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.

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