Cyber virtual island gives isolated students a second chance
IN REAL life Mark Kent is a middle-aged, bespectacled teacher in a suit, holed up in an office in Thornbury. But like his virtual namesake Clark Kent, the assistant principal of Victoria's Distance Education Centre Victoria has an alter ego.
In the internet virtual world of Second Life, Mr Kent is a black man, with rippling biceps and a white muscle T-shirt, who wanders the island of Skoolaborate admiring his students' artwork in a space called Art Crimes.
While Art Crimes features graffiti tags that would be vulnerable to being scrubbed off any concrete wall by a zealous council officer, there are no punitive bylaws on Skoolaborate. ''You can do whatever you like,'' Mr Kent says as his black alter ego strolls through the virtual gallery. Case in point: ''As I get older my avatar gets younger.''
Skoolaborate is a pilot program where students studying via distance education centres in Melbourne, Cairns and Brisbane meet in a virtual world to share their art, wikis and blogs.
In May, five students from each of the distance education centres will be selected to attend a four-day workshop with artist Daniel ''Wally'' Wallwork in Cairns.
The students will produce a ''real world'' graffiti wall that will be simultaneously developed in the Art Crimes gallery ''inworld''.
Mr Kent said Second Life was a fantastic way of bringing together students who were disadvantaged by geographical isolation, medical issues or a lack of opportunity for social interaction.
''If you live on a sheep station thousands of kilometres away, this is a way of meeting study requirements to share work,'' he said.
Maddison Scott, 15 ,of Point Cook, is a Second Life fan. A diabetic, who must inject insulin four times a day, Maddison decided to study via distance education this year, after struggling at a bricks and mortar school.
Maddison is a brunette; her avatar Madd is a kick-arse blonde with tatts. Maddison says she used to be terrible at art and could only draw stick figures, but the Japanese-themed work ''Madd'' displayed in Art Crimes attracts rave reviews from other avatars.
Aside from exhibiting her art on Skoolaborate, ''I've tried flying and trapping teachers in buildings,'' Maddison says. Madd also chats with other avatars.
Mr Kent says he sometimes goes online to monitor conversations, but has never witnessed any bullying or put-downs from other students. He hopes to extend the use of Second Life; next year the centre may build a virtual chemistry lab.
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He also hopes federal Schools Minister Peter Garrett will attend the workshop in Cairns in May, in real life or virtually. After all, there must be a rock musician avatar who dances like a praying mantis somewhere in Second Life.