At Law School, 'Second Life' in the Cards, and the Course Catalogue

Turn up in lecture, turn into a butterfly

Imagine if you could show up at class with a new hair color, a new ethnicity, or even a new animal identity?

All these changes are possible in Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual community in which famously eccentric professor Charles R. Nesson ’60 is offering a cyber-law course this semester.

Nesson, the Weld professor of law, is offering “CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion,” not only to Harvard Law School (HLS) students, but also to Extension School students as well as Internet users across the globe.

Nesson drummed up interest in his filled-to-capacity course through a YouTube promotional tape in which he describes its content after a dramatic entrance on a scooter. The tape is mostly narrated by his significantly younger-looking Second Life persona—called an “avatar.”

His daughter, Rebecca N. Nesson ’98, an HLS graduate and Harvard computer science doctoral candidate who is co-teaching the course, also makes an appearance in the promo, saying, “in Second Life, the possibilities of what we can do are endless” as she transforms into a butterfly.

Second Life is a virtual world which allows users to name themselves and choose the appearance of their avatars. Participants receive a certain amount of free currency (Linden dollars), but can only purchase further currency by linking their account to a credit card. Second Life users interact in real time: typing conversations, shopping for clothes and real estate, and, as of this fall, attending a Harvard class.

Although at-large participants earn no accreditation for the course, they are invited to view lecture tapes and discuss class materials with professors and other students on Berkman Island, a space in Second Life that resembles Harvard Law School. The island is named after the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, of which Professor Nesson is a founder and co-director.

Clinical Professor of Law John G. Palfrey VI ’94, executive director of the Berkman Center, applauds the project. He says, “one thing we don’t do enough at Harvard or as teachers anywhere is to introduce people to new technologies, and the medium is the message to a certain point.”

Students whose enrollment in the course has been enabled by its technological innovations have also responded positively.

William James, an Extension School student working toward a citation in legal studies, says that “of course there are obvious differences [between a course in Second Life and real life], which can detract from or add to the experience. Some people don’t have the confidence to interact in a classroom, especially with one of the world’s greatest law professors, but can do so in Second Life.”

An at-large student who lives in Raleigh, N.C., Daniell B. Krawczyck—”Chuck Commons” in Second Life—appreciates the opportunity for cyber relationships to turn into face-to-face interaction. “Another at-large student recently contacted me from Durham, N.C., which is only 30 miles away from me and we are going to get together to talk about the class,” he said in a phone interview.

Krawczyck is also working to provide lecture videos to public television stations in nearby Asheville and Chapel Hill after hearing that a Cambridge public access channel plans to broadcast select lectures this fall.

Yesterday, class discussion at HLS centered on whether virtual worlds were real enough to garner concerns about their laws and governance. Third-year law student Kwan Bul argued that Second Life is not to be taken too seriously, saying “it is more like an acid trip than anything else. You are getting your jollies by staring at a computer screen.”

Perhaps referring to the 2002 national media storm over whether or not he smokes marijuana before class, Professor Nesson replied “Well, I’ve never taken drugs so I don’t know anything about it. For the record.”