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."