Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Summer author interview and the fall semester begins

This summer I published a story cycle of urban fantasy/magical realism, the Annunciation of Jack, which you can purchase on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Also, I was interviewed by Alexander Zoltai, who manages events at Book Island in Second Life. Last spring semester, some of my creative writing students attended his book chat and he was intrigued with the work I was doing with students in the virtual world. It was a short interview, but I enjoyed meeting Alexander, and chatting with him.

You can access the interview at

Meanwhile, this semester has been quite a challenge. Everything changed--our department offices, our learning management system, even my virtual space in SL since Angel Learning Isle is no longer being supported by Blackboard. I'm now holding class sessions on MCCAVLC Island (Michigan Community College Association Virtual Learning Collaborative). The director agreed to have Angel Learning Isle in essence moved over, so much is the same, though I had to restore all of the tools I need, from the class area, to my office to the sky areas where I have students do small group work.

The good thing about the move is that I have more administrative rights at MCCAVLC Island (thank you, Ronda Edwards!), so I can send clutter back to owners, I can ban griefers (though I've only had one the entire time I worked on Angel Learning Isle), and my teleporters work when they didn't on Angel Learning Isle.

As I've mentioned before, I use sky platforms for small group work. In a f2f class, if I want students to do an activity in small groups, I'd send them to different corners of the room. In the virtual environment, though, you can't be nearby because text chat or voice bleeds into each other. So I set up sky areas hundreds of meters in the air that are far enough apart so the groups don't hear each other. On each sky area, I have a table, and three media share boards, where students can read my instructions and write with each other on Google Docs.

Before, I had landmark dispensers in my class area, where students would grab a landmark and then teleport to the sky area. I always had a couple students have difficulty with the steps involved. Now, with teleporters, all they have to do is right click and teleport. So starting students up with small groups has been much smoother and quicker. I did, though, have one student have some problems with the teleporter! I ended up going to the sky area and then send her a teleport to join her group.
Anyway, so far, the semester has gone relatively smoothly. Students enjoyed the scavenger hunt where they get used to the virtual environment by riding bikes, parachuting, petting a dog, riding a merry go round, and dancing on Dance, Dance Revolution! Interesting, though, that the most popular tasks  were lying on a lily pad and watching the dolphins play in the water--more than one student commented on how peaceful they felt when doing so.

I've found that making sure students do a scavenger hunt, particularly when they work with a partner, is the quickest way to get them comfortable interacting in the virtual space so that they can concentrate on our school work in future weeks. And also, meeting as a whole class. Small group chat sessions can be effective for some classes later in the semester. But having students meet weekly, like a f2f or hybrid class, really goes a long way to cement them into a viable writing community where they can work together effectively in becoming more substantive writers.

Can such be done in 2D environments like our new learning management system Desire2Learn or through a web conference like Adobe Connect? At some level, yes. But the immersive quality of being in a place (not on a 2D screen of text and video boxes) does something for most of us, helping us to connect with others.

The other night after a class session, one of my students just burst out, "Well, see ya, I've just gotta fly!"

And another quotation from a mother taking first year composition. Her kids were watching her interact with us during class and she started laughing. "My kids say it is not fair I get to go to class like this!"

Nobody ever said that about Angel or Desire2Learn!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Virtual career fair?

I just ran across this article from the Lansing State Journal about a virtual career fair:

What caught my eye was this passage: "On Sept. 26, Pure Michigan Talent Connect will host the MiVirtualCareerFair, an online event where job seekers and Michigan employers can interact with each other in a live 3D environment." So I went over to the web site at to see what this 3D environment was like. You can see a video at that shows you the "3 D environment" which is basically a browser-based 2D site with static web pages of "virtualness." I was hoping to see something like SL, Jokaydia Grid, Cloud Party, Kitely, or Jibe.

There are avatars to speak of, but they don't appear to move, at least they don't in the video, and you'd think that would be a clear selling point of the virtual world (a term used more than once in the video). Instead, it looks like you can click on images or avatars and then read text or engage in a text chat with those in the "the virtual world."

So for those of us familiar with virtual environments like Second Life, this virtual fair, deemed as "the State of Michigan's hottest new way to find exciting jobs," instead looks like a throw back to the early 2000s when I remember seeing one of the first online courses taught at a "virtual campus" with a crude web page of drawn buildings that you could click on to access course materials/activities.

Why is that? First off, it's browser based. So that means most computers/tablets (though sorry iPad, flash is used)/smart phones can access the "virtual world." Second, the learning curve is much less steep than what one first encounters with a truly immersive virtual environment. Pop up text windows, video, text chat, some Skype appear to be used. Even so, the web site includes a 24 page PDF file for job seekers with instructions on how to participate:

So even though the virtual career fair is not nearly as immersive as some of us are used to, it does point out that the desire to do work in a virtual environment is still alive and well, in spite of the "trough of disillusionment" that virtual worlds seem to be in (see Gartner's most recent report at But the need for ease of use (or as close as you can get for a complex 3D world), and access from typical tech, not just high end, is paramount for use by other than first adopters.

It also shows us that bringing student into virtual worlds--when doing so makes sense given the nature of the class and the nature of delivery--is preparing them for virtual environments that will likely be a part of their work world, if not now, then in the near future. Something very important to colleges and universities right now, especially community colleges.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A digression: publishing a book

For a number of years I've been shopping a book-length work of fiction, The Annunciation of Jack, to publishers (very few since most don't take on unsolicited queries) and agents. I've got a smidgen of positive feedback, but mostly boilerplate "Dear John" letters telling me that they would not publish/represent me.

Every summer, when I have a little time to breathe from teaching, I'll send out another scad of queries to agents, and was planning to this summer. However, I soon realized how tired I was of searching for an agent. I either had to devote more time to it (which I am not willing to do), or go another route.

Over the last couple years, self-published ebooks have exploded onto the scene. As this article in the NY Times notes, Amazon is selling more ebooks than print. Now, many of these are from traditional publishing houses. But Amazon also offers any writer to publish his or her manuscript for sale. I've always avoided self publishing for two reasons--writers had to pay for the books being created, and it was often just a vanity publishing event. Only those who weren't good enough to snag an agent/publisher self published.

But two things happened in the last couple years that suggested I needed to consider self publishing through Amazon (and Barnes & Noble). First off, I read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. It had been a favorite of several in my writing the novel classes, and it was very popular, so I decided to read it. I was horrified. It was the most poorly written book I had ever read (even worse than Danielle Steele's The Promise, which I could not finish for an Adolescent Lit class at CSU, Stanislaus!). Having studied fiction writing and worked with new writers in my classes for many years, I could recognize that Meyer had no clue what she was doing when starting the novel, but by 3/4s of the way through began to get an inkling of characterization, plotting, pacing and such. Not unusual for a new writer. A good editor would have said, take the first 376 pages (377 being the first page where something interesting actually happens), boil them down to 40-50, and then move on. Instead, they published as is, and I could imagine the cynicism dripping from the publishers--the audience consists of preteen girls. They won't know any better.

The second thing that happened is that earlier this summer I read a blog post by Jessica Park, "How Amazon Saved My Life." In it, she describes the process of trying to get her novel published traditionally, and realizing how poorly the current state of traditional publishing treats writers, so she launched out with releasing her book through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

OK, a third thing. Unlike a vanity press, a writer does not have to pay to publish through epublishers like Kindle Direct Publishing, or through B&N's PubIt. It's free to upload and offer the book for sale. And the writer gets most of the profit from any sales (70% from Kindle, 65% from PubIt). Yes, any promotion needs to be done by the writer, but that's become more and more the case with traditional publishers unless you're a big name.

I knew that my book The Annunciation of Jack would be a hard sell. It's not technically a novel; more a collection of stories, novellas, and a short novel, all interlinked: hence I call it a "story cycle." Some agents who've looked at the query and sample chapters consider it a young adult novel, and yet significant sections of the book are focused on adults--parents, a middle-aged broker, and a senior citizen. The book mixes the realism of illness with the innocence of Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra, the seriousness of cancer with the humor of a bumbling real estate broker and a sarcastic teenager. And it mixes the magical realism of Marquez with the epic fantasy of Tolkien. Finally, it draws on Christian imagery, yet also plays with imaginary situations that some fundamentalists/evangelicals would cringe at (or as Pastor Walters would say, "That's theologically preposterous!"), not to mention Native American religious imagery (though more imagined and rigorously researched). And horrors, it includes a smattering of bad language (face it, how else would a fallen angel talk?)

But I also know that many readers will have a rip-roaring time following the lives/adventures of ordinary characters living in a Northern California town (an amalgam of Concord, Martinez and Pittsburg) of the early seventies who struggle with major life issues both in our realm, and in other parallel realms with Christmas, angels (Marasim and a cherub), demons, evil hags, beautiful and treacherous harpists, a maniacal evangelist, a bear god, the Raurjan, sea serpents (kraken), Spider Woman, 300-year old monks, Wolwoni Native Americans, ghosts, Thunder People, the Oakland Auditorium, toads, carnival attractions (especially ones with mirrors!), reed boats, an amphibious '54 Chevy Bel Air, the San Francisco Bay, Angel Island, Tamalpais,  elves (Morlienya), Faerian drama, ocean, beach, snow; oh, and some pizza and beer. There's even a kitchen sink (a very dirty one!).

So, I've made The Annunciation of Jack available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble as ebooks, which can be read on the Kindle or Nook (or any ereader that will take on the ePub format from Nook), iPad, iPhone, iPod, Android phones, or any computer. I will also make the book available for on-demand printing through Amazon's CreateSpace should you want it in a more traditional format (the file/cover are under review).

I'm not planning on doing a ton of marketing/promotion. I don't have the time for such. But I do want to make the book available for those who would like to have as much fun with these characters and situations as I've had for a good number of years!

7/19/2012 update: here's the link to the print on demand version of the book:

Friday, May 11, 2012

Leading the masses into virtual worlds

On 5 April 2012, I had the privilege of being interviewed by Chris Robinson (Georgia Gwinnett College, SL: Grizzla Pixelmaid) at the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable for their once-a-month voice event. I originally had some concerns about being able to fill an hour talking about my work in Second Life, but apparently I'm more longwinded that I picture myself! We talked about how I came to find myself teaching in Second Life, much of which I've covered (and obviously will continue to explore) here in this blog. Lots of excellent questions from the group about virtual worlds, virtual presences, students, orientation, Open Sim vs. SL, and sex. Where else will you hear about strip clubs just blocks away from Lansing Community College?

Here's the link to the transcript, brilliantly prepared each week by Joe Essid (University of Richmond, SL: Iggy Onomatopoeia):

If you're interested in finding out what's going on with educational innovation, especially regarding immersive virtual environments (both bleeding-edge and more mundane, like what I do), and want to spend some time with outstanding professors, teachers, grad students, IT guys and gals--and even administrators (you don't know how generous I'm being after just now decompressing from three days of administrator-mandated "professional development" days!!!) from all over the globe, you should stop by on Thursdays from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. SLT (Pacific Time) at the VWER amphitheatre on the BGSU Community sim: A more welcoming group of avatars you'll never find!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

When does an online class start?

Over fifteen years ago, while designing the very first online composition course for Lansing Community College, I recall discussing with other faculty working on their first courses to start in Fall 1997 the question of when online classes start.

Today, it seems obvious--when the semester starts. But even so, not such a simple answer. F2f classes have clear, weekly schedules. This section meets on Mondays and Wednesdays from 12-2 p.m., that section meets Thursdays from 6-10 p.m. It's labeled so in the schedule book, on an instructor's assignment page, and now on the web.

But online classes don't have a time listed in the schedule book. All they say is "Arranged." So when do they start? When the professor decides. Students have access to the Angel LMS web site from the first day, but that doesn't mean the professor starts it then. I usually have with online classes the basic pattern of posting assignments on Mondays by 5 p.m., with work for the week to be completed no later than Saturday night--no later than midnight. For all of my online classes, there are real-time meetings, as I've mentioned in earlier postings, using small group chats, and creating a schedule of 3-5 chat sessions for a week based on student schedules.

But with the use of Second Life, I've been experimenting with whole class meetings, where we do meet weekly at a specific time, like a f2f class would do. For this semester, I have creative students meeting with me on Tuesdays from 7-9 p.m. and Comp II students meet with me on Thursdays 7-9 p.m.

It's caused a problem doing so with the schedule book/web listing of the courses. They're still "Arranged" with a note stating when we're meeting. But of course, students are used to seeing day and time listed in a specific spot for f2f and hybrid courses, so when they don't see such for my classes, they don't expect to have to meet at a certain time. I've tried to have administration change this for my classes, but they've not been cooperative, telling me "it's just not done with online classes." Sigh.

Well, I solve the problem by emailing students before the semester starts, so everyone knows what they are getting into well before the semester starts, and those who cannot meet at the scheduled time can drop and go elsewhere.

Anyway, over the last few semesters, I've found a few benefits for meeting as a full class rather than in small group chats.
  1. Second Life orientation goes much smoother when everyone meets at the same time.  I have students do the orientation and a scavenger hunt during week 2. It's much simpler for them to find a partner to work on completing tasks at Angel Learning Isle when they all show up between 7-9 p.m. on a particular evening than throughout the week as happens with sections who meet only in small groups. 
  2. Whole class meetings are more energetic than small group chats. Now, don't get me wrong, small group chats can be quite animated with a rich conversation among well-prepared students. The song sharing I mentioned a couple posts back is an example. But sometimes they are not--especially on Friday afternoons when few are prepared! But when you have a whole class together, even if some aren't prepared, enough are that significant work and learning take place. 
  3. Whole class meetings are easier on me. In the beginning of the semester, I attend every chat. So if I have a class with 5 chat meetings that last from 1-2 hours each, and I have several classes doing so, I can be in world (or online with 2D chats) for up to 24 hours. Now, I do bow out of chats later in the semester by choosing a moderator to keep things going in each group. But even so, it's much easier meeting with everyone, and saying something once rather than five times! A prime example is my creative writing class a couple weeks ago, where I do a lesson on how best to read poems aloud, showing them how to read a poem from sentence to sentence rather than line to line. We talk about nursery rhymes, songs, and literary poems, and I read to them one of their assigned poems to show how much clearer it can be when read from sentence to sentence. In past semesters, I did so three or four times, depending on the number of chat sessions. Last week, only once.
  • Now, I don't tend to choose lessons or class organization based on what's easiest for me. I choose based on what works best for students. But it certainly doesn't hurt if the two coincide. Even more important that they do the older I get!
  1.  Whole class meetings give students much more of a sense of community. It's true that they work with the whole class in Angel discussion forums, and in real time with a small group during chats. But meeting regularly with everyone gives students a sense of being a whole community, rather than isolated individuals or small groups. I'm not sure that such is important for everyone. A good number of students just want to get their work done and move on. But when part of the learning in a writing class is to address an audience in a community of writers, seeing that community regularly surely helps.
The other aspect of meeting regularly with a whole class is the question of whether to meet at the beginning or at the end of a week. It's an issue that arises with hybrid classes, where half or more of the work done in is done online and the other half on campus. So for a four hour class, usually two hours a week are scheduled to meet on campus.

So, I'm doing both this semester: the creative writing class meets at the beginning of their week (Tuesday); the composition II class meets closer to the end of their week (Thursday). The dynamics are different. For the beginning of the week, students are just getting introduced to the work they'll be doing; for later in the week, they're already full steam ahead.

Any benefits for one over the other? I have yet to decide. One of the benefits of having a later meeting is that  I can expect more significant preparation, kind of like chats, where I expect students to come to a session with notes on the reading or writing they're doing. Classes I start early may include later in the week small group chats. But late week meetings, small group chats don't take place.

Either way, I definitely plan to stay with whole class meetings, something that I've not found doable until virtual worlds.

Side note--I finally got shadows to work! Well, more like Linden Lab finally got the viewer to cooperate with my graphics card so I could take snapshots with shadows, ambient occlusion and even depth of field. My frame-rate drops to a crawl, but it's sufficient for pictures. Now if only the Arts & Sciences division will cooperate and grant me a computer upgrade!