Sunday, March 7, 2010

Still pondering this one -- learning and "education" in SL, cont.

Well the title pretty much says it all: I'm still struggling with this, I'm still talking to very bright and thoughtful people who are trying teach in SL and who are trying to understand how educators can successfully use the platform to teach and to facilitate and encourage learning....and I still don't have some Big Answer that will smack you over the head the rubber chicken of profundity and squeeze you in the appallingly enthusiastic bear-hug of irrefutable truth. The best I can give you right now is that people are still experimenting and still trying to understand what will consistently work as an approach to education in SL. And I think what they are trying to figure out is really important.

Now, there does seem to be some consensus among the people I talk to about this subject as to what doesn't work very well. As we have discussed previously, there is pretty consistent agreement that if a teacher or an institution tries to just transplant what they do in the bricks and mortar world to a virtual world, the results are going to be mediocre at best.

For example I had the following conversation with John Carter McKnight, an adjunct professor of Law at Arizona State University, who brings students from into WoW and SL for learning experiences:

Diogenes Kuhr: what we are talking about..what you do with a guild in Wow, and what you could do with a roleplay town in SL...
Diogenes Kuhr: it's real different from what you can and will do with a class in organic space
JCM: yes
Diogenes Kuhr: so is this another indication that it is in fact true that one of the things that tends to not work well here is to try to just transfer your meatspace methodology and approach to the virtual?
JCM: yes yes yes
JCM: this is not a good medium for talking heads lectures, and worse for seminar discussion - though viewer 2.0 is a huge leap forward

I frankly have big issues with colleges and universities that come into a world like SL and simply build a virtual recreation of their campus and square box classrooms. And it's the same issues I have with museums that come in and try to recreate exhibits and environments that are structurally and didactically analogous to what they do in the real world. But why don't these traditional approaches to instructional design work terribly well in virtual spaces? I recently went to one of the big university virtual campuses in SL, just to have a look around, and what I found was what I find on museum spaces that don't work either: an empty, uninteresting, sterile environment, devoid of excitement, devoid of life...and largely devoid of other people.

In fact, on this campus I visited, I ran into a lone student, who asked me if I was associated with the school. Her confusion was understandable, because silly old me--I had inadvertently neglected to remove my "professor" tag from the Hogwarts United rp sim. But it turned out to be a happy accident, as the combination of my having the tag and being on the campus of the school gave her the confidence to approach me and to say hello. It seems that the school had pretty much brought students in, given them a minimal bit of mentoring, and then turned them loose to "explore" SL on their own. It was essentially sink or swim, and this student had not reached a comfort level that enabled her to venture forth into the wilds of SL--which also wasn't surprising being as she had heard horror stories from other students about entering SL though the regualr noobie portals and suffering various abuse and indignities (she had been brought in and started at the school's virtual campus, and so had been spared that unhappy experience).

So I spent some time, explaining a few things, and took her out to visit different places of interest--I told her about places like Caledon and Deadwood, and all the various steampunk communities, and helped her sort out a few of the tricks you need to know to make SL look better and run better....and by golly within a week, this gal had just blossomed! She was traveling around on her own, had got a cottage and furnished it, had some great Victorian clothing, and even came and did some rp me with in Deadwood!

It doesn't take much, when you're mentoring someone who isn't an idiot. So why don't the big edusaurians put more effort into organizing some mentoring arrangements with people who really know how to enjoy and utilize the platform? Technology does not replace the human element in education. It does not even make things easier or more convenient for the educators. Sweet Jeezus and his fuzzy lil' donkey, boys, if you bring students in here, you have a responsibility to foster and facilitate--don't just turn 'em loose and let natural selection take its course.

There is another good reason for doing this--as Dr. Suzanne Aurilio has pointed out, there is an exciting dynamic in learning in SL--a dynamic that she witnessed when she did the study for her dissertation. The successful learning that we see happening--and it's not just Suzanne seeing it , but it's what I see in places like Deadwood--involves a fascinating sort of socially interactive self-directed learning that occurs in a collective, mutually supportive context.

In short, what we have seen work well on the grid so far are examples of people learning as they motivate and encourage one another, help others deal with the unique social and technological aspects of life in-world, and have others to help them when they get stuck.

That does however, bring up a problem that John and I also discussed. If the most successful learning on the grid seems to happen primarily in the context of socially interactive, informal circumstances, then what about traditional students--the ones who come to SL within an institutional context, and who for the most part range in age from their late teens to early 20s?

The issue of age may be signficant: after all, the learners in Dr. Aurilio's study were older women; the youngest people I have successfully engaged with in learning situations in Caledon and Deadwood are in their 30s; and the nice gal I helped to be able to leave the big empty virtual campus? Also an older student. So is SL simply something that isn't going to work well for the usual student demographic? Some educators would argue that it hasn't so far.

John proposed an interesting explanation for this:

JCM: it seems a lot of 20-somethings, especially those in school, don't see SL filling any need for them
JCM: they socialize constantly already
JCM: they're on campus, so getting more than their fill of talks and events
JCM: so, no real point for them
Diogenes Kuhr: that makes sense..
JCM: yeah, basically SL re-creates for the rest of us what they have already - youth, health, fun, adventure, intellectual enrichment :p

So does that mean educators should give up and just keep focusing on older learners in mutually supportive, socially interactive (yet still largely informal) arrangements? Should the colleges and universties jsut de-rez their virtual campuses and go back to meatspace?

No. Hell No. Things are just now starting to get interesting.

There are some really smart people trying to figure out how to take what they are learning from those older nontraditional, mutually supportive, self directed learners, and to apply that in designing systems and structures that will enable educators to foster a more positive, consistent learning experience for their traditional students.

Well I had said I wasn't gonna smack you with the rubber chicken of profundity, so let me just sit you down on the whoopee cushion of opinion:

I think the schools in SL probably should go ahead and de-rez those big prim ivory towers with their ivy-walled textures...but then not abandon the space. Keep the space and start experimenting. They need to try new experiments like Dr. Aurilio is pursuing with her students from San Diego State, and they need to be prepared to think really damned carefully about what they are trying to accomplish, and then examine the results to see what actually happened and why. Dr. Aurilio put it this way to me:

SA: I will tell you this....
SA: On our initiative website, you'll see "educational outcomes" and when I finish it, an assessment/evaluation plan
SA: and from them I should be able to make some legitimate claims about the initiative's impact.

And as John says, these virtual education spaces need "small group orientation, and a lot of it."

And what about Linden lab? What can they do to facilitate this process of experimentation, of honest assessment, and ultimately, educational innovation?

I think the Lab needs to stop trying to just make money off educators by simply trying to sell them classrooms in a box. The Lab should encourage schools to think about how they can actually utilize the platform for new approaches to learning. And LL should encourage academics to look upon the grid's diverse communties and resdients as potential partners--not just as curiosities to be "studied."

And for Chirssakes, they need to do something about the grieftards who make the initial experience for newcomers such an unpleasant mess. They should put staff at the noobie portals to stand guard....send in ringers posing as noobs, and when they get harassed, kill and ban the smarmy little pencildicks who are the perps. Nobody is going to learn well in an environment that comes across as hostile from the get-go. So LL must clean that up. It's bad for learning, and by gawd, it's bad for business.

But hell, that's just my opinion.


  1. Dio: Great summary of a very enjoyable conversation! Your experience with that student goes to the most powerful lesson I've learned from using virtual worlds as a teaching tool.

    It's not just that the traditional "sink or swim" is disastrous. We responded to that insight with orientation sessions to train our students with the basics of physical and verbal interaction.

    What we learned was, teaching them the *how* was not nearly enough: we had to teach them the *why,* which was what you did in showing that person what the purposes of SL could be.

    Now, "because your grade depends on it" is *not* an adequate why! Participants - be they students, employees or collaborators - need to be *shown* the value case in terms that makes sense to them, and that's best done by connecting experientally with something they find interesting.

    Of course, this is hard work. But teaching *is* hard work, and as you found, that sort of training can be as rewarding for the guide as for the learner.

    Looking forward to many more conversations!

  2. Hey Kaseido,
    Likewise--have really enjoyed meeting you and talking.

    I am really intrigued by your approach in using things that are an organic element of a VW--like guilds in WoW--and using incorporating those into your students' learning experience, rather than trying to impose an outside structure or element onto the world, like jamming the proverbial square wooden peg into a multi-dimensional, pan-galactic round hole.

    I will be really interested to see what kinds of things you and Suzanne learn as you carry out your respective initiatives.

  3. One of the things I think educators have problems with is technology. I say this from personal experience of someone who, at 40+ years, has returned to full time University. I realise my IT skills may be higher than many people my age but some of the lecturers aren't that much older than me (and in some cases are younger). My current Egyptology Lecturer still can't upload files onto a USB stick without help and his plugging his laptop into the projector system can be a drama in itself.

    SL is a platform. Throwing someone into SL to learn about virtual worlds is about as useful as giving someone pencil and paper in the belief that that alone will teach them to draw.

    As a "virtual classroom" it could work. It would help people from different geographic areas get together to learn the same topic. Places like the Oxbridge University or the Babbage Academy do this already. But if you're already all in the same class then everyone going into SL to learn is pointless. And frankly video conferencing for lectures is far simpler than SL.

    For me I think Tertiary educators need to be thinking about how virtual worlds can be another tool in the box. It's obviously going to need someone comfortable with IT, but it would be far more suitable to anthropology or sociology groups than it would be for say, Business Management groups (though even they may find a use for it).

    No, no rubber chickens from me either. But it's worth thinking about.

  4. Hey Edward,

    I like your paper and pencil analogy. And I heartily agree that one of the truly great potential uses of the platform is as a means to bring together diverse learners from multiple locations and have them connect in a direct and engaging way with specialists and experts from some other location. There are a couple historians whom I would love to be able to bring together with the Deadwood residents.

    But I wouldn't rule out the business management types as potential beneficiaries either--I could see a business class project or a marketing project based on a group of students being assigned to come in and create some kind of small business in SL and then market it to residents. That's the thing about the platform--it's not jut a space to hold classes in--it is, as you point out a tool to be used, and it is a tool with unique potential.

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