Monday, April 09, 2018

Are Writing Centers Remedial?

I've never considered the Chronicle of Higher Education as a click-bait publication. Maybe I'm naive. I always thought of it as a reputable periodical serving faculty and administration of colleges and universities nationwide.

This February, I began to rethink its approach when it published an article "What's Wrong with the Writing Center?" basically an interview of Lori Salem about her research with the writing center at Temple University, asking the very interesting research questions, why students do and do not visit their writing center. The article's writer, Rose Jacobs, basically set out to suggest that Salem was an outsider in the the writing center subfield of rhetoric and composition, a voice in the wilderness decrying the orthodoxy of writing center tutoring--serving the privileged and ignoring or poorly serving the underprepared.

Salem, in an immediate letter to the editors, countered the tone and position espoused by Jacobs--that she was very much a colleague within the profession, and not at all alone in questioning what is working and what is not within writing centers across the nation. As she pointed out, "my colleagues have embraced my research--they gave me a reward for heaven's sake!" She ends her letter with the following: "To be clear, I don't believe that there is anything fundamentally 'wrong' with writing centers."

Even so, looking past Jacob's "mischaracterizations" of writing center professionals, the article did lead to some fruitful discussion on our campus.

This semester, I'm the interim faculty coordinator for the Lansing Community College Writing Center. So when I began to hear talk among colleagues about directive vs. non-directive tutoring, especially in conjunction with asynchronous online writing feedback some students were receiving from Brainfuse, and discussed it with the real writing center coordinator (who is on sabbatical), I decided to have the writing assistants working with me read and discuss during our staff meetings the interview, letter to the editor, and the original article Salem published in the Writing Center Journal, "Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?." The conversations centered around whether or not writing tutors should be directive in their work with student writers--asserting suggestions for writing improvement, more like a teacher might do, or non-directive--asking questions, leading students to discovery of improvements in their writing, more like a peer would do. Bell's research suggests that directive response should be part of the mix, especially with first-generation, ESOL, or developmental students who have less experience with writing than do students from families where the parents had gone to college.

The faculty working in the writing center were pleased to hear that they could put on their teacherly hats when they felt it best served students. The paraprofessional and student writing assistants already recognized the need to do so at times.

Which is fine with me.

However, I am concerned.

Not with the possibility of writing assistants asserting writerly advice at times. But at a shift, it seems, on the purpose of writing centers. Bell mentions in her research article that writing centers can espouse who they are and what they do, but they cannot necessarily control what writing centers mean to students.

One of the student writing assistants, when we were discussing why students seek out writing centers, and why they don't, shared her own experience, that when she was in a composition class while submitting her first paper, she was pretty convinced she would need to go to the Writing Center to get help. But when she got back her essay with a 3.5 grade, she realized she didn't need to.

Writing Centers were a place to get help when one's writing was deficient. And that seemed to be the overwhelming view among the staff, at least when discussing these articles.

But that's not at all what writing centers meant when we started one at LCC twenty years ago.

Now mind you, maybe I just misunderstood. I participated in the initial discussions about starting a writing center at LCC in the mid 90s; my oldest daughter and youngest son worked as peer writing assistants in the early 2000s, as did a number of my students; and I've encouraged many students to take advantage of the writing center through the years. But I'm in no wise an expert on writing center pedagogy. As most readers of this blog will attest, my focus has been more on online and virtual-world pedagogy, especially in the last ten years.

But from the beginning, the writing center was not a place to get help, but a place to get feedback. It wasn't just for those who had deficiencies in writing skill, but for writers. All writers.

One claim by Bell for why writing centers avoided calling themselves remedial was for the sake of status. If they were remedial in focus, working only with those who needed help, then they would be looked down upon at universities.

But that's not why the Writing Center at LCC avoided being called a place for remedial writers. It was because doing so was too narrow. The center was for all writers. And all writers--those who struggle, and those who excel--need feedback, a place where their ownership of writing is assumed, their ability to express something insightful is recognized, their intelligence and experience are celebrated. Not a place, as had been so in the past, to fix their writing, to be drilled with worksheets, to be remediated.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and her friends when attending LCC used the writing center all the time--and as I noted above, she eventually became a writing assistant. She and her friends were in honors composition courses--and they went to the center, again, multiple times, to get feedback even though they had been recognized as responsible students and skilled writers. When I've taught honors courses, again, I've encouraged students to work in the writing center at any stage of their writing.

It's a place for writers to engage, discuss, get feedback, try out ideas, style, expression. And yes, to improve, both one's writing and one's strategies as a writer.

Writers at all levels. Not simply those who need remediation.

I guess it's part of the whole mindset that has engulfed higher education in recent years, a totally utilitarian approach where education is only job training. Now of course higher education has always been a means to a career or profession. But its focus has been to include a liberal education, to learn broadly, to expand one's thinking and approach to life and society, to become a part of an educated citizenry, not just a worker.

The LCC Writing Center flyer imageI hope it's still worthwhile to resist, to approach our work with more of a sense of the whole student in mind. To realize that the ownership of writing, the celebration of insight, is a right and a gift that all students should be given--first generation, people of color, speakers of other languages included. They may not at first recognize their ownership of writing, their insight, their agency with their education (and newsflash--many second+ generation students don't as well).

But we should.

A Writing Center should be a place for writers--all writers.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

High Impact Practices in an online class

Inside Higher Ed published an article recently entitled "Making an Impact in Online Courses," a report on a session at the annual Association of American Colleges and Universities conference at Washington, D.C. (a professional organization who advocates for the inclusion of liberal arts in all aspects of higher education).
The focus was on the incorporation of high-impact practices, an AAC&U term that incorporates researched activities that have proven to enhance student learning, such as learning communities, writing-intensive courses or collaborative assignments and projects.
The three member panel from Mary Washington University, McDaniel College, and St. Edward's University discussed a variety of projects and practices, mostly focused on encouraging students to write, and collaborate, and interview people in their communities.

Sounds good, though--as I experienced when attending this conference a couple years ago--as someone who has taught online for decades, I found much discussed obvious--for example, one professor mentioned how much better participation in interviewing became when she first had students submit a proposal about who to interview.
So, good stuff, and if you're new to online learning, helpful to recognize some things that are helpful when teaching in that venue. However, most of it is asynchronous, even though interactive at some level, disembodied, and substantially lacking in presence among students or with the professor.
At the end of the article, one participant brought up something that was quite interesting:
Jesse Stommel, executive director of the division of teaching and learning technologies at Mary Washington, said ... that he wants to see informal, self-motivated discussions considered as a high-impact practice of sorts. In his face-to-face classes, he sometimes starts class by asking how students spent their weekends, and students sometimes approach him after class for free-flowing conversations that last 10 minutes or more. 
He thinks creating an environment where similar spontaneity can flourish would make a high impact as well.
It brought me back to a conversation I had years ago with a colleague who had tried teaching online, and did so for several semesters, but then gave it up and went back to face-to-face teaching. He told me that he missed the informal interaction with students, being able to joke around, talk about their weekend, the give and take that he saw and enjoyed in a real-time, f2f environment. This lack is exactly what Stommel seems to be decrying and suggesting is as integral to an educational experience as other high-impact practices.
My observation is that when we limit online learning to asynchronous 2D, text-based environments, we lose that spontaneity, that opportunity to create community with students where more informal, though vital, interaction can take place. Yes, we can create a simulation of informality through our emails, or assignment language, or syllabus. We can jump into discussion forums and interact with students asynchronously. We can even do some real-time text chat, or even audio, or even video conferencing that helps some. But notice that none of that real-time getting together as a learning community was mentioned in the article, and rarely is with online classes.
Our campus is no different at Lansing Community College. We've had online classes, online degrees offered since 1997 (as I've mentioned some years ago in this blog). But the push has always been asynchronous, with very little recognition of the value of synchronous interaction.
For the last eight years, I've been using Second Life with my online classes, where we meet as a whole class once a week. It operates just like f2f meetings. We talk about our weekends, movies, the weather before class. We work as a whole class, in groups, do peer review, writing exercises, visit sims related to their work (especially for the creative writing students where they are able to interact with other poets, fiction writers, storytellers in world). We are doing Stommel's high-impact practice.
Is it perfect? Of course not, any more than f2f interaction is. But with embodied avatars operating in a 3D space, students can see a representation of each other, work together in a place (rather than a computer 2D window), hear each other and participate in a learning community each week; I've seen (as have others) "an environment where similar spontaneity can flourish" as it can in a classroom on campus.
But it's difficult with little support from administration. I'm allowed to teach this way in online classes. But I'm on my own. I have no technical support, and the ability to get what I do (Is it an online class? Is it a hybrid class? Is it an online but hybrid class? What is it?) has been difficult to comprehend by overworked staff, administration, even academic advisers. And explaining it as an overworked professor! I've not had the time, or energy, to promote as I could, and even if I did, I'm not sure it would do much good. Online=asynchronous learning to many--students, staff, faculty and administration.
It's really a shame. Because with 3D environments, the experience that online students have could be so much more. Sure, they can still learn in a 2D learning management system like Blackboard and Desire2Learn, and such is integral to my class. But that spontaneous interaction--as my colleague put it, the ability to joke around--is largely missing, and there is no good reason, today, for such to be the case in online learning.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Some notes on the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference

I haven't attended the VWBPE conference in a couple years (or at least not much beyond a session or two), but since this year it fell on my spring break, I decided that I should do so.

I went to a number of excellent sessions, some in Second Life and some in the Opensim grid Avacon. I also hadn't spent much time in an opensim in several years, and I have to say it's much improved, though still a few years behind Second Life. (Of course, I do admit that some of that could simply be my level of skill with Opensim!)

Even so, from this year's conference, I could tell that the work in and excitement surrounding the use of virtual environments has escalated. The last few years have been rather bleak in many ways for teaching in world--from Linden Lab's abandonment of support for educational institutions (though it has been reestablished), to the larger culture's gaze at MOOCs as the shiny new thing (until the success rates of single digits became known!), to the adoption of mobile devices as the go-to place for online engagement especially among young people. But now with the feverish hyping of virtual reality head sets (I have a Google alert for "virtual reality" and get a dozen + hits a day) and the growth of Minecraft, it seems that recognizing the value of virtual environments in education is beginning to rise out of the trough of disillusionment in the hype cycle that Gartner has been publishing for the last few years. I heard, in fact, during the conference that in Virginia virtual worlds are now a required part of the tech standards that students need to fulfill in K-12.

So here are some notes about sessions I attended:

Virtual Worlds and Transactional Distance in Higher Education Online Courses – a Student Panel

This was my favorite session, where online students discussed their experience with using Second Life as a class meeting place during their online course. During the beginning of the course, the professor had them try a session in a virtual web conference program and then one in Second Life. They then chose which to continue meeting in. They all chose Second Life, and apparently this has been the overwhelming choice for a number of sections. The reasons that the students selected the virtual environment was because they felt like they were in a class with other students and the professor, rather than the more flat (their word) experience of talking heads in a web conference.

Of course, this was something that really interested me since I experienced much the same thing when first interacting with others in Second Life. There was much more a sense of being with others than I had experienced in 2D web interactions.

Ebbe Linden speech

The CEO of Linden Lab spoke for an hour giving educators an update on the improvements taking place in Second Life (most interesting to me, an upgraded browser in media on a prim), and on the development of Sansar (or as some call it SL2). He stated that both platforms will be operating separately for years, that SL users will likely find Sansar not as feature rich as they are used to (which prompted me to question in chat why then would we be compelled to move--which was not answered), but that it would ultimately have in-world building capability, though initial building will take place with third-party programs.

Here's a video of the talk presented on Daniel Voyager's blog if you'd like to see it. And here is a more robust summary on Jo Yardley's blog.

OpenSimulator Featured Panel at Avacon and Stephen Downes' keynote

As I mentioned above, this is the first time I've spent any time in opensim grids in several years. I have avatars in Jokaydia grid, Third Rock and OS Grid. Only the latter would allow me to hypergrid to Avacon, and it worked great.

The sessions went smoothly, though I can't say I'm a fan of Teamspeak as a separate voice platform, even though, to be fair, it worked fine. And no shadows--everything looked much flatter than in SL, but again that could be because I'm not familiar with any particular settings I should have set up.

It was great hearing from the featured panel about the projects being worked on in opensim grids by educators, and about the problems and improvements that are needed (primarily focused on communicating with others what they are doing--quite a shout out to Google+ by the way--and smoother hypergridding). And Downes' keynote was interesting, though I'll just give you a link rather than noting any take aways, mainly because I was struck more with the venue than what was said.

If hypergridding becomes as smooth as teleporting in SL and if the number of events/exhibits become readily available for writers and undergraduate scholars, I would seriously consider moving.

Karl Kapp keynote

Kapp's keynote was entitled "Reaching the Engagement Horizon in Virtual Worlds: Crafting Engagement Through Games and Gamification." I've never been a fan of gamification, but his work that he presented was intriguing. Though rather ironic--his main point is that active learning and activities is the best way to learn in virtual worlds, as he lectured at us for an hour!

A couple take aways:

He noted that when we use 2D web communication like Skype, we are very aware that all participants are in different locations, that there is a distance between us--we can hear sounds from different places and/or see images from different rooms or venues. However when we meet in virtual worlds, we are in the same place doing the same thing.

This is something I've long noticed about virtual worlds, that when avatars meet, there is an intimacy (a word that came up during the conference that I had never thought of but is quite apt) that arises, a sense of person, that does not take place in 2D conferencing venues. Don't get me wrong--2D communication through audio and video is great, but the disembodied heads floating on a screen separates rather than brings together participants. The placeness of virtual worlds creates connection that I've still yet to be able to explain.

One other take away: We learn from games not because they are fun, but because they are interactive.  (Though it seems to me that fun does motivate game playing! If it's not fun, players won't interact!)

At the student panel, I had asked them the part that a sense of place contributed to their choice of 3D or 2D meetings. At first they didn't quite get what I was asking, but they mentioned that Second Life was more fun, and not in the sense that they were playing a game, but more so that just seeing others in different avatars, in different environments, was much enjoyable, lightening the very serious work that they were doing as a class.

The week prior, I had my creative writing students go on a field trip. They were studying setting in fiction, and I asked them to go find sims that corresponded with their settings they had been creating in stories and poems. One group came back with animal balloons; they had visited a zoo sim and were quite excited about the animals (and balloons) they had discovered.

So I'm still not sure how far I'd want to go with gamification, though I think definitely a sense of play at some level is valuable with learning, and I've found that interaction and fun are definitely valuable with online courses in virtual environments.

There were other excellent sessions, and it was great to hear what has been going on with the Virtual Pioneers and Caledon Oxbridge, but this blog entry has gotten long enough so I think I'll stop here.

One other thing, though--in the process of participating in VWBPE, I learned about, and tried, a couple of other virtual worlds, Edorable and High Fidelity. Both are not ready for prime time (not even for late night) but were intriguing to check out. The developer of Edorable claims that his media board is entirely synchronous, that what the instructor does on the board is seen by the students, just like in a face to face classroom--even with password protected sites. This sounds quite promising!

Now, really, I'm done. I guess that's what you get when I haven't blogged in a while!

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Virtual Worlds 2.0: High Fidelity and Magic Leap

This morning I watched a couple videos from the MIT Technology Review's EmTech Digital conference that took place on June 1-2 in San Francisco. The first one was with Philip Rosedale--the founder of Second Life--talking about his new-virtual world company High Fidelity: The Quest to Put More Reality in Virtual Reality | EmTech Digital 2015 | MIT Technology Review.

This new version of a virtual world allows for the presentation of facial expressions that match actual facial expressions of the human driver: if you turn your head, smile, blink, blow out your cheeks, your avatar will do the same. It's also going to run on anyone's computer/server with an easy upload and naming of virtual world URLs, low latency (when you say or act, it takes place with no lag to speak of), and will interface with a variety of interfaces, from laptop, to Oculus Rift, to HTC Vive, to HoloLense to Magic Leap. The company is also working on making access to the virtual world beyond the keyboard and mouse. More natural, haptic, using hands to manipulate objects in world rather than coordinating a keyboard and mouse. And it will also have two similarities with Second Life: the capacity to build in world and a marketplace.

He discussed the use of the virtual world in education: "One of the areas we think virtual reality, particularly head mounted displays, is going to have some of its amazing early impact in virtual worlds is in teaching. If teachers can create learning spaces that they can invite students into and those students can look the teacher in the eye and be present and be aware and be attentive we think it's going to have a radical, accelerating impact on the online teaching that we're already doing today." He also mentioned later the idea that teaching and teaching-like experiences will be more immersive, such as having a discussion.

Of course, the sense of presence in an online class is something I've been exploring for several years in Second Life. Would the changes he mentions above add to the immersiveness of a class discussion, the sharing of writing, the participation in field trips or virtual world excursions?

I think so. Especially facial expressions--looking naturally at each other in the virtual environment--would add tremendously. Head-mounted displays would make it so that you could look at each other rather than manipulating mouse and keyboard to have your avatar move its head (which most students don't at all do!).

But that seems down the road a good number of years for most students because of the expense of head mounted displays and other haptic hardware. The biggest issue is latency and smooth, uninterrupted connection to operate the virtual environment. When students have a glitch-free experience, the interaction, social presence, immersiveness is much stronger. When they are constantly fighting lag, slow rezzing, jerky avatar movement and such, then the presence goes out the window.

In the last couple years, the stability of SL and the ability to access it with student computers has been much improved. Adding more tech-heavy stuff, like a head-mounted display, would take us back to glitch-land, at least in the beginning.

But even so, for an online class, students with a head-mounted display would have to be able to operate a keyboard, to be able to type onto a notecard in world. Last month for the first time, I tried the Oculus Rift and found that  the use of the keyboard or mouse was difficult because I couldn't look down to see it. Being able to do so would be necessary, or being able to access a virtual keyboard in world might work.

The other video session I watched from the EmTech Digital conference was about Magic Leap10 Breakthrough Technologies 2015 - Magic Leap. The nearest I understand the product being developed is that it creates virtual images not through stereoscopic head mounted displays (think the old View-Masters) or other 3-D stereoscopic glasses used in 3D movies (in essence how Oculus Rift and other head mounted displays work), but through a light field that is projected onto your eyes, much like how we receive light in the actual world. And the idea is that it can blend imperceptibly with the light of the actual world simultaneously, creating a digital/analog augmented reality.

An augmented reality display, like Magic Leap (or Microsoft's HoloLens) might improve the problem I mentioned above, that of being able to see one's keyboard in order to write, an important necessity for courses that involve lots of writing. But would they keep the sense of presence that a virtual environment offers, blocking out the pile of laundry on the sofa, or the barking dog in the back yard (not that current iterations do a good job with the latter!) The whole idea of presence with the professor and other students in real time in a shared space is what needs to be preserved and even more so enhances with these new ventures into virtual reality, at least when it comes to online education.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

New mesh avatars

(Written in September 2014, edited/pictures added March 2015)

The semester has just begun, and I'm pleasantly surprised with the gratitude I've been seeing with students, unsolicited. I get thank yous from students, sometimes at the end of semesters, though, there have been years when such is not expressed.

But this very first week, I've had several online students thank me for the checklists I set up for the weekly work, and for the helpful organization of my Desire2Learn site and with my online assignments. And emails thanking me when I send out reminders.

I'm not saying this hasn't happened before. But it just seems to be taking place more frequently, especially in the first week, than I recall taking place in previous years.

But that's not really what I want to focus on with this entry.

Linden Lab last May introduced new standard avatars that use mesh rather than prims for skins and clothing. Fitted mesh makes the avatars look more realistic than the previous default avatars, which are still available, but labeled "classic."

So, that sounds beneficial for new users, such as students starting a new semester. Yeah, well, not so much.

Here's the problem. They are very difficult to alter. One of the tasks that I have students complete for their orientation is to grab some free stuff at the Virtual Ability Island and try some new clothes or accessories.

Doing so has never been a problem in previous semesters. The instructions Virtual Ability Island display are clear and easy to follow, and the avatars are easily manipulated. Furthermore, I gave them the opportunity during an early scavenger hunt to go grab some free clothes, hair and avatars at the University of Cincinnati Bookstore (which has since disappeared :(.

This semester, though, was problematic. With these new avatars, changing shapes and clothes is very difficult. Students found it near impossible to manipulate their avatar and make it their own.

Now, I'm not having them change their avatars for spurious reasons. Based on my experience, and on research (more later... meanwhile, here's a more casual but interesting blog posting in Scientific American: "My So-Called Second Life: Are You Your Avatar?"), residents who bond with their avatars become more invested in them, connect more fully with them, and thus have a richer experience in world. And for an online class where we meet two hours a week minimum, that's really important. When the class begins to become stressful (and it always does--it is college, mind you!), students who are comfortable in their virtual skin are much more likely to stick it out and use the class meetings to their advantage.

Next semester, I think I'll have everyone grab the classic avatars, until the mesh ones are ready for prime time.

Update: Spring 2015 semester, I did ask students to go classic, and the customization of avatars during orientation went much smoother.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Face-to-face immersion

(Note: this blog posting started over a month ago, so it's really a middle-of-the-semester reflection rather than an end of semester wrap up. I expect to do such a posting soon.)

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in an English Department distance learning committee meeting, where my chair, Rick Reagan, said something that really caught my attention: "Many students just have to realize that online learning is not an immersive experience like face-to-face learning is. It's mostly asynchronous and on your own."

What caught my attention was the idea that f2f is immersive; although subconsciously I recognized such, I never thought of it in those terms. What makes the f2f classroom immersive? It seems to me there are at least three things: real time interaction, spatial proximity and manipulation of objects with others in that space.

Now, online learning, especially traditional, 2D online learning at LCC, is mostly asynchronous interaction. Synchronous can be included but is not used much on our campus. Proximity does exist at some level with a 2D learning management system (LMS) like the one we're currently using, Desire2Learn, in the sense that everyone sees text/organization/colors much the same in the computer browser window. In other words, there is a similar look and feel that everyone in a class experiences.  But clearly not a sense of space, of being somewhere. And there is no manipulation of objects in the same space. I guess you could do something similar with Google Docs, editing, manipulating, writing on a document together. But nothing like looking at a sheet of paper shoulder to shoulder, or passing a notebook from one person to another, or even looking at a projected screen together.

Don't get me wrong--there are other criteria, and a quick web search will give us articles about immersion in film, games, virtual worlds, whole room virtual reality simulators and so on.

But to make a class immersive, in a typical f2f way, seems rather simple: real time interaction, spatial proximity, and manipulation of objects with others in that space.

And his point, one that is so for most online courses, is that students just need to realize, it ain't there, when it's an online class.

However--and you know where I'm going with this, don't you!--we shouldn't settle with a lack of immersion for online students.

It's true that some are fine without immersion in their educational experience. They want to get in to read stuff, watch videos, write papers, take tests and move on their merry way. They'll tolerate some interaction, but they don't really want it. I remember many years ago, one of my first online students did a paper on being in a virtual community with our class, and arguing that the interaction with others even though we couldn't be in the same place, made the learning more enriching than an online class without such interaction. She interviewed class members, both in our class and others she was taking. Some agreed, but some didn't, saying that interaction, community in learning, was great but took too much time, and they just wanted to get in, do the work, and get out. In other words, they'd much prefer a correspondence course.

But the thing is, many students take online courses, not because they want a correspondence course--a solitary learning experience--but because of a number of issues that keep them from coming to campus. In other words, they'd prefer a f2f class where immersion is present, but they can't attend such a class because of distance, lack of transportation, inability to leave home because of a disability, illness or small children, and so on.

Consequently, for many online students, being able to experience a regular real-time class experience, in a common place where they can interact and even manipulate objects with others is beneficial. That's the reason why I have been exploring the use of a virtual environment with my classes, to give students an experience where they have a much more sense of community, working with others, with me, in a place that creates immersion, or at least affords the opportunity for immersion. It's often clunky. It's often less than ideal. But it's light years ahead of 2D interaction.

An example: a few weeks ago, my WRIT 121 class met during our regular Thursday evening meeting. I had asked them to bring working theses for the essays they were working on so they could share and discuss and hopefully improve their main points to make them more focused and more insightful for their upcoming essay.

Here's how one student described the experience afterward on a discussion forum:
While I enjoy taking online classes (this is my third), the face-to-face approach works better for me and my learning style. I like the personal interaction. Even in the virtual world of SL, last night toward the end, Prof. Dan asked us to briefly share our thoughts about editing our thesis and narrowing our focus so we can write a 1,000 word essay. Even though the exchange of ideas happened in SL, they were using voice and therefore it was almost like a phone call conversation (in my opinion) that we could all hear. One person shared hers and Prof. Dan asked a few questions and provided some feedback. I also made one brief statement that he turned into a question for her, and it made me think about how the thesis could be reworked.

This rambling comment is meant to summarize this point: Even in the virtual world, voice-to-voice communication with a teacher (while still not "in person") is, in my opinion, better for me as a student than just receiving an assignment online, doing the work, and submitting it online.
So interacting in real time, in an immersive virtual environment, gets this student closer to what she sees available in what my chair would call an immersive f2f class. And she is in no wise alone.

Besides--where else can you ride a racing slug or come to class as Jack Skellington!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Summer author interview and the fall semester begins

This summer I published a story cycle of urban fantasy/magical realism, the Annunciation of Jack, which you can purchase on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Also, I was interviewed by Alexander Zoltai, who manages events at Book Island in Second Life. Last spring semester, some of my creative writing students attended his book chat and he was intrigued with the work I was doing with students in the virtual world. It was a short interview, but I enjoyed meeting Alexander, and chatting with him.

You can access the interview at

Meanwhile, this semester has been quite a challenge. Everything changed--our department offices, our learning management system, even my virtual space in SL since Angel Learning Isle is no longer being supported by Blackboard. I'm now holding class sessions on MCCAVLC Island (Michigan Community College Association Virtual Learning Collaborative). The director agreed to have Angel Learning Isle in essence moved over, so much is the same, though I had to restore all of the tools I need, from the class area, to my office to the sky areas where I have students do small group work.

The good thing about the move is that I have more administrative rights at MCCAVLC Island (thank you, Ronda Edwards!), so I can send clutter back to owners, I can ban griefers (though I've only had one the entire time I worked on Angel Learning Isle), and my teleporters work when they didn't on Angel Learning Isle.

As I've mentioned before, I use sky platforms for small group work. In a f2f class, if I want students to do an activity in small groups, I'd send them to different corners of the room. In the virtual environment, though, you can't be nearby because text chat or voice bleeds into each other. So I set up sky areas hundreds of meters in the air that are far enough apart so the groups don't hear each other. On each sky area, I have a table, and three media share boards, where students can read my instructions and write with each other on Google Docs.

Before, I had landmark dispensers in my class area, where students would grab a landmark and then teleport to the sky area. I always had a couple students have difficulty with the steps involved. Now, with teleporters, all they have to do is right click and teleport. So starting students up with small groups has been much smoother and quicker. I did, though, have one student have some problems with the teleporter! I ended up going to the sky area and then send her a teleport to join her group.
Anyway, so far, the semester has gone relatively smoothly. Students enjoyed the scavenger hunt where they get used to the virtual environment by riding bikes, parachuting, petting a dog, riding a merry go round, and dancing on Dance, Dance Revolution! Interesting, though, that the most popular tasks  were lying on a lily pad and watching the dolphins play in the water--more than one student commented on how peaceful they felt when doing so.

I've found that making sure students do a scavenger hunt, particularly when they work with a partner, is the quickest way to get them comfortable interacting in the virtual space so that they can concentrate on our school work in future weeks. And also, meeting as a whole class. Small group chat sessions can be effective for some classes later in the semester. But having students meet weekly, like a f2f or hybrid class, really goes a long way to cement them into a viable writing community where they can work together effectively in becoming more substantive writers.

Can such be done in 2D environments like our new learning management system Desire2Learn or through a web conference like Adobe Connect? At some level, yes. But the immersive quality of being in a place (not on a 2D screen of text and video boxes) does something for most of us, helping us to connect with others.

The other night after a class session, one of my students just burst out, "Well, see ya, I've just gotta fly!"

And another quotation from a mother taking first year composition. Her kids were watching her interact with us during class and she started laughing. "My kids say it is not fair I get to go to class like this!"

Nobody ever said that about Angel or Desire2Learn!