Thoughts plucked from the openhabitat project

I’ve been wandering around the blogposts on the openhabitat website trying to glean from the work of my colleagues a small fraction of the lessons learned to try and give people a sense of the work they’ve done and the things that they’ve come to understand. (If you don’t know what I”m talking about, check out the about page.)

There is a heavy dose of reality in these posts… about what happens when you drop students from different disciplines (art and design and philosophy) into a virtual world. The project is divided into phases and, with the completion of phase one, these sets of lessons cover the tone that you would expect. They are about seeing the spaces for what they are rather than what they appear to be during the planning process. There is nothing like having 20 avatars swirling around to get a sense of out of control, or, as david points to, of people trying to capture each other in massive spheres. There are discussions of identity and collaboration, of the limitations of platforms and some real possible strenghts moving forward.

For this post I’ve really only covered the posts of the two actual educational pilots themselves, and left many of the very interesting side conversation aside. I’ve chosen to cut out bits of realizations and link you back to their source in the hopes of encouraging you to follow the pieces that would most affect your practice. It’s a focus on the results in the classroom…

1. Collaboration

“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.” dave white.

I think the initial desire with these technologies is to assume that the ‘construction’ part will actually be the collaborative aspect that things focus around. It may be more interesting to think about how the space can contribute to knowledge building and the formations of community.

2. 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”. ian truelove

Identity is a key concept in all of this. In some sense i wonder how much of an issue identity will be the more that people get comfortable with the medium. In a designed classroom, where you already know who the people in the class are, flights of identity are going to be less disruptive. This quote is a nice subtle description of how that can work in set-piece courses.

3. Games

“The students flicked between real world and in world chat as the games progressed. One pair discovered that they could throw objects around in world and appeared to be attempting to trap each other inside large spheres in what looked like a surrealist version of a fight between two super heroes. This was transition point one, when the activity shifted from simply learning a piece of software to co-habiting the same virtual space with all the attendant social effects.”
david white

Contextual play in a virtual world seems to be something that happens is many MUVE projects and is something that is very hard to predict. It may be a lesson going forward that we might want to consider ‘encouraging’ play… whatever that would mean.

4. Feedback

“But what really tipped it for me was the lack of tools in SL for getting feedback from the audience. How do I know I am being heard – do I need to adjust volume, where is the back channel for people to participate, ask questions … and so on? Status indicators are key.” david white edit: Steven Warburton

Funny that the lack of interactive technologies would send someone from a very new technology to an older technology to allow for more interaction. The pitch on MUVEs has always been that they are ‘supremely’ interactive and give people a sense of embodiment. It might be just a lack of needed literacies (different feeback mechanisms… maybe something like twitter?) but it might be an indication of MUVEs really being at the PacMan stage of development.

5. Wonderland

“Wonderland is basically a 3D conferencing tool, a bit like a 3D version of Elluminate. Rather than avatars, it would be more useful to see a live video stream of the people you are communicating with. Bandwidth restrictions would probably limit this to low-rez versions of each participant’s webcam, but even this in the 3D space would be useful. As a participant watches you move around, they would get a sense of what you are looking at, as your video image would be orientated to face that thing. In group meetings, the direction that you are looking would make sense in the 3D space. If you look to someone on your left, your video image would seem to be looking at the same person in the 3D space. This would provide valuable cues to enhance social cohesion. If someone decided to wander off, you could follow them, see what they are drawing or browsing, and engage in a meaningful conversation with them about it. “ ian truelove

Very tidy description of the pros and cons of Wonderland, which, of course, is still in development. I like the idea of these different platforms specializing out to specific pro/con specializations… the same way that we’ve noted the difference between opensim (reliable, contained) and SL (open, communal) and how they can both be very well used inside the same project in order to arrive at different points.

6. Sports

“I found my mind wandering towards sport as something that might provide a possible framework for creative collaboration in virtual worlds. I like the idea of teams with different skills working together. I’m interested in two or more teams competing. I’m wondering what the rules of art/design sports might be. I like the fact that teams can compete globally. I can see how the tutor could be like a coach, picking the team, structuring the training exercises, motivating and encouraging, but ultimately standing on the side line whilst the students put in the effort and perform. “ ian truelove

I love that question. I have no idea what it would mean… but certainly with the different games that have been played (check around for d. white’s tower building exercise) it shows more and more that these games allow us to explore these environments passed the pioneer stage.

6.5 Going Forward

50 ideas for going forward with the project. ian truelove

A really great narrative list of feedback and go forward positions for the project.

7. Teaching

a. “The majority of the participants were experienced philosophers. They did not have to grapple with the environment AND the subject. Once they had learnt how to text chat, move and sit down (an activity they all seemed to enjoy) the rest was home territory.”
b. “We were flexible with the teaching format and adjusted activities to fit the flow of the discussion and the speed of response from the students.”
c. “The participants who signed up for the pilot self selected as those willing to investigate a possible new format. This was not a mandatory part of a course. In other words they were open to a new experience.” david white

Tagged these comments from dave because they remind me that teaching in an MUVE doesn’t change all the things that we already know about teaching. People get confused if confronted with too many layers of confusion. Self-selected students are different than those who are being forced. Being flexible when exploring new territory is essential to the success of the project.

8. Limitations

“Second Life can be deceptive. On the surface it presents itself as an environment that can be interpreted by understandings from the real world. 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.” david white edit: Steven Warburton

These worlds are experimental and while many people are forging foward right now into these worlds they have severe limitations… not the least of which sometimes they flat out don’t work. They also force you to think in a specific way… there is a real sense where the logic of the world is going to inevitably affect what’s happening in the classroom.

Opensim/Drupal integration for education – proposal and call for help

Well… i’m finally getting my teeth back into opensim and finding that there are a couple of things i’d like to get built over the next couple of months. We’ve already gotten a good start on the automated installer for opensim, but what i’d really like to do now is attempt an integration with drupal. I’ll be keeping my running requirements list for that integration on the openhabitat project page and will hopefully pop a few updates into here from time to time.

What I need
I need two things.

  1. I need a good drupal/opensim programmer. Someone familiar with both platforms who can spearhead the drupal integration (or, if you like opensim integration).
  2. I need some sense that there are other folks in the British Higher Education community who would find this integration compelling for an application to the emerge community for extra funding.

Why would we need this?
Opensim is an opensource Multi User Virtual Environment. It allows you to have much of the functionality from something like Second Life, and you can host it on any server you like, or, if you like, on a desktop in your classroom. The one issue, is that if you would like to tinker with it a little, you currently pretty much have to do it from the command line on the server. What I would like to see is an integration with a content management system (my preference is drupal, but the code could easily be repurposed) so that a teacher can do stuff like track users and install different ‘presets’ for training purposes.

Why would we need this — slightly more technical explanation.
There are currently two flavours of opensim, the ‘grid server’ and the ‘standalone server’. My work with opensim over the last 9 months has led me to believe that the standalone server is far better scaled to the average educational use… but, sadly, much of the work towards creating a user interface has tended to side with the larger grid server installations. Standalones are more manageable, and provide an easier entry point for the ‘average’ person and really allow for alot more functionality.

so… if you’re interested and interested British Higher Ed person (I’m looking at you emerge community or anyone else for that matter) … just send a comment here and I’ll pick up your email address and get back to you. Same goes for if you are that drupal/opensim person out there. If you don’t want your comment posted, no worries, just indicate in the title, and I’ll delete it after getting your email address.

Living Archives – Reflections on an Educational project

Project launch – Monday May 26th – 10am Studio Theatre, Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown, PE, Canada.

Living archives started as a conversation with Elizabeth Deblois about what we could do that might be interesting for the 2008 anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. She wanted to do something with technology and kids, and I’d been looking for a good project to bring some of the interesting things I’d seen on the intertubes here to the Island.

Outline of the Project
Living archives (video introduction… see all eight pro-videos for full scope of project) is a history project for middle school students headed up by the University of Prince Edward Island. The students searched through local archives and museums for information that would allow them to contextualize 19th century PEI. Following the idea that the creation of materials forces a more profound examination of materials and focuses that research the students were to create a ‘textbook’ in a variety of formats including text, images, video and Opensim. We had three classes of students, eight months and were funded by the Canadian Culture Online Partnership Fund (PCH) and had a fairly large group of project partners all listed at the bottom of each of the living archives web pages. Sometime in the next few months I’ll post a more detailed project management review…
We invited some Seniors, heritage professionals and in french, musicians (Margi Carmichael but the microphone was turned off 🙁 ) and storytellers from the community to come into the classrooms in order to try to bring some context to the research they were doing. They also spent some excellent time in the field at the Archives and the museums as well as coming to the University.

Initial Reflection
We had a number of reality checks on this project, a number of unforseen challenges that forced us to change directions or pull back to our ‘bare minimum requirements.’ The experiences of the community at large talking about their projects and my own edtech project management experience led me to only claim to be able to deliver the bare minimum of what i thought possible… in some cases we blew that away – hundreds of blog posts and images – and in some other cases we didn’t get as far as we would have hoped (peer training videos, opensim). So planning for small, make-able successes and allowing for the increase in scope to happen based on events rather than trying to force it worked out well for us.
The students and the teachers involved have all reported a very high level of satisfaction… even though we forced them a little hard through the development phases of the project. A little more work done on standardizing the language used in the web interface would have saved us many, many hours of pain and misery. There is a sense, I guess, where the scope of this project overshadows the simplicity of its basic structure. Any project like this one (where the development of curriculum and configuration of software and people workflow are done during V.1) should plan for V.2 of the project and actually show how simple it would be to integrate into the mainstream school system. I will write a report that suggests a number of ways that this could happen, but it’s not at all the same as having done it. The NO 1 response we’ve been getting from people is “WOW great project, hardly sustainable though is it.” It could be sustainable, but more on this later.

The Students
This is where the real success was in this project. The students took a very passionate approach to the work that they were doing and got very involved in researching the history. They also became committed to the idea that their work was going to be published and that it mattered how good the writing and the research was. There were several stories in this project where school folks or parents commented on their amazement on how involved the kids were and how excited they were to ‘study’. I really enjoyed the work that I got to do with the kids and was constantly amazed at how quick they were to adapt and how well they dealt with adversity. I was also (though i shouldn’t have been) quite taken aback at how much peripheral knowledge they acquired during the course of their work.

The Technology


Our main platform was based on a build out of Drupaled done by the fine folks at funny monkey. Due to circumstances beyond all of our control, we ended up getting started 4 months late, so things were built very quickly. The key requirement from the platform was workflow. There needed to be a way for the work to start out in a private garden ‘work area’ and be promoted to public. I saw that sense of ‘graduating’ the work as critical to the success of the project. Too often in a straight out blogging project you end up with ‘first draft’ work published to the website and it never gets reviewed as the work feels ‘done’ as soon as it’s published. In our situation publication was something that the students needed to earn. I would definitely do this again. Our ring leader here was a WAC professor and Montgomery scholar from NYU who worked tirelessly with the teachers and students. I’m not sure how she feels about having her name posted, I’ll ask her and update the post if necessary.

The biggest problem we had was in not having a fully refined requirements list at the outset… this was not really anyone’s fault but it really hurt our first couple of months and added a great deal of frustration on the ground. It took us a very long time to figure out that we were missing an efficient and simple teacher interface… we’d done a pretty good job with the students… just not for the teachers. Fortunately, our project manager (saviour) and our teachers persevered. If i had this to do again and I would hire a student teacher to go to the classroom once a week to reinforce the training and report back difficulties with the interface.

This idea of reportage, too, was problematic. When I think of the problems we had – wyziwyg, language standardization, insufficient training in terms of available workflows – a good (read: simple) reporting system would have gone a long way to improving the day to day feelings of all people involved in the project. There was too much distance between development and user and that extra body, that student teacher may have been the missing link that could have pulled that together.

All that being said, we managed to create a french and english version of drupal. We got literally hundreds of posts from the students, the excellent people at PARO digitized many hundred of images (not to mention the job they did facilitating the research with the kids and giving them the research tools that they needed), we created 10 3D artifacts that are available on the website, close to 100 videos, and build on the work that is currently being done in the UPEI library integrating drupal and fedora. We’ve zipped this version up (cleaned of project specific content) and will be posting it soon.

LIVING archives MUVE in Education (Opensim) see detailed reflection here
“Why didn’t you just use second life?” oh wow… am i ever happy we didn’t. First of all, it’s been very exciting to be around at the beginning of an excellent open source community. The opensim people have been hugely helpful, and we managed to get 3 very cool houses built and get the student work inside those houses.
With Second Life you are caught either on the Teen grid (no parents or adults) or on the adult grid (no teens) and, if you have a case like ours, (half of our students were 12) you get nothing. Zilch. So, in moving to opensim we managed to keep all of our data internal, created default student accounts for the kids to use, and now have no worries about possible after effects.
As the opensim with alpha software posts lays out… we had alot of challenges. But, as further work being done (say with openhabitat) is showing, it can be really helpful to have your own, personally controlled virtual world at your finger tips.

Other tech

We bought video cameras (and microphones with short cords doh!) three rear projection smart boards a couple of computers per classroom and upgraded some of our hosting hardware on the UPEI side. Had this project started six months later, I would have bought 20 eeepcs for each school and we would have been cooking with gas. Some of the computers we used were… not new… and crashed if you tried to keep two separate windows open at the same time.

Idea developments

Had some excellent help with this. Funny monkey had a great deal of influence on the webdesign… i take it for granted now because i’m so familiar with it, but the public/private website with a built in eportfolio and video/blog/audio publishing tool is second to none. Elana Langer is responsible for the increase in scope of the project as well as large chunks of the video. The folks at PARO are responsible for giving us the sense of what is possible from a research/archives perspective. Mark Leggott at the library told me about the grant opportunity with PCH and was a great deal of help in writing my first grant. Sandy McAuley was super helpful with the pulling the educational research together and getting the training and Lesson plans planned, and posted. Stephen Downes is responsible for whatever elegance this project has as he explained to me that some pieces of the project were together and that, really, they should all be connected and should look back at each other.

Project management

Bonnie Stewart is responsible for pulling together pretty much every piece of this project. Without her energy, patience and perseverance none of this would have gotten done.

ohzz… There are bunches of people and cool stuff I’m forgetting, but oscar is sick and I need to have my presentation done by launch time. SORRY PEOPLE AND COOL STUFF I FORGOT. ttys.

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