Students learn how to manage disasters in virtual environment

Over 20 York students from an emergency management course leapt into action July 6 when a virtual chemical explosion rocked Second Life, an online 3D world created largely by its users. The popular commercial site features countless areas where users, who adopt life-like avatars, can interact with each other via chat and voice. It was York’s first class session to use Second Life and involved a group of students conducting a virtual live emergency management table-top exercise.

"Apart from conventional teaching aspects of Second Life, it is an ideal environment for emergency management education as it enables simulation of disaster and emergencies that are either not possible to be created in the real world or very difficult and expensive to be created," said Ali Asgary, a York emergency management professor in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.

Asgary, who also teaches Advanced Disaster and Emergency Management for the Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management Program, began adopting this technology in his teaching and research by creating the York University Virtual Disaster and Emergency (DEM) Lab in Second Life on a private island. The lab currently includes a Virtual Emergency Operations Centre (VEOC), a Media and Training Room, and an under-development Virtual Disaster and Emergency Management Exhibition Hall in which emergency management related technology products will be showcased and tested. It was this virtual scenario that was used for the live table-top exercises.

Right: A scene from the Second Life virtual disaster management exercise

Students from the online summer course ADMS 3700: Fundamentals of Emergency Management, participated in the virtual emergency management exercise. Each played a different role as a member of the VEOC, such as the mayor, community emergency management coordinator, fire chief, police chief and medical officer of health. What the students had to deal with was a virtual chemical explosion in a hypothetical community. The whole exercise took one hour.

"Distance learning tends to be impersonal, but the Second Life online environment provided an opportunity for creative collaboration and real-time interaction between students that would have otherwise never met,” said Hammad Khan, who played the role of CEO in the exercise. “The virtual setting created by Professor Asgary mimics a typical university with an office – where office hours are held – lecture rooms (something that I’d like to see used more often), break rooms and even a large exhibition hall for large student gatherings. All in all, the tool has utilized voice chat to provide virtual students an ‘in-class experience’ without ever going to class."

Left: The York University Virtual Disaster and Emergency Lab in Second Life

When a large emergency happens, the emergency operations centre is activated and key decision makers congregate in the real Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) to coordinate emergency response efforts and make critical decisions. The virtual emergency management exercise was developed based on an exercise conducted by Emergency Management Ontario.

"The unique qualities of the Second Life virtual environment provide opportunities for rich sensory experiences, authentic contexts and activities for experiential learning, simulation and role-play, modeling of complex scenarios, a platform for data visualization and opportunities for collaboration and co-creation that can not be easily experienced using other platforms,” said Asgary. “As such it is an ideal platform for disaster and emergency management education.”

The students seemed to enjoy the virtual experience. "I thought it was awesome. Very engaging and fun, a very creative approach as to simulating a table-top exercise,” said York student Jonathan Gaona. He did express dismay, however, that not all students showed up for the exercise and not all of them used the equipment properly, which affected the smoothness of the operation.

Right: Ali Asgary

Another participant, Shawnna Conway, said, "I really enjoyed the exercise. It was interesting to be able to hear everyone’s voice and communicate with them since this is an online course and we never actually meet each other. I think once you get past the technical difficulties and figure out how to use the program it is very easy.”

Kyle Kolasingh, who played the EMS role, thought that despite the hiccups, Second Life has the capability of incorporating a class-like atmosphere in an online course, one that is less monotonous and allows for more interactions.

Second Life has grown rapidly since its opening in 2003, and today is inhabited by millions of "residents" from around the world. Of interest to educators is Second Life’s platform for flexible delivery and online education. Students and teachers can come together to share information and resources via slides, audio and video, engaging in discussions, presentations, group projects and explorations.

This Island, where the lab has been built, will be available for all York students and faculty to use for teaching and educational purposes upon request, said Asgary. A York University group has been established within Second Life for information and experience sharing. "Most faculty and students are already familiar with and are using Web-based instruction and resources such as WebCT, Blackboard, Moodle and other learning management systems," said Asgary. "Working with virtual environments like Second Life is not more difficult than these systems. While in these systems teachers can create their own metaphors and build domain-specific settings in 3D environments. They can create all manner of classrooms, lecture halls and campus landmarks. In fact there are methods that one can integrate all these together."

Left: Students discuss the emergency at hand in a scene from the Second Life virtual disaster management exercise

Recent experiences with Second Life by universities show that collaborations among faculty members from different disciplines help facilitate effective adoption of Second Life in teaching, learning and research. The York University DEM Lab could provide opportunities for such collaborations.

“Virtual worlds like Second Life is another step in the future of human interaction in a globally networked world, and by taking in this step we would be able to better take the next steps both as researchers and professors teaching new generations of students who have grown up with the Internet naturally and can swim in these waters easily,” said Asgary.

For more information about the virtual world, visit the Second Life site.