Canadian Journal of Nursing Informatics

Second Life: Using Avatars as a tool for learning

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by Dr. Sandra Bassendowski

Introducing the new Technology in Education Column

We are thrilled to introduce this new feature, written by one of our CNA Centennial 100 Award Winners, Dr. Sandra Bassendowski, Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Sandra recognized a need, and offered to write this important column for the CJNI – she is off to a great start with this first column focused on the exciting application, Second Life, and how it can be used in nursing education. Sandra has been recognized by the Canadian Nurses’ Association, as well as the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association and the University of Regina for her inspiring, dedicated work in her educational practice. She is a pioneer in using inventive technologies in nursing education, and will share her expertise in this area with you, our readers, starting with this issue.


Second Life is a 3D virtual world that opened in 2003 and is entirely built and owned by its residents. The official website at describes it as a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences, and opportunity. The residents are referred to as end users and are represented in the virtual world as avatars. Once you register in Second Life (and at the same time create a name for your avatar), you can then choose an avatar that can be a character, person, or icon. You can design your avatar with the hair, physical feature, and clothes that you want to represent you in your virtual interactions. Your avatar can explore, communicate, collaborate, and participate in planned social and educational activities.

So how do Second Life and avatars relate to nursing education? As we shift from the Information Age to the Interaction Age, we need to consider how to blend the physical and digital worlds in order to preserve the richness of human-to-human interaction along with the kaleidoscope of interactions that are mediated through technology (Milne, 2007; Skiba, 2007). Second Life is a global networked learning space with great potential for the design and delivery of pedagogically sound learning experiences. The virtual environment has the means to support constructivist learning, enhance critical thinking, and generate new knowledge. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a site on Second Life that offers health information to the people of Second Life. Subsequently, Second Life provides the CDC with data about how people seek and use public health information.

Mastering a field of knowledge, such as nursing, involves not only “learning about” the subject matter but also “learning to be” a full participant in the field (Seeley Brown & Adler, 2008). Students may not have an opportunity to encounter patients with heart problems in real life, but they can in Second Life. Nursing students can participate in a scenario where they are presented with a patient lying on an operating table, suffering from a cardiovascular condition. Along with the guidance of the nursing faculty member, students work with their avatars to treat the patient using a variety of real-life tools, including oxygen, medications, and defibrillation (Santos, 2008).

As with any virtual environment, there are downsides to Second Life. There are undesirable sites and unsuitable characters that can be found through unguided exploration. In addition, it takes considerable time, effort, and expertise on the part of educators to design and build teaching and learning strategies that meet the learning needs of students. The assistance of technical experts is crucial for ensuring that the learning objects are credible and relevant to course outcomes.

But overall, Second Life offers nursing education an opportunity to transform curricula and meet the needs of the current and new generations of students in a creative and exciting way. “As we respond to the increased presence of networked devices, the transition from lecture to collaboration, and the growing importance of virtual environments…we would do well to remember what it was about learning environments that enchanted us and commit ourselves to preserving, restoring, and creating those experiences for our own students” (Graetz, 2006, College Classrooms… pgh. 3).


Graetz, K. (2006). The psychology of learning environments. EDUCAUSE Review, 41 (6), 12-31. [Online]. Retrieved February 22, 2008 from

Milne, A. (2007). Entering the interaction age: Implementing a future vision for campus learning spaces. EDUCAUSE Review, 42(1), 12-31. [Online]. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from

Santos, M. (2008, February 25). Area nursing students work in cyberspace ER. The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA. [Online]. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from

Seeley Brown, J., & Adler, R. (2008). Minds on fire: Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review, 43(1), 16-32. [Online]. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from

Skiba, D. (2007). Nursing education 2.0: Second Life. Nursing Education Perspectives, 28(3), 156-157.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.