Giving meta-life to avatars

Xbox Kinect encourages people to think about different ways in which they can communicate and interact with computers.

For example, right now many computers have built-in web-cams. Most of them are turned off unless used for videoconferencing – so what will come next?

Where should we be heading with virtual worlds?

So lets play some ‘what if’ … What if our meta-selves were game characters or avatars, and that our computers had Kinect type ability to send data to virtual spaces to give them some form of actor/agent ‘life’. What if our avatars acted in response to our broader digital-selves?

Imagine if the camera in your computer were active all the time and the computer was watching and listening to you as you work, just like an assistant or a secretary. It could use that information to provide you with assistance if it sees that you are frustrated.

Certainly, the purpose of video and computer games is disagreed upon. In education even the idea that learning can be ‘fun’ will attract scornful remarks. However, in order to engage players, game designers have become well versed in creating activities and environments which foster intrinsic motivation.

What if the wave of a hand, or puzzled expression could enact your avatar ask for help or go off and find information that it’s noticed you’re looking at right now. What if the teacher could see this and do something to help. What is learning and teaching wasn’t either synchronous or asynchronous intervention, but something else?

Technology – using body, voice and image interfacing is in it’s infancy, but infant to pesky teenager in game design takes 12 months. It’s mature and left home by 18 months.

Imagine a virtual world, where you are the teacher, the expert, the friend. Imagine if you students are in the space with you – represented by their avatars, but not directly controlling them – using them as actors and agents. Now imagine that as you watch over them, they move around, they go and sit with others, work together, get up and visit a bookshelf, take the book and put it on the desk. One of the great [and un-made] virtual world advances will be this. Students will be able to work online, reading, connecting, writing and connecting – while their avatar acts for them in a virtual space. In this way – a teacher can ‘see‘ when students are connecting and prompt a teleconference or intact with their avatar as proxy. This is a million miles away from the way distance education thinking today – as essentially a collection of facts and tasks to we worked through towards a final essay to test.

Now imagine if this virtual classroom as a massive virtual worldscape where millions of students were doing this – and you could walk around it – watching, helping and connecting – from your mobile phone.

The problem with e-Learning is that it makes marginal advances from disagreed upon constructs and results in course design that is flat and linear (and boring).

If game designers thought like this – we’d all still be playing Pong and Breakout. But then, distance learning is a managed process, not a creatively driven one I guess.

Which comes first: Warcraft or Second Life?

I’ve been thinking more about why I would not take teachers into virtual worlds. A minor clarification, is that this line of though relates to some research work I’m doing, around cyberculture, and how it is reflected in under and post graduate education. I been particularly thinking about live classrooms online, and where, conceptually, the types of learning experiences that I would build into the professional development of teachers.

My view is that virtual worlds, are not somewhere to take teachers, but somewhere to meet them, and I kicked up a rather bizarre post about that yesterday. Why does this matter? – Well, because there is increasing interest in using ‘live’ classrooms generally, and greater opportunity to do so (despite Linden canning Teen Second Life). I absolutely believe that virtual worlds and games are great places for teachers to learn – about learning in this century. What I’m yet to resolve are the terms under which I see that happening.

There are three general spaces under the ‘live’ classroom concept to me – Second Life (or other open, non goal-directed world), Games (Aion, Starcraft2, World of Warcraft type goal directed MMORPG) and the various Webinar offerings (Adobe Connect, Elluminate etc). All of which to me, disembody the teacher as a human in favour of being a cyborg.

Personal identity in virtual worlds, is a beautiful fiction. The absence of your own life narrative allows exploration of new meta-personas and shape their story to be as real or imagined as you choose.

When Linden chose to call their technology, Second Life it evoked a sense of post-humanist existence. When Adobe called their platform ‘Connect’, there was never any intention to do more than create much more than an information appliance. When Blizzard created Warcraft – is was was going to be an epic experience, based on lore.

Connect etc.,, from my experience, places the presenter in a personal, direct position of responsibility and pressure – to perform for the assembled audience. If you are working with students, this performance often gravitates to the tools the information appliance offers – powerpoint, polling etc.,

Physically, it requires two monitors to even begin to cope with presenting and interacting and at least 10% of everyones time is spent dealing with its habitual tendency to throw people out, cut their microphone or simply hang up, should you be foolish enough to have browser add ons, or any other instslled application. That doesn’t happen Warcraft, there is no presenter, no technical microphone support – just other players.

Second Life, is a world, the experience is quite different for student and teacher. It is no more complicated to operate, but much more complicated to conceptualise or explain, if your cognitive worldview sees it as no more than a field trip to the freaky side of cyberculture. It too suffers presenter-pressure over microphones, movement and connectivity. It is way better than 5 years ago, however, it is less than seemless.

While there is little arguement that teaching and learning ‘in-world’ is part of the landscape, it takes a brave soul to attempt it live. Crashing out of an Adobe Connect room several times in and hour is frustrating, as each time, it is a personal hit. Your personal identity, which for most of us apart from Gary Stager, is kind of fragile. An avatar is far more resiliant, and the environment lacks the two-way radioness of Connect, but is still the single biggest ‘issue’ new people have – often at the detriment of what it is you hope to do with the world itself – assuming it is social-engagement.

I wont take teachers into a virtual world on the same terms as Adobe Connect. Second Life is socially engaged theatre, Connect is functional, broadcast radio.

I see Connect etc., – in mass teaching, as radio – and radio has a purpose, so I’m not saying don’t use it. Provided it works, it does allow ‘classroom’ type activities – essentially are born of print and radio culture. They do provide access to ‘live’ teachers and peers, but are not ‘virtual’ is the post-humanist sense.

World of Warcraft (game worlds), I see as an almost perfect learning environment – to learn about immersive environments – and would argue to have it included as a core element of under-graduate experience of virtual worlds. Second Life (open-worlds) I see being a post-graduate experience, requiring a deeper sense of what it means to be a resident, and how that resident would create experiences, knowledge – and spaces that would build community and meet contextual objectives – based upon what is evident in MMORPG – and perhaps why many in Second Life are also gamers.

So, if I was to try and rapidly show teachers what online learning is, who are just beginning to think critically about online and cyber culture – then I’d run it out of Warcraft as a ‘live’ classroom. If I wanted a group of non-connected people to connect, I’d use it too. Only then would I step into Second Life.

The problem is – how would I get them to do either, when most people are still listening to the radio. More thought needed obviously.

I am the sum of the total parts I control

There are some places that I would not take teachers. Virtual worlds are one of them. The overhead is too high, the distance too far and the experience too abstract.

Before pressing ‘enter world’ there has to be a clear understanding of what that means. Didactically, it’s simple, but any virtual world is not what it seems. Virtual worlds are a cognitive technology; they change the way you perceive space, time, people and capability.

A virtual world is not an information appliance in the way a website or web-tool appears. To quote a brighter mind than mine, an avatar has a plastic brain, but is hybrid mind.

We can get deeper – another quote I like is “your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has temporarily constructed purely for convenience”.

I would not take teachers into a virtual world, any more than I could seek to take you into a web-browser . A virtual world is all about interweaving human-centredness into our lives, identities by constantly trying to construct a mental sense of place, presence and self. This might sound very odd, from someone who spends a lot of time ‘in world’, but to take a teacher into a world and attempt to train them is like asking them to use a wiki with a blindfold.

I cannot take teachers into a virtual world, I could only hope to meet them there. Everyone who maintains a sustained immersion in a virtual world has in some way re-wired their brain to accept a post-humanist reality. Every teacher I meet in virtual world, has a deep understanding of self organising knowledge structures, and how to balance multiple persona in which they interact, network, explore and experience a fundamentally different, perhaps cybernetic form of human intelligence.

A virtual world, unlike a website – has not been created from print culture and cannot support brains that mundanely perform acts of functional literacy in order to create ‘knowledge’. Teachers can enter virtual worlds, they can run lessons, they might even learn something new for a while; but to persist requires a deeper connection and get past the belief that entering a virtual world is to be an isolated key-tapper using an information appliance as a novelty or worse because they fail to connect to the real world. If we hope to teach kids in virtual worlds, then we must be residents in mind and body, and give away conscious thoughts about what is real and artificial.

Virtual worlds, are the sanctuary of childish minds. The one place they can go without being subjected to artificial boundaries – that I am afraid to say are mandated as soon as you ‘put’ people in-world. We are dabbling on the edge. Without question – those in virtual worlds, those who lead students into experiences, not activities are rare. To quote another favourite line “I am the sum of the total parts I control directly” – In a virtual world, the point is not to seek direct control over your avatar, but to use it as an extension of your mind – to change it.

Try creating a lesson plan to do that (unless you’re already there).

Best Practices Virtual Worlds Education

The 2010 Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education is on this weekend!.

I’ve been asked to take part in a discussion on March 12 at 6:00 AM SLT. “Connectivism, Distributed Cognition and PLN” with @sdownes and @kzenovka – Steven Downes and Kae Novak.

I met Kae last year and immediately joined the Centre4Edupunx. Her ideas and creativity around using games and virtual worlds was amazing – as they put it ‘Bootstrapping Our Way Across the Curriculum’.

Many of my webby-contacts in Twitter etc., offer great ideas and advice; however … this conference slices though the web-app-fest of many conferences and will have extensive examples, strategies and stories to share that for me, makes it a highlight of they year. Almost all of it operates at a highly researched and academically evidenced level – apart from the social stuff – which is just good fun.

With sessions dripping ideas such as Learning archetypes as tools of Cybergogy for a 3D educational landscape: a structure for eTeaching in Second Life”; there are some big ideas, and big stories to share – not just in Second Life, but OpenSim, Reaction Grid, Blue Mars, Wonderland, Quest-Atlantis too.

Don’t be fooled by the Virtual World part – there are some amazing people in this event, who will lead you to rethink even GoogleDocs in the classroom. Of course you do have to make the effort, get passed the Great Dismal and probably stay up all night. But seriously – this is the epicenter of ideas, innovation and connections. It is great to see so many Australians speaking, presenting and helping too.

I look forward to meeting as many as I can – I am especially interested to attended: First World War Poetry Digital Archive in Second Life; GAME KIT Version 2: Now Anyone Can Easily Create Engaging Educational Adventure Sims; Lessons on Lessons – How changing paradigms influence knowledge; For the Horde – teaching under-grad accounting in World of Warcraft.

This event is not for those who like to orbit the ‘problem’ or gaze at ‘what things could be’ – you will find this weekend a highly engaging and academic experience – with people that you might otherwise never know – or pay a hell of a lot of money to hear speak. You won’t find any bubble-gum-EdTech here … this is the real deal. I just hope I can stay awake!

Here is the event calendar, now go download Second Life and take a leap into a bigger pond.

Reaction creates attraction

Harrys_house_004The recent debacle over Jo Kay’s SLEducation wiki has provided a wave of new discussions around Virtual Worlds in Education. It has raises discussions around the idea that Second Life is not THE virtual world for education, just one execution of it – and what if we used something else?

Many of those who have been writing, developing and researching are clearly past the critical flack of the initial beach landing, have overcome the initial ‘yeah but’ barrage from the sand dunes and are confidently aligning virtual worlds and games with learning and assessment.

Unlike a great deal of Web2.0-ness, virtual worlds are long supported by a wealth of academic research to suggest they are extreamly good at motivating students and offer high quality instructional design environments for learning.

Obviously not everyone is going to explore them. The biggest barrier is that in muves the experience has to be instructively designed to create opportunities that extend beyond it and facilitate experiences that cannot be created without it – Who has the time to do that?

Well lots of people actually, not least the students we are teaching and certainly the multi-billion dollar technology industry.

A flood of educators followed Kerry Johnson’s footsteps into Reaction Grid, a community of inter-connected Open Simulators.

The discussions have not been about whether Second Life is better, but how it changes pedagogical opportunities. I am yet to hear from teen-educators that Linden is easy to deal with, or overly keen to help – quite the opposite. But Lindens notice to Jo felt like a wake up call to lots of Second Life Educators.

Maybe it was time to get past what we can’t do and look at what we can. As blog posts appeared online last week over Jo and Sean’s well established (and Linden referenced) wiki there was a flurry of new activity – not about the wiki issue, but in going right around the problem – which was all about ownership and trademarks, not community. We get the idea of trademarks by the way.

The Jokaydia Second Life community flocked into Reaction Grid and Jo Kay has established a new outpost to allow Second Life educators to explore Reaction Grid with the same level of support, resources and expert development you’d expect.


There’s also an ISTE2010 conference proposal via  Judy and Vicki Davis that was put together via iPhones and Google Docs in a few hours this week to meet the call for proposal deadline.

In the next few months, there will be open resources and open spaces in Reaction Grid created for teachers to explore with students – and this will lead to further instances of students read, writing and making things outside of them. Some will be online – and perhaps some will be downloadable – able to run on local machines as stand alone or LAN learning objects. Imagine being able to download a unit of work around Huxley’s Brave New World and run it on your nice new DER laptops using open source resources – offline. Giving students a zip file to unpack and run for homework, where they have to model mathematical problems. Virtual school in a virtual world.

Change comes from places you least expect and creates opportunities you never imagined. You get into Reaction Grid for FREE. Join us at 9pm AEST on Sunday night – because that is where the new curriculum in being crafted. You can google it.

Marionettes to avatars

This is a presentation given to Macquarie University staff about considering the opportunities that are presented by virtual worlds in education. I tried to keep it simple and included some of the uses of Second Life Campus. The aim was to get them to look past the visual and to consider how shared reality is a familiar way to experience technology in informal situations such as Facebook. During the presentation In a time where Web2.0 is abundantly available for read/write, virtual worlds offer instructional designers a controlled and measured ability to deliver eLearning in experience/evaluate. It was followed by a tour of several educational spaces to support the presentation.