Friday, December 12, 2008

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye!

This will be my last posting for my sabbatical, though not my last posting. One of the values, I see, in sabbaticals is the opportunity to start activities that can then be incorporated into one's professional life. So my goal is to continue this blog next semester.

But before that happens, I thought it would be good to do some summary and reflection on the work I did this last semester. First off, here is a list of applications that I played with this semester that I hadn't really used until going on sabbatical:

  • Blogger
  • Diigo
  • delicious
  • Google docs
  • Pageflakes
  • Second Life
  • Facebook
  • Myspace
  • Twitter
  • Twittervision
  • Twistory
  • Flickrvision
  • Google Reader
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Chrome
  • Ping.fm

There are a few others that I looked at and briefly dabbled with, such as ning, pbwiki, wetpaint, Google Lively and so on. But those listed above are ones I spent significant time with, and will most likely continue to use at some level. And I've used flickr for some time, though only for personal use.

Furthermore, here is a list of conferences, seminars, and discussion groups that I attended in SL the last 45 days:

  • ISTE discussion group
  • UCLA Mellon seminar in Digital Humanities
  • East Carolina University conference "Virtual Worlds in Education"
  • Educause Annual Conference
  • MacArthur Foundation "Real World Impacts from the Virtual World"
  • Community Colleges in Second Life discussion group
  • Epic Institute "Where Are We Going with Virtual Reality?--and Who Will We Be When We Get There?" discussion group
  • Second Life Educators Roundtable
  • Virtual Worlds Research Group
  • Metanomics
  • Science Friday
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Portal at InfoIsland
  • West of Ireland reading
  • Program for the Future conference
  • University of Louisiana's Invitational Conference on Virtual Worlds
So what did I learn? Besides the fact that I've only scratched the surface of the metaverse, here are some thoughts based on a review of my blog postings from the last three months (parenthetic dates note previous blog entries of issues):

One of the first assertions I made in the beginning of this project--in the proposal--was the desire to see if we were at a place where we could expand 2d online education to make it more immersive. I've come to the conclusion that we are on the cusp of launching online education into a 3D immersive environment, where students will not simply communicate through screen windows of text, but will find their online classes situated within a place, where up, down, left, right become essential elements in understanding where they are just as they do in real life (RL) classrooms. Where students see each other and the instructor within an environment rather than just text on a page:





Virtual worlds like Second Life make concrete learning through social interaction and will likely lead to higher engagement/retention (9/9). However, we need to keep in mind, that SL and other virtual worlds are bleeding edge (9/5), and very much like the frontiers of browsing in the mid-nineties. It's not quite "ready for prime time" in the sense of being able to use to its full capacity with multiple sections of fully online classes across an institution. But it will be soon, where seamless interaction with 2D applications within a multi-user virtual environment will make fully online education as socially present as a face to face class.

The concept of e-mmediacy--feeling connected with students and instructor in online classes (11/14)--takes place today with learning management software, like Angel or Blackboard. But it only happens with some students and faculty. I've had many students, and faculty, I've worked with express dissatisfaction with online learning because they miss the connection with others. Even though they've dealt with fully interactive online classes. Multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) seem to me to be a critical development in online learning, and any institution who ignores them will soon look quaint in its approach to distance education.

Now, do note that I mention seamless interaction with 2D applications within a 3D world. MUVEs by themselves are nowhere near enough. By themselves, they become only Jung's collective unconscious, a dream world (10/9) that may be valuable for study but not necessarily a place to study and learn. Even just now (12/16, 7:15 p.m.), I attended a discussion at the SL educator's roundtable, and we discussed the need for seamless access of 2D applications in SL, such as the ability to present web pages easily and quickly to others while in world. Most agreed that if another virtual world offered such, and SL didn't, SL would lose educators. Project Wonderland is another MUVE that advertises the ability to collaborate with others on 2D applications. And Sloodle is working on such a presenter of web pages now for use in SL (as announced by a Sloodle developer at the meeting just mentioned). With these developments, I can see fully online classes using virtual worlds for an immersive space to do real work. And if SL stays at the forefront, then the axiom expressed recently by John Seattle will really be so for online education: "Second Life is real life" (11/20).

One other point: In order to use a MUVE in online education, at least for community colleges, there must be accommodation for mixed-age classes (11/25). It's true that classes could be advertised as 18 and over only, but that's not the best situation. There is no reason that under 18 students should be kept from immersive online classes as long as they have parental permission. Hopefully, Linden Labs will relent in the near future.

If not--Second Life really will be the Netscape of the 21st century as other MUVEs leap over it to accommodate higher education.

What's next? I will definitely be using Twitter, Diigo and Pageflakes next semester. I may have some SL activities that are optional, where students can participate rather than do something in the discussion forum or chat. Or as extra credit. I need to explore more fully the different orientation possibilities, to get students started. Right now, I'm leaning toward the Virtual Ability orientation. I'm hoping to build up my skills in SL so that I can require its use in the fall. I'm also going to explore the acquisition of land. Lansing Community College really needs to invest in developing immersive environments for their online classes. If we as an institution are not ready to invest in our own island, I plan to check into ed islands who offer space to other institutions.

And I plan to continue using SL for professional development. Conversation and participation with other educators has been quite enjoyable, much more than I expected when I first began this project.

So until next year, Happy Christmas, Merry Hannukah, Uproarious Kwanza, and may the Force be with you.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Netscape 1995

My sabbatical basically ends this week. I plan to do two more blog entries, this one and then a wrap up at the end of the week (or Monday).

One of the primary benefits that I've found with exploring Second Life is that of professional development, both in the sense of online conferences as well as more informal though periodic discussion groups.

For example, this last couple weeks, I've participated in five different discussion groups:

SL Educators Roundtable



Community Colleges in SL



Virtual Worlds Research Group



Epoch Institute discussions on virtual worlds (from a social science perspective)



The Science Fiction and Fantasy Portal at InfoIsland

Oops, forgot to take a picture. Well, you'll just have to trust me that I was there. I did, though, also stop by West of Ireland for a reading of Washington Irving:



I'm not going to summarize the discussions, though they were often rich and intriguing. My point for this blog is that in the space of two weeks, I've had conversations with other professors, instructors, high school teachers, students from all over the US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Portugal, Holland, England and so on. Yes, such can happen through listservs, MOOs, blogs, Twitter, wikis. But the sense of presence and space one experiences in SL adds a dimension to online interaction that I find significant, a sense that increases the more I explore its use.

But again, as I've mentioned before, and has come up in a number of places in world, SL is on the bleeding edge of technology. At a conference I attended the last couple days that took place in San Jose (Program for the Future) and also took place in SL, one of the RL participants whined about how difficult SL was to download and operate, that one needed a high-end computer even to operate in the virtual world, that a grandmother in Kansas would never be able to do it.

I made the comment in world that my children's grandmother (my mother) had no problem downloading and exploring SL (quite enjoyed the quilt exhibit at University of Kansas library). But the bigger issue is that many of the same complaints that are made about SL were made in 1995 about browsing the web. I remember using Netscape on my son's first computer and waiting 15 minutes for a page with still images to download!

And I'm sure we all remember searching for stuff on the web in the mid-nineties: nine times out of ten you'd just find crap. Yet, in just a couple years, we could find magazine articles, research from universities, rudimentary video clips and such that made it much more useful, not to mention the beginnings of interactive usage as we began to explore with online classes in 1997.

And today, the exponential increase of content that one finds with resources online is truly staggering. My wife, just the other day mentioned that in the last six months she's noticed a marked increase in quality of sources she pulls up when searching online.

Second Life is Netscape in 1995, or maybe a little further along, say 96 or 97. But in the next couple years, it seems to me that the richness of interaction and content will explode.

However, Second Life may also be the Netscape of 1995 for another reason. How many of you today use Netscape? That's what I thought. As we all know, Netscape got squashed by Internet Explorer and leapt over by Firefox. Will the same happen to Second Life? Will Google resurrect Lively or release something much more powerful? Will open source virtual worlds like OpenSim or Project Wonderland leap over SL's success? Who knows. But as mentioned in the Metaverse Roadmap, in the next 5-10 years, 3D immersive environments will be a significant part of our web experience. And I expect it will be the primary platform for online learning.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Web 2.0 assignments

I've been working on possible assignments to use next semester with Web 2.0 applications, focusing so far on Composition II, using Twitter, Diigo and Pageflakes.

The first two are part of what I hope to have students do in the spring on their first essay. Twitter will be used as a research/writing log, where students will be asked to jot down "What are you doing?" concerning their exploration, research, reading, writing of the first essay. I expect to make it a running assignment throughout the semester. I'm hoping that class members will begin asking questions and helping each other a bit more readily than has been the case with standard Angel fare.

I've also been writing instructions on how to set up the two programs, which take a good number of steps. There are some video instructions on setting up Twitter and Diigo:





Both of the videos cover more features than I do in my instructions, and especially with the Diigo video, do so quite quickly. But I figure that students can have them as resources to review features they might want to add later. Or that I may want to expand upon as the semester progresses.

I've also been playing with Pageflakes, an aggregator that is like iGoogle, but allows you to create pagecasts or public pages. What I would like to create is an essay resource page, a one-stop aggregator that students can use to work on their essays. I wanted to include access to the essay assignment page but soon found that I'd need to reformat in order to read easily in the widget.

Pageflakes is pretty easy to use, though you need time for trial and error. One aspect of the application that is announced often on the site is that you can easily take a widget someone else is using and put it on your page. Just click on the faint envelope in the corner (just above the cursor arrow on the top right):



The only problem is, no instruction on what to do with the html that is offered. I finally figured out how to add it to one of the widgets, but it would have been nice to have been told!

Also, at first I thought I'd have a page for each essay, but I soon realized that would be impractical, redundant and cluttered. So I figure I'll change the essay widget when we change essay assignments. And I'll have one page available for both WRIT 122 and WRIT 132, with separate essay assignment widgets to choose from.

I was also going to talk about some educational experiences and discussions I had this week in SL this week, but I think I'll leave that for next week.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

CC in SL

The third event I mentioned in the last post was a meeting of the Community Colleges in Second Life group. I had attempted to attend a meeting with them several times, but kept missing the meeting, either because the SLED calendar was wrong, or I misunderstood the time of the meeting. Finally, last Wednesday I met with several community college instructors, the discussion led by Pipsqueak Fiddlesticks, a community college librarian and professor.



The first issue we discussed was how to deal with griefers, avatars who set out to create mischief by harassing others. Apparently there has been a rise in problems with griefers on Infoisland and at a College Fair that took place weekend before last. In fact, Pipsqueak doesn't give out RL information on herself because she was stalked by an SL user. So figuring out how to deal with griefers is important to discuss with students when in SL.

The second issue is one that I've been wrestling with for several weeks. Under eighteen year old students. In SL, anyone under 18 cannot access the virtual world. There is Teen SL which is available for teens 13-17. The problem is when you have a class of mixed ages. This often happens at community colleges since we deal with the first two years of college, and we have many dual enrolled high school students. Furthermore, online classes particularly attract high school students who live out of the city.

As it stands, if I were to have a class with students under 18, I could not bring them all into Second Life. This presents a serious problem. One instructor mentioned that he just allows students who are under age to follow along in class, but obviously that wouldn't work with an online class. Another instructor suggested making sure to have alternative activities in the 2D portion of the class, but I don't like that solution at all, to have students barred from educational activities that others are participating in. Underage students could lie about their age, but if instructors bring underage students into Second Life, they would be banned, as has happened, at least that's the rumor. But even so, instructors can't ethically tell students to lie about their age.

The only other solution I can think of is to advertise in the schedule book beforehand that students must be 18 years old or older in order to take the class.

I don't understand why students cannot obtain a permission slip from their parents to participate with a college class in SL, just as they might for other college activities. The point is that they have permission to attend adult college classes. A permission slip from a student's parent absolving Linden Labs and the college of liability seems to cover legal issues that Linden Labs obviously is worried about.

Pipsqueak Fiddlesticks plans to discuss with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) about this problem and see if we can talk to Linden Labs about a way around it. For SL to be a viable venue for online education, we have to be able to serve underage students.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Second Life Is Real Life

This week, I've been working on a couple assignment ideas, one with Twitter and one with social bookmarking. A Twitter assignment for WRIT 122 students, using the microblog as a research/writing log is close to ready, and another on using delicious or Diigo is in planning stages.

I did hit a snag with using the social bookmarking. It works great for Web resources. However, we tend to encourage students to take advantage of the rich resources available through Lansing Community College Libary, such as InfoTrac OneFile. I couldn't figure out an easy or even reasonable way to bookmark such resources using Diigo. A quick email to Debby Harris, and she figured out how to do it. It's a bit on the clunky side, no fault of hers, but it should work.

In Second Life, I was able to participate in several events pretty smoothly. I'm finding that SL crashes reduced significantly when I made sure that my graphics settings weren't set too high for my computer. Next computer needs a more powerful graphics/video card.

Three events, in particular, I wanted to bring up. One was a mini-conference celebrating the opening of the MacArthur Foundation's land in SL, "Real World Impacts from the Virtual World." I attended the session "Dropping Knowledge: How Virtual World Educators Are Changing Lives" sponsored by RezEd. Basically it was an opportunity to hear from a librarian, a teacher working with elementary kids in Dizzywood, and a representative from Arizona State University where they were experimenting with Google Lively (which just hours later was announced to be going dark next month!).



The session then broke into small groups where we discussed online education in SL.



Although the mini-conference was interesting, the main point that I wanted to make about it was how smoothly it went. I crashed once, got right back in, and I could hear and see everything that took place with little hindrance. The presenters streamed their discussion to the conference instead of using voice, and they did so, by all four (including the emcee) talking on Skype, and then streaming Skype into the conference. And though the breakout session was only mildly interesting--there really wasn't a moderator that kept things going, and it seemed there wasn't really anyone there with much experience in teaching online classes in SL--it took place without a hitch. It seems that the use of the virtual world for real events--beyond novelty or recreation--is evolving exponentially. Of course, it also helps that I'm getting used to moving around effectively in the 3D world.

The next two events, though, had more intriguing content/ideas tossed about, at least for me, and for the purposes of this blog entry. The first was a weekly discussion put on by Epic Institute entitled "Where Are We Going with Virtual Reality?-- and Who Will We Be When We Get There?" led by a social psychologist and a sociologist. This particular session, we visited Cedar Island, a community of artists and educators, and an island that is designed to be like the Pacific Northwest.



The tour guide and designer, John Seattle, pointed out that Second Life is social constructivism made visible. In other words, the making of meaning and knowledge as a social construction is constructed literally in the virtual world where community and environment are built by groups of people. He also mentioned something that rang a bell, that constraints and boundaries are necessary for people to accept a virtual world and to be able to operate effectively--that if anything goes, users become lost, frustrated, disorientated. What is created needs to be rooted in real life enough to make relatable. (Very similar to something John Lasseter of Pixar said about 3D animation.)

In fact, John Seattle mentioned something that I think is a hurdle we will need to jump over in working with students: "Second Life is real life." In other words, real work, real thought, real education, real community is created in the virtual world. It's not a game, but a 3D virtual environment. Students who are used to MMORPGs, PC games or console games will think it's just a pastime, not a place where real education takes place. Even my son--a 3D animation major at Ringling School of Art and Design, who, you would think, would see the world of 3D worlds as a place where serious work takes place, since he works night and day--sees SL as a game--"I haven't played it in a long time." And he was amazed to find out real colleges have virtual campuses in SL.

So the value of play is certainly a part of SL, a big part, and I would think should be a significant part of using it in higher education. But it should be serious play, one that leads to learning, community, the extension of knowledge, and so on.

I mentioned a third event. I'll talk about that in the next entry.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Notes from a conference

Earlier this week, I attended the East Carolina University conference, "Virtual Worlds in Education," which took place in SL. What follows are some notes I took while participating, notes in various states of development and commentary, along with a few snapshots.

11/10--first session on Digital Cinema, waiting for it to start 16 minutes in. Finally someone shows up and puts a slide up on the screen, "The Aesthetic Camera: Introduction to Cinema Arts." Chatted with a techie through the first half of the session, trying to figure out why I wasn't getting any audio from the speaker. Logged out and then back in. That worked--Mencius Watts (John Filliwalk, Ball State) showing video equipment you can use to record in SL, dolly, steadicam, boom. Students can collaborate in using equipment to make movies. Sounds like it would be a lot of fun!



Also mentioned a NY museum in SL that has over 100,000 items in a database. Worth checking out, at Brooklyn Is Watching.

1:15--an informal forum about using SL for credit classes. I didn't take any notes. I did, though, take a snapshot:



2:30 RIT Island teaching projects--Katie Sismondi (Katie McDonald) presenter, took participants on a field trip where we teleported to RIT Island:



and looked at three projects created for students:

engineering--tensile tester simulation
math--equation editor
Java--multithreaded server

This is the tensile tester simulation.

This is a floating platform where a group of students can meet and work an equation editor that displays on a screen over their head.



These two shots are of the multithreaded server display.

All three were hands on--in other words, you could test or use the objects. The tensile test simulator was particularly created for first year engineering students so they could experiment with the strength of different metals years before they'd be allowed to touch the actual multi-thousand dollar equipment in RL. The equation editor was set up to work with groups, though they're still having problems with getting it to work right. Sounds a lot like our math instructors at LCC and their difficulties with equation editors in Blackboard and Angel.

3:45--another informal forum, again on teaching in SL. I tried to attend other forums, but no one showed up for them. Basically, it was a time for instructors to share what they were doing. One avatar mentioned that filesharing is difficult in SL. Another suggested that Netmeeting and flash video used together is faster than SL. And another mentioned the use of Adobe Connect for web conferencing. However, many argued that the 3D presence of land, buildings, objects and avatars created a social presence and engagement that couldn't be duplicated by 2D applications.

11/11--12 p.m. "Enhancing Social Context for Learners at a Distance: E-mmediacy Strategies in Second Life"--the Second Life URL (SLURL) for the session on the program was wrong, so it took 15 minutes to find session.



E-mmediacy--feeling connected with students and instructor in a computer mediated environment

The presenter (Patricia J. Slagter van Tryon) asks, "What problems have you encountered with feeling connected with each other in an online class?" She gave a list of reasons, which I didn't jot down. One not mentioned is that students don't want "connectedness"--some just want to do the work and get out. These students dislike synchronous participation and want only asynchronous, and time spent of "team building" they resent.

One thing she mentioned that seemed reasonable is that "episodic immediacy is necessary to create community." It's not enough to interact, both with instructor and each other, in the beginning of an online class. It has to take place throughout the semester.

2:30 p.m.--"Credibility in Fantasyland: Realists among Fantasists, a Problem for Educators in Virtual Worlds"



An interesting session, though the presenter, S.A. Mousalimas from Oxford University, read Powerpoint slides, and wasn't very generous with specific examples. He also got rather flustered from our asking questions.

His main point is that many come to virtual worlds to escape the real world, and sometimes have difficulty with reconciling their use for real world work. This isn't a problem in games, such as World of Warcraft, but can be a problem with Multi user virtual environments (MUVEs) when education might be the purpose.

An even more interesting issue he brought up is that SL sites and objects must be evaluated for credibility, just as one must do with research found on the Web, that an SL land owner can create something that looks good, authentic, and appears to be backed by legitimate cultural or scholarly expertise when in actuality he or she may have no real expertise or background. Or it could be fake on purpose, to deceive others, as is the case for the Martin Luther King website created by the white supremacist group Stormfront.

In other words, he cautions against fake education sites or fake cultural sites, such as Native American sites that are created by people with no Native American heritage. He mentioned one authentic SL resident, Nany Kayo, Native American, citizen of Cherokee Nation. He was very vague, though, on what was considered non-authentic. He first suggested that only those who are registered with a tribe are authentic, but being part Cherokee, I know full well that many with Native American heritage never registered for various reasons, such as not wanting to be shipped off to Oklahoma!

He did give one example from the 1980s where, in a multi-user dungeon (MUD), a male psychologist pretended to be a female doctor and counseled women online.

Educators need to verify authenticity and assess credibility in virtual worlds before sending students. Or even better, have students find evidence of credibility to evaluate the effectiveness of a site.

He also suggested that educators should spend ample time in world before bringing students. When pressed by yours truly what "ample time" meant, he suggested six months. The more time I spend in SL, the more I agree. Otherwise, using SL in education will be haphazard. And six months sounds about right--that is, unless you're on sabbatical and are able to spend more time per day than otherwise!

3:45, final informal forum which was pretty well attended.



One avatar suggested developing notecards of how to do stuff to hand out to students when they get stuck. Another suggested the Second Life Wiki and YouTube videos as excellent tutorial tools. And even another suggested using Global Kids PDF tutorials (though I've yet to be successful in finding what he or she meant). Finally another mentioned the use of Fraps for capturing machinma (video/animation of SL activities).

So overall a worthwhile conference, especially since this was the first conference in SL that ECU had hosted.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Back up plans in the metaverse

Another simulcast meeting, this time through UCLA--part of the Mellon seminar in
Digital Humanities series. The focus was on scientific visualization and the humanities, a project to bring both together, using science-oriented grants with humanities content. The focus was on a 3D iteration of the Roman Colleseum. However, I didn't get much out of it because of a series of problems.

When I first arrived, there was no sound. After a few minutes, the sound issue was resolved, so that the 25+ avatars in SL could hear presenters in LA. However, there was also video being broadcast on a screen in front of us. For a few minutes, we could see the presenters, then they froze, then the screen turned into John McCain's favorite background, a sickly green. So while the presenters were showing the RL participants the Colleseum, we listened on and wondered when McCain would show up. Then SL booted me out only to find upon returning that a three-way crash blasted everyone away. Along with sound--nothing for about ten minutes, then at a volume way below comprehension. Then it swooshed in at a distortingly painful volume and finally settled down. One avatar proclaimed that SL was obviously "not ready for prime time" and teleported away. Finally, video appeared, and we could see both presenters and the Colleseum. But by then, past an hour, it was question and answer time.

So, someone in SL asked a question, in text rather than voice. Which is fine. Except that the questioner typed at about 3 words a minute. So we waited for five minutes as the question dribbled into the bubble over the head of the avatar.

Well, I soon recognized that though I've enjoyed the hour watching the chaos surrounding us, and did get to partake in quips about McCain and knock knock jokes, I was getting absolutely nothing from the session, so I teleported out to a session on narrative though found out it would take place two hours later, which I didn't make, deciding instead to spend time eating dinner with my daughters.

Which brings me to a comment Marcy Bauman made to me in Facebook: "Sounds like you're spending your sabbatical learning what you already know about technology, Dan - it's great when it works, but have a backup plan! :)"

With online classes, I've found that having redundant systems to be essential to keep chaos from swallowing up a learning environment. For example, I don't ever put all course materials and applications in one learning management system like Blackboard or Angel. I have assignments hosted on a school server that can be accessed through Angel or directly with a URL so that if Angel goes down--make that when Angel goes down--students can still access assignments and keep moving along. Furthermore, the assignments are stored not only on my hard drive and on the LCC web server, but also on another server where I archive stuff.

Or when I have chat sessions taking place through Angel, I always have a back up through AOL Instant Messenger, and require all students to have an account set up and open when chatting.

With Web 2.0, the need for back up is as important, if not more so, especially when dealing with cutting edge or newish applications. And we as educators need to work really hard to anticipate problems and have back ups that are immediately accessible. Certainly the problems I've chronicled the last couple blog entries have a certain level of back up--in-world chroniclers, transcripts, streamed audio and video available sometime after the session. However, we really need back up systems available in real time, so that the participants have a valuable experience right then, even if things go wrong. An example I've seen in SL is at Science Friday sessions. The volunteers on Science Friday Island let avatars know that if the stream of the broadcast doesn't work, to listen on a 2d stream. In fact an audio tips notecard is available by clicking on a tile in front of Ira Flatow's chair,



and on a bulletin board at an outdoor info area next to the auditorium:



As I begin to brainstorm and play with possible assignments this month (my goal as spelled out in my agenda), I need to keep in mind the anticipation of back up plans so that I can keep the level of frustration students may encounter as manageable as possible.

Off topic: since it's my daughter's 25th birthday, I present her a picture of her father's avatar pounding away on Ringo's drum set in the Cavern (though I was supplied with no drum sticks--go figure!)

Friday, October 31, 2008

PD kerplunks in SL

The last few days I've been concentrating on participating in educational events taking place in Second Life. For example, the Educause conference that took place this week in Orlando, Florida had a couple sessions that were simulcast in SL:





With the first session, which was on assessing the efficacy of SL for educational purposes, there were some serious voice problems where those of us in world really couldn't hear what was being said in Orlando. And apparently, in Orlando, they had a lag between what was taking place in SL compared to real life (RL), so that what they would say in the conference room would take some time before it was broadcast in SL, so they had to ignore what they saw on the screen and just begin talking.

Also, often there was an echo whenever someone spoke, until the RL presenters realized that when they have more than one mike open, echoes abound for us in SL. Furthermore, the RL participants had visuals projected on a screen using Power Point or some such. SL participants also had a screen from which visuals could have been projected. However, there was instead an intro-to-SL video on the screen that started up any time a participant "touched" the screen, so I had to turn off the video player on my screen every time someone started it in order to hear the speaker.

So with all of that, gaining insight from what the RL presenters had to say was very difficult. They did speak about some of the projects they were working on, such as digital story telling, schizophrenia hallucination experiences (sponsored by UC Davis--it's really disturbing!), and roleplaying for dental students (which I explored a little later--below is my avatar sitting in the dentist's chair--scary thought, huh?):



One comment made by a presenter from CU I found really interesting. When the activities in SL are well integrated with the course objectives, its use is well received by students. When it's unclear why they are using SL, how it enhances the work of the course, then students don't like it.

So overall, the session was mildly interesting, given the technical glitches. One disagreement arose about assessing the use of SL differently, or more vigorously, than other educational venues, such as f2f--which I mentioned in-world was often the case between online and f2f. Not discussed was the political reasons for that difference in assessment approach, which often hides attitudes of suspicion that online instructors are loafing, not as effective, or that f2f education is the be all and end all of education.

The second session was a meeting of the Educause virtual world constituents group. It went more smoothly, though the first 20 minutes text chat is filled with people asking how to hear the RL speakers with volunteers helping. Fortunately, such was easy to screen out. The only other problem was that a couple of the speakers had faulty mikes so they had to be skipped over or speak through another avatar's mike.

I won't go over what was talked about--I won't mention that I forgot to take notes!--it was basically introductory information about what different people are doing. I was especially interested in the moderator's work--AJ Brooks--since he teaches comp in SL. But what struck me as most intriguing is the possibility of expanding professional development and conferences. Online conferences have been going on for some time, including experiments in melding both online and f2f. However, being able to participate in a place, with avatars to your right, to your left and in front of you really does add to the experience that conferences in MOOs ("multi user object oriented" text-based real time places) do not have.

It's still very buggy, though, as I've described. I do expect the problems noted will iron out in the next couple years. I'm scheduled to attend an all in-world conference in mid-November, sponsored by East Carolina University. I'll report more fully when it happens--and remember to take notes!

A couple more points. I found an intriguing explanation on Kapps Notes about the value of 3D environments over 2D for educational purposes:

"In a 3D world, the interaction with the students feels more intimate than with a 2-D distance learning application such as Centra, Horizon Wimba or Adobe Connect. One reason is because I can see the personality of the student but, also, there is a sense of presence and connection because two humanoid people are standing face-to-face with proper social distance having a discussion. We are relating as two people as opposed to disembodied names on a screen.

When students talk to me or sit around a table and provide input to the group, it feels as if we are all actually in the same room. We can refer to elements in our environment that we can all see. It is important because it brings together the students from distant geographical areas to one central location where we are actually seeing the same thing and interacting as if we were all in one physical location. Additionally, it is important because I have students work with each other in teams and the closeness of the virtual world helps foster trust among the students and they work well together virtually because they have a sense of one another."

This sense of place and space is what I've found lacking in online education, and why I do think 3D environments are the future for the development.

Karl Kapp also says elsewhere:

"By the end of 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a “second life," but not necessarily in Second Life, according to Gartner, Inc. Gartner’s advice to enterprise clients is that this is a trend that they should investigate and experiment with, but limit substantial financial investments until the environments stabilize and mature. "

Obviously what we see here is pure speculation. But with the popularity of immersive video games, an industry very competitive with Hollywood (and by some measures overtaking the movie industry), it stands to reason that 3D environments will become not only popular, but a norm in the online experience in a few years.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"like the early days of online learning..."

Last Thursday, I attended a gathering of educators hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in SL.



As you can see, there were about a dozen teachers from around the world discussing education in SL. In particular the focus was on SUNY Live, a consortium of New York colleges and universities that participated in a six month project where they explored using SL on Monroe Community College's island. The speaker Marcius Dowding (real life Larry Dugan, director of online learning at Finger Lakes CC), basically told about their experience, especially focusing on what they expected and what actually happened.

The participants expected to focus their attention on making learning objects, things that could be used by instructors in the classroom. They found early on that doing so wasn't that important. They could find/buy the learning objects they needed much more efficiently than making them. Instead, what they found was that the social collaboration and networking between participants was really the focus and benefit of the project, acting as a starting point and "proof of concept" for the different institutions which soon after the project spread out onto their own islands, expanding on what they had learned during SUNY Live. The focus during meetings f2f and in world was hashing out the pedagogical approaches and value of what they could do in SL. For example, presentation of information, such as with Power Point, became much less important than constructivist activity, where students work together to solve a problem rather than being lectured to.

And then Marcius said something that became a blinding flash of the obvious for me: "we look at [the SL project] like the early days of online learning."

His saying that, while my avatar sat on a floating cushion overlooking a virtual ocean, brought me back to 1996, when a handful of LCC faculty met with Chuck Bettencourt (I hope I remember his name correctly!) weekly to hash out what online learning should look like, how it should work, with even the most basic questions creating argument and puzzlement, such as when does an online class start, how does a student find out about assignments, can you email grades and so on, or even what should the link buttons look like!

In other words, the use of virtual worlds for online education leads colleges, universities, instructional designers, instructors to fundamental questions about what education looks like in a virtual world, creating a steep learning curve for all involved, where experimentation, risk taking, dealing with the vagaries of newish software creates a chaos from which both frustration and new pathways of learning both coexist.

Been there, done that. Those working with SL certainly are on the vanguard of online education, as we were in 1996. So, at some level, I know what to expect. But then again--I was quite a bit younger then!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By the way, here's a video clip from a electronica performance at New Media Consortium (NMC) in SL by nnoiz Papp:

video

Monday, October 20, 2008

Map of the Metaverse

A delightful map posted in 2007 by xkcd:



Obviously, even now the size of these countries/islands are shifting and expanding. Especially the Bay of Angst!!!!
Deja vu in SL

I've been exploring educational sites in SL the last few days, including several community colleges and libraries. I've also visited the Sistine Chapel, a Renaissance village, a timeline of earth, an Edgar Allen Poe exhibit, and the broadcast of Science Friday.

The colleges are at various levels of development, from just starting, to quite fully realized campuses, such as Winding River Campus, the SL iteration of Pellissippi State Technical CC.



Some of the content and interaction is intriguing, such as a feral cat exhibit and a Malcolm X exhibit at Monroe CC. And the Science Friday broadcast was informative and interesting, with over 60 avatars watching Ira Flatow's avatar talk on the mike and commenting about the science discussion going on.



However, I keep feeling a sense of deja vu while exploring SL. When I first began exploring the Internet in the mid nineties, it was cool being able to search for web sites and be able to pull up text and images from around the world. However, the expectation was often much greater than the reality. First off, imagery tended to take forever to load. Second, I'd often search for something only to find nothing. And when I did find web pages on a particular topic, it was often weak in content, much weaker than one might find with a five minute trip to the library.

Second Life is much like the Internet in 1996. It shows much promise, and occasionally I come across intriguing content, but more often than not, what I find is inferior to what I can find on the 2D Internet or a library. And often video or slides load really slowly, much more slowly than is the case on the Internet.

For example, I went to Info Island, a well developed Library site formed by the Alliance Library Systems and Online Programming for All Libraries (OPAL), and checked out some of their exhibits. For example, they have a movie collection that is composed of a floor in a building of movie posters:



When I click on the poster, I get a brief essay on the movie, and that from Wikipedia. No clips, no stills, no bibliographies. In fact, I found Wikipedia prevalent in a good number of exhibits, such as the Science Fiction and Fantasy display.

At Montclair College, you can find an Edgar Allen Poe exhibit. It's found at the end of a lane in a dark forest, and when you approach the house, a blood curdling scream rips through your speakers. The atmosphere set, you enter the house, hear the pounding of a heart and see a chair, a portrait of Poe and a penguin:



Click on the portrait, and it's supposed to give you a notecard that gives some "biography, citations and description." I got nothing, even after trying it several times. That's it. The total extent of the exhibit, oh, except for "The Raven," which you can read if you zoom in really close.

Also, most of the time, when in SL, your avatar is all by itself. In exploring educational sites, I've only run across two or three other people, one a very helpful instructional designer who is working on the Oregon Community Colleges island. But most of the time, it's like wandering a ghost town or like Vincent Price in Last Man on Earth:



Granted, when you attend events, or places of gathering, like a pub or radio broadcast, there is more going on. But it's an eerie feeling to be exploring supposedly active college campuses and libraries to find little activity. I do recognize that SL and virtual worlds are on the frontier of their development. But at present, sending students off to find intellectual content on SL seems premature.

In the next couple days, I plan to attend more events, to see how interaction and discussion take place. Meanwhile, I'll expect SL to develop like the web did: in a few years an avatar will be able to peruse a cornucopia of intellectually rigorous content.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Entry point in Second Life

Adding 2 gig of RAM made a big difference in roaming around SL. I am now able to move around, watch buildings rez (appear) in reasonable fashions, listen to live music at the Blarney Stone pub in Dublin,



explore some education sites, such as Angel Learning Island and Terra Incognita, without any interruptions, get roasted slowly on a rotisserie at the West of Ireland island,



and still have email, and music playing in the background.

However, with continued research and exploration, I'm finding the whole virtual world situation quite overwhelming. Here's a video that shows screenshots of 50 different virtual worlds currently operating or in private Beta:



Obviously, the development of virtual worlds is very much on the frontier. But they seem to be expanding exponentially, as is suggested by the term metaverse. Though metaverse basically means a 3D world that has "no specific goals or objectives," and is usually meant to describe a self contained world, like Second Life, it seems actually to be morphing more into the expanding landscape of multiple virtual worlds, including massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG). This exponential expansion leads to a steep learning curve for those just getting started in considering their use in education, at least it seems so to me at this point, even with my sabbatical opportunity to devote significant time to exploration.

What I'm having most difficulty with is an entry point into using SL for online classes. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, Sarah Robbins requires students to use SL, and to meet as a class twice a week, minimum. I understand her reasoning--again, if students aren't required to use it, they won't--and I agree. However, making SL the primary "place" for the class means that the instructor has to have significant experience with the application. Now, I don't have a problem with getting to that point as an instructor. However, I've found--both for myself and other faculty who aren't ubergeeks (and I mean that in the most respectful way possible!)--that playing with online tools, software, applications gradually is the most effective way of getting my feet wet. Then from semester to semester, I add more where I see benefit.

I did so with discussion board, chat, sending documents, assignments on the web--through DIWE, AltaVista Forum, Blackboard, Angel and so on. And I've always encouraged other instructors at LCC just to start simply as an entry point into incorporating online applications into their classes, trying one thing in Angel, such as posting assignments, or playing with a discussion forum and then adding another the next semester.

So can one do so with SL? What is the entry point into using the application among the other online tools an instructor has at his or her disposal? That's part of what I need to discover in the next week or so.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Walkabout in Second Life

The last few days I've been doing a bit more research about Second Life, especially in comparison to Google's newly released Lively. I'll return to the comparison in a future blog posting. However, this time through, I'd like to describe my initial experiences with Second Life (SL).

Actually not my initial experiences. I tried Second Life a year and a half ago but didn't get much past running into walls in the initial Help Island.

This time, I stuck with it, and started from scratch with a new avatar that will be identifiable for students should I decide to use SL for classes. Actually, I started and discarded a couple of avatars because I kept using all lower case for the first name, and I found it looking stupid when in world (the term used to mean you're in SL). I settled on an avatar named Profdan Netizen. For those who haven't tried SL, you come up with your own first name, and then choose from a list of last names.

Once on the orientation island, I practiced walking, flying, using camera angles, sitting. I talked to a couple people (through text--haven't tried voice or audio chat yet), and found a list of good places to visit. Here are a couple pictures of my avatar on the orientation island.



Here's Profdan Netizen after some alterations of the avatar image I chose. I tried to make it look somewhat like me. The original avatar had a full head of hair; since those days are long gone for me, I removed the hair (not actually sure how I stumbled upon doing so) and added a ponytail.



Profdan Netizen found quite a nice grand piano and began playing "Maple Leaf Rag."

I spent a couple hours on the Help Island, getting used to the controls to move around without running into things, and flying without smashing myself into the ground when landing. I then decided to try out some of the favorite spots, so I first teleported to a Mayan ruins, which was interesting; not very Maya like, though it may be I just didn't explore fully. I did, however, spend more time at a Japanese tea garden. I was struck with the verisimilitude of the soundscape. Wearing headphones, the direction of the ocean or a waterfall moved with the position of the avatar, both directionally and distance-wise, quieting when I retreated, gaining in volume when I approached the source of the sound. I also found some familiar faces from the Miyazaki film, My Neighbor Totoro:



By the way, you can buy these creatures for 100 Linden dollars each (the currency in SL).



Here, Profdan stands before a roadside shrine. I'm showing you a screen capture that includes all of the command buttons I have to interact with the situation. The screen of text is describing the shrine that the creator posted, explaining what it is and what you can do with it.

I found out while exploring that there are areas that are restricted (like private residents) and items that you cannot interact with if you don't have permission. I tried to ride a motorboat but was denied. I also found out that avatars don't swim, they just walk around at the bottom of the ocean. Fortunately, they don't drown. I also found a pillar at various places where you can vote for the site to be considered worth visiting, which then determines the hot spots for SL. Also, you can download from the pillar and place in your inventory the hotspots currently ranking at the time you're in-world.

My next stop was the SL Botanical Gardens.



A shot overlooking the ocean and a walkway lined with flags in the botanical gardens.



Profdan sitting on a toadstool during a thunderstorm. Again, I was struck by the soundscape of rain falling all around me, along with the occasional crack of thunder.



I found a covered arboretum to dry out in. An avatar spoke to me from the doorway asking if she could bite me, wanting to try out an animation. Before I could say yay or nay, she disappeared.



Another shot of Profdan resting from strenuous walks through the gardens. A perfect sabbatical stance, don't you think?

My next stop was Dublin in SL, but I didn't do much there, just walked around and looked at a couple shops and read about a literary tour that is conducted every evening. I became very frustrated at this point because of lagging. When I checked Windows Task Manager, I realized why--I was using 2 gigs of RAM memory, and I only have 1 gig. According to Second Life system requirements, you need a minimum of 512 mb of RAM, and they recommend 1 gig or more. The minimum might be fine for Help Island, and for low graphics areas, but I found I really needed 2 gigs for places like the botanical gardens and Dublin, and that would be only if everything else was shut down. If I want a browser open with email, or some music from an mp3 player in the background 2.5 or 3 gigs are likely necessary.

Final thoughts on my first excursions: movement around the world is pretty intuitive, and can be mouse or keyboard based. I focused on the latter so I could sit on a couch without fiddling with a mouse. I need more practice with smoother control use, but overall, I was able to walk, jump, and fly without falling off of cliffs too often.

Speaking of flying--I kept getting the sense that Second Life operates like a dream world. Besides flying, lagging (like running but getting nowhere), strange creatures, avatars asking for unusual requests ("would you please allow me to bite you?"), or even running around naked--as was the case with one particular avatar in Dublin--it's almost like Second Life has become Jung's collective unconscious writ large in cyberspace.

Well, I'm off to buy some more RAM to keep me from tossing my laptop out of my second story office window!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Myspace and Facebook

I've been playing with the two titans of social networking sites the last couple of days. I've avoided both for several years basically because they've seen remarkably adept at slurping down rivers of time, at least that's what seemed to be the case when watching my children using the services.

And I was right. I've just scratched the surface of building profiles, adding pictures, video, audio, images, thematic presentation and such for both. And I've noticed that each, including Twitter, wants status blurbs as frequently as possible, which create responses from friends, increasing email and scribblings on walls.

Fortunately, I've found an effective shortcut to status/what are you doing? postings by using a ping.fm iGoogle gadget that allows me to write one posting that is sent to all three.

My first impressions of the two web applications are that Facebook is easier to send comments to others, while Myspace is easier to find schools/colleges (no, Facebook, I did not attend Concord High School in Australia!!!!!) . And call me crazy, but would it have been that difficult for Facebook to make their wall actually look like a wall?

So time consuming, and yet millions have flocked to these social networking sites. I wonder if the generation that grew up on video games (those under 30), where working on a game often takes days, finds it much more natural to work for hours filling out their niche in the social networking world because thy have grown up spending hours before a screen making Mario run/jump/hop from platform to platform to avoid or destroy goombas and koopa troopas until they've perfected the sequence and beaten the level?

Now it's true that the fastest growing population groups on Facebook are young (26-34) and middle aged (35-44) professionals, and older folks are picking it up in significant numbers as well (see http://radar.oreilly.com/2008/09/facebook-growth-by-age-group-s.html). But I bet the time spent on the web site is much higher with teens and college students. Part of it may simply be having more time, and yet I would defy anyone to support an assertion that contemporary college students have much free time, especially those attending community colleges.

Instead, I think it's a mindset that they've grown up with that those of us who remember playing Pong on a 19 inch video screen in the back of a beer bar did not develop--the investment of time in building something--video character skills, solving puzzles, gathering clues--in front of a glowing screen.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Aggregators and Mashups

As my overarching schedule suggests, October will be focused on playing with Second Life and other Web 2.0 applications. Of course, I've actually been playing with apps all along, such as this blog, social bookmark apps delicious and diigo, microblogging with Twitter, and just yesterday, starting up Facebook.

So, I'll also be mixing this month of exploration with more research.

I've been looking at aggregators and mashups lately. I at first saw little difference between the two, but I found a definition at Academic Commons that suggests aggregators are a sub category of mashups:

1. Mashups by integration are the ones that capture our imagination because they involve true "crossing." Data from one resource becomes the input for processing by another. Geotags from Flickr, for example, can serve as the grist for a Google Map. Mashups by integration typically require considerable time and expertise to develop. They are the domain of developers who know how to work with an application programming interface (API). These are the mashups that make it onto the "Programmable Web" mashup blog (or into the roster for a NERCOMP SIG).

2. Mashups by aggregation, on the other hand, simply juxtapose information from disparate sources. One should think here of applications such as MyYahoo, NetVibes , PageFlakes, iGoogle, and others. Individual users assemble collections of "feeds" whose contents then live side by side within the aggregator. Even if the "feeds" are otherwise unaware of one another, the act of juxtaposition is already a creative one. Mashups by integration require little expertise to create.

Seems to me also that aggregators are of two categories--those for personal use, such as iGoogle, and those for publication, which might be used in a course. I consequently plan to play around with NetVibes and PageFlakes to see what I can wrestle from them. A good example of what I'm talking about is an aggregation that Mark Marino at USC has put together for his writing course using PageFlakes: http://www.pageflakes.com/markcmarino/23536077.

Mashups by integration seem to need more expertise to create, something I probably will not be able to gather this semester. However, there are some intriguing uses of mashups. For example, twittervision and flickrvision combine Google maps and Twitter/Flickr to show what users are posting all over the world. At one level, real time wasters, but on another, a fascinating way to get a sense of what people are doing and thinking at any given time. I was watching twittervision when AIG was crashing and burning, and it was really intriguing to see the rising concern being expressed all over the world. In fact, most mashups in my quick perusal focus on images, video and maps. I could see, and hope to explore sometime soon, the use of mashups in a film class, where one could bring photos, clips and locations to one place after typing in a movie title from imdb.com.

Another mashup that looks intriguing, and might be something to pursue with student projects, especially if the manipulation of media images is valued, is Remix America, where users can put together mashups of videos to comment on current events with tools provided by the service.

Here's an example:

Kaltura

Seems like this could be a lot of fun for students and a way to build multimedia literacy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Second Life and Twitter

I've been researching the two ends of the social networking spectrum this week. On one end is the one-note wonder of Twitter, a form of microblogging that does one thing--allows users to broadcast their response to one single question, "What are you doing?" And in 140 characters or less.



On the other end is Second Life, the 3D immersive world where users can explore an online environment with an avatar, like a video game.


(from Oakton Community College web site)

I've been playing with Twitter the last few weeks. As is mentioned by several who try to explain Twitter, most don't get it at first: who cares what you're doing, or what I'm doing. And each tweet (post onto Twitter) often does seem inconsequential. But by watching the stream of tweets over a period of time, one develops a sixth sense about one's friends, as Clive Thompson at Wired puts it. Here's an interesting metaphor he uses:

"It's like proprioception, your body's ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination."

Also, there are a couple of Twitter tools that are fascinating: Twittervision, which allows you to see what people are tweeting all over the world, and Twitter search, which allows you to see what people are tweeting about a particular subject right now. If you want an active search right now, just type in Sarah Palin!

Education-wise, I haven't really wrapped my head around how I might use Twitter, though I did just think of a way to use Twitter search, to see if an issue that a student might want to write about is being discussed in our society right now. And there are a number of suggestions posted on a couple blogs: AcademHack and and Web 2.0 Teaching Tools that I'll likely explore more fully later.

Second Life (SL) is much more complex, of course, and central to the issue of online education since it creates a virtual world within which to operate, well beyond what course management software (CMS) does, as I've mentioned before. It has the potential to create a sense of place and embodiment that CMS's cannot even approach. There is a scad of stuff online about education in SL: Second Life Education or SLED has an official Linden Labs wiki of educational resources. And Angel has their own island where faculty can go to explore the use of teaching in a virtual world.

I watched with particular interest a lecture given in SL at a conference about education by Sarah Robbins, an advocate for SL learning for the last couple years. She argues that the use of SL can enhance student engagement and hence foster deeper learning and better retention than what takes place in a typical CMS online class. I've had a suspicion for a number of years that a more immersive, less desk-top, environment would do so. I had pursued the possibility of using MOOs in online classes to enhance a sense of there-ness, but always found the learning curve too steep to walk students through for a completely online class.

So in October, I expect to spend quite a bit of time in SL, both for further research--I've found a good number of sources are "in-world"--and to see if I find the learning curve doable.

Also, I'd really like to see how community colleges do this. Robbins works at the university level, speaks with and meets each student in SL before they can register, advertises the class as an SL online course, and hence can require a certain level of computer equipment, especially the need for high speed Internet. Also, she in essence teaches the class synchronously. In other words, students are required to show up two nights a week and participate in class, just as they would in f2f.

Obviously, many CCs don't have quite the flexibility she notes. I do, though, think that our administration would be open to some experimentation, especially if it's linked to engagement and retention. However, our institution's disdain for synchronous online learning would have to be overcome. Also, Robbins suggests that an instructor would have to require SL in order for it to work. If you make applications that are central to the activities of an online class optional, they will not be used. I'm curious how CCs deal with requiring higher end equipment and plan to explore more fully community colleges and community college groups that use/promote the use of SL.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Creepy Treehouse III

Last post on creepy treehouses. I think that course management software falls into creepy treehousedom when it does two things:

1. keeps users from accessing applications from outside of its walls.
2. offers services that are so obviously more effective elsewhere.

I'll use some examples from my experience with three CMS's we've used at LCC.

Chat

In AltaVista Forum, one could chat with the CMS client, or with another client like mIRC. With both Blackboard and Angel, such is not possible. Furthermore, in both CMS's, chat has been clunky, dull (no actions as with MOOs or mIRC), and unreliable.

Email

I don't recall AltaVista Forum having an email function. Both Blackboard and Angel do, and especially with Angel, the email sucks. It's like they never looked at how it's done anywhere else and are trying to reinvent the wheel. Furthermore, you can't email to Angel email; you can only send out from Angel email to Internet email.

Dropboxes

You would think CMS's would be the most uncreepytreehouse with drop boxes, since they were integral to CMS's from the early days. However, in uploading files on Flickr, I've realized how clumsy they are. Angel's drop box function is much improved with that found in Blackboard. However, Angel's philosophy seems to be why use only one click when three will do? Consequently, getting anything done takes much longer than necessary and adds to that feeling of something being very wrong.

That's enough. I haven't tried the web 2.0ish features that Angel (and I'm sure Blackboard) has added in recent years such as blogs and wikis. However, from those I've talked to (or read on listservs), they aren't very good. It just seems that it would make a lot more sense to treat a CMS as a portal that offers things it does well at (or should do well at), such as a secure gradebook, and allow applications such as blogs, wikis, email, chat and such to be accessed through the common web page, like an aggregator does with widgets (more on these soon).

OK, enough creepiness!!!!