Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Gene Koo Director of Online Training at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School (and believer in the pedagogic value of podcasting) interviewed Elizabeth Townsend Gard recently about her experiment in using Second Life to teach first year students about property law. She notes

"All property is made up, and students came to understand how our property laws came into being through a combination of the laws of physics and custom. (For example, Second Life obviates the need for laws regarding misplaced property because it is coded to return your items to you after a set period of time -- a "law of physics" absent in our real world)."

The good professor and her research assistant Rachel Goda blogged about the experience earlier in the year at Terra Nova.

To begin, I should explain how I came to this project. This year I am a visiting assistant professor at Seattle University School of Law, teaching intellectual property and property. What this translates to is that my field is copyright, and as part of my teaching package, I was also assigned to teach a year-long first year property course for the first time. A bit daunting with the traditional concepts of first in time, adverse possessions, estates and future interests, landlord-tenant, communal property, easements, nuisance, eminent domain, to name a few. I knew I wanted to include some intellectual property concepts into the mix—our casebook already did in a small way. And I had been encouraged by some to rely on my European history background (a Ph.D. from UCLA) to focus on the historical links and connections that formed the common law traditions upon which property still rests. But, for me, I found the roots of history often made students feel even more disconnected from a subject—it made a difficult subject seem even less immediate. Then, while at the IP Scholars conference at Berkeley, I found the theme that would eventually take us on a journey involving an avatar named Fizzy Soderberg.

At one of the sessions, Tyler Ochoa from Santa Clara University’s School of Law was presenting on his recent work on avatars. A Berkeley student from the back asked a question about what laws govern property within the Second Life? Did property concepts translate into the new virtual environment? How did property and contract laws relate? It was a question I had been thinking throughout the presentation as well. I had been reading about Second Life and virtual property—in various news stories here and there. But I didn’t know much. What I did know, however, started to intrigue me—especially for my property course…

The imagined project took many forms over the Fall semester—I thought of having each student create an avatar. I thought of groups that would work with an avatar over the semester and interact with each other. I came, however, to choose a very different model. We have one avatar – Fizzy Soderberg (named by the first group) and fourteen groups of seven to nine students. We would have a pet hamster, so to speak. We would follow Fizzy’s journey through the semester. Each group would be given ONE week to explore Second Life with Fizzy, gather the latest news, and most importantly, research a key concept in property law. At the end of the week, the students record a screencasting in my office. The PowerPoint is prepared by the self-appointed group leader. Each student creates their own portion of the script. Then, the 15-20 minute presentation is presented to the class, as well as being posted at Fizzy’s Second Life ( and iTunes."

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