There are plenty of islands and sites in Second Life, the virtual world that are dedicated to medical education or patient support. I’ve already written about some of them. But Healthinfo Island is one of the earliest medical projects there and is getting closer to become the headquarters of all the health-related projects in that virtual world. Carol Perryman, a consumer health and medical librarian, agreed to answer some of my questions.
- Why did you create such an island?
Healthinfo Island is funded by a grant from the National Library of Medicine (NLM) specifically to explore how we can support the health information needs of people in a virtual environment. My background includes time spent as a participant in a very large, asynchronous BB forum for smoking cessation. Being a consumer health and medical librarian it really became impossible to ignore the behaviors of people in such an environment, which enlarged on my understanding of consumer health behavior in ‘real life,’ web-based environments away from the library or hospital setting. I became aware of peer-to-peer support, discussions about health information quality, about trust (and distrust) of health care professionals – and importantly, I think – about the value of information provided when and where it is needed. I eventually conducted a research study focused on these issues.
NLM and of course, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are aware of the growing use of the Internet for health information, and have further identified targets for health and awareness that include ‘health information literacy,’ which I’ll loosely define as the ability to understand health information and participate as a partner in health decisions. Healthinfo Island is intended to support Second Life participants (especially health support groups) by conducting workshops, providing reference (and research) services, and as I said above, to explore how we can help promote health information literacy.. There are more questions than answers, I think – but just recognizing the reality that there are new possibilities is crucially important.
- What do you think about the educational opportunities provided by Second Life?
I think SL functions in both tacit and explicit ways as an educational environment for all participants. In the largest sense, we are learning to be different, dwelling for a time in an environment we never expected. We cross boundaries, and interact with people from (potentially) the whole world; unlimited by tangible institutions and structures, we are challenged by the need to build new ways of being.
For more formal learning (grouping here the use of displays, interactive elements, and live events), we are able to explore new ways for interaction. I think Moriz Gupte leads the way with his Play2Train, by energetically exploiting the scripting and modeling possibilities for bioterrorism and disaster training. Other examples are less explosive but more tentative first steps to finding out what works.
Hands-on activities and visual, live demonstrations greatly increase the value of SL as a teaching venue. Now we’re getting ‘html on a prim’ and can share web pages, create and share films, and otherwise enhance the informational and educational use of the site. I’m using SL to teach PubMed to laypersons, and working to incorporate opportunities for hands-on exploration as well as live q&a during the class. Classes can be archived and shared, as recent presentations at Healthinfo Island have been (see this). We’re experimenting with sound, as well (imagine a ‘welcome’ message with a real face in it and real voices. a film that’s a tour of the sim, etc.)
But the technology’s far, far from all, or the best of it. The best of it, I feel, is that we have all this PLUS we have the chance to experience it across global and disciplinary boundaries. This ‘Web 2.0’ pushes beyond existing distance education, possibly enhancing the community- and relationship-building elements of education. We don’t know what can happen. Best practices will emerge. Education in such an environment can be collaborative, interactive, anything-but-expected, and more immediately responsive (I say this, aware of problems, but still find great excitement in this thought).
- How can such an island be useful for patients?
The island is meant to be welcoming and beautiful, with spaces for groups or quiet conversation, mountain gardens, classrooms, and plenty of interactive displays. It is meant to inform but I will be cautious here: we know in libraries that just because we build it, ‘they’ won’t necessarily come. I am learning how to be useful, and have a long way to go. I’m beginning to learn about the role of support groups, and trying to position myself where I and the island will be visible, and with that visibility, to convey messages about what a consumer health librarian is.
- On Healthinfo Island, what kind of projects are you currently working on?
This past Monday a new building was put in place over by the Path of Support (a walkway lined with posters from many of the support groups in Second Life). The AIDS & HIV Center was the suggestion of ChaCha Biedermann, one of two in-world AIDS/HIV support group leaders, and it will provide space for the groups to meet, as well as display areas for the growing number of posters and other objects created by a number of people (including one by MB Chevalier, who is doing so much in the area of sexual health).
I mentioned the PubMed classes I’m working on, and with the recent upgrades it appears possible to share an inworld web browser, so that class participants won’t need to have a browser window open. I will continue to develop this. Namro Orman, the head of the medical library, is leading us in the exploration of video and audio as well as a RL/SL connection by way of the Healthinfo Island blog and a browser toolbar he’s created and shared with the very large library community, as well as other things – a terrific colleague on the island and one who is endlessly fascinated by technological innovation.
- What are your future plans with your virtual island?
This is my opportunity to announce here, as I have through a number of listservs and inworld, that we have received a third NLM grant. Together with VAI, we will be designing a new orientation and education island for people with disabilities and chronic illness. VAI is to be the island name, representing a fantastic group of people (some of whom are already well known in Second Life) – I will mention here Gentle Heron, who has been so active with the Heron Sanctuary. The funding includes another year of support for Healthinfo Island, so we will continue. The past 18 months have taught us much, and helped to create valuable relationships with people and organizations all over the world. I will say (as I did every year in RL libraries, every year on my evaluation) that I mean to get organized. You know how that goes! I look forward to more surprises and possibilities, and can be fairly sure they will be found in Second Life.