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!

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