Thursday, September 17, 2009

Chatting with students in Second Life

The last two weeks I've started holding chat sessions in Second Life on Angel Learning Isle on my office balcony.

For online classes, I usually require students to attend at least one chat a week, no more than an hour, based on times they send to me. For each class, I'll then set up 3-5 chat sessions (obviously more for double sections), usually from Wednesday through Saturday. Here's a link to the chat sessions I typically schedule for an online class using 2D web apps in Angel's LMS and AIM:

I have done this over the last dozen years for one main reason: it gives students a sense of person, a sense that they are working with real people, even though it's only text. Yes, they get some of the same with asynchronous apps, like discussion boards. But the immediacy of chat heightens the online experience.

Again, though, it's still all text:

Now, as a writing teacher, I have no problem with text. Text is great. But text is not a person. One point I've been making in this blog, and elsewhere, is that online students would benefit from a sense of place, just as f2f students experience when walking onto campus. And that sense of place, or sense of space, would enhance their experience as taking place with real people. This is what I had hoped would be possible in Second Life.

So with two weeks of chat sessions, what did I find?

First off, teaching on SL presents a deja vu experience for me, as simply dealing with SL has all year. As I mentioned earlier, SL reminded me a lot of the Web in 1996: lots of promise, tremendous potential, but in large part empty, with little valuable, useful content.

Take finding interesting articles online. In 1996, you were much more likely to find well researched, thoughtful articles from magazines, newspapers, journals by going to the library and searching something like Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, or using CD ROMs to search, and even then, you likely had to find the full text on paper or microfilm. Occasionally you could find research online from colleges and universities. And some magazines began posting articles early on. But really--you had to go to the library to find most of what was published on an issue.

That changed, though, on the Web, in a very short time. Each six months, users found exponential increases in useful, valuable content, so that by today, there are very few venues that beat the Web in finding worthwhile resources, including physical libraries. Ask any librarian--most funds are being poured into digital acquisitions. Why? Because that is what patrons want, to be able to search and find stuff online.

Getting back to using SL with students: deja vu all over again--thanks, John Fogerty for a very timely song title. In 1997, when I first started teaching online classes using AltVista Forum as our learning management system, I found that one had to rethink teaching in substantial ways. I could not just plop a f2f class online and go on my merry way. Simple example: when does an online class start? Today, the answer is simple--whenever I decide it's going to start. But in 1996-97, while we were first designing online classes, that was a puzzling question. For f2f, we knew that class started when they were scheduled--on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2-4 p.m. beginning on August twentysomething. But with online classes, they could start, the minute the semester started, or later, or even before--since students would be populated into online sections usually weeks earlier.

So now, when moving from 2d online to 3d, do I just throw an online class onto SL and conduct just like I have with 2d Angel LMS?

Well, first of all, I can't. I have no discussion forums, no gradebook, no drop boxes in SL. Those developing Sloodle are furiously working to make such an integration between SL and Moodle, the open source LMS. And Angel started to, until Blackborg assimilated. However, I've recently heard Blackborg is now working on integration (resistance is futile).

Even so, one still cannot have students working on discussion forums in world, which I think would be cool. Maybe soon, when real time access to the web in world will be available.

But I can do chats in SL, real time communication with class members.

So how is it different? Well, first off, the sense of dealing with a person, the sense I found very strong in communicating with colleagues at conferences and meetings during my sabbatical, is as strong when meeting with students. Students overall seemed intrigued with the method of communication. Some were having friends watch over their shoulders--one with a friend from Lake Superior who insisted on seeing what she was doing because she said "we don't have anything like that at our campus!"

Furthermore, students seem really to enjoy meeting in SL. Throughout the years, I've had some students express enjoying chats, and others not so much. But students immediately found the medium engaging and our discussion about the Harvard video Shaped by Writing fun. The next week, I added something you can't do in Angel chat: a field trip, where students set off to visit toy sims in SL. The success of the groups with the field trips varied (more below). But last Tuesday, when I told students we weren't having a chat this week, some were really disappointed.

Meanwhile, I found that trying to give instructions about what to do in the chat to be challenging. I first tried to explain to students how to create a notecard and give it to me through chat. It did not work. They just got confused. So I created a notecard with instructions that they could open from a simple blue box.

That worked fine for most students, actually for all who had computers that worked decently in SL (I have several that have found their computers too old and rushed out to get new lap tops).

I also found that I must have back-up suggestions if I ask students to teleport somewhere to explore. As I mentioned above, I had students last week take a field trip to toy sites in SL. Their first essay is on the value of toys, based on their own experiences and observations. They need not write about SL, but I wanted them to do some exploration of SL to see if the toy they were writing about had a presence in the MUVE, especially since SL residents are all adults. Well, I found that if I don't have some back up possibilities, students can come up dry. Again, like the web in 1996, you can often search for something and find little of value. For example, one chat group decided to search for Barbie. And they learned one thing--Barbie is quite sexualized in the virtual world! One student accidentally ended up in an exotic dance club! But besides that, there was little out there except for some stores with Barbie avatars. And another group tried to find Lego sims, but found some profiles or teleport profiles that said they had Lego stuff didn't really. So I found that having some back up possibilities--like simply searching toys in Search--to be valuable.

The last group worked best, and it was the largest with seven students. I tried to break them up, but they wanted to stay together. I found that if I give them instructions first in text chat--to search for the toys they brought to discuss--and have them share in text chat what they find, that they find more sites that way. They ended up spending most of their time sledding in a winter park.

I think next time, I'll have them find a couple relevant sims on their own to bring to chat, and see how that goes (next week--essay topic, music).

So I think so far that SL as a real time meeting place for students is definitely worthwhile. It's still 1996, but the millenium is about to turn!

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