SLENZ Update, No 154, December 06, 2009

Where is education going in Virtual Worlds?

An earlier (2008) view of a Duke University  foray into virtual worlds
– just one of  the university’s many virtual projects

With the  Obama Administration  turning to the virtual world to extoll the virtues of a science education through expansion of the STEM Education Initiative and NASA also using virtual worlds to promote engineering education to the next generation of potential NASA employees it seems certain  that educators around the world will not be able to avoid the  MUVE issue although it is  apparent many would wish to.

It  also appears certain that Governments, if they wish to keep abreast of world education trends, can no longer allow their telcos to limit bandwidth or  to  obfuscate the issue of the need for consistent, high speed Broadband  – which New Zealand telcos dont deliver outside  the major centres –  if  all are to benefit from the growing acceptance of virtuality, in all its guises. In future education poverty might be determined by one’s access to Broadband, particularly in the sense of distance education,  as we move away from on-campus learning to virtual campus learning which is available to everyone.

Following President Obama’s announcement early in his term of  initiatives to encourage American students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the White House now  appears to be moving into the Metaverse in an attempt to expand its  flagging science education initiative, according to  Max Burns (pictured left) of the Washington-based Pixels and Policy  blogs .

Quoting a  press release issued by Duke University, Durham, North Carolina,  in which  the Duke Center announced a partnership with the White House to promote the development of virtual learning worlds related to science and engineering  especially in middle and high school by linking into virtual worlds and the digital generation’s undoubted video-gaming experience, Burns said:

  • The third-annual Digital Media and Learning Competition will award $2 million in support to 21st Century learning lab designers  for learning environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social challenges through STEM-based activities.
  • Digital media of any type (social networks, games, virtual worlds, mobile devices or others) may be used. Proposals are also encouraged for curricula or other experiences that link or connect to any game, especially but not limited to Sony’s LittleBigPlanet™ on PlayStation®3.

“Lifting American students from the middle to the top of the pack in STEM achievement over the next decade will not be attained by government alone,” said President Obama at the event in late November at which he announced the “Educate to Innovate” campaign. “I applaud the substantial commitments made today by the leaders of companies, universities, foundations, nonprofits and organizations representing millions of scientists, engineers and teachers from across the country.”

KZERO’s current virtual world universe – an ever-increasing population.

Moves cannot be seen in isolation

But the  White House moves cannot be seen in isolation.  The University of Texas has already  announced plans to put all its 16 campuses across the State online in the virtual world of Second Life; The prestigious Australian Film Radio and Television School, based in Sydney, has announced  a Graduate Certificate in Video Games and Virtual Worlds starting next year;  the University of California at Irvine has received a US$100,000 National Science Foundation grant to study World of Warcraft;  the creation of  an US Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds by the Information Resource Management (IRM) College of the National Defense University, to ‘ prepare leaders to direct the information component of national power by leveraging information and information technology for strategic advantage’; Glasgow’s Caledonian University has become  the first university  in the UK to offer a complete, integrated module on 3D Internet Virtual Worlds, teaching students all components involved in this relatively new branch of internet design and multi media; the Immersive Education Initiative, a 1000-plus  member, non-profit international collaboration of universities, colleges, research institutes, consortia and companies that are working together to define and develop open standards, best practices,platforms, and communities of support for virtual reality and game-based learning and training systems, is growing apace; and closer to home  the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission’s  NZ$500 000 SLENZ Project to determine the benefits of virtual education  is nearing completion with the formal evaluation process currently taking place;  The University of  Auckland, under the aegis of lecturer Scott Diener has set up a medical centre for training purposes in Second Life; and that university has also seen lecturer Judy Cockeram, gain international recognition for  her virtual architecture study programme which is schedule to accept more than 100 students in the New Year.

But these are not alone.  They  are among  the more than 500  universities and tertiary institutions now in Second Life and other virtual worlds. The launching of both learning and research programmes into  virtual worlds is continuing apace throughout the world, despite  some skepticism  from those who have never been immersed,  who are not  members of the digital generation or not digital migrants. Unfortunately for them virtual worlds, with 690 million participants worldwide, according to the UK-based research organisation KZero, will probably leave them behind as the flotsam and jetsam of  the virtual age.

Probably one of the best recent summations of just where  virtual education in the world is and where it is going   has been given  by Robin Teigland (pictured right), Work Associate Professor in the Center for Strategy and Competitiveness, at  the Stockholm School of Economics,  Stockholm, Sweden.

Her Powerpoint presentation to the Online Education Conference in Berlin on December 2 is well worth taking the time to look at.

And the US National Defense University initiative.
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SLENZ Update, No 152, November 23, 2009

A TALE OF TWO WOMEN

Can avatar appearance  have  an

effect on  your Real  Life?

University of Texas Study

Exhibit 1 – can an avatar appearance change your real life?

This is partially the tale of two women*. But it is also a story of how avatar appearance can affect one’s experience of  Second Life and  cross-over into Real Life.

I personally know a number of women, both in Second Life and in Real Life,  who have had the experience  I want to talk about.  There are many others who talk in places like  “Hey Girlfriend” about their considerable weight losses since entering Second Life. However, for reasons of anonymity I have combined some features of these women’s lives into the two women I’m discussing. They are  both in their 40s,  highly educated and have executive positions with the organisations they work with.

One, however, although her  Australian organisation is involved in  researching  business uses of virtual worlds, uses  Second Life almost exclusively for social networking, spending two to three hours a day on-line, time which she once spent as a couch potato  in front of the cable television. She now has  what she calls “real friends” from around the world in Second Life. She has been, what she would claim is ” fully immersed” in Second Life for about four years. Her experience there has run the gamut from role playing to building  and doing  most of the things she  could  and does in Real Life.  Her avatar is  slim and very attractive, although not of the barbie-doll favoured by many  users of  Second Life, and it wears high fashion clothes ranging from fairly skimpy to more conservative.  Although she obtains most of her clothing free, she has a staggering number of high-fashion, high quality items in her inventory.

The other, although she was  not press-ganged into visiting a virtual world,  chose  to become part of  Second Life as  part of her work three years ago, although skeptical of the benefits. Outside of  the “immersion”  required for her work  she seldom visits Second Life preferring to spend time  in the evenings working, sitting in front of television  with her husband. Her avatar reflects what she considers her real life; overweight and frumpy with few  attractive features.  Her clothing inventory consists  of a few  real life-style, work related but  serviceable items such as slacks and a sweaters, but nothing which could be even remotely be regarded as fashionable let alone fantasy.

Both were considerably overweight  when they started in virtual worlds.  One could say the first women perceived and still perceives her virtual life  as wish-fulfillment and fantasy, the second woman perceives her’s as  career-enhancing “drudgery.”

But the most interesting thing about these two women for me  – and this  is not a scientific study –  is that:

  • In four  years the first woman – the one with the slim, attractive avatar –  has lost about 100 lbs in weight, taken up gym three to four days a week,  started to learn  salsa and tango with her husband,  changed her wardrobe, and through her own efforts gained a number of promotion rungs at her work. Where she was  previously depressed about her future, she is now a livewire and  enthusiastic about her work. She has also long-term cut her calorie intake in half.
  • In the three years  since the  second woman entered Second Life – the one  with the overweight, unattractive avatar –  her life  has changed little. She still sits watching television most nights with her husband – he much prefers it that way – and although still ambitious feels  her career in a US academic institution  is  either  depressingly at a standstill, or at a cross roads.  Since joining  Second  Life  her  weight has ballooned – she wont disclose by how much –  she still gets little exercise and obviously has not cut her  calorie intake.
Exhibit 2 – can avatar appearance change your real life?

Of course, there may be many other reasons why these two women’s Second Life experiences may have led to vastly different Real Life  experiences but I was reminded of them by an article in  a fairly  recent issue of    ScienceDaily under the headline,  “Avatars Can Surreptitiously And Negatively Affect User In Video Games, Virtual Worlds.”

Quoting Jorge Peña, assistant professor in the College of Communication at the  University of Texas, at Austin,  the on-line magazine said that although often seen as an inconsequential feature of digital technologies, one’s self-representation, or avatar, in a virtual environment could affect a user’s thoughts. The study was co-written with Cornell University Professor Jeffrey T. Hancock and University of Texas at Austin graduate student Nicholas A. Merola.  It appeared in the December 2009 issue of Communication Research.

The study ” demonstrated that the subtext of an avatar’s appearance could simultaneously prime negative (or anti-social) thoughts and inhibit positive (or pro-social) thoughts inconsistent with the avatar’s appearance even though study participants remained unaware they had been primed,” the article said.

“In two separate experiments, research participants were randomly assigned a dark- or white-cloaked avatar, or to avatars wearing physician or Ku Klux Klan-like uniforms or a transparent avatar. The participants were assigned tasks including writing a story about a picture, or playing a video game on a virtual team and then coming to consensus on how to deal with infractions, ” Science Daily said.

“Consistently, participants represented by an avatar in a dark cloak or a KKK-like uniform demonstrated negative or anti-social behavior in team situations and in individual writing assignments.”

Previous studies, ScienceDaily said, had demonstrated these uniform types to have negative effects on people’s behaviors in face-to-face interactions. For example, Cornell researchers Mark Frank and Tom Gilovich have shown that dark uniforms influence professional sports teams to play more aggressively on the playing field and in the laboratory. Peña’s research has now demonstrated how these effects operate in desktop-based video games, and sheds light on the automatic cognitive processes that explain this effect.

“When you step into a virtual environment, you can potentially become ‘Mario’ or whatever other character you are portraying,” said Peña, who studies how humans think, behave and feel online. “Oftentimes, the connotations of our own virtual character will subtly remind us of common stereotypes, such as ‘bad guys wear black or dress up in hooded robes.’ This association may surreptitiously steer users to think and behave more antisocially, but also inhibit more pro-social thoughts and responses in a virtual environment.”

“By manipulating the appearance of the avatar, you can augment the probability of people thinking and behaving in predictable ways without raising suspicion,” said Peña. “Thus, you can automatically make a virtual encounter more competitive or cooperative by simply changing the connotations of one’s avatar.”

Reading this I wondered about the two women I referred to above.    Has one, the American, inadvertently reinforced the depressingly, negative  image she has of herself by making her avatar appearance worse than  she actually appears in Real Life? And has the other, the Australian,  done the reverse to achieve striking Real Life benefits?

It’s obviously another question for virtual world scientists.
But on the other hand, in my experience,  it doesn’t have quite the same effect on some males.  I haven’t become the 6ft 7in  All American Don Juan that my avatar suggests I  could be and my wishful thinking suggests I should be. My real life  personna and appearance  has remained. I’m still just a little nerd who is boringly ordinary.

I, however, don’t doubt there are men in Second Life who have lost weight too.

* Some details have been altered to protect their identities.

SLENZ Update, No 138, September 22, 2009

Why aren’t NZ  secondary schools

using virtual worlds, video games?

or are they …  but just below the radar?

DrFuturityAhead of the game …  Christ’s College, one of New
Zealand’s oldest schools, is in Second Life.

Given the ever- burgeoning popularity of  video games, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs)  and virtual worlds, or Multi User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) – they are all now mainstream –  and the growing body of evidence attesting to their effectiveness as a teaching aid one wonders why more New Zealand secondary schools  aren’t involved in Second Life’s Teen Grid or other virtual worlds.

There are a few involved or considering getting involved  – mostly private schools  and at least one, Christ’s College, Christchurch, through  Skoolaborate–  but one wonders whether New Zealand’s digital generation is being left behind the rest of the world. Or are those New Zealand schools using video games  and MUVEs just keeping their heads below the parapet? I know  a number of New Zealand teachers who are very competent in Second Life  but none of them admit to  teaching in virtual worlds.

New Zealand however,  is not the only country whose digital generation  might be missing the virtual education wave.

The South Koreans and Chinese definitely aren’t  but a couple of recent blogs on the situation in US schools would suggest many there are, despite  the increasing involvement of US tertiary institutions in virtual worlds.

US-based Dana Oshiro  recently asked the question, “Shouldn’t Schools Have Embraced Second Life By Now?” in his blog  ReadWriteWeb, and Washington-based lobbyist and virtual world’s blogger Max Burns (pictured left) asked a similar question in his Pixels and Policy blog .Burns, Max

The questions from both of them could easily be applied to New Zealand education where one often wonders whether the neo-Luddites still rule.

Oshiro wondering why, mainstream educators still don’t have the green light to teach in virtual worlds, said: “Many argue that video teleconferencing and instant messaging have replaced the need for virtual world interaction.” He then added though that neither of these offer the same “immersive” experience as a virtual world.

Max Burns, who has apparently been asking the question for some time, after noting that the University of Texas’ has used  $US2.5 million in grants to partner with SecondLife to “road-test” education in virtual world and create  a public resource of the resulting data, asked, “Why aren’t public schools everywhere doing this? It seems primed for inner-city schools where resources are strained and classrooms overflow with bored, disconnected students.

He then quoted a Tufts University report which demonstrated that kids from the digital generation  learn best when they learn in the context of a game – in this case, Second Life and virtual worlds take advantage of this generation’s immersion in technology to teach and entertain.

He detailed the  problem in the US of getting the greenlight to adoption as being bureacracy.

He said: ” It’s everywhere in the public school system, where the average state high school must deal with, in mostly this order: 1. in-house administrators; 2. district superintendent; 3. local school board; 4. city council; 5. local Board of Education; 6. State Department of Education; 7. Federal Department of Education.

In New Zealand, I could have added, that the problem is compounded by the fact that Telecom has appeared to have deliberately worked for competitive reasons  against allowing the quick spread of  high-speed, inexpensive  Broadband across the country, especially into the provincial towns, although the Government  currently might be moving to fill the vacuum  the telco has created. But despite the trumpeting of Telcom and TelstraClear among others, New Zealanders outside the major centres by and large have no idea what Broadband is even though it is being promoted and they are paying for it. Their services are still often little better than  dial-up – if better –  being notoriously slow and unreliable  at the times when most New Zealanders want to use the services, the evening.

CCbannerChrist’s College students … leading the way in New Zealand? (Christ’s College picture)

In the US, according to Max Burns, the education in secondary schools problem is being solved by establishing legal  “virtual”  Charter schools, for instance in Oregon. Charter Schools receive government funding but receive exemptions from the course requirements and bureaucracy of public schools. The only requirement? Show results.

“For those committed enough to buck the bureaucracy, the future of education is increasingly virtual,” Burns said.

In New Zealand and Australia it also  is the private school sector that is apparently showing the way.

But if New Zealand is going to move down the path of virtual education too, New Zealand’s education authorities should be thinking about these questions now. The yshould be asking where are the virtual world qualified teachers  going to come from?  How do we train them? How do we immerse them so they become virtual education champions rather than  negative real world whiners and neo-Luddites? Where are the  future New Zealand virtual education designers and builders going to come from? How do we retrain the digital migrants or dinosaurs  in the teaching profession to handle this new education generation, where in future  just as much mainstream schooling will probably happen in a  virtual world without boundaries as  in the face-to-face classroom?

Or are we just going to bury our heads?

SLENZ Update, No 136, September 17, 2009

CAN NEW ZEALAND USE THIS LESSON?

Texas shows the way forward in

virtual world education …

UTSLcampus

John Lester (SL: Pathfinder Linden) and Leslie Jarmon (SL: Bluewave Ogee)
meet in front of the virtual version of Johnson Claudia Taylor Hall
at the University of Texas System.(Picture: Pathfinder Linden)

The New Zealand tertiary education system  should probably be looking at  following the virtual lead of the University of Texas, although perhaps not on  a such a grand scale.

After four years of research and “toe-dabbling” the University of Texas has  launched its State-wide 16-campus system into Second Life  as part of a year-long project that will bring students, faculty, researchers and administrators into Second Life to explore the use of virtual worlds as “an innovative, low-cost approach to undergraduate instruction.”
At the same time the New Zealand  tertiary education system remains at the stage of “toe-dabbling” with the arguably  successful SLENZ Project slated to finish at the end of the year  and the OpenSim ONGENS New Zealand National Grid Project simmering – one might unkindly say bumbling – along in Alpha mode with inadequate funding and resources despite a small band of hard-working devotees doing their best to create a homegrown virtual world and build support across the whole New Zealand university spectrum.

That the Texas lesson, created by the UT System Transforming Undergraduate Education Program initiative, is being taken to heart, however, can be gauged from the fact that 0ne of the main ONGENS “builders” and virtual world enthusiast,  University of Auckland academic Dr Scott Diener (SL: Professor Noarlunga), describes it as “an astonishing development … in scale and concept.”

But despite some tardiness here all is not lost. The UT research into virtual world education  is to be made freely available to educators/researchers around the world and there will be opportunities for collaboration with the UT campuses, something New Zealand educators should look into.

Biggest challenge

The University of Texas’ Dr  Leslie Jarmon (pictured right), Faculty Development Specialist and Senior Lecturer in the Division of Instructional Innovation & Assessment (CIE/DIIA), at the University of Texas, at Austin,   co-founder of the Educators Coop in SL, and the primary investigator for this statewide  initiative, told Linden Labs’ John Lester that the  the biggest challenge to gaining approval for the  initial  one-year, 50-plus-SL region launch of the project  had been  finding the most effective language and concrete Second Life examples  to craft a proposal that would be heard by key administrators. JarmonLeslie

In a lesson for  New Zealand educators seeking virtual world education funding, she said, “When an opportunity arose, a real time demo of Second Life using Voice with real educators and Linden Lab officials answering the Chancellors’ questions right there on the spot was more effective than 100 pages of textual description. Very pragmatic, concrete, visionary ­ at the same time.”

Another key challenge, she said, had been rigorously ensuring that the provision of the virtual infrastructure for 15 campuses (9 academic campuses; 6 medical health science center campuses)  and information and training support would  not dictate which direction each campus would take as they discovered and created their own unique learning and research journeys.

“We’re meeting this challenge with the overriding mission of creating together a virtual learning community,” she told John Lester. ” Virtual worlds are a new human dimension for educational activity, and we¹re constantly exploring and learning alongside one another.”

“Step-by-step in this evolving system-wide virtual learning community, all of these players — and especially our undergraduates — will be seen as learners with expanded roles: learners as scientists, learners as designers, learners as researchers, learners as communicators, and learners as collaborators. We see endless possibilities on the virtual learning horizon.”

UTmeeting

UT campus Leads meet Second Life officials in Austin Texas to lay the foundation
for the Virtual Learning Community Initiative (VLCI). (Picture VLCI)

SLENZ Update, No 128, August 16, 2009

THE SLENZ PROJECT

There is a difference between

immersion and  activity …

foundation_utdsom2Learning in Dallas …  Snowflake Lannock has a giftbox  for Aotearoa-NZ learners.
foundation_utdsom6Learning in Dallas  … virtually  speaking. [All Pictures: Merle Lemon]

Sometimes one listens to the  presentations  and reads the publicity  about  a person’s role in the world – any  world, real or virtual – and fails to  see  the difference between commitment  and involvement, between  being immersed in life  and just being active … and often noisy.

Those who play a full role in life – real or virtual – might  identify with  the old story of the breakfast plate  loaded  with bacon and eggs: the pig who “donated” the bacon was committed, the fowl  who laid the egg might have been active, but was only involved.

I believe there  are many “involved” in  virtual worlds –  builders, technicians, academics  and educators, making names  for themselves as “experts” and who appear to be able to talk-the-talk  and use the right jargon – who are not “immersed” and not committed to virtual worlds and in actual fact never will walk-the-walk of real virtuality, and do not understand  what being “immersed” in a virtual world really means.

They only pay lip service to the idea of  virtual immersion – only entering virtual life  for “work”, rather than “learning” to live  within it.

They are there because they see that being on the virtual world band wagon provides a career-enhancing opportunity. They will invariably move on to the  next career-enhancing fad as soon as it comes into their view, and is greeted with wonder by the chattering classes. They will then become the critics, the doom sayers of the old wave, and the “promoters” of another new wave.

foundation_janedaughterGetting into a virtual world  … educators Jane Field and daughter.

Manukau Institute of Technology lead educator for the SLENZ Project, Merle Lemon (pictured  right) (SL: Briarmelle Quintessa) is not like that: since joining the SLENZ Project team less than 12 months ago she has quietly immersed herself in Second Life and become one with it. For her the suspension of disbelief is part and parcel of immersion and  an integral part of learning, and the best way of providing the best learning opportunities possible in a virtual world.Lemon, merle2

It is very difficult to get her to promote herself or her role but  tomorrow (Monday)  she will launch a Foundation Learning programme which will  eventually see  about 150 New Zealand students, ranging in age from 18 to 45,  “virtually” acquiring some of the skills needed to get a job or further education and training in the “real world”.

To this end  she staged an all-day  face-to-face training exercise for the  Foundation Learning team in the Learning Technology Centre at MIT South Campus early this month and has written about it, albeit probably reluctantly, on her blog, Foundation interviewing with SLENZ.

foundation_teresusietaniaSomewhere in a world … Terry Neal, Dr Susie Jacka and Tania Hogan.

The training workshop which began with a Karakia  (traditional Maori prayer that both welcomes and brings everyone together) was attended by SLENZ Project co  leader Terry Neal (SL: Tere Tinkel),;  Maryanne Wright (SL: Nugget Mixemup), and Tania Hogan (Tania Wonder) from MIT; Jane Field (Morgana Hexicola) from Otago Polytechnic with her daughter; Vicky Pemberton (Sky Zeitman); Martin Bryers (SL: Motini Manimbo) from Northland Polytech; and Dr Susie Jacka (SL: Littoral Farshore) from Unitec.

The presenters from around the world included:  Jenny Wakefield (SL: Snowflake Lannock) of the Dallas School of Management at the University of Texas,  who gave instruction in communication skills, use of contextual menus, handling the inventory, more complex movements, location and SLurls, camera controls, and security issues;  Second Life’s Pacifico Piaggio, a faculty member from the University of the Pacific, and Second Life resident Doran Horngold, an elementary school librarian from Houston, Texas, who  passed on her collection of note cards with teaching resource SLurls and information.

“The workshop provided a great opportunity to gel as a team, to learn skills and to share ideas, ” Merle says. ” The day was tiring but rewarding. It provided all collaborators with the reassurance that they would never be on their own, and that there is a support structure soundly in place.”

Merle could have added that she, with her  hard-won knowledge of virtual world immersion, is one of the major  foundations of  that sound support structure.  But that is not something she would say.

foundation_vickymartin

What was the  question?- Martin Bryers  listens to the real world
answer from Vicky Pemberton

The SLENZ Update – No 86, May 19, 2009

IT HAPPENED IN TEXAS … and SL

The world’s first  ‘real’ virtual graduate?

Texas State Technical College’s virtual college (vTSTC) student Julie Shannan (pictured in SL left)  earlier this month became the first known student to graduate from a recognised learning  program done completely within a virtual world.

She graduated with a certificate in digital media.

Shannan, who has a bachelor of arts in biology from the University of Texas at Austin, now also holds the distinction of being the first graduate of the vTSTC digital media design program as well as the first student to take an entire college curriculum within the virtual world of Second Life.

She now plans to take the next step in the digital media design program, and obtain an Associate’s degree at vTSTC.Shannan,Julie

“This is a significant milestone for education not only because it is the first graduate from an environment of this nature, but due to the fact that this single event represents the validity of virtual world education as a real method for educational delivery,”  Chris Gibson, associate vice president of Educational Technology at TSTC, said.

Shannan said of her course,  “… In my second life I have explored the inside of computers and servers, collaborated with people across the world, traveled to world class art museums, built 3D products for my logo designs, explored a tsunami from the ocean floor, and many more experiences I could never do in my real world. … Thank you again for this once in a (second) life opportunity.”

Additional vTSTC certificate and degree offerings are set for release in September this year.

Texas State Technical College bought its first island in Second Life in January, 2007, and founded the college’s virtual learning environment in the fall of 2008, offering a Certificate of Completion and later an Associate’s degree in Digital Media. TSTC is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award Associate of Applied Science degrees and Certificates of Completion.