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Executives learn the fine art of collaboration through the Second Life virtual world at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.

With the credit crunch bearing down on them, finance executives may feel like escaping to an alternate reality. With the help of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, they can.

In September, the school’s Executive Partners program began including Second Life, the online 3-D virtual world, as a classroom-setting option within its executive-education program. Three companies in the Fortune 100, among others, made that choice, according to John Cady, executive director for executive education at Kelley.

According to (real) experts who study virtual technology, Second Life offers a much more interactive and absorbing environment than do typical online classes. “You can’t role-play situations in a Webinar, for example, but in Second Life you can,” says Sarah Robbins, director of emerging technologies at Kelley Executive Partners. She has been teaching a course at Ball State University via Second Life for about three years. Since companies can build a specific setting within the virtual landscape, employees can use their avatars (a computer representation of themselves) to collaborate from different locations and interact as if they were face-to-face, she says. “It flattens the playing field, brings in a sense of play, and helps people to open up,” she says. “They take more risks and are more open with their ideas in Second Life.”

Educators admit that Second Life isn’t the solution to every company’s online learning needs. At Kelley, faculty members mix in other new technologies, such as video-conferencing, collaborative document programs like GoogleDocs, and information aggregators such as Netvibes. But Second Life isn’t just a means to an education, they say, it’s also an education in its own right. “More and more we’re seeing that virtual collaboration itself is a job skill,” says Robbins. “So just learning to use these technologies can be beneficial.”

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