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Do you have an avatar? Do you even know what an avatar is? If not, you've got a problem. You're in danger of becoming as out of touch as your great-aunt Millie - the one who never quite got the hang of e-mail.

Lois King has an avatar. Her avatar is a tall, shapely blonde who lives in a virtual world called Second Life. She wears a snappy business suit, which is appropriate because she teaches serious courses in finance at York University in Toronto. She teaches traditional classroom courses, as well as distance courses on the Internet.

"I think this technology has amazing implications," she says. She plans to use her avatar to conduct virtual meetings and tutorials with her students, who'll be able to send their own avatars to her virtual office in cyberspace. It's a practical way to meet if face to face is impossible or inconvenient. "My students will love it." She even has a virtual lecture hall, which is designed to look like her real one. One day, she might use it to give lectures without ever leaving home.

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Are you feeling left behind? Me, too.

It's starting to dawn on me that auto workers aren't the only people threatened with obsolescence. So-called knowledge workers are vulnerable, too. If the definition of literacy is the ability to function in current technologies, then a lot of us are going to have to head back to school.

But the school of tomorrow could be a lot different from the one you went to.

Like other universities, York has acquired a piece of real estate on Second Life, where it has started to build a virtual campus. Second Life is a virtual Internet world with 3-D environments, where people interact through online characters they create called avatars. They communicate with each other in real time using either text or voice.

Second Life is mainly used for recreation (virtual sex is quite popular), but people have begun to experiment with it for education and even business. York professor Ali Asgary, who created York's site, uses it for his courses in emergency management, because he can simulate real disasters in real time as his students role-play and problem-solve. One scenario he's used is last year's massive propane explosion in Toronto. In another exercise, he brought together an international group of experts to tackle a simulated swine-flu epidemic. "In the real world, it would take six months to organize. We did it in one."

At Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., instructors use a virtual border crossing to train border agents. Harvard Law School has built a courtroom on Second Life and held mock trials there. Corporations use it to hold international meetings or recruit staff.

Maybe this is just a fad. Or maybe it's a glimpse into the future. Membership in virtual worlds is growing fast, and has reached more than half a billion. Kids today are as comfortable in virtual worlds as they are in the real one. "Girls used to grow up with their dolls," writes British commentator Victor Keegan. "Now they are growing up with their avatars." Lois King says, "My seven-year-old gets it instantly."

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I confess that all these avatars strike me as a little silly. But people report that having an embodied presence in the virtual world makes the experience extremely engaging. The visual environment creates an immediacy that's far more effective - and a lot cheaper - than teleconferencing. Avatars allow people in many different places to interact as if they really were together.

While e-mail and Twitter are strictly two-way, Second Life and other virtual worlds allow many people to communicate simultaneously. The navigation and graphics are still clumsy and cartoonish. But the technology is cheap. And it can transcend the barriers of bricks, mortar and space.

"Let's see what's going on in Innsbruck," says Ms. King. With one mouse click, she teleports her avatar to a virtual campus created by a university in Innsbruck, where a Swiss professor is giving a real-time lecture on the environment. The audience includes a flamboyant, busty redhead and a large green creature that looks like an alligator. Ali Asgary's avatar is there, too - a friendly looking little guy in a T-shirt. "It's good to make your avatar look pretty much like you," he says later.

Is traditional teaching on the way out? Prof. Asgary thinks so. "It has to change, because new generations are coming in with a different system of learning." They're collaborative and hyper-interactive. They're more attached to their cellphones than to their arms. They text each other a thousand times a week.

Some people are predicting that, before long, most of us will be spending part of our lives in the virtual world. We could go on a 3-D Web the way we go online today. (Even now, relationship counsellors are grappling with such existential questions as: If my partner's avatar has sex with someone else's avatar, is that infidelity?)

If you're a serious futurist, it's not hard to imagine a time when universities (and even newsrooms, if they still exist) will be mostly virtual. After all, real estate is cheaper in cyberspace. "It's very cost-effective," says Ms. King.

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Meantime, she admits she's still struggling to find her way around on Second Life. She hasn't mastered the controls quite yet, and her avatar often walks into walls or falls out of the sky. (Avatars can fly.) "It's going to take a few more weeks before I really get the hang of it," she says. Splat! Her avatar bites the dust.

I'm thinking there may be hope for me yet. I'm thinking that, if I have to get an avatar, I can make her look like Helen Mirren.

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