BJET article – MUVE Eventedness – An experience like any other.

This article was one of the many interesting (and diverse) things I did for the openhabitat project. Many thanks to the editors of the British Journal of Educational Technology. This is being reprinted here based on the “you may use all or part of the Article and abstract, without revision or modification, in personal compilations or other publications of your own work;” section of the Wiley Publishing contract.

Colloquium
MUVE eventedness: An experience like any other

Introduction

The OpenHabitat project is a Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) Users and Innovation Programme funded project exploring the practical application of multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) to the higher education classroom. This paper discusses ongoing research, drawing tentative conclusions from reporting streams coming out of the project. The researchers have identified that once lecturers have acquired literacy in the MUVEs, there is a threshold afterwhich they become able to see MUVEs in education as offering an experience that allows for the exploration of existing content in a new context and which acts as a focal point for reflection. The ‘otherness’ of the environment provides a ‘mirror’ for practice (for both student and teacher). The otherness, however, does not necessarily call for new pedagogies but rather relies on a long tradition of experiential learning.

The use of MUVEs (Multi User Virtual Environments) in education is no longer the realm of the avant-garde or the charmingly quaint, and is encroaching on the edges of the mainstream. A recent scoping study conducted for JISC tells us that the (educational) ‘use of virtual worlds has accelerated exponentially over the last two or three years’ (de Freitas, 2008).With the increasing prominence of these new tools, we need to start asking what the technology offers for the average classroom, and moving beyond the ‘if ’ of virtual worlds to the ‘when’ and ‘for what reason’. The OpenHabitat project is primarily an attempt to see past the complications of the technology to explore what happens when a virtual world comes to a regular classroom, or in the case of OpenHabitat, two classrooms: Ian Truelove’s art and design class at Leeds Metropolitan and Marianne Talbot’s class at Oxford University overseen by the project’s Principal Investigator David White.

The OpenHabitat project
The project was conceived as a series of two iterative pilots where best practices and lessons learned could be gleaned from the results of the first pilot and used to inform the development of the second pilot. Each of the groups has kept an open, running discussion freely available online and aggregated to www.openhabitat.org using video, photo and text blogs. This reflexive method was chosen for the first pilot in order to track, develop and refine best practices. These practices would then lead to a solid foundation for the second pilot, in addition to offering a preliminary opportunity to test out those best practices and further refine them. This method worked for us, but rather than the second pilot simply being a reinforcement for the first, it also allowed us to ‘see through’ the technology to such a degree that we were able to focus from a clearer standpoint on some of the real advantages of using MUVEs.

That clearer picture is something that we suggest may be the subtler and perhaps more important part of our research with MUVEs. ‘Teaching and learning in virtual worlds is’, according to David White, ‘an experience’ (White, 2008a). In his first blog post on the subject, he explains that it is the intensity and ‘eventedness’ that creates the real value of the MUVE experience. Bringing a virtual world into a classroom serves as a catalyst, a ‘shared event’ that takes learning beyond a simple knowledge transaction between student and instructor. It has the potential to bring students together as a class, and push the material far enough into a new context to allow students a new and, perhaps, more compelling way of approaching the content of a given learning event.

Literacies: identification and acquisition
The planning for the first pilot primarily involved consideration of what we could do with the technology. From the perspective of the project members, researchers designed the platforms, focusing on specific kinds of feedback loops and avatar actions that would allow for an ‘authentic experience’. Best practices were sought that would allow for replication of the immersive experience in other instructors’ teaching spaces.

In the process, we accumulated a great deal of data and found some patterns that we thought (and think) might be important. In reflecting on some of the lessons learned from the first pilot as described, however, we saw a slightly different picture forming. Rather than the skills-based, step-by-step planning typical of a ‘traditional’ approach to Higher Education, we began to see the primacy of social literacies emerging as our lessons learned from the process. We find that the intense curricular and pedagogical/technological planning is less responsible for successful learning ‘experiences’, and that the support of teacher/student dialogue and pre-MUVE socio/pedagogical concepts start to portray themselves as the primary and essential literacies needed for the learning habitat.

The reflections from the project leaders during the first pilot revealed key principles that formed the foundation of the new ‘what we already knew about teaching’ perspective, a move away from focusing on MUVE-specific best practices. Ian Truelove blends in lessons from his arts-based background when discussing identity.

Design education consciously and deliberately strives to achieve a balance between the unrestricted and impulsive (Nobody), the collaborative teamworking, subject specific or audience satisfying (Anybody) and the personal achievement of the author/producer (Somebody). We
glued all this together with many,many ‘Aha!’ moments (Eureka) … . but it is clear that individual and collective identity is bound together with the creative process (Truelove, 2008)

This description could be applied to the MUVE environment aswell as design education. There is some question of whether the issue of identity will really be very different than the identity stretching that happens to students when they come to university. In a designed classroom, where you already know who the people in the class are, flights of identity are going to be less disruptive—and no different than those of art students using other mediums or having other experiences.

There is also a sense in which the foregrounding of ‘natural’ collaboration competes most directly with traditional views of Second Life as a call for a new pedagogy. Truelove wonders if ‘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’ (White, 2008a). There is a sense in which thinking through ‘construction plans’ and trying to force the MUVE medium can bring to the fore project member Steven Warburton’s concerns that ‘Second Life can be deceptive … It can seduce one into believing that “teaching” practices that work on the outside can be readily transposed inside. It is a sobering experience when the particular constraints of SL kick back and even the best-laid plans begin to unravel’ (Warburton, 2008).

Conclusion
We took advantage of the two-phased approach and allowed the continuum to flow from the technology and towards the educational experience that the students were going to be having. Discussion among the project planning team moved from considering what we could do with the technology to elicit certain learning behaviours from students (the best laid plans) towards more immersive, experience-based plans that contextually allowed for the realities and limitations of the platform. The experience of working within a MUVE environment brings out some of the key concepts already existing inside the field or topics being covered; it exposes things that might have remained hidden in a more traditional context. This is best represented by Ian Truelove’s screenshot of the virtual houses built by students, with the caption ‘They’re first years. They only left home 3 weeks ago. Of course they want to build themselves homes.’ (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/cubistscarborough/2978733707/)

If David White’s intuitions are correct that the MUVE should be seen as an experience, a form of journey or field trip, where students are travelling in both virtual space and in their personal development, it is possible that the project is only now realising the real fruits of the reflections gained from the first pilot. In this model, each of the students will be able to engage with both the pedagogy push from the lecturer and their reflective journey articulated in student–lecturer and student–student relationships, supporting not only peer learning but peer development. The learning designer might be better served by accepting the chaotic nature of the virtual environment and the value of the field trip for what they are. A positive result from a virtual learning experience actually relies on the chaotic, organic nature of the MUVE and the interactions therein, on the literacy level of the instructor, and more importantly appears to be pedagogically agnostic.

While Steven Warburton’s caution against directly translating real-world book teaching styles into a MUVE is well warranted, this should not preclude the inclusion of teaching styles that are based on other, perhaps less traditional, but still valued experience-based learning pedagogies. Many of the same criticisms levelled against teaching in a MUVE might be made of a classroom in the open air of a park, a lesson taught by mobile phone or a practicum in a hog farm. These are all experiences that do lend some confusion and some chaos, but it is this very unsettling of the learner (and the instructor) that makes a change in habitat such a valuable learning experience.

References

de Freitas, S. (2008). Serious virtual worlds: a scoping study. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/publications/seriousvirtuallworldsv1.pdf. Archived
by WebCite(R) at http://www.webcitation.org/5f9ulxex1

Truelove, I. (2008). Eureka. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http://tallblog.conted.ox.ac.uk/
index.php/2008/05/22/initial-impressions-first-open-habitat-pilot. Archived by WebCite(R)
at http://www.webcitation.org/5f9uCxyfE.

Warburton, S. (2008). How tall is tall in Second Life? Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http://
warburton.typepad.com/liquidlearning/2008/06/how-tall-is-tal.html. Archived by Web-
Cite(R) at http://www.webcitation.org/5f9uLAg1d.

White, D. (2008a). That was an interesting experience. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http://
tallblog.conted.ox.ac.uk/index.php/2008/11/27/that-was-an-interesting-experience/
Archived by WebCite(R) at http://www.webcitation.org/5f9uNPPqn.

White, D. (2008b). Initial Impressions from the First Open Habitat Pilot. Retrieved March 9th 2009,
from http://iantruelove.blogspot.com/2008/05/eureka.html. Archived by WebCite(R) at
http://www.webcitation.org/5f9tynZ6X.

546 British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 40 No 3 2009
© 2009 The Author. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta.

Pointing to the ‘Social’ and the ‘Network’ in making the case for social networking (twitter edition)

I recently did a presentation for a senior administration group on campus at UPEI and, in combination with some very good questions from PatParslow about how I talk about organizing my twitter account, I figured it would better mark my learning and potentially prepare these thoughts for a more deeply thought article to post it here and get some feedback from you fine folks if the topic interests you.

The difference between social software and social networking
Let’s get this out of the way. Social Software is a vague term that describes a type of software, often web based, that, as part of it’s core functionality allows for a social interaction of some sort (sometimes called web2.0). Its content is often contributed by the visitors to the website. Social networking is the act of using those particular functionalities in a social, networked type way. Consider the example of using delicious.com as a place to find (by using the search) and store your bookmarks (maybe by using browser plugins) because it’s more convenient than storing it on your desktop. This is an example of using social software. Now, consider actively becoming a part of other people’s delicious network, using the for:username functionality to share to people within that network, and tagging strategically to help the larger community potentially use those links. I have two delicious accounts, one – davecormier – is just me using social software… the other, which i share with other folks, – edtechtalk – is a fully socially networked account. People share to it, and from it. There is social and network.

A story for talking about social network based on the Hemmings pink slip party
Imagine walking in a room full of two hundred faceless people in suits. You walk in, look around, and slowly start to ask each person, one by one, what they do and who they are, and who ‘their people are’. It was this situation that the Hemmings pink slip parties were designed to combat. They were designed as a way of facilitating the hiring of otherwise excellent geeks who lost their jobs when the tech bubble crashed in 2001. They were parties where employers wore green armbands, job seekers wore pink ones and ‘friends’ wore blue armbands. A simple solution with some really far reaching consequences.

Three things happen immediately. The context becomes defined – the first practical purpose of the ‘gathering’ is for people to find and offer jobs. Yes, some people may be looking for a partner or a good time, but these are now formally secondary. Two, when you look around you no longer see a sea of suits, you see people as they have defined themselves for this particular context. Third, and potentially most importantly, you know who YOU are. You can, at any time, look down at your arm and figure out why you are in this particular context.

A word about twitter
Twitter is a pretty clean example for talking about the division between social software and social networking. It is, by its core structures, inherently social. You can, if you want, be a pure consumer on twitter. You can also be a pure broadcaster. These are both uses of social software, but, I would say, aren’t strictly ‘social networking’. Imagine the non-web equivalent at our party of a person in the party giving a speech for the entire night, or conversely, sitting i a corner and listening in on everyone’s conversation, but never opening their mouth. Not social. Not networking.

Approaching social software and becoming a social networker. twitter
First, and I think most importantly, you need to decide on an armband. There are, of course, any number of ways of going about this, but it’s critical to ‘getting’ twitter. If you simply see those 200 faceless people from our above example and you yourself aren’t identified, then you are just going to run into and find random people. This is probably going to be frustrating and leads to the “Twitter is stupid, it’s just people talking about themselves all the time, why would i want to do that?” or my favourite “yes, i can see how it works for you, but i don’t have time for that.”(meaning, of course, that they probably don’t see)

1ST DECIDE ON WHO YOU ARE

So you can create a simple description of who you are, you can use things like wefollow to join tags and you can write about the things that you are interested in. These things add up. That’s not to say that you can’t talk about other things on your twitter account or that it isn’t social, but you will get back from it what you put in.

The second issue, is that you need to start identifying who those other people are. You can see your armband(s) but you need to learn how to see other people’s armbands so you can join the discussions that are going to be of interest to you. There are any number of ways to go about this, Mr. Tweet is a good example… it will give you the folks most like you (again, you need a good profile) who are the most popular (notice i didn’t say interesting, they aren’t necessarily connected). A nice strategy is to follow a particular search and reply to folks inside of that stream. Downloading something like tweetdeck, and using the search functionality to follow a word (or phrase) (I follow drupal and upei on my work tweetdeck and different ones depending on my current whims at home). This will give you a quick snapshot of every user using that word on twitter. Hugely powerful and a great way to get your networking… uh… networked. (note: actually helping people is always the best way to start a network)

2ND. FIND YOUR NETWORK

So, in the process of doing this, you click on the people who are saying things that are of particular interest to you, you combine those with some of your existing colleagues, a couple of superstars in your field (or not in your field) and you start to interact.

The final issue i wanted to discuss was the management of your network. There are many theories about this, and I wont claim any supremacy for mine other than to say that it is how i stay effective with the degree of networkedness that I have created for myself. I am a constant gardener of my network, following people, unfollowing people, paying more attention to some people for a while and then moving on to others. This is the critical difference between a network and a community… My community members i stay with, my network is something more practical.

3RD Weed/feed your network

I do not follow everyone who follows me. I do occasionally monitor that list, and choose people to follow and see if they ‘work’ for how I use twitter. I know that a few people have been irritated by the fact that I have unfollowed them, even when i participate with them in a community elsewhere. I’m sorry they are irritated, but I personally can’t follow 1200 people, some people can.

Why I unfollow
I try to keep my twitter network as light as possible. I realize that to some people 145 people seems like alot, but they are all folks who either don’t post (which i eventually weed out) or people who’s posts are helping me with my work (sometimes just by being entertaining 🙂 ). Contrary to the popular criticism of social networking, I tend to choose people (like PatParslow) who challenge my thinking rather than people who already agree with me. (that might be because there aren’t many of those latter folks 😛 ) The tweet that got Pat responding today was “If a person’s tweets impedes my ability to scan twitter in a negative way.” And that’s what ‘different’ tweets do. They stop me from scanning. There are two sorts.. the kind that stop me from scanning and produce new thoughts, new ideas, give me an insight into a person I work with or a laugh 🙂 and then there are those that stop me and leave me with none of the above results. This is not meant to be claim of general interest (certainly i’ve unfollowed some very popular people who are much smarter than me) but rather that it doesn’t suit the particular way that I use twitter. When one person does this more than once, I stop following them for a while. This is how i managed to keep myself moving forward.

Other network notes
I tend to have my tweetdeck up, in some form, on my computer about 85% of the time I’m in front of the screen. I don’t need to turn it off for deadlines, because i use it too much when i’m in a hurry. I do turn it off if I’m trying to do paper work or other non-time related tasks… then it get distracted.

I do not think that an @davecormier requires a reply. I try to reply to folks asking me questions, but will not always ‘stop working on the things I’m working on’ in order to do so. A direct message does require a reply.

The twits I follow are the 145 people I think I’d like to run into at the coffee pot when i’m working… where i’ll learn little bits of stuff, have a laugh, bend my thinking. I’m often wrong about that… but not very often. It helps me work.

(note: see Ulrich’s comments in post regarding plurality. I do mean networks, not network)