Tuesday, November 22, 2011

One-on-one conferences

A couple of weeks ago, I had one-on-one conferences with my students in the Writing the Novel class, where we met individually and discussed their proposals for chapter 3 of their novels. The week prior, students signed up for a ten minute period to meet with me, in lieu of coming to class.

Now of course, one-on-one conferences are nothing new, hardly worth a blog post. Writing faculty all over the LCC campus do them every semester. We even have conferences noted in our master syllabi of the first-year composition courses. And I'm sure writing instructors all over the world do so.

But this is my first time doing a one-on-one conference with an online class. When I first started doing online classes fourteen years ago, I decided against them since requiring students to come to campus would be prohibitive for many, and the Virtual College at LCC really wanted to stress that these were to be fully online courses. Sure, I could have done phone conferences, and I know a number of professors who valiantly hold conferences with online students each semester, either asking them to come to campus, or talking on the phone.

I haven't. I do see some value in conferences, though I think there are other equally valuable ways to work with students through whole class meetings, small group interactions, and individually through text or meetings during office hours at a student's request.

But this semester, I decided that conferencing in Second Life should be as effective as f2f conferencing, and since I usually did a f2f conference with the novel writing students with a f2f class, why not in a virtual world?

Now for a f2f class, I normally print out a schedule, and students near the end of a class period gather around and sign up for a time slot. Then I will usually make copies of the schedule, put one on my office door, and one on the classroom door. Then the next week, students would wait in the hall of the classroom, during our regularly scheduled class period, and take turns meeting with me. Nothing else could take place because, well, having students do some type of activity in the hallway would be disruptive.

On Angel Learning Isle, the week prior, I also had students sign up near the end of the class session. But now, instead of a piece of paper to huddle over, students found a Google doc with the schedule on a media share screen that they could gather around and jot down their names. Worked great. I then posted the link to the Google doc in our Angel LMS course site on the announcements areas, so students could check to recall when their session was, and students who didn't come to the class meeting could still sign up.

Conference day, I had students come to the class area where we normally meet. I suggested coming a few minutes early, and told them that there would be an activity to complete before they left that evening. But they did not need to be there for the whole two hours of the class period. When I was ready for a student, I would send them a teleport invitation, and he or she would join me in a sky area, about 1200 meters in the air, where we could discuss their proposal in private.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, f2f conferences allowed for no learning activity before or after to take place in the hallway. But on Angel Learning Isle, they weren't waiting in the hall. So I was able to have them discuss with each other a quotation they brought to class from one of our novel writing rhetorics that they had included in their proposals. Here's what I had them do, which I had available in a notecard they could grab from the class mailbox when they arrived:
  1. While you are waiting for your conference with me (I’ll tp you when I’m ready) or after we’re done, paste onto the Google doc here in the class area the quotation from Stein I asked you to bring to class. Along with your name.
  2. Discuss the quotations pasted on the Google doc with class members. How well does the novel you read for novel analysis II exhibit effective writing expressed by the quotations?
  3. Before you leave, drop off a notecard into the WRIT 278 mailbox that summarizes what you discussed and with whom.
A simple assignment, but it worked well. Students weren't just hanging around waiting for their ten minutes of fame, but had something to do that would enhance their learning for the week.

And the conferences worked well. We used voice, so a lot was accomplished in the scheduled ten minutes. I answered any questions that arose, and then they went on their merry way.

Of course, I could do conferences with online students through Skype. But then I wouldn't have even considered getting students to do a real-time learning activity while waiting because there would have been no place for them to wait. But on Angel Learning Isle, having a place to congregate afforded my feeble imagination to come up with something valuable for them to do while waiting that was better than just hanging out in the hall.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Another semester begins

Composition I chat
Well, starting this post on October 1st (and adding pictures on November 1st), I can't quite say that. But it's the beginning for this blog!

This semester has been a whirlwind. All four sections that I'm teaching this semester are online and using Second Life. Creative Writing I and Writing the Novel meet as a whole class weekly. Two sections of Composition I meet weekly either in small group chats or (starting next week) in peer response groups, where they will read aloud their drafts to each other.

At Bookstacks with CW students
The ability to read drafts aloud is one of the strong points with meeting in a virtual world over working together in a 2D learning management system (LMS). Obviously, audio can be done in a 2D environment, such as Skype. But I'm still convinced the spatial placement of a 3D world adds a richness to community and connection with others that 2D tools cannot.

And that's saying something after spending 16 hours this last week (and two more to go tomorrow, Sunday) with students in world. The high points are when everything is working and students are able to tell stories about an important song in their lives with stories so touching--from the ends of relationships, to the deaths of loved ones, to first loves turning into decades-long partners--that students are crying while telling, listening, discussing.

The low points are when little works, whether because of underpowered machines, students who didn't participate early in the semester but now show up with no in-world skills, clunky search, buggy viewers (v. 2.7x on has been dodgy the last couple months), or as one student said last week, SL has been "cranky"!

SL field trip with comp students
One of those underprepared students (who I must say is coming along), mentioned today that she felt so lost in SL, like she couldn't figure out where anything was. It reminded me of overhearing brand new first-year students, with eyes wide complaining about not knowing how to get around campus the first few days. Of course, we should expect some of the same trepidation in a virtual world because, just as the downtown campus of Lansing Community College is a place, so is Angel Learning Isle in Second Life. There's a north, south, east and west, and up and down, a left and right, a forward and behind.

At the Cavern Club
Orientations and scavenger hunts help, and those who participated (most this semester) get around fine. Underpowered computers and students who don't take those first weeks' activities make the experience in world more opaque. But for all, it's new and at some level intimidating.

It has been helpful, especially in the novel class, having students who've already taken a class with me in world. I had the foresight to make sure experienced users were paired with inexperienced during the scavenger hunt.

Writing the Novel class meeting
But what really struck me in the last couple weeks--why it is worth all of this heavy lifting I do to lead students in a virtual world--is a simple comment a WRIT 121 student made. He said that he had graduated from high school in 1995. Since then, he has only taken online courses. And this is the very first time, since high school, that he's had an actual classroom experience.

OK, I'm ready for chat tomorrow. I hope everything works!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pixels or paper?

The semester has ended with most of my students improving their writing and succeeding in receiving a satisfactory grade (many with very good grades).

But there were three events from the end of the semester (and a day beyond) that I wanted to share before slipping into summer.

1. Week 14, composition students were revising for their portfolio to be submitted for external assessment. During my office hour one day, a student dropped by my office on Angel Learning Isle to ask some questions about MLA citation style on one of her works cited pages. Over the years I've had many students do so in my f2f office, and online through IM. Looking at the arcane vagaries of MLA minutiae has always been much simpler f2f--much easier to look at a page of citations over a desk than on mirror RTF files or through the small text windows of IM or chat.

But on SL with a media share screen, the student could throw the citations onto a Google Doc, we could both see it in the same space, and we could both highlight or edit till she understood how the citations should be presented. A colleague walked into my office watching us both work on the document. And she said, "This is no different than working with a student in my office!"

Many see the use of virtual worlds in education as an opportunity to do things you cannot do in the real world, and they are certainly valuable for such.  But I would suggest they are equally valuable for equipping faculty and students to do things that are difficult to do with online classes using only 2D tools, things that are easy to do f2f. Many more faculty who teach online will see the value of VWs using a Google Doc than an elaborate simulation.

2. Every semester I spend countless hours reading essays, stories and poems on paper presented in construction-paper pocket folders. Stacks of them. This semester I read my comp and creative writing students' portfolios on my iPad. After saving as PDF, I uploaded to dropbox.com opened on my iPad and read away, taking notes on a paper yellow pad.

The main concern I've had with reading portfolios electronically is eye fatigue, and I know such a concern to be held by many faculty in my department. I currently read and respond to my students' essays/stories/poems on my laptop using Word, marginal comments, and track changes. Then I send my response as a PDF file.

Even so, the idea of reading dozens (over a hundred each semester) of portfolios on a computer seemed wearisome. But I found that doing so on an iPad was not a problem. With its high resolution, I found it no less comfortable than reading paper. And the utter lack of pounds of folders to lug around was a great boon.

My next test would be to see how well it would work on an e-ink reader.

3. Finally, I went to (and presented at) the Computers & Writing conference in Ann Arbor the day after my last day at LCC. Besides attending a myriad of sessions on eportfolios, gamification and the nature of digital humanities, I also brought along my iPad and no paper books, for the first time--usually, I bring at least a couple books to read on the plane or bus ride, and in the evening before going to sleep. This time I instead read Bleak House from the iBook reader.

When I got home, I planned to return to the paper copy, so the next evening, in bed, I pulled down my Oxford Illustrated edition and began to read. After a couple minutes, I put it back on my head board shelf, and picked up the iPad, and finished the novel reading the free ebook from Project Gutenberg.

Why? Because I found the iPad more readable than the paper book while reading before bed. With the illumination turned down, and a sepia tone page, I could read comfortably without bothering my sleeping wife. All I needed was a single night light as backlight and the room was restfully dark, yet with plenty of light to read away.

During the C&W conference, Amazon announced that they are selling more ebooks than paper books (hardback and paperback). I'm beginning to understand why.

Does that mean I plan to abandon paper books? Absolutely not. But if booksellers want readers to buy paper books, they may want to consider including an e-copy as well.

OK, time for summer!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Bugs galore

Classes are going smoothly. My creative writing class meets weekly on Angel Learning Isle, and they all have mastered the basics of SL so that chatting, text and voice, watching web pages/assignments on the shared media board, and even getting into groups, teleporting to a sky platform and working together, reading drafts, planning an SL excursion to a writerly event, or jotting down notes onto a Google Doc comes easily to them.

And all three sections handle effectively meeting together for chats without my presence.

All good news. Though some new developments in SL have come about that need some planning in the fall, when I will have four sections to meet with inworld.

First off, Michigan Community College Association Virtual Learning Collaborative (MCCVLC) has purchased a region in SL. Anyone who has online classes in Michigan community colleges can have access and use the island. Only a handful of us have met with the director, Ronda Edwards, and I've gotten land management permissions, so I've been able to play for the first time with manipulating land. I've made an island, added the the plateau, and put an initial building with some trees just to show the director, who's very new the virtual world, what is possible.

So I have access to this region, along with Angel Learning Isle, for the fall. I haven't yet decided what I'm going to do there, but I expect to spend some time this summer increasing my building skills (at present very minimal) and hopefully hold some classes on the island, as least as a back up.

Second, Linden Lab has sprung a new version of viewer 2 (2.6x) that defaults to a basic browser for brand new users. This version is very stripped down, with no inventory, snapshots, notecards and such. It means that orientation sims are really going to need to rethink how they design their first hour experience, the second time in two years. Users can switch relatively easily to the Advanced viewer, though the number of steps to do so is unfortunate. But I'm really going to have to keep an eye on what happens with Virtual Ability Orientation Island to see if it will be viable for the fall. (Since I've started this blog entry, I've learned that students are discovering after installing an update that they are running the basic viewer, so I've had to send an email out to everyone warning of the possibility and how to get back to advanced. Fun times.)

So, that's frustrating: Linden Lab continues to exhibit their sterling communication skills with user groups, especially nonprofits and education. Many such institutions and individuals working for such are exploring open sims such as ReactionGrid and JokaydiaGrid, which is good, and I imagine such grids will be a significant part of the future in using virtual worlds in education.

However, they are still alpha, and rife with bugs. As an example: I tried to get into 3rd Rock Grid and VWER grid today. I hadn't been to 3rd Rock since last May when VWER had a meeting there. I remember liking the freebies I got for my avatar, so I wanted to return, get my avatar, and try hypergridding to VWER grid, or at least somewhere else.

Well, when I rezzed, I had been ruthed, completely stripped of everything I had, from my silver locks to my cool quiver. And I couldn't move.

I closed out, tried to go back in with a different viewer (from Hippo to Imprudence) and no change. I tried to add a male avie I had in my inventory. It only half loaded. I tried to move. Couldn't, until I logged out and in a third time. I set out to find some more freebies to dress less ruthily, and ended up looking like some demonic creature with glowing white eyes! Maybe a good look for me!

So, I gave up, decided to try VWER grid. I was not allowed to my home site, the 512m plot of land I call home, and couldn't get to it. Then when I tried to log out and back in, nothing, just a hung up viewer, both with Hippo and Imprudence.

So, again, open sims are a great promise, but the stability of SL, especially when dealing with three sections of students, cannot be discounted. I ran across a blog entry citing one VW developer who has seen an "uptick in corporate interest in the use of Second Life." James Neville (the blogger) and Bill Prensky (the VW developer) speculate why, and one reason they mention is that
Linden Lab seems to have gotten Second Life technology done right. That is, with the appropriate balance of performance versus resource demand necessary to run the product on a normal computer and be connected in a 24.7 “cloud” world. Competitors have yet to develop a working alternative that comes close to the Second Life server engine and thin client technology combination. And, lord knows, competitors are trying.
There is no way that I will commit to the usage of any virtual world outside of Second Life until I see much stabler operation. It's heavy lifting enough herding dozens of online students through the first hours of SL. I'd have mass revolt if I tried to do so with the open sims I've tried to date.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Testing BlogPress

One of the things I want to be able to do is to be able to write blog posts on my iPad. However Google's iPad app doesn't play well with Safari. So I'm trying out BlogPress. I'm sure it works better with Android tablets!

Which may be in my future. Don't get me wrong--the iPad is great. But I would much rather have Chrome as my browser. And really--not having flash is a problem. Too often I come across videos I want to view but cannot.

Back to BlogPress--setting up and signing into my blogger account was quick and easy. And text is a breeze, as would be expected. HTML is limited, with hyperlinks, bold, italics, block quote, and some font choices. No WYSIWYG, so the program just adds the HTML tags.

I can also add pictures either from Picasa or from the iPad.

Here's one I have on Picasa:

And here's one from my iPad:

From the lighthouse at the south end of Beaver Island.

I can only add the picture, though. No formatting.

One thing I can do, though, is save the posting as a draft online and then tweak formatting when on my computer. Which I will do. But I shouldn't have to.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, March 07, 2011

Orientation 2.0

Spring break gives me a bit of time to raise my head and reflect a bit. I've started a couple different blog posts the last few months, but abandoned as work, holidays, freezing temperatures and snow, a Criterion half-off sale, you name it, kept me away from finishing.

Spring semester began with some changes that helped stave off a mass exodus from my classes using Second Life. As you may recall, the last couple semesters, I've had a problem with online students realizing that they were in a section that used SL. I had placed a note in the schedule book that said so, that noted students needed high speed Internet and a decent computer, with the URL to SL specs.

No one saw the note, whether in the print schedule book, or when registering online.

Furthermore, I sent a snail-mail letter in July, to remind students we were using SL with links on how to test their Internet speed and their computer's readiness to handle a virtual world.

Nobody recalled seeing the letter.

What made it worse in the fall is that for the WRIT 121 class, I was doing a Tuesday evening, 7-9 p.m. session each week that students had to attend. Not seeing the note or the letter, many had to drop because of previous commitments.

So for spring, before the semester started, I emailed everyone who registered for my classes with the letter I originally sent through snail mail. I grabbed every email, both LCC and personal, found on the student system site (Banner). And when one student dropped and another added, I sent out again the email to the new student.

I did this every day when the college was open from the first moment the classes were full until classes started.

Consequently, every student on day one knew that the section they were in used SL (even though many had no clue what that meant), and most stuck around for the first couple weeks rather than bailing en masse.

Sure, I've lost a few since, but most have dropped for reasons they usually drop online classes--they've taken on too much and thought online would be easier, family situations or illnesses pop up that keep them from continuing, they can't keep up with the work load for whatever reason (hey, I warn them up front this will take 9-14 hours a week depending on the class!). Only a couple have dropped because they don't have the equipment necessary to work in world, or because they simply don't like working with avatars.

Another thing that has happened is that I got most students to complete the orientation and the scavenger hunt. Last semester I had most in the creative writing class not do the hunt, or meet with me the second week in SL (I focus on the Angel LMS during the first week). Again, part of it was they weren't prepared. But another part is that I just expected them to be responsible. Always a great hope, usually a mistake.

So this semester, with everyone knowing they were to use SL, I had much higher participation in the orientation on Virtual Ability Island, and in completing the scavenger hunt. Of course, I made it required that they meet me in world the second week of class. Easy to do with the WRIT 260: Creative Writing I class since they knew we were all meeting on Tuesday evenings from 7-9 p.m.
More of a challenge with the two sections of WRIT 122: Composition II who had no whole class meeting. With them, I set up six times during the week that they could meet with me once they completed the orientation Here are the instructions I posted: http://express.lcc.edu/faculty/holtd/writ122/oasp11week2.htm#slorientation.

I also changed the scavenger hunt. Last semester, I required them to do the orientation with a
partner, knowing that they would learn more interacting with another, and find more value in the activity. The problem was that too many either couldn't find a partner, or were too shy to seek one out being so early in the semester. Consequently, most didn't complete the assignment. So this time, I allowed them to do the hunt alone, but in order to earn full credit, they had to complete more of the tasks than they would if working with another. And they could only earn Linden dollars if they worked with a partner. Consequently, everyone, except one or two, completed the orientation. And most of them, with a partner. Also, most of them did what it took (posting snapshots of their escapades) to earn Linden dollars.

The upshot of it all is that the majority of students by the end of week 2 were able to wander SL competently, communicate effectively, and participate fully with class activities the next week. And most of them enjoyed their experience, especially with parachuting, riding karts, petting a dog, and lounging on a lilypad.