing a game to help students learn how to critically evaluate research in a fun and engaging way. (Some of this work is detailed in a forthcoming APA book edited by Halpern called "Undergraduate Education in Psychology: A Blueprint for the Future of the Discipline.") Called ARIES, or "Acquiring Research, Investigative and Evaluative Skills," the game uses an intriguing story line to entice students: An alien race comes to Earth from a planet in the Aries constellation, with the aim of colonizing it by publishing shoddy research in textbooks, magazines and other venues.

"In essence, they want to dumb us down," Millis explains. Users get involved when the "Federal Bureau of Science," or FBS, asks them to become secret agents who will help foil the aliens' plot. The game has three modules, all using elements known to promote deep learning, Millis says. One, for instance, includes an "interrogation session," where the FBS raids a building that houses both humans and aliens. "Players have to figure out which is which, and the only way to do that is to ask them questions about their research," Millis explains.

In other modules, students read online textbooks and magazine and newspaper clips presented in various engaging ways, while individualized tutors and other prompts help them not only learn the material, but internalize it, Millis says.

"We envision that ARIES will take many hours—probably weeks—to get through to get at the richness of the material," he says.

Future impact?

While many are excited by the prospects of such technologies, it is hard to forecast the role they will play in psychology education. Research—especially on such media as Second Life—is hobbled by technical problems, small sample sizes and participant self-selection, says Millis.

That said, some studies are starting to show small positive effects of some of the media, though "it is clear that there is more enthusiasm about the opportunities for learning provided by computer games and simulations than there is for conducting empirical studies investigating whether these opportunities are actually realized," note J. Dexter Fletcher, PhD, of the Institute for Defense Analysis, and Sigmund Tobias, PhD, of Teachers College, Columbia University, in a meta-analysis they conducted in 2006.

Likewise, teachers face obstacles to importing these technologies into the classroom, including winning administrative support for investing in these expensive technologies and their upkeep, and overcoming their own and students' learning curves. Meanwhile, educational games are expensive to create and can only cover small content areas, so they may end up complementing rather than supplanting traditional teaching methods, Millis says.

But given that these technologies are here to stay and new ones are emerging all of the time, it's vital that psychologists help shape their creation and use, Kohn believes.

"The way we represent psychology to the next generation of students defines how our discipline will evolve over the next 20 to 100 years," he says. "So instead of avoiding technology, let's get ourselves out in front, get some money behind it and create the tools to teach effectively."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.