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!)