Thursday, November 27, 2008

Virtual Economy

As I wait to see if I win my first land auction, I was googling around and found an article published not long after my piece on commodification in SL in Journal of Virtual Worlds Research that gives some numbers to back up some of my completely unsubstantiated speculation that consumerist desires might be channeled into virtual worlds: "At Least the Virtual Economy Isn't Too Bad Yet."   According to the article, Linden Labs reports highest ever user hours in Q3 2008.  

Friday, November 21, 2008

Socializing with Out of the Box Avatars

L1 had her first surprise visitor of someone I actually know on the SL land yesterday, a very welcome one, the avatar of one of my colleagues who had read the JVWR piece and decided to check out Second Life.  He picked the Male Musician avatar, which is the same one my husband picked when I convinced him to join me in SL for an experiment, and so I was doubly confused: suddenly someone else was there, looking just like my husband, but with some strange name.  Eventually we sorted it out, but not after a little confusion with a few layers of identities: personal, professional, and virtual.  Then we had a great time, teleporting around as we could do only in SL, also crashing and experiencing enough lag to make us occasionally asynchronous, which may have a real world analog, but it is not nearly so dramatic or visual.  It was a blast, especially when his hair suddenly disappeared, and luckily he got it back.

One of the things I noticed is that when we were using text chat, it was our avatars talking, but as soon as we switched to voice chat, it was us.  I wonder if that would happen if I were talking with someone I didn't know in real life, someone whose disembodied voice I wouldn't recognize.  I certainly didn't recognize my friend in his avatar, at least not right away.  I am also curious to meet people in real life whose avatars I've come to know.  

Here are pictures of L1Aura talking with our colleague Tiak8 (who almost immediately mastered gestures like the shrug) and L1 with her husband Tich.  You can see why she was confused and has since given Tich a makeover.  The wonders of the virtual world. Tiak8's gesture below says it all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CCK08: Click (finally), as it all makes sense

The clicking sound you hear is the CCK08 material aligning with some work I'm involved in at Berklee, where we're developing a new course for first semester students.  I've been working on versions of this course for 5 years now, from various approaches; now as part of a broad curriculum review and revision, it is moving along.  

As I was cutting and pasting a lovely quotation about how a First Semester Seminar could be taught from an older concept document into a shiny new course proposal (see below), I realized many of the ideas and themes overlapped with our CCK08 conversation, especially echoing the discussions about teaching we had in the past couple of weeks in Elluminate with Howard Rheingold and others.  It has to do with separating out the functions of the teacher as content expert on the one hand and facilitator on the other, so that process, thinking, and learning become central, not content delivery.

This is how Jerry Slezak, who blogs about his experiences teaching a Freshman Seminar at the University of Mary Washington, sees the unique purpose and method of FYE seminars:

Teaching a seminar-style course to first year students, where the emphasis in the course is on inquiry, rather than presentation or even exploration of a settled body of knowledge is quite different from either an upper-level seminar or a traditionally introductory course which enrolls first year students. The fundamental purpose of the FSEMs [freshman seminars] is not to teach content, but rather to introduce students to the life of the mind. At one level this has developed as an emphasis on teaching skills, but what we’re really [trying] to  articulate is something more holistic, not skills per se, but rather a model of the process of intellectual inquiry, the art or culture of the intellectual life.
Jerry Slezak,

For our students, our approach to the “life of the mind” must include creativity and the development of the individual voice. 

I guess the insight I have to add after my "click" moment is that the technology is secondary, not primary.  In the very beginning of CCK08, the sheer volume of people arguing over the definition of connectivism in a flurry of posts and blogs was overwhelming, and it was hard to hear past it.  The technology can help make connections, or it can distract and divide us.   How we use it is what matters, and I'm glad I stuck with it until the din died down enough to really hear the ideas.  

When Howard Rheingold talked about having his social media students watch a video of him commenting/lecturing on Goffman instead of delivering that to them in class, that was really interesting.  In class, he is the facilitator, inviting them (actually, it seems, requiring them) to take on the responsibility to teaching the course.   I get a lot of resistance when I talk about making video resources like Howard is using, but I think there is a lot of value in separating the expert and facilitator functions of the teacher.  I think he is also using his video commentary as a reading, or a reading supplement, but that is a different topic (shift from text to video).  

All of this makes me realize that if we replace course content with the technological tools, we haven't gained enough, and it is an easy temptation to do that with all these fun, new toys. More importantly, we have to make sure our students know that we are not doing that.  I'm sure that Steven and George never intended for the technology to overtake the ideas, but it is how it felt to me for a while at the beginning.  Unless the learning and thinking, the life of the mind and the processes of creation, remain at the center and everything else we do is in its service, then its all a bunch of noise.  Click click. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Best Practices for Teaching with Media: Fair Use

The Center for Social Media at American University has posted a fantastic Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education.  Taking the lead from how documentary filmmakers have interpreted fair use in their field, leaders in media education have staked out a useful set of 5 principles that guide their practices and they are based on what teachers and students need for teaching and learning.  Awesome.

Monday, November 10, 2008

L1 Speaks (and Lori Writes) in JVWR

The second issue of The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research includes a "think piece" I wrote with a video response by L1Aura Loire on youtube and inworld Hopefully this will be the beginning of a collaborative project between the two of us, using writing and video for an actual/virtual dialogue about topics pertaining to virtual worlds.  

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama Party in SL: 9:03 pm

The sim was full, the avatars were dancing and cheering, and things are looking good in RL and SL for Obama.

CCK08 In the Daily!

I have arrived!  I made it into The Daily e-mail sent out by the CCK08 instructor!  Instead of simply doodling in the margins of my own virtual notebook, filling pages with my solitary musings, I am connected.  Node-a-rific.

Monday, November 3, 2008

CCK08: Lurker vs. Bad Student/Success vs. Failure

The inevitable grumblings have begun for CCK08.  It would be interesting to analyze CCK08 as an internet phenomenon, as an example of a viral meme, tracking hits and participants, etc.  I imagine it has similar shape to most trends: small trickle at first, critical mass, big bulge, then a falling off, with only the diehards and seriously interested people left to fully participate.

One of the things that is interesting is that this course is supposed to be participatory, and, as I commented on a blog posting on whether CCK08 is failing, maybe there is a difference between a lurker and a bad student.  I think in my earlier post about being a mediocre student, when I decided to keep lurking (although I didn't use that term at the time) although I just wasn't that into the course, I grappled with the question of whether it is okay to be a passive student in this particular context.  

It felt bad to me to be a lame student, and certainly if I were a registered student expecting a grade then I would get what I deserved.  But what do I deserve in this context?  What happens when there is no carrot or stick other than what I want to learn, contribute, and how I want to connect?  This is learning in a pure sense, unmotivated by grades, getting credit for the course, or any external measure. (OK, the experience has become part of my sabbatical project, but it doesn't have to be.)  How can success or failure be assessed for me (only by me, I guess), or for the course (by each participant)?

And as a teacher who is being a voluntary student in this experience, I really don't have any of the student's experience of the fuzzy end of the lollipop of power: of getting grades that seem unfair (too low or too high), of having to do assignments that seem pointless or stupid or take up too much of my time, of having to listen to someone else drone on about whatever little thing it is that they have spent their life studying, of not being able to do what I want when I want to.  That's life, we tell our students, and part of what you're learning is to be able to adapt to the real world of deadlines, arbitrariness, and, well, power relations.  Learning to be a good student means learning how to negotiate what ideally is a well-designed mock-up of a real-world situation, with some room for do-overs, hopefully with some valuable guidance from someone who knows something you don't.

Does social networking change the landscape of the real world?  Sure.  It adds a new level of discourse, one that's being figured out and revised as it develops.  It's a moving target, and our students will shape it.   I've certainly learned a lot by lurking in CCK08 about how to use social networking/Web 2.0 tools in my teaching.  And in order to gain that knowledge, I am grateful to the "good" students who have been dutifully doing the work so I could watch the experiment until I felt comfortable enough to start jumping in.  (I think I will also be more aware of my f2f students' different levels of participation after this experience.)

Whether the course is a failure or a success for the registered students, or in general, on what terms?  It was done in the spirit of an experiment, to see what would happen, and so in that way it is a huge, smashing, big, messy success, because a lot of things happened.  It certainly provided a useful model for this mediocre student/avid lurker.  And it ain't over 'til it's over.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Power, Control, Authority: CCK08, Brave New Classrooms, & Cruises

I was reading around in this week's CCK08 material--undaunted by Stephen's e-mail stunt of introducing the week's topic of Power, Control and Authority by mandatorily subscribing everyone to the moodle forum so we all had nice, full mailboxes, brimming with quips and complaints--and came across Michael Wesch's blog post "Revisiting 'A Vision of Students Today'" which was originally part of a blog forum on "Brave New Classroom" at Britannica Blog.  It is an excellent post, and reminds me of what most traditional education is like: lecture halls, multiple choice exams, etc.

In that context, connectivism has a lot to offer.  If you're talking about a 400-person class, there are possibilities offered by networked learning and a massively open (or even just a little more open) that can rock the lecture hall's world.  If the students are sitting in the lecture IM-ing each other and updating their facebook page, anyway, why not encourage them to tweet about the class?  It's meeting them at least half way.

The lecture hall that Wesch's TA's describe, with most of the students listening to blaring iPods (and their neighbors having to listen to it, too) or doing other tasks during class is a different experience from my 15-person maximum visual culture class, for example, where I can imagine intensifying what we do by meeting in Second Life and interacting with avatars, or using non-synchronous new media tools, like the VisCult blog.  

Also intriguing is the post about banning laptops in the classroom.  All our students at Berklee are required to have laptops and there have been times I've asked students to see their notes, or walked behind them to look at their screens.  Sometimes they are genuinely googling things related to the discussion, and sometimes they also uses their iPhones that way, too (I recall someone accessing the details of an etching technique when we were at the Museum of Fine Arts one time, for example, which was a much better learning moment than my usual I'll-look-it-up-and-tell-you-later approach).

About Power, Authority, and Control: as long as there are grades, there will be power, authority and control.  Period.  On top of that, as long as someone knows something that someone else doesn't and the one who doesn't know it thinks the other one can teach them, or help them learn it on their own, or set up a series of tasks that will reveal the knowledge, technique, or skill, there is authority, and there should be.  Authority is not necessarily the same thing as power, or as control.  And let us not forget our Foucault: power produces, it creates, it makes.  And if there is no control, what remains?  

I remember someone in a faculty meeting at a previous institution claiming that every college or university is like a themed cruise--students and their parents expect that theme, say the Disney cruise, and would be mightily disappointed and understandably pissed off if they got the swingers cruise instead.  Know your theme and deliver was the message my colleague espoused, and I have often reflected on the element of truth there (and the great hilarity of the metaphor).   If there isn't an appropriate exertion of power, control, and authority, it is hard to craft the cruise, and pick whatever part of the metaphor you want for a course: a day trip, a part of the ship, an activity (I've never been on a cruise, so I'm working off of the tv show The Love Boat here).   People can do what they want on a cruise, as long as the structure and infrastructure are working invisibly in the background, so that all they have to do is think, "I'd like to go to a midnight buffet!" and there it is, waiting for them (that one isn't from The Love Boat, but from my parents, circa 1978).  

So, if faced with a choice between a completely decentralized, diffused, anarchic and random educational experience, or one that is a bit more like a well-structured ride (to mix my transportation metaphors), I'm taking the ride.  I don't only want to sit in the 400-person lecture hall, straining to hear the undoubtedly interesting things Prof Wesch has to say over the kid next me's iPod blasting his or her hearing into premature oblivion, forced to take multiple choice exam after multiple choice exam.  But I want a teacher who is a teacher, who knows something I don't and will, uh, teach it to me.  I value that.  I can cede a little bit of my own power in the short term in order to gain some in the long term (and if that sounds familiar, folks, that's because that describes grad school.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Building in SL

I think I'm starting to get the hang of building in SL.  I made a three-story labyrinth platform to practice working in 3 dimensions, and then I liked it, so I kept it.  I raised and lowered my land a bunch of times and met someone who thought it was interesting to watch it from her house across the way.   I made an enormous metal transparent ball and then transformed it into a seasonal pumpkin, which L1Aura likes to sit inside on top of the labyrinth platform, because, well, who knows?  It's nice and orange in there, and reminded me of Jeannie's bottle in "I Dream of Jeannie,"so I put a meditation cushion to sit on in there, too.  

At first I felt tempted to put up a house (and I did) and fill my land with all the things one needs or wants and can't have in real life, and at some point I will probably get a helicopter or some other flying device, but I am aiming for different (hence the enormous pumpkin).   I also want to build a space for people to have conversations, and also a teaching space.  Nettrice's cushions on the beach provide an excellent model, similar to the meditation platform on Connected Health Island, and of course there is the classroom, or seminar room, but I wonder what else is possible?

Friday, October 17, 2008


There's not much there yet, but I bought land in SL.  Here is the slurl.

CCK08: Too Much Openness?

One of the questions that came up in Alec Couros's excellent presentation in the Wednesday afternoon Elluminate session was whether there can be too much openness in this kind of networked, massively open teaching and learning environment.  It is a good question, and one that gets at some of the aspects of CCK08 that I've found less than cozily enjoyable: the back channel chatter.   Although my professor's p.o.v. makes me have a knee-jerk response to shush chatter, I know from my meeting participant's and student's p.o.v. that it is not necessarily disrespectful or off-topic, but can be a way of actively participating and creating connections among the group members (albeit not all members simultaneously).  

But in Wednesday's session, the text chat was a separate discussion that did not riff off of the audio presentation.  It was so distracting to me, a self-confessed text junkie who can't not read something (which is why the ever-more cluttered television screen is driving crazy), that I had to push the window off to the side so I couldn't see the text.  I thought it was rude, and was surprised to see who was doing the text chatting.

I have, however, decided to stick with CCK08, as a mediocre student, muttering to myself, writing my comments about the experience in the margins of my notebook/here on this blog.  The ideas are intriguing even if I don't burn for the details of the theory of connectivism, and the questions raised are important ones.  

In particular, I have been thinking of one of the themes that has recurred: digital identity (or digital citizenship, which isn't my favorite term), and how my students may or may not be thinking about how the traces they leave online might affect them later on.  I for one am glad that there wasn't a permanent, public face to my college years, and part of the separateness of the college experience as a place of experimentation and making mistakes that, certainly, can have consequences, but also can be separate from the "real" world of adulthood and worklife has been lost.   It's like we're all a little more stuck living in a small town.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Being a Student--CCK08

And not a stellar one.  My participation in the CCK08 Connectivism course has been patchy at best.  In fact, it reminds me of that Sex and the City episode that I saw in reruns recently: I'm just not that into it.  There's no soul-searching to be done here, nothing wrong with the course, or with me, but I signed up for it without really knowing what it was and was sort of along for the ride and although it is a little interesting, it doesn't grab my attention enough to compete with the other things I have going on.  

This offers me, however, insight into students.  Some of my students might not be into all of their classes, and maybe not mine!!!!! What a concept. So this is how it feels.  Nothing against the prof, or the structure of the course, or the material.  Just not that into it. 

I haven't taken a course that I wasn't really really into for a very long time.  I liked just about everything in grad school, and truth be told, that was a while ago.  I was very interested in the material in the two NEH Summer Seminars I did, which are the closest things to courses I've been in since grad school, although the pace was intense and maybe I didn't read every single word of every assigned reading (just like grad school!)  The Creativity in Second Life course through MassArt was fantastic and I am enjoying the Relaxation Response course I am taking now in Second Life, and although it took me a couple of weeks to get into the rhythm of doing the assigned readings, now I have the book near my bed and I'm up to date.  All of this is to say that, really, there isn't anything wrong with me as a student/sabbatical researcher.

And CCK08 is an amazing thing.  I wish the course were about something else!  Or had started off about something else, because I have the sense from reading the snippets of Moodle discussions in the Daily e-mails that the focus has now shifted away from 'what is connectivism?' to less-specialized topics that I do know something about.   

Is it possible that if we were meeting in real life, I could become more interested, could have enough of a human connection that my interest would be sparked, that I could ask just the right question and get the right answers so that it would begin to make sense and be relevant, and then I would be into it?  Who knows?  The teacher in me wants to think so, although it is also slightly liberating in a lazy way to think that it is not.  Just not that into it.   

And there may be something wrong with me, after all.  There was one blog posting or moodle post or something that I will never be able to track down again that suggested that the only way to participate in CCK08's massively open environment is to figure it all out yourself, that no one is going to show you how the various tools work (although I suspect there are plenty of helpful folks who would give help if one asked), that no one is going to baby you and make it easy for you to participate.  You have to jump in!  Well, there is a part of me that doesn't like that in a course, that misses the people, and doesn't find the online, mostly text-based, very fragmentary-feeling and superficial interaction to have enough, uh, connection.  I tried the Elluminate, and also the Friday discussion, and was interested in the tools, but maybe just as not everyone likes the large lecture (or the small discussion), the massively open experience is not for everyone, either.  There is no doubt I am in over my head in terms of the material (more in the first 2 weeks than since), but that has been my m.o. throughout my interdisciplinary intellectual life--to jump into the unfamiliar discipline, albeit as a reader of traditional published scholarship, not the variety of discourses that comprise CCK08.  Maybe having both the content and the methods be new is too much at one time.  

It may also be a function of sabbatical life, me and my computer, that I focus on the solitary and alienating aspects of everything these days.  I think I miss teaching, and being one out of 2000+ in a massively open class is not the same as being the professor in a class of my beloved Berklee students.  I know, cry me a river.   Still, the insight makes me want to finally buy some land in SL and set up a nice space where I can interview some people about what's new in new media, as well as conduct some interviews in real life.  Connect with people. 

What IS L1Aura up to these days, you wonder?  Meditating daily in SL, doing some yoga there, too (where she is unsurprisingly more flexible than I am, could do the tree pose for all eternity, or at least until the laptop battery runs out), and spending some quality time under water.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Immersion, Topophilia, and Second Life

I've been trying different things at Connected Health Island as I duly do the daily relaxation exercises.  I am keen to trigger the carry over effect I read about, when the calm and centeredness of the meditation carries over to everyday life when you're not meditating.

But I find it hard to focus and concentrate on the meditations in SL.  I guess I am a closed-eye meditator.  I like imagining vivid images in my mind's eye, perhaps informed by the SL scene, but not replaced by it.  I don't think I would have come up with the underwater imagery that is possible in SL, though, discovered by accident when I was bumbling around and fell into a shallow part of the brook, and found it a pleasant place to stand.  I ventured into a deeper part, discovered some nice fish, hung around for while while I listened to the relaxation mp3.   

Standing in the brook reminded me of one of my strongest memories of a learning experience, and how I started a conference paper on "Topophilia and the Garden Ethic: Experience and the Pedagogy of Place" at one of the nicest conferences in which I've participated, Representing Place, held at Northern Arizona University in 1998.  When I was in 6th grade, we went for a week to a camp in the woods for some kind of ecology program.  I think it was the first time I was away from home without my family.  There was a list of things we had to bring, and when I got to rubber boots, I remember thinking, what could we need those for?  But then I found myself standing on rocks in a river, with cold water rushing all around my feet, kept dry but not warm by the boots, a distinct physical sensation I can recall to this day.  The experience of that moment, of understanding  that a river is movement, of being in the river yet separate from it, of feeling something that I could not have imagined, is something beyond words, images, or sounds, beyond someone else's expression, no matter how eloquent, of that place.  To love place, to want to take care of any place like we nurture a garden, means having direct experience of some place, any one place, and then that experience can offer a metaphor for other places and understanding other people's experiences of other places.  The paper discussed a honors course I taught on "The Place of the Wilderness," in which I took students to a field campus, where they walked in the woods as they talked through Thoreau's essay "Walking" with a partner, and a deer came impossibly close to us as we sat discussing Michael Pollan, and on another clear Illinois fall afternoon, a woodpecker seemed eager to join in the commotion.  We stayed over one night at the field campus and took a night hike, so now we know what dark is.  

Can you have those kinds of experiences in a virtual world?   Maybe not unless you've had some real life experiences, or analogous ones, to trigger the mirror neurons.  How much of an experience is necessary?  Or how much of an imagination?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Let the Relaxation Begin

Last night was the first class of the MGH Study on the teaching the relaxation response in Second Life.  The island is a beautiful space, with lovely sound and particularly shimmery water.  I still am blown away by how much I am affected by the virtual nature in SL, especially the water, and this space was no exception.

The class itself had some interesting aspects.  Like the "Creativity in Second Life" course I took in the summer through MassArt, we sat on cushions for a lecture/presentation part and then moved around for other parts of the class.  It was less active because unlike the other class, we are not building or scripting.  There were nine of us; two avatars I know and the others I don't.   I resisted the temptation to make an in-joke on the text chat, which definitely operated as a "back channel."  YES, I just criticized that precise behavior in the CCK08 Elluminate session a couple of posts ago, but last night I participated in that discourse.  Maybe in a smaller group it is different, or if there are only short comments that in a real life discussion might be uttered.  Still, it is a bit like passing notes in class.  Which is fun!  Everyone can see them, though.  IMs are the virtual passed-notes.

Instead of using the voice chat, the tech wizards have it set up through Skype, which is pretty interesting.  Some people were new to it and didn't have their mics muted and that drove me crazy.  A good case for using the text chat for group feedback is so we can all keep our mics off until we really have something more to say than a couple of words.  The Skype conference call also disconnected a few times, and then the text chat was the only way we had to communicate.  There was a blissful, peaceful silence when the Skype quit, sudden and surprisingly isolating.

Part of the commitment to the study is agreeing to do a meditation at least once a day and do 20 mini-relaxations.  I don't know if I got 20 in today, but I did do some, and listened to the CD from the Mind/Body Center they gave us for the 20-minute mind-focusing meditation.  I am supposed to set up a place where I can do these meditations, but the only place I know I can be uninterrupted is in my office at home, which is cluttered with the detritus from the I Love Lucy book manuscript I finished yesterday (!) and all manner of other positively stress-inducing sights.  Me sitting in my chair at my desk looks nothing like L1Aura Loire on her cushion on the Connected Health Island.

I have some other comments about the teacher's avatar (mist!), but I am going to hold them until I have a picture of it, which I hope to take on Thursday.

Connectivism, meanwhile, suffered a little this week.  I tried to attend the Elluminate session, but I got frustrated after I lost the connection for the third time.  I've been doing the reading and will try to catch up with the Friday discussion session, which is on a tool I'm unfamiliar with, UStream.  

Monday, September 15, 2008


I check my own blog in the hope that I've posted something new.  What does that say?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Elluminating CCK08

Just had the first Elluminate session.  I had anticipated/feared hundreds or even more than 1000 people, but there were around 70 in the "room."  A good interface, with some nice features, like a raised hand, yes or no vote (green check or, as people commented, a pretty hostile looking thick red x), a microphone you could "grab" (click on, which I eventually did right at the end, because for whatever reason, I am shy about the voice chat), and a white board.

The conversation was free-wheeling, nicely moderated, and interesting, if a little on the slack side.  A good first day.  One of the things I notice is that there are many distractions.  First of all, there is my computer, with incoming e-mail, browser windows peeking out and tempting me, and everything else there.  Next, there is the whiteboard that people were doodling on.  But the best/worst is what someone rightly called a "back channel," the text chat.  In part because there were so many people, the text went by fast, too fast to keep up.  In the "Creativity in SL" course, which did have fewer people, the text chat and voice chat were complementary, and at times they functioned that way today, but mostly it was a separate and sometimes undercutting, snarky thread.  Even reminded me a couple of times of the students you  have to hush at the back of the class.   I'm not sure I like the fragmented experience of the Elluminate space, although I definitely see the possibilities.

CCK08: Week 1

CCK08, the massively multi-participant learning experience being mounted by George Siemens and Stephen Downes at the University of Manitoba, is a 12-week on-line course called "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge" that has over 1900 people who signed up for it.  That is indeed massive.  There are also about 70 of us in a Second Life group.  
The first synchronous meeting in Elluminate is being held in a couple of hours, although the time was switched and so now there are two meetings, so maybe not as fully synchronous as one would like, but coordinating people from around the world is not easy.
So far, the facilitators have been sending out the "Daily," a, well, daily e-mail with a summary of discussion, links, announcements, and readings.  I wonder how many of the 1900+ are specifically interested in the topic of "connectivism" (which is facilitator's Siemen's revision of the constructivist theory of knowledge in some way that, quite frankly, is not particularly clear to me yet) and how many are interested in the experience of the massively multi-participant class.  
Personally, I am looking forward to using the tools, like Elluminate and moodle, as much as I am interested in the content, and I cannot think of another educational experience I have entered into about which I could say that.  Maybe students choose colleges or grad schools not based primarily on the course content (at least here in America, unlike in the UK, where university students choose the "course" of study rather than a lifestyle or brand, or at least say they do), and then you end up taking specific courses in, say, Humor of the Old Southwest because it is a fabulous professor's interesting specialization that you never even knew existed until you started studying with him (Jim Justus at Indiana University, to be exact).   But in the online world of content delivery and "training" (I am also embarking on some serious work on my Flash scripting chops with during this sabbatical, a different approach), this seems unusual.
Nevertheless, it is always interesting getting a glimpse into someone else's field, someone else's academic argument (is it a theory? is it constructivism by another name?), and exciting to start thinking through how networking is not only a metaphor for learning and thinking, but may be cognition itself.

Monday, September 1, 2008

It's Fine . . . Oh, We Can Do Better

Today I helped my mother set up a Second Life account, and it was interesting watching her realize the possibilities of SL.  At first, it didn't matter to her what her avatar looked like; she chose one of the default ones, a surprisingly (to me) punk musician chick with spiky hair and a mesh shirt.  But as we went through the modify appearance menus, she started to get it: she could make this image be anything she wanted it to be.  "Happier" mouth, sure, Mom, we can do that.  Yes, we can fix her clothes, give her a more professional jacket.  Okay, we can change her body.  

Once my mom understood how easy it was, "it's fine" changed to a "why not?" to a "let's make her better."  I suppose it's part of the process of the avatar becoming part of someone, more than customized, part of the identification that makes that graphic representation "me."  

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Virtual Facilitation

Last week, I attended (in real life) a two-day workshop on building essential facilitation skills for Berklee faculty, staff, and administrators.  It was an interesting experience to focus primarily on the process rather than on the content, and there were many valuable aspects to the workshop.  It was also a different experience to be holed up in the Sheraton Hotel right here in Boston for eight hours a day, almost as if it were a Second Life environment.  By the end I felt a little as if I were inhabiting a new avatar, Facilitation Grrl perhaps, but I also think that 2 days of indoor air, no gym, too little time with the twins, and too much coffee might have taken its toll as well.   An immersive experience indeed.  
It made me think about the issues raised by SL for facilitation, and as usual, I find that plenty of others have thought about this before me.  Beth 's Blog has a good post about online synchronous practices, and Rafi Santo over at RezEd, a good first stop for anything to do with education in SL, outlines as many kinds of situations that would require different kinds of facilitation as he can think of.  There is a New Zealand (I think) company offering specialized training in online facilitation: Zenergy and, not surprisingly, people offering the service of facilitation in SL for a fee.  
In teaching a class in SL, juggling both the text chat and video chat presents unique facilitation issues that have no parallel in brick-and-mortar education settings.  My teacher in the MassArt course Creativity in Second Life was very good at that; she would ask a question and while people were thinking or fiddling with screens or headphones or simply thinking of an answer, she would also type a short version of the question, sometimes only a word, that invited participation in both kinds of chat.  But so many of the excellent techniques we learned in the workshop were based on the kinds of body language, eye contact, facial expressions, and proximity that are absent in SL.  Until there is true video mapping of a person's face while they are talking, there won't be those non-verbal forms of information available in virtual communication.  
There are also so many distractions in SL even under the best of circumstances, forget about if there were people trying to avoid full participation who need to be brought into the group dynamic, that that would be very challenging.  It is one thing when everything is voluntary, but if education in SL were to become more widespread and part of requirements for an on-campus or online course, then other problems might arise.  
On another topic, I will be turning my attention full-time to my sabbatical project in just a few weeks.  I have been easing into the project over the summer, taking the Mass Art course, reading up on a few things, joining some listservs, working on a conference presentation for the Second Life Education Community Conference 2008 in early September, and also finishing up a book manuscript on media history and I Love Lucy, a topic I have been writing about off and on since I was a grad student.  It is interesting to think about what has changed in terms of the technological and representational challenges that the collaborators in the new medium of early television faced, in comparison to what we face as we create the new media of virtual worlds.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Relaxation Response

By "relaxation response," I do not (only) mean a summertime post, but the counterbalancing response to stress theorized by Herbert Benson, M.D.; click here for the Benson-Henry Mind-Body Institute's website.  There is a study starting in early September in which I've agreed to be a subject that will investigate whether people can be taught to elicit the relaxation response in Second Life.   There is one session in which the avatars do yoga, but the people do not.  The researchers postulate that the people will get a real-life benefit from their virtual yoga.

This is pretty interesting stuff.  It explores the mind-body connection as it applies to people's relationships to their avatars, to how their avatars' experiences effect them.  I wrote previously about how much more fun it was to have L1Aura do physical things like dance at a rave, jump off a cliff with Nettrice, or hang glide than I ever would have thought they would be.  They are experiences, more so than if I had only watched them in a film, but not fully physical, either.  Is the difference the participation, being able to control the motions?   Is it the identification that we build up with our avatars?  

On another note, there is an article about my Newbury Comics Faculty Fellowship Award in the current issue of the Berklee Alumni Magazine, Berklee Today.  I took the picture they used of me myself, so figure that one out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Maybe It's the Google

I've been away from the blog for a few weeks: first vacation since the twins were born, relatives visiting from the UK, too much rain.  Or, I could jump on the bandwagon and wonder, along with this Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"  It is of course too easy to blame google, or anything else isolated, for the massive shift in the way we interact with information in the digital age, and it is much too easy to say it is a shift to "stupidity."  As my provost pointed out in an e-mail exchange about the article, innovations always change the ways we think and create.  

But what I like about the Atlantic article is the way it connects reading to thinking, and with the HAL reference, wraps them in our growing realization that we humans are not adapting technology to our needs, but that we humans are adapting to technology.  That process of becoming ever more machine-like in our cognitive styles may only be countered by deep thinking, contemplation, poetry, abstraction, and listening to the long forms, not only the loops.  

On the other hand, as my provost also pointed out, there is something to be said for the new pace, for speed, and our students have far less qualms about it than we do.  The resources at our fingertips with google do not make us stupid, and do not provide only shallow information.  Indeed, the NY Times article on reading, which referred to the Atlantic piece, explored the question of information literacy, appropriately separating it from and linking it to traditional reading skills.   For thinking about speed, there is no one better than Paul Virilio, and here is a short and swift piece from CTheory 1995 that shows how fast some things change.

The big question is how to foster a critical awareness of technology, whether it be staggeringly useful google or the compelling yet frustrating Second Life.  How do we hold onto the best of the old--the deep reading, the contemplation--and wrap our eager fingers around the wii of the new--quick, current, reflex, move on to the next youtube phenomenon because the last one wasn't worth thinking about for too long, anyway?  I think that becoming aware of the idea of cognitive style, of how the different technologies, software, and hardware we use shape the questions we ask, the processes on which we embark, and the solutions and creative work we produce, is at least a place to start. 

People always say "technology is neutral," but it isn't.  Perhaps the smartest quotation I've read about technology's influence is by Donald Norman, in a book whose title holds out hope against the Atlantic's google-phobia: 

Technology is not neutral.  Technology has properties--affordances--that make it easier to do some activities, harder to do others: The easier ones get done, the harder ones neglected.  Each has its constraints, preconditions, and side effects that impose requirements and changes on the things with which it interacts, be they other technology, people, or human society at large.  Finalyy, each technology poses a mind-set, a way of thinking about it and the activities to which it is relevant, a mind-set that soon pervades those touched by it, often unwittingly, often unwillingly.  The more successful and widespread the technology, the greater its impact upon all of society.  Technology is not neutral, it dominates.

Donald A. Norman.  Things that Make Us Smart.  Perseus Books, 1993, p. 243.

As we become aware of the non-neutrality, and that is what was truly shocking about HAL, then we can begin to understand and interact with technology in an enlightened way.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Whispers, Soundscapes, and Being Sound

Whispers help avatars navigate space in SL; they appear as suggestions in the Local Chat, not heard at all, but written and read.  The whispers were the main thing I noticed in response to one of the questions Nettrice asked us tonight on our two field trips to art installations that we explored as possible models for our class final project. What about real whispers, talking, and other aspects of sound in SL, though? I found myself (or L1Aura found herself) musing on sound, especially in the first installation we visited, by DynaFleur, which had a tube that you could travel with cool sound in and around it.  
The tube experience came soon after someone at Berklee had asked me if he could be only sound in SL, no visual presence, only a sound when he moved (the answer is sort of yes, an avatar could be a very small object and sound could be scripted), so I was already thinking of movement and sound, being and sound.  
This led me to consider: What kinds of relationships are there between sounds, images, movements, and experiences in SL?  There are sound effects, of course, and the ambient sounds of birds and the wind (most of which I find annoying and that take me out of my suspension of disbelief, especially in the more natural landscapes).  There are soundtracks of music that are what I would call diegetic: the music and sound that comes from the world, like in the SL Beatles museum.  There are non-diegetic soundtracks or soundscapes, much like an underscore of a film.  And then there are some contrapuntal,  dissonant, or jarring relationships between the physical environment and the sound, such as the lovely Victorian house with weird rock playing in it.  I have been in many Victorian houses with all kinds of weird music playing, and even live in one now that emits some pretty strange sounds on any given day, but perhaps a deliberately constructed landscape and soundscape begs for a thought-out relationship between the two.  What is the purpose of the clash?  Would it be good to have a dialectical relationship between sound and image, like the one theorized by the Soviet filmmakers moving from silent cinema into sound in the late 1920s?  Is that a 'sound' relationship between the aural, the visual, and the virtually-kinetic?   What is the purpose of the music in that Victorian house: to support the experience of being in the environment/installation, or is the music the point and the space is where the avatar hangs out while the person listens?   What would it mean for it to be both, equally?
If there were audible whispers instead of written ones, to return to my initial idea in this post, being in SL would be even more like a dream than it already is, maybe too much like a [whispers] almost already lost dream.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Third Life, Media Life

Last night, at the same time as my class met in Second Life, my family was featured on a local TV show, Chronicle. The show was about twins and multiples and they spent about four hours shooting us, so I figured that would add up to about a minute of air time, especially after the producer told me that the following day she was shooting a mother with TWO sets of twins, which surely makes better television than my one set. Anyway, I e-mailed my teacher that I would be late, figuring I would watch with everyone and then catch up. I saw that we would be taking a field trip to a scripting tutorial sim and spent some time in it ahead of time.

But as airtime approached, it suddenly (and belatedly) occurred to me that maybe the kids shouldn't watch the show live. What if there were inappropriate content? So we waited 12 minutes into the half hour to give ourselves some room and then started watching on the DVR in chase play mode, and so I teleported to class, a little late, but just as Nettrice typed, "Lori was on tv." I responded, "I might be on right now," and that's when it hit me: how many lives was I leading right then? First life/real life, already split by being at home and also online; "second life" of L1Aura Loire, present in "body" at Boga Island, although mostly distracted; and then a third existence, on tv, a persona and image as yet unrevealed to me, yet already broadcast.

Nettrice sent the class off on the field trip exercise and must have had a tivo of her own, because she typed that she had seen me on tv. A very interesting confluence of presence and absence, simultaneity and sequence: my attention shifted abruptly from my computer screen back to our television screen and we watched, rewound, watched ourselves again (slightly more than 1 minute, but I still have some time coming to get to my allotted 15 minutes of fame). Certainly television watching is different when you know you are recording it, when you know it is not just a fleeting moment of something live, that it leaves a trace, that what it means for a medium to be time-based is different.

What does it mean to my three year-old twins to be on television? They are used to seeing video of themselves on the computer in a way that I certainly was not growing up. It is a shift not unlike the first generation to have photographs of themselves when previously there were only paintings and drawings, except those first daguerrotypes were purposeful and time-consuming, and today's digital images are ubiquitous and instantaneous. It makes me think of the short story "Snow" by John Crowley, in which there is a device called a wasp that can record thousands of hours of audio and video of a person's life to be seen by their loved one's after they die, but the "memories" are not archived in a way that can be accessed deliberately, only randomly, and it seems that the moments that play for the narrator are increasingly ones of snow. One photograph can prompt a memory, sometimes becomes the memory, replacing it, rewriting it with the image at its center, but what about a dozen, hundreds, thousands? Video? My twins' three years are pretty well-documented, and they love to see themselves. How does that effect their sense of self, literally, their self images? And as avatars become one of the ways we see ourselves represented visually, how will they contribute to our changing sense of self?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Go Jump Off a Cliff!

Tonight, my "Creativity in Second Life" teacher told me to jump off a cliff. Or, rather, Nettrice showed me how to jump off a special platform someone built on the artists' island Artropolis and try to land on a target. Like so many things in Second Life, this simulation of a physical experience was weirdly, hilariously, giddily, fun.

I wonder why that is. If something like dancing (or watching your avatar dance) is fun because we've done it in our real bodies and so the mirror neurons fire, then what about something that we haven't done, like jumping off a cliff?

In addition to our field trip to Artropolis, we worked on building an art installation around the concept of lilypad. My ability to make images in SL lags far behind what I can do with Photoshop or Flash, and so I had to overcome that frustration. Working with the third dimension is really challenging, and makes me recall my very short-lived attempt to learn 3-D animation about 10 years ago. I'm trying to stick with this, and so it was really helpful to be able to voice (or type, in this case) my frustration and get some real-time direction from Nettrice. The lilypad flower I was building was unintentionally abstract, but I was able to get to the point during class of being able to understand how to manipulate my object given enough time and patience.
So here is my lilypad flower next to Nettrice's dragonfly.

On the technical side, I crashed constantly tonight, including twice before class even started. Switching back and forth between the laptop and mac mini is better than not, but it is so very frustrating. I guess everyone was crashing tonight, and it is clear when someone in the class goes offline what is happening, but still, it pulls you right out of the experience. Not nearly as much fun as landing with a nice solid thud when you jump off the cliff.

Friday, June 13, 2008

L1Aura Goes to Class: My Teacher Has Wings!

Last night was the first class meeting of SIM326X-C1: Creativity in Second Life, a course offered through Massachusetts College of Art. The syllabus is here.

It was a really interesting experience. I was pretty excited and so I teleported to the class location a couple of hours before the session started, and there was the instructor, Nettrice, preparing for class. I didn't want to intrude on her prep time, but it was fascinating to see her avatar manipulating objects with the stream of white dots that indicates interaction.

When I came back right as the class was scheduled to begin, I joined one other student and then a few others appeared. we offered each other friendship and then moved to an area with cushions and a screen that can be used for slides and maybe video. We took a field trip to International Drawing Day and looked at the exhibition there, which included flying up to find a drawing done by the teacher. Then we went back to the course space, spent some time on the beach building an object, tried out dancing (which continues to be so much more fun than I would have thought it would be), and had a final discussion back at the cushions.

The change in activities, modes, and venues was really interesting, and much more instantaneous than in real life. We can "go" anywhere in Sl and come right back. There is a little transition time in the class moving from the sitting on the cushions to dancing on the beach, but nothing like in RL.

I didn't anticipate that the Voice Chat feature of SL would be so important to my experience of immediacy, presence, and synchronicity. I contributed to discussion through text chat, but will try to get Voice chat working before next week. It made a big difference to my sense of the teacher as a real person to hear her laugh and to hear her inflection as she spoke. Two of the students were physically present with Nettrice at MassArt (and in SL), and I must confess to being a bit jealous of them. It is hard to shift to being in a virtual class space (and of course to shift to being a student and not the teacher, but maybe that is made easier by being out of the physical classroom).

The biggest difficulty I had (other than being able to hear my twins having a bedtime wild rumpus) was that my computer crashed a few times. I went back and forth between my laptop and mac mini, so I didn't miss as much as I would have if I had to restart each time, but it was still frustrating. I also didn't set up audio on both machines, and need a microphone on the mini so I can participate fully in voice chat. Very interesting to think through the technological requirements.

The issue of how the space is set up and how we used is also one to which I will continue to pay attention. I was surprised by the idea of the field trip. I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about it, but I thought we would sit around a virtual seminar table in some super cool virtual room. Sitting on the floor on cushions was interesting. Nettrice's space for her MassArt classes are on an island on a beach, and is more island-like than other spaces I've spent time in, which seem more like they are located inland. I am always surprised by how much I enjoy the simulation of the natural world in SL. The Princeton U garden is a joy to be in and I like the island/water spaces. Some of the trees and plants in SL are really gorgeous.

Oh, and my teacher has wings.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

First encounters

Last night I went to a rave in Second Life that was part of the Life 2.0 Summit.

Here is the description, but it doesn't begin to suggest the weirdness and the coolness of the experience.

7:00 PM PDT - ? PM PDT
Tuna Oddfellow, Magician
Tuna Oddfellow is one of the hottest multimedia artists and experiential entertainers now working in the metaverse. He's built a huge platform in the sky over CMP's islands, and is waiting to entertain us with a deeply-immersive and mind-bending display of light, music, and ... magic. Landmarks to the venue will be distributed at the amphitheatre.

The way we got to the venue was by flying on giant monarch butterflies, and for some reason, during some of the time I (or, rather, my avatar L1Aura Loire) was dancing, my skirt was missing. The shifting, trippy patterns and colors were all around us as we grooved to a French internet radio station. It may be because I don't get out much these days, but it was a fabulous experience, exciting and innovative, beyond real life, beyond dreams. If you don't know much about Second Life, then this must be quite puzzling. Hopefully this blog will help to explain.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Virtual Worlds" Chosen for Newbury Comics Faculty Fellowship

My project, "Virtual Worlds," was chosen as one of the two Inaugural Newbury Comics Faculty Fellowships at Berklee College of Music. The Fellowships are specifically for innovative and creative approaches, and so I thought that virtual worlds fit the profile. Specifically, I'll be exploring how education and the music industry are approaching virtual worlds like Second Life.

Congratulations to my co-awardee, Neil Leonard, for his project, "Composition and Performance for Robotics, Video and Architecture" which explores sound in connection to three visual disciplines.

For more information on my project, click here.