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:


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 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 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.