Thursday, September 30, 2010

Media Share on a Prim

A lot has been written in the last several months about the new SL viewer, particularly nashing of teeth by old timers who detest all of the changes.

Some of the whining is understandable. There are some tasks that take more key strokes than used to be so. But as an Angel user, I'm used to the philosophy of why use one keystroke when three will do.

I've not found the new viewer to be that problematic, and instead find it to be quite useful, such as the back and forth keys that teleport you to recent sites, or the Favorites bar. And the green i icon on avatars has been
quite useful, especially when using voice--much quicker to turn someone up down or out.

But to me the game changer with the new viewer is media share on a prim, where residents can share a live web page on a screen while in world. When I saw that last February, I said to myself, "I don't care what else this viewer has, my students will be using it come fall."

And they have. I've found my newbie students seem much more comfortable with the viewer, much quicker to pick up its uses, and off and running sooner than the last couple semesters. Now, part of this likely has to do with the fact that more students have reasonably powered computers than in previous semesters, and I'm more competent in preventing/solving problems. But I do think it's also the viewer.

But I digress. The main reason I wanted to use it was because of shared media. Yes, there are slide viewers aplenty in SL; some are quite effective, very smooth, and valuable for presentations or Powerpoints.

Slide viewers, though, add a step to my preparation that I could live with, but don't really want to. I'd like to create a web page and show it to students, not take a screenshot of it and download as a texture. And if I want to change the page minutes before a class, I want to be able to. Now, with media share, I can do so.

But even more important, I want students to be able to search the web, watch video and write on a screen while in world with other classmates.

And these last two weeks, for the first time, I was able to do so.

Let me describe an assignment that I do in f2f classes. Before the first peer response session, I like to have students write about what they want, and what they don't want from class member responses to their drafts. So I have them write for five minutes each on two very simple prompts:
  1. What would you like to see in a response to your draft from a class member?
  2. What would you not like to see in a response to your draft from a class member?
Then I have them get into groups, read what they've read to each other (which also gets them used to reading their writing to each other), and come up with 3 tips for responding effectively, 3 warnings about what to avoid.

After they then post these into an Angel discussion forum, we as a class come back together and discuss what they've come up with.

A very simple assignment that generates quickly ways to respond, and ways not to, that students have instant buy-in toward.

In thirteen years of teaching online, I've not been able to do this assignment as expressed here. I've done a more asynchronous version, but I've never thought it was as effective.

But now, with shared media and Google docs, I can do it.

My WRIT 121 class met one Tuesday evening and did the following:
  1. They started off writing, either on a notecard or in their word processor, responses to the questions just mentioned, questions I posted on the media share screen from Google docs.
  2. Then they got into groups. I had them separate into groups, moving to opposite sides of the classroom area, and then teleport to a sky classroom and sky platform above Angel Learning Isle.
  3. When they got there, they found three screens I set up earlier in the day: one had my instructions, that I could change live (and did). The second screen had an empty Google doc that they could write on and everyone in the group could see. And the third screen had Angel LMS that one student could log into, copy/paste from the middle Google doc and paste into the discussion forum.
  4. When done, we met back at the classroom area and discussed their tips/warnings as a whole.

While the students were in their groups, I stayed in the classroom area, and fielded the occasional IM, especially to determine when to switch from one prompt to the next in their discussion.

It went without a hitch. As long as the Google docs were set to public, anyone can edit, students could all see the page they added tips to, I could see what they were doing from Google docs, and I could change prompts from one to another when everyone was ready to move on.

Many faculty that I've talked with over the years, especially those who have taught online and gave it up, bemoaned the real-time interaction that they have in a f2f class. Yes, chat or web conferencing can counter some of the asynchronicity of most online classes. But to work with students in real time in a real spatial environment, using tools and techniques that work well in f2f settings, is a game changer with online classes. It's not flashy, it's not something that can only be done in a VW. But it is something that can enhance online classes, and make more faculty feel like teaching online does not mean giving something up.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The power of placeness

I was invited to submit a guest blog post at the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable website, which was published today. Some of what I discuss will already be familiar to those reading this blog, but clearly not all.

Just click on the screen shot to read.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Crossing over to the dark side

School has started. What happened to the summer?!!!!!

So, besides balancing three storeys upon an aluminum ladder to scrape and paint the west side of my house, I spent some time exploring a couple of other MUVEs, Blue Mars and Friendshangout.

I had tried Blue Mars last fall but could never get in with my old laptop. However, I got a new laptop from LCC this summer that has a better graphics card (I can go up to Medium in graphics with SL and still have a decent frame rate) so I finally got in. Blue Mars is pretty, with nice shadows, and smooth avie animation. But the viewer is really stripped down and basic (though I've just installed a new version, so we'll see if that's improved). Not to mention you have to practically be a professional computer animator to build there (which makes my son, a professional computer animator, happy!).

Friendshangout gives you free land, and lots of it. But it's really alpha right now, and I haven't explored enough to figure out how to build, if you even can yet. But what I most found irritating was the landscape. You have mountains in the distance, but if you walk towards them, you never get to them! It's like a backdrop on a movie set rather than an actual virtual space that you can explore. And the camera shot always puts the URL on the photo. Of course, I could have trimmed or blotted out with Adobe Photoshop, but hey, the haze of summer is still upon me!

But the most significant event of the summer is that I've crossed over to the dark side and actually purchased for the very first time an Apple product! I picked up an iPad a couple of weeks ago. I decided to get one for a variety of reasons--smaller device to use in meetings, around the house, when travelling. And I really want to explore using the tablet for reading, to see if it's possible to grade student work with it, and if doing so is less taxing than doing so on a laptop. But the overriding reason I wanted one is because it seems to me that the device is a game changer in how we use computers, much as a laptop was compared to desktops. Or maybe even more so. It reminds me of the tablet used in Tad Williams' Otherland series, and in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

So do I think it was worth purchasing? So far, yes. The touch screen works really well, is very intuitive and makes reading, searching, viewing movies and writing (in small increments--like email or FB postings) quite enjoyable and productive. Also, the battery is long lived, and the device doesn't get hot, something I always hated with laptops in the summer.

But it really showed its mettle this last weekend when we helped my youngest daughter move to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan. We spent hours in Meijer and Target while she and her mother deliberated over every little item to purchase for the apartment. I stayed sane by propping the iPad in the shopping cart and reading!

Also, my use of the iPad reminds me of what Philip Rosedale said in his keynote message at the SLCC a couple weeks ago concerning the iPhone: it's not as good as many phones, but it's a lot more enjoyable to use. Same with the iPad--it's not as good as a laptop, in that you cannot multitask (though coming in the fall?), the glass keyboard is slow (though much faster than a phone keyboard!), and it won't run flash. But it's a lot more enjoyable than a laptop.

Which brings me back to education in a virtual world. It may not be as efficient as an LMS like Angel, especially with asynchronous discussion or submission of assignments. But it's a lot more fun.

When I first heard Rosedale's mantra for moving SL forward--"fast, easy, fun"--I thought he was being cute or trendy, and took little stock in it. But the more I think about it, the more I realize he's exactly right. Second Life, for all communities who use it, but especially for education, needs to be fast to learn, fast to use, fast to access content, needs to be easy to maneuver, easy to find stuff, easy to communicate, and needs to be fun to use, fun to play, fun to work in.

Only then will its immersiveness become more pervasive among more users. And that's the key for expansion into virtual worlds with educators, especially in distant ed.

And face it--entering SL through an iPad would be really cool!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Roger and Me

A couple weeks ago (to be precise, on 6/17), Roger Ebert tweeted the following: "Find me a person who would value any video game above 'Huckleberry Finn,' and I'll show you a fool." As you can imagine, gamers lit Twitter, his blog, and their own with a wildfire of responses (one of his blog postings had over 4000 comments!). And then finally, Ebert relented, admitting that he shouldn't really be commenting on video games when he has had little experience with them.

The discussion led me to thinking about my own experiences with Huck Finn and video games.

My first memory of Twain and Huckleberry Finn go back to Christmas 1965, when I was in third grade, and my family lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the town of Oroville. My grandmother and grandfather Lyons had given me a handsome edition of the book for Christmas, and my father read it to us, one of the only times I remember my dad reading a book to his four children. I especially recall my father almost rolling on the floor laughing when reading the chapter "Was Solomon Wise?"

Jump ahead a decade to my first year in college, a few years after my father's death, a year out of high school, when I had always planned on majoring and working in the sciences, probably some form of physical chemistry. What I found, though, in that first year at Diablo Valley College, was that I really didn't want to pursue science. The work just didn't interest me as it had when in high school, for some unfathomable reason. I even took a disliking to math while taking a trig class, something I had thoroughly enjoyed up to calculus in high school.

It wasn't until I took a class on Mark Twain the second semester, that I realized my interests were much more focused on literature than on science, that I was much more interested in reading about science than in doing it. I was more engaged in works of imagination than in works of the physical world.

Now jump forward another fifteen years. My oldest son at ten years old bought a Nintendo Gameboy with his paper-route money. A number of evenings after work selling real estate, or just starting my career in teaching in community colleges, I would sit on our couch surrounded by my four children as we all watched me maneuver Mario through the little screen images of Super Mario World, jumping, running, flying, knocking turtle shells, and so on. All of us were immersed, engaged in that little 2-3 inch screen, watching that little plumber negotiate the obstacles of a rather unfriendly world.

Now was that video game as rich an experience as reading Huckleberry Finn? In many ways, of course not. A simple game on a little screen does not compare to the rich world along the Mississippi River filled with round characters that Twain creates. Or of any of the rich narratives that my children and I experienced together as I read dozens of books aloud to them. But in both cases, father and children experienced a world of imagination together, laughed and held their breaths together, talked and enjoyed being with each other.

You see, I'm convinced that the use of imagination in placing oneself into an virtual world, or as Tolkien calls it a secondary world--being immersed, lost in, enveloped by that world--is the key to engagement in a number of media. One doesn't become engaged in page after page of words, tiny screens of choppy images, models floating through a star scape on a black and white TV--even the most sophisticated imagery available today on an HD TV or digital theater, whether in video games or film--without placing oneself imaginatively into the midst of that world, becoming immersed in it. One cannot be surrounded by a virtual world literally. One can only imagine being so.

Consequently, the idea that children playing video games are mindless vegetables compared to those who read I find wrongheaded. A child cannot become immersed in a video game without using his or her imagination any more than he or she can with a book.

And I think that's the key to success for MUVEs, MMOGs, virtual worlds--being able to believe, again as Tolkien says, while in the world, that what takes place is reasonable given the initial setup of that world. I rationally recognize that my avatar in Second Life, Profdan Netizen, is not me, it's a blob of pixels on a server. And I know that anyone I interact with in SL is one removed from their avatar, just as I am. But with my imagination, I secondarily believe, and am hence immersed in that secondary world while I'm there, and hence can experience it as I would a rich novel, a vivid video game, or a well crafted movie.

But I also see, as I contemplate my relationship with Huck Finn and video games, that social interaction is crucial to the experiences. My father reading to me, my mother buying me books, even when it wasn't a special holiday (I remember one afternoon coming home to find three paperbacks arranged carefully on my bed--the Lord of the Rings). Reading to my children and playing video games, from Gameboy to Nintendo in all of its variations to Playstation. Although reading and playing video games often are solitary affairs, just as often they were social events in my family. The communal nature of collectively exercising our imaginations and entering a secondary world together magnified the immersion--same is so with watching TV or going to a movie together.

Jump ahead another twenty years. I now find myself working with students in a virtual world. As I've mentioned in earlier entries, I've taught online for a dozen years in the 2D world of the Web and learning management systems like Blackboard and Angel. All along, I've found the lack of space in the online educational experience to be a serious deficiency. Why? Yes, I've been able to work on writing with students as a community through 2D apps. But I've found the experience to be detached, imaginatively shallow, no sense of place. A big part of it has to do with the likelihood that who we are, what we are, what we do are all mightily influenced by geography. As Annie Dillard mentions at the beginning of An American Childhood, "When everything else has gone from my brain--the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family--when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that." I've always thought that having an online world to work in, much like the worlds of a video game (hopefully more friendly than Super Mario World!), would enrich the experience, help students enjoy more fully the class, and give them an imaginative anchor--a topology of place--that would keep them in school more effectively than does 2D online learning.

Social interaction and imagination--both bring us back to virtual worlds. Both are essential to the richness of Second Life and other MUVEs and MMOGs.

Some students get imaginative/social interaction right off with Second Life, many don't. Part of it, I think, is the newness of the medium, much as many students didn't get working with a community of writers online twelve years ago. But I'm wondering what I might do to help students recognize the MUVE as a place of the imagination that will build community and exercise mental skills which improve their writing.

Face it, without a well developed imagination, one cannot write effectively.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dog Days of Summer?

Although it's only early June, the brouhaha over Linden Lab and their downsizing makes it sound like we're in the throes of a miserable heat wave. All over Twitter and the SLED list, proclamations of the demise of Second Life are being proclaimed because LL has cut their work force by 30%, including the disbanding of the Singapore office, and most disturbing for educators, the lay off of Claudia and George Linden. Here's a CNET article on the layoffs:

There are also reports of colleges and universities pulling out, from Princeton to the College of DuPage.

So is the use of Second Life for educational purposes in trouble?

Well, maybe. But not any more than other aspects of education are in trouble because of the current recession. What seems to be forgotten is that we are in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and educational communities have been hit hard by the collapse of support from states and property taxes. Did we really think there would be no casualties in the MUVE?

Fortunately, the cost of using a virtual world in education is small compared to other expenses. Yes, it may be cut, or slow to expand for a while, but I would imagine the retreat will be short lived. Online education--not the only driver of VWs, but certainly a sizable aspect--continues to grow. VWs are a natural next step in bringing students into a fully immersive experience that gives them a sense of person and place that no 2D LMS or even Web 2.0 2D app can give them.

True, if Linden Lab so focuses on social network gaming (does it really want to become the next Farmville?!!!), as it also announced with the layoffs, and if it continues its overtures of slighting educators, the ramp up and development of open source VWs may be the place for colleges and universities (not to mention primary and secondary education).

The open source sims are still clunky, but they are improving rapidly. VWER has been hosting field trips to different educational builds on places such as ReactionGrid and 3rd Rock, which have been quite fascinating. They can't handle very many people without crashing, but that was so with SL, even just a couple years ago.

Linden Lab lays off 30% of its workforce during the the Great Recession. Not really news. I'm surprised it just now happened. Linden Lab is pursuing what they consider potentially lucrative 3D avenues. Again, not surprising. However, I hope they are not simply running scared and find themselves behind the curve in both the flatter social network 3D gaming world and more graphically rich new worlds, such as Blue Mars (though I've yet to get in because my computer's graphics card is too old!!!).

Friday, May 28, 2010

Swamped by the semester

Wow, where did February, March, and April go! I checked my notes and found I had started a couple new blog posts but never finished. That's what happens when you teach four writing classes a semester!

Now that I've had some time to decompress from the semester, here are some highlights for the middle part of the semester:


This semester, I've required students to use voice in order to share drafts of essays for composition courses and drafts of poems/stories for the creative writing course.

I hope for most writing instructors, the reasoning is self evident: having students hear their writing helps them to discover aspects of their expression that they will not realize when simply reading silently. The value is mostly for the writer, though it can also be beneficial for the listeners/respondents.

Having an oral reading component in online writing classes has always been problematic. In the early years of teaching writing online, I didn't even try. I considered it as one of the limitations of the delivery method that had to be abandoned. A few years ago, though, around the time when I began to teach creative writing online, I decided I had to have an audio component. Students who write poems and stories had to hear their writing. So I began to use WIMBA, which was supported by the college and accessible through Angel LMS. I would have students read and record their drafts and then asked group members to listen while reading before they responded.

It was all done asynchronously. WIMBA does have a synchronous voice chat, but it is rather clunky, and the archiving it does of mixing text and audio clips is hard to follow. So I stuck with asynchronous posting of oral drafts. I could determine whether or not students recorded drafts, and score accordingly. I couldn't really do so with the listening part. Participation over the years was never one hundred percent (little is!).

SL voice seemed to be a better solution. Students could read drafts, and share text copies in notecards. They could take turns reading their drafts, and elicit discussion, just as I would have them do in a f2f class. And the sense of space and presence would be superior to the bodiless voices of WIMBA or even something some students are more familiar with, Skype.

When it worked, it was great. Several students in their reflective essays at the end of the semester mentioned voluntarily how much they found voice presentation of drafts helpful. But SL voice proved to be buggy. Too often students couldn't get it to work, and one student never did even though she was pretty computer savvy (I suspect network congestion on her end). I think next semester I'll have them use Skype as a back up.

Which brings me to two other issues: too many apps and tech help inworld.

Too many apps

I've found that students get app overload pretty quickly. I lost a scad of students because they didn't read the schedule book concerning using SL, and the computer needs to take this course. Some dropped, or stopped working, right away. Those who stuck it out either were pretty tech savvy or very tenacious. But even among those who stayed, I could tell that having to juggle Angel LMS (including uploading/downloading files, discussion forums, reading web page assignments, looking up grades), Word or OpenOffice, Second Life, Twitter, AIM, and Diigo became difficult, especially for those who were doing online classes the first time. Next semester, I think I'll drop Twitter, even though I found its use quite valuable for quick communication and sharing between students and with me for those who tweeted frequently. However, I found too many ignoring it even though keeping a Twitter log while working on their essays was required.

Also, I plan to use Skype instead of AIM so that I'll have a back up voice chat should SL voice not work, and a back up text IM all in the same app. And for the first semester comp, I may also drop Diigo, though, since I don't use it until later in the semester, I may keep depending on how the group's competency pans out.

The point is that I have to juggle between making a rich online class experience and making it too opaque for weak tech users. As I've mentioned before, I will always lean towards a rich experience, and chance losing students, but I don't want to make it accessible for only the highly proficient tech user. Those with a moderate familiarity with the web and computer use should have no inordinate problem with the course, as long as they set aside enough time to do the work!

Tech help in world

The other issue is finding tech help in world. Students at LCC can get help with software and applications supported by the college, such as Angel (well, usually--they've not been very helpful with WIMBA!). But not with apps that are not supported currently by the college, such as SL or Twitter. Therefore, I have to do the heavy lifting of helping students solve technical problems, which I've done for many years. But I'm not available at all times, nor am I as technologically proficient with VW problems as I'd like to be (though I'm learning!). So I really need to find some places/people that students can contact when having problems in world.

This is really essential. Whether or not SL is effective as a place of learning for online students is directly affected by whether or not they can have a relatively trouble-free experience while in world. Problems will arise, but they need to be solved. Yes, those who try to do SL with underpowered machines or on weak home networks (wireless or Ethernet) or without purchasing enough RAM or a headset will find SL clunky and frustrating. But that shouldn't be the case for those with the right equipment/connection. Too often it is.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

New Semester in Second Life

Spring 2010 is well underway. As you know, last semester, I taught one WRIT 121 hybrid course using Second Life. This semester, I'm teaching two WRIT 121 courses (combined as one in Angel LMS) fully online and with Second Life. I'm also teaching a WRIT 260: Creative Writing I course online and inworld.

So what's different this time through?

Well, first off, with fully online courses, we couldn't do an orientation all at the same time (both because there is no scheduled time when we would all meet, and there were potentially 55 students!). So instead, I gave instructions to do the orientation on their own on Virtual Ability Island, and then later in the second week, to come chat with me at Angel learning Isle.

I also put together a walk through, signing up through Virtual Ability, and then starting the orientation.

Overall, orientations/chats went well, though some students seemed to get lost on VA Island. And a good number seemed surprised that we were using SL, not realizing we were going to do so, even though it was announced in the schedule book. I had so many in their intros expressing ignorance we were going to use SL, I asked our lead instructional support, Brett, to check to make sure the notice was presented online when students registered (it was). Consequently, there were a good number who didn't have sufficient computers to deal with SL effectively.

But for those who jumped in and did the orientation, and met with me that first time on Angel Learning Isle, they seemed to enjoy themselves.

Week 3 in the WRIT 121 class, we had a chat, and then an SL field trip. Their first essay is about a particular toy, and its value to children (or adults, if they choose to explore) so they brought to the chat notes about three of their favorite toys as children. After the chat, they would search about their toys, and then decide to go to one sim that deals with the toy in some way.

Last semester, the student searches were hit or miss. Some sessions the students couldn't really find anything of value, so I realized I needed to have some possibilities in my back pocket in case that happened.

Come to find out, it didn't need them. Students had no problem finding interesting places to visit, in a very short amount of time, from bike trails to mechanical toy factories to baby dolls and furniture. It seems that Linden Labs has improved their search engine quite a bit, and/or more intriguing content is being built in SL.

Also, I had an experience that really surprised me during one of the WRIT 121 chats. After the chat, we went to Kool-Stop Country where we picked up some free bikes to explore the island.

One student found a dance ball to practice a little tai chi.

After the field trip, I went back to Angel to change out a notecard in the in the notecard dispenser. One of my students was on the office roof (where I have an oriental rug). She mentioned how pretty the sunset was.

So I jumped up to the roof, and she was lounging, enjoying the view. I sat, and we just started to talk. She told me about her husband and his family overseas, asked me about why we were using SL, and whether I'd done much traveling. In other words, we were just relaxing on the roof, and talking. After about a half hour, she said she had to go to work early the next morning, so needed to go, but thanked me and said, "This was nice." She then left, I finished my work, and left as well.

Now--I've done small talk with students f2f, and with online students, in chat. But the sense of presence, the connection, that took place in this online class, was very different than anything I've experienced before, and it solidifies the value I see in working in a MUVE.

Very simple, but I find very profound the spontaneous exchange we had during a sunset on a roof at Angel Learning Isle. If this doesn't exemplify the fact that SL is a place, I don't know what does.

In fact, I'm beginning to think that the power of SL with online education is that when students don't have f2f interaction with you, such as with a hybrid class, they rely more on avatar interaction, and hence it becomes much richer in creating a sense of presence.

Last semester we had SL field trips; I had students take snapshots; they posted them in Writer's Cafe. Same this semester. But this semester, students not only took pictures--they wanted to take a picture of the chat group posing. And not just one group suggested such. Again, not something that was ever suggested in the hybrid class. Could it be that when students never meet f2f, they make a much stronger connection with their avatar classmates and professor than takes place with a hybrid class? The hybrid class need not rely on SL avatars to have a connection with the prof and class members. They can enjoy the experience, but it's secondary. But with online classes, the 3D avatar interaction, possibly, becomes the primary connection, with the 2D interaction in the learning management system becoming secondary.

Of course, this is all tentative, and preliminary, but certainly promising.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Wish You Were Here: Learning in Second Life

Happy new year! I gave a presentation on my forays into teaching in Second Life this week for the spring 2010 professional development days at Lansing Community College. It went well, though the PowerPoint on the classroom computer was rather stingy in showing pictures, and the remote clicker I received from Center for Teaching Excellence died after two clicks. But the SL viewer worked fine and the faculty in the audience seemed to enjoy exploring Angel Learning Isle, as well as a couple other sites, such as Montclair State University, NOAA, and Blarney Stone Pub at the Dublin sim. A number expressed a desire for LCC to have an island in SL.

Here's the URL for the PowerPoint slides in PDF: