The tinyURL that is supposed to link to Andy Powell’s ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post is incorrect. Please follow this link instead.
At points I use the term ‘real life’ which seems to imply that anything which is online is somehow not part of ‘real life’. A better phrase would have been ‘offline’. Language in this area is difficult at best…
The quote “…just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words” is a quote from Prensky’s recent paper on ‘Digital Wisdom’. In the journal ‘Innovate’. In other versions of the talk I refer to Prensky directly but seem to have omitted it when I was in front of the camera. All other non-attributed quotes are anonymised statements from our students.
The images I used are under the Creative Commons license:
New things are exciting. For example social networking. It’s a whole new way to interact with others, a reason why society is moving online isn’t it? But how to make it useful? What can we do with this new digital tool that goes beyond chit-chat? It should be possible to use facebook and Twitter for something of value for education but which one is better? Which one is more popular? Maybe there is something new just around the corner? …What could we do with Google Wave?…
I admit that I have a habit of thinking in this manner. It’s exhausting and somehow hollow. On a bad day I get a form of techno paranoia which involves creating a profile on any number of new services most of which I never revisit. To be totally honest some of my most successful conference presentations are attended by an audience 50% of whom are driven there out of a mild form of this paranoia. I like ‘new things’ and I enjoy talking about what new developments could mean for education but at times I have been overwhelmed and lost focus.
The Dangers of Being Digital http://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/49634405/
I have been numbed by a tidal wave of the new:
“The speed of the change, however, has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital; that the digital itself is the main driver of change.”
This quote comes from a working document outlining the postdigital. A principle which highlights the dangers of assuming the digital is the sole driver of change and makes the point that the digital as ‘new’ will quickly pass away.
As the ‘Planning for the Postdigital’ document describes all technologies go through a transition whereby they become culturally normalised. For example, the pen and the book have become ‘transparent’ tools, extensions of ourselves to be used appropriately to achieve goals but rarely discussed in of themselves. In the same way email and word processing are well on there way to becoming transparent. We now send a message or write a document. The digital is not discussed. It has ceased to be new.
“Things digital will be accepted alongside our other technologies and the slate swept clear of many of the distracting dualisms (and technological factions) that pervade the educational discourse. The postdigital frees us to think more clearly and precisely about the issues we face, rather than become tied to an obsession with, and the language of, the new.”
An ‘Electronic’ Calculator? http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecheals/2780671422/
Too much time is spent arguing about the relative merits of digital spaces such as Twitter and facebook. The key term here being ‘relative’. We are pitting digital against digital, new against new, a form of one-upmanship which distracts from the larger picture.
“The transition to a postdigital way of thinking allows for that previously coded as ‘digital’ to be woven into the wider discussion of social dialects that people bring to their acts of collaboration. One of the things we’ve learned from social research is that people tend to go online to find people they know and tend to replicate, at least in part, their social performances online. These performances, the communities that they occur in and the dialects that they represent and produce should be the critical loci for research in the postdigital age, not the technologies themselves.”
During the recent Open Habitat project, activity in a digital space (in this case Second Life) forced us to reflect upon and change our educational approach in day-to-day non-digital spaces. As this mirror effect emerged I became increasingly uncomfortable. We had set ourselves the goal of discovering new ways of teaching with new technologies not re-considering the nature traditional teaching. Worse than that, because Second Life supported a high level of social interaction the skills needed to teach within the digital space had a large overlap with those needed in a physical classroom. “When are you going to tell us something new” was the comment I received halfway through one presentation on the project.
I of course should not have felt uncomfortable but at the time my thinking was locked onto the digital and what it could provide that was new rather than what it brought that was of value. The Open Habitat project discovered approaches that were of relevant both online and offline. I needed to adjust my thinking to accept that this was valid, that it was ok to revisit age-old principles of socialisation and collaboration. The new technology could be a catalyst for this thinking even if it wasn’t the ultimate home for all of the what we had learnt.
The discourse that surrounds elearning (an ‘e’ which is increasingly redundant) is in danger of stagnating. As the digital becomes increasingly transparent we are likely to find ourselves squabbling over ever smaller chunks of newness. We will become like tadpoles in an evaporating pond, fighting for the last of what will inevitably disappear. Maybe it’s time for a metamorphosis in approach, away from the digital, towards the postdigital.
Following on from my ‘That Was an Interesting Experience’ post I got to thinking about how to define what makes MUVEs distinct from other online spaces. The diagram below is my attempted answer, a diagram which I ‘trailed’ in my presentation at the Eduserv+JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event last Friday. (slidecast of the presentation at the end of this post)
During the JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project we piloted Second Life with art & design undergrads and with lifelong distance learners studying philosophy. The axes of the diagram represent two of the major effects we saw across the pilots that are central to what an MUVE provides.
Eventedness: (a term coined by Dave Cormier and myself) This goes beyond a shared experience which could be aimless in activity terms and assumes that everyone involved is heading towards a particular goal even if this goal does not involve close collaboration. For example, a themed philosophical discussion which, if it goes well, should have a shared direction as the learning moves forwards.
Co-presence: As well as the Co-presence that comes from being embodied as avatars this definition includes what is experienced when an individual is certain that their contribution (usually in text form) will be read and responded to by others. For example it is possible to get a strong sense of the presence of others when microblogging because the exchanges are often frequent, they often reference each other and the response time can be a matter of seconds. Messages are linked to the particular point in time and their value erodes over time. There is a relationship between the speed in which the value of nodes of communication erode within a technology and the potential for Co-presence. In addition the individuals’ level of trust that their contribution will be understood and responded to within a particular technology has a large bearing on both Co-presence and Eventedness. It is of note that there is very little latent social presence in MUVEs. When you log-off your presence all but evaporates leaving almost no trace of your identity or that fact that you were in the MUVE. This is in contrast to social networking sites which are designed to extend your presence after you log-off. (See my ‘Visitors – Residents‘ post which discusses why this form of latent social presence is an important issue)
So, the green areas are not a quantative mapping of a range of functionalities but the qualitative potential of a technologies ability to provide a certain type of experience. The greater the chance of Co-presence the greater the chance of Eventedness and vice versa which is why the green areas have diagonal tops.
I should point out that the relative mapping of the technologies in the diagram could be debated until the cows come home because the axes are dealing with subjective terms. Individuals encounters with these technologies will vary greatly in the context of these terms hence the use of ‘potential’ which allows for a latitude in experiences.
A key point here is that the MUVE has the potential to support a huge range of experiences. This is partiality because of the effect of avatars but also because an MUVE is not a single technology but a cluster of tools gathered around a 3D environment. To tie this down a bit I will run through the types of experience that I think take place at points ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ on the diagram.
‘a’: At this point an individual feels isolated from others and alienated by the environment. They are directionless and have not discovered the ‘point’ of the environment for themselves. This sense of isolation and alienation is amplified by the knowledge that there are others in the MUVE who are enjoying being part of a social group that they are excluded from (either socially or because of a lack of technical skills). It is also amplified because they can see other avatars who appear to be much better looking, better dressed and with more elaborate hairstyles. They begin to fell anonymous, unskilled and lacking in a definable persona (they are part of the homogenous ‘n00b’ category). All of this is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to ‘lurk’ in an MUVE. There a few opportunities to learn the in world culture(s) and mode(s) of communication that don’t involve social engagement. This is in contrast to other successful online social platforms have functionality such as an open chat channels (World of Warcraft) or the ability to see the flow of communication (Twitter) giving new users the opportunity to absorb the culture of that space before making their voice heard.
‘b’: At this point the individual feels like they are contributing to a shared endeavour, that they are part of a relevant activity. They have come to know and trust the other participants in their group and enjoy both the learning and the social aspects of the experience. This is only likely to take place if a member of that community has organised an activity. Or, to put it another way, the tutor has planned a relevant session. (The implication here being that the tutor needs to be part of a community of learners not above it in the MUVE space)
‘c’: At this point the individual is probably spending time with people they know and trust. They are socialising within the MUVE but are not attempting to achieve anything beyond simply being together. They are likely to feel part of a community but not that they are communally working towards a goal.
In terms of teaching and learning this huge breath of potential experience is what makes using MUVEs a high risk option. The better designed a session and the more responsive the tutor the higher it will map against Eventedness but a strong sense of Co-presence will only grow over time. Initially this happens as people get to grips with the technology then increasingly as they form relationships and trust grows. This breath of potential is in my opinion why a bad session in an MUVE leads to the suspicion that it would have been more satisfying and more effective to have simply used a straight text chat format or in some cases a traditional forum. This is compounded by the fact that MUVEs really lock you in and if a session breaks down it is complex and disruptive to sidestep to another format. Nevertheless, some of the most engaging and exciting online teaching and learning I have experienced has taken place in an MUVE.
As the diagram makes clear MUVEs do have the potential to outstrip many other technologies in their ability to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. However, if you don’t feel that words such as ‘belonging’, ‘communal’ or ‘experience’ are relevant to your practice then MUVE are probably not for you. Even for those of us that do think these aspects of learning are important MUVEs are a high risk option which require teaching sessions that are both well organised and highly reactive. We hope that the guidance and advice that comes from our experiences in the ‘Open Habitat’ project (to be published in March) will reduce this risk but it is like so many things in life MUVEs will remain a challenging option with the potential of great rewards.
Below is a slidecast of the my presentation at the Eduserv + JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event on 16/01/09 in Glasgow. Thanks to Rowin Young for providing the slidecast.
As the piloting activity of the Open Habitat project draws to a close it’s time to gather out data and our thoughts and consider what it all might mean. We have plenty of evidence that MUVEs are a useful for teaching and learning and much guidance and direction to give to teaching practitioners considering taking the plunge. We also have, I think, an overarching message from the project:
“Teaching and learning in virtual worlds is an experience.”
I’m not trying to be facetious or flippant I mean it in the true sense of the term. Taking part of a teaching session in an MUVE is more than simply using a tool or achieving a task, it feels like an event, a particular moment in time when you have the chance to interact with others at a level of intensity which is rarely felt in other online spaces. A teaching session in an MUVE can become a focal event for a significant slice of teaching. A learning design can be created which leads up to and then away from an MUVE session. Much like a traditional field-trip, the teaching can frame the time that students spend out in the field or in this case the MUVE and work generated during that time can be considered upon their return. The ‘otherness’ of the alternative environment can act as a mirror for the students, helping then to reflect on their practice as they see how it is influenced by the virtual world.
Like any immersive experience it is at times challenging for an individual to assess what they have learnt during the experience itself but over time the benefits of being taken out of the comfort of their day-to-day environment starts to become apparent. If you believe that MUVEs are capable of supporting an online culture or beyond that an online society then maybe a session in one is akin to visiting another country. We are socially and psychologically transposed into this new land and whilst not physically transported we are visually represented. Like any exploration into new territories it can be chaotic, alienating, exhausting, and frustrating. There are new forms of communication to learn and new cultural norms to adjust to. It can be intriguing, surprising and occasionally exhilarating, offering inspiration and new perspectives on ideas which may have become stagnant. These experiences with others in these virtual worlds is a form of travel and they do say that travel broadens the mind.
We learnt a few things in the first phase of the Open Habitat project which have informed the set-up of our next pilots. I’m currently planning the pilot that will run with philosophy students in Second Life. The main challenge with the first pilot was the sheer speed of debate in SL. The experienced philosophy students are used to being able to gather their thoughts, write a paragraph or two and pop it into a forum.
Taking the time to reflect is important in any educational process but it is especially precious to the discipline of philosophy. Having said this, the students loved the vibrant, social feeling of SL and the sense of presence being embodied in an avatar brought. In fact they liked it so much they have continued to run non-tutored sessions in SL once a week managed via a facebook group. (This included giving the students building rights so that they could rearrange the environment each week to fit the topic under discussion)
For phase 2 it was clear that we needed to balance the reflective and the dynamic which we are planning to do by ‘bookending’ the SL session with Moodle. Here is a draft of how the pilot will flow:
Stage One (framing the debate):
Marianne (the tutor) to post briefing page on Moodle
students to post kneejerk response in blog
Marianne to respond one to one
students to reconsider in light of Marianne’s comments and prepare second kneejerk
second kneejerk to be posted on Moodle
all students to read, think and prepare third kneejerk for posting on whiteboard in second life
third kneejerk to be sent to Dave for posting in world
Stage two (dynamic in world discussion):
Everyone arrives in second life to find third kneejerk responses on board
People read these and reflect as everyone arrives
Marianne asks each student in turn to comment
after everyone has responded people go into groups (arranged in advance), go to their ‘stations’ and prepare jointly a ‘final statement’
final statements to be sent to Dave
Marianne reconvenes students and the session ends with a final discussion.
Stage three (reflection):
Marianne to annotate final statements, and add comments
Dave to post final statements and the chat log on Moodle
Students free to discuss final statements and Marianne’s comments by themselves.
It’s not rocket science but I think this really takes advantage of what SL is good for and is a genuine answer to the ‘user needs’ that came out of phase 1. We will then run this cycle a second time either continuing the same philosophical theme or starting a new on depending on how well it runs!
The other significant change to the pilot will be the use of edu-gestures which should allow for more non-verbal communication whilst the group is deep in discussion. We have a nice set (agree, confused, yes, no, I’m thinking etc) of gestures that the students can use during the sessions using a ‘lite’ version of the Sloodle toolbar generously created for us by the Sloodle project. I’m planning to introduce these gestures as a key part of the orientation session so that their use is seen as a ‘basic’ skill. In this way I hope we get the benefits of embodiment/presence as well as the benefits of non-verbal communication which is so important in RL but has not really developed in detail within SL.
It’s odd to think that an environment that renders you as an avatar (face, head, arms, legs etc) does not rely very heavily on non-verbal cues (apart from where you are standing and the biggie: what you look like). I’m hoping that this aspect of Multi-User Virtual Environments will develop as the language of communication (text, voice, visual) within virtual worlds becomes more sophisticated.
Most importantly the pilot has been designed in conjunction with the students who are going to advise on the layout of the in world environment and are enthusiastic about the changes to the format.
As phase 1 of the Open Habitat project draws to a close it is time to take stock. We have run our ‘Multi-User Virtual Environments’ pilots with Art & Design and Philosophy students, gathered our data and are a long way through the process of making sense of it. Concepts are starting to cluster and hypothesis to be tested in phase 2 are emerging. We have edited together a 3 minute video of phase 1 activity that can be viewed here http://blip.tv/file/1208348 to give a snapshot of activity so far.
What happens when you take 6 online philosophy students with and average age of about 50* and attempt to run a discussion session on ‘identity’ in Second Life after only two short orientation sessions that not everyone could attend?
Well against my expectations they actually spend the majority of the time ‘really doing philosophy’ (to quote the tutor) and then 4 of them arrange to continue the discussions on a regular basis after the official ‘Open Habitat’ project pilot has finished. General enthusiasm all round and many constructive comments on how future sessions could be organised and formatted.
So the initial question I ask myself is not “why did this work?” but “why did I think it wasn’t going to work?” The answer can probably contains an number of things that I didn’t consider until it was clear that the sessions were going ok.
The majority of the participants were experienced philosophers. They did not have to grapple with the environment AND the subject. Once they had learnt how to text chat, move and sit down (an activity they all seemed to enjoy) the rest was home territory.
The tutor involved was enthusiastic, had experience of teaching online distant students via a VLE and had a clear understanding that Second Life was going to be different and required a new approach.
I was on hand through the sessions to IM anyone in difficulties and more importantly I was in the same RL room as the tutor who was also new to Second Life.
We were flexible with the teaching format and adjusted activities to fit the flow of the discussion and the speed of response from the students.
The participants who signed up for the pilot self selected as those willing to investigate a possible new format. This was not a mandatory part of a course. In other words they were open to a new experience.
The debate begins
One of the most successful aspects of the sessions was breaking into small groups. We had placed simple breakout areas within view of each other but just out of the 20 meter range of local chat to avoid cross talk. The tutor could wander between groups much in the same way she would in RL. It was a format that the participants could relate to and it utilised the socio-spatial nature of the environment.
The ‘red’ group with the ‘blue’ group in the background.
Another interesting technique was circulating a transcript of the chat after the session with annotations from the tutor. I could see this working very well for a rolling discussion over a number of sessions.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, some of the participants found the flow of the text chat too fast and too ‘bitty’. By the time they had formulated their thoughts things had moved on and a paragraph of text in the flow of a text chat can appear self indulgent. Of course this is a problem inherent in text chats as a format rather than an SL specific issue. The other major challenge seems to be facing in the right direction when sitting down or, at one point, sitting in a seat that has not already been taken.
Have we met?
We now have a lot of data to sift through and many more questions to answer but my initial reaction is that this could become a very effective part of a distance programme blended between VLE and SL. The SL part providing a social underpinning to students who never get the chance to meet face-to-face.
The setting lends a noble atmosphere to the discussion
As to ‘technological barriers’ and ‘SL pain barriers’ it’s true to say that one of the perspective participants simply could not get into SL at all (a victim of SL graphics card brutality). However, with a little hand-holding the participants who could get in didn’t have too much trouble using the environment to philosophise and did not seem to get tied down by the platform as a technology.
*This is not meant as an ageist comment as I think the Prensky-esque notions of the digital native generation are a misnomer (by that I mean “completely wrong”). My point is that these participants are not ‘high tech’ nor are they ‘tech geeks’. They will only use a technology if it aids them in moving their learning forwards.
As the first Open Habitat pilot with Art & Design students draws to a close it’s worth reflecting on how the process has gone before we dive into the formal analysis of interview transcripts, surveys and building work in Second Life.
After 3 weeks of working infrequently in OpenSim and Second Life some of the Art and Design students seem to have got to that self motivating stage at which their creativity and their curiosity combine and the tutor facilitates when needed rather than leads by the nose. The atmosphere in the computer room and in Second Life (3 of the students were working from home) was relaxed and chatty. Not too much sign of the noob paranoia that could have bloomed from the first couple of teaching days.
A few informal impressions that I have come away with are:
1. Maybe ‘collaboration’ in these MUVE environments is more about discussion than construction. When people collaborate in world they are rarely to be found wrestling over the same polygons/prims. It’s more likely that one will be building while the other muses over what direction the build should take. In this way students can use the specific skill they are best at in a larger build (modelling, texturing, scripting etc) not unlike the RL equivalent of the trades.
2. Just how much of a motivator is knowing that there is a potential audience for your work in world? Does seeing those little green dots on the map inspire an individual to create or simply make them feel a little lonely? I can’t say that I have ever felt lonely using Adobe Photoshop (no map, no green dots) but as some of the students alluded to it’s an odd feeling knowing that there are people in world who have chosen not to talk to you.
3. If the students that have been inspired can produce work like the example below in three weeks, what could they achieve in three years? It’s the length of a degree after all and it’s worth remembering that even the most experienced Second Lifers (the penal inference here may be apposite) have only been in world for about this length of time.
Part III by Mark O’Brien. Work produced as part of the Open Habitat pilot with Leeds Metropolitan Art and Design students.
There were two significant transition points for the Art & Design students involved in the first 2 days of Open Habitat’s first pilot. Take a look at Ian’s post for a description of what happened from a teaching practitioner’s point of view.
Here is my perspective on events with my researcher hat on:
This sequence of events slowly expanded the amount of technical and social options available to the students. They started in a safe, private, stand alone OpenSim environment in which they could learn building skills without getting tangled up with issues of identity and communication. The first transition point came when we paired the students onto OpenSim islands (i.e. each student was on an island with one other student). There was a distinct shift in atmosphere as they experienced the effect of being co-present in world and the real life room suddenly had a buzz in it as the students ‘met’ each other in the virtual world. This was amplified when a game of hide and seek was suggested and avatars started to dash around the screens in XY and Z dimensions (an excellent ‘quest’). The students flicked between real world and in world chat as the games progressed. One pair discovered that they could throw objects around in world and appeared to be attempting to trap each other inside large spheres in what looked like a surrealist version of a fight between two super heroes. This was transition point one, when the activity shifted from simply learning a piece of software to co-habiting the same virtual space with all the attendant social effects.
The second, less satisfying transition came when the students moved into Second Life. The ‘gateway’ of orientation island jarred the movement through the planned activities. The pilots suddenly became more about Linden Labs Second Life platform and a lot less about Art & Design. This is not to say that the students floundered, in Second Life terms their OpenSim experience had pushed them past the ‘Second Life pain barrier’. In fact one of the students started to give a new Second Lifer advice after being in world for about 2 minutes! The problem was that the Art & Design focus had lost its flow. Later on in day 2 of the pilot, once all of the students had been grouped and found their way to LeedsMet island, the Art & Design angle re-emerged. The students took-up plots of land and started to build.
So the pilot had created a smooth expansion of possibilities by initially separating the creative aspects of the MUVE from the social aspects. We do of course hope that these two areas will become intertwined as the pilot progresses but like most siblings it would seem that it can be healthy to separate them at times. The question that is hanging in the air after the first 2 days of the pilot is: once OpenSim has reached version 1.0 (currently 0.6) why use Second Life? Or in more constructive terms: maybe the educational institution should use OpenSim to control the flow of options to the students and provide a jumping off point which they can use to go into Second Life if they choose to?
Clearly there are advantages to being part of the wider community of Second Life but we need to develop methods of making the transition to the big complex world of a public MUVE smoother. At the top of the list of possible solutions is finding ways of getting into Second Life without going via orientation island.
The designers of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games face a significant educational challenge. They need to efficiently and subtly teach new players how to use their game. This involves teaching players about the environment and the interface whist keeping them motivated and drawing them into the challenges of the game itself. This is situated learning in which the games designer is the ‘master’ and the player is the ‘apprentice’.
This educational challenge is similar to the one faced by those intending to teach in Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVE’s) such as Second Life. There are a significant amount of basic skills that need to be mastered before students can successfully engage in meaningful collaborative activity. The traditional ‘orientation’ process in Second Life is didactic and generic, teaching skills in an abstract technical manner. This has come about because unlike an MMO, Second Life has no shared goal, its possible uses are many and varied. However, a teacher who wishes to use Second Life should have a defined set of goals or learning outcomes they wish to achieve. They should be able to define task orientated activities which are relevant to the students motivations, for example, Art and Design students can be asked to compete to build the tallest monolith as a focus for learning building skills in Second Life rather than being given general instructions on how to create, scale and texture objects. In teaching terms this seems like an obvious approach but often when faced with a complex new platform teaching practitioners will often fall back on a basic instructivst style which may not align well with the approach generally taken at HE level for that discipline.
This is where we can learn from the MMO designers who are careful not to fall into this trap as it is likely to make a players initial engagement in a game seem like a chore. For subscription based MMOS such as World of Warcraft this would mean a high drop out rate and a massive loss of revenue, something that the HE sector can emphathise with.
The JISC funded Habitat project intends to learn from the game designers by capturing the processes in World of Warcraft in its initial stages and mapping the styles and types of task to the learning outcomes they fulfil. The data will be captured using pre and post activity questionnaires and video screen capture synchronised with video of the player at the computer. This data will then be used in the process of designing appropriate orientation sessions for pilots in Second Life with students from two disciplines: Art and Design & Philosophy. The Habitat project recognises that some of the most sophisticated collaborative learning spaces online at the moment are MMOs and that the design of these games can be a relevant model for the pedagogical structures that we put in place for the educational use of MUVEs such as Second Life.