At the top of English professor Joe Essid's English 103 syllabus reads the statement, "A year ago I swore I'd never assign conventional "papers" again. They're too tied to 20th-century notions of literacy."

It should come as no surprise that Essid’s students spent their semester inside Second Life, an Internet-based virtual world launched in 2003 by Linden Lab and which boasts over 15 million users to date.

Essid, who goes by Ignatius Onomatopoeia in Second Life, writes a blog for the Richmond Times-Dispatch called “In a Strange Land,” covering the SL beat. Second Life dovetails nicely with Essid’s research on the integration of technology in the classroom.

When Essid isn’t teaching writing and literature courses in the flesh at Richmond, his avatar can be found engaging in all sorts of virtual educational experiments on Richmond Island, a piece of SL real estate maintained by members of the university.

Essid’s syllabus makes it clear that he’s interested in students learning to write more clearly and analytically, evaluate textual, visual and multimedia material, craft persuasive arguments that can be supported with evidence and improve grammatical and stylistic writing skills. The fact that he happens to believe they can achieve those goals, all the while using a virtual world as a touchstone to explore language, image and identity, is just a bonus, as far as he’s concerned.

Essid admits that students sometimes groan when they realize that the hours they spend learning material in class will be matched by an equal number of hours spent learning different kinds of material “in-world.” But according to Essid, the role-playing his students can participate in, in a virtual world such as Second Life, is vital to understanding their identities in the world in which they actually live. To prove the point, he maintains office hours in both worlds.

In one assignment, students are asked to create an avatar that doesn’t resemble their own gender or race. They travel to public places, interact with other avatars and write about their experiences. True to his promise, his students aren’t asked to write a paper. Instead, they contribute their experiences to a wiki, a collection of Web pages that anyone can access, contribute to or modify.

Essid’s race and gender assignment attracted the attention of Wagner James Au, the best known blogger about Second Life and the author of a book, Notes from the New World: The Making of Second Life. As a follow up to a post, “The Skin You’re In,” Au highlighted the project and its fascinating results. Quoting Essid, “While no one had racial slurs hurled at their avatars, Kiaarra and more than a few of her classmates felt like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” Au continued, “All I can say is, when even Adam West Batman turns his back on you, something seems seriously wrong.”

Essid may have proved a valid point with the exercise—while virtual worlds will never replace the classroom, they may be able to take students to places they couldn’t otherwise go.