VIEWS of the future

Yesterday I attended the first VIrtual Education Worlds Scotland (VIEWS) Forum meeting, hosted by the JISC Regional Support Centre Scotland South and East and facilitated by the irrepressible Kenji Lamb from the JISC RSC Scotland N&E.  There were about fifteen of us in total, from a wide range of institutions and organisations, with developers, educators, support services and the simply curious all represented.

I really enjoyed this event, and particularly welcomed the conscious decision of the organisers to focus on virtual worlds other than just Second Life, with demonstrations of Open Sim and Metaplace featuring on the agenda.  The discussion sessions covered a range of issues facing educators and developers trying to work with virtual worlds, with a few topics in particular seeming to stand out:

  • Lack of support from institutional IT departments for VW-related activities, even to the point of refusing to unblock the ports necessary to actually run them.  Here at Strathclyde, for example, we’re in the fortunate position that Second Life runs fine on the wired network, but (as we found at January’s joint event with Eduserv) the ports necessary for voice to run are still blocked.  Some institutions apparently blame JISC/Janet policies for this, but the inconsistent application of these supposed policies suggests that there might be other reasons for this…
  • Monitoring and evaluation of in-world activities particuarly for the purpose of summative assessment, and tie-in to other systems such as BlackBoard and Moodle to support this and other educational and administrative functions.
  • The relatively steep learning curve of SL in particular, especially when contrasted with the high level of useability of alternatives such as Metaplace and commerical games.
  • Age-related issues.  SL is currently restricted to over-18s only, as is Metaplace, at least during its beta phase.  This is a problem nationally for FE, and a significant issue for Scottish HE given the number of students entering university after their Highers at age 17 rather than at 18 after Sixth Year as is more common elsewhere.  Open Sim is an obvious solution for this, but the relative obscurity of it and other VWs compared with SL mean that it’s often not an obvious answer for people who are just begining their exploration of how VWs can be used in education.  There’s a lot of talk at the moment about Linden Labs merging the adult and teen SL grids which may eventually overcome this, but in the short term it can place apparently insurmountable barriers to adoption.
  • Even the basic processes of registering and selecting an avatar can be problematic.  Registration for multiple SL accounts from a single location requires advance ‘whitelisting’ of the IP range with Linden Labs, updated every six months, to prevent blocking after just a handful of accounts have been created.  Students can be asked to create their account from home in advance of the session, but this has its own problems: students may not have access to a computer capable of running SL, may not get around to doing so, and may require the support of an experienced user that can be provided in a lab session but not at home (no matter how good the documentation prepared for the class may be).  Third-party registration sites can allow mass registrations, but pre-made accounts don’t allow students to select their own avatars which may reduce engagement and identification and therefore the effectiveness of using VWs in the first place.

All present agreed that the RSCs should lead support of the VIEWS Forum, at least in these early stages.  Plans for the future of the Forum include events showcasing other alternatives to SL, a shared space for discussion and knowledge exchange, and the development of a training package for staff and students including items such as a getting started guide, etc.

So what can CETIS do to support this work?  Should it, even?  To me there’s no doubt that this is an area with which we need to engage, but I’m not sure what exactly we can do to meet the needs of our communities while allowing this new and exciting field to develop and mature.  So please, let us know!  Either here, on Twitter, or by getting in touch offline, I’m really keen to know what we can do to help :)

One thought on “VIEWS of the future

  1. Thanks Rowin, for capturing these key points from our discussion!

    You say: “The relatively steep learning curve of SL in particular, especially when contrasted with the high level of usability of alternatives such as Metaplace and commercial games.”

    Which sets me thinking that there is a difference though in these environments, how they are used, what activity they are aimed at, and maybe even who the intended, or expected, audience are (and these may very well be 2 different things, as we know).

    Commercial games are very ‘guided’ (in my limited experience :) ), whereas the VW Second Life is as open and ‘free’ as is possible to be at this stage of technology development. Remember Linden’s tag line, along the lines of “built by its residents for its residents”. SL is an empty world, with an extensive tool kit, and a few ‘raw resources’ thrown in (i.e. you are provided with clothing, and an inventory with example textures, one or two scripts, etc. to start you off). Other than that and your own curiosity, motivation, or outside influence (wishing to visit a particular island or attend an event that you have heard about) you are given nothing else. It is up to you, it is what you make of I.t So, you stand there, wondering what to do, how to do it…

    In a commercial game the beginning may be similar. Provision of an initial ‘bag of stuff’ is common in a game such as World of Warcraft(WoW), where you also start with some basic kit, a little food, a weapon and ammo, some spells…

    But this is where the difference lies. In, for example, WoW, you are presented immediately with a story line (a setting, a context), and then you are given tasks (a Quest). You are given some guidance on what to do in the narrative of the Quest (who to speak to, directions, general hints, or instructions of what to collect or kill). In reading that you begin to gain clues as to what to do, and in carrying out a Quest you have to learn to move, walk and interact with the environment pretty quickly.

    As a newcomer to WoW I would disagree entirely that ‘commercial games’ do not have steep learning curves! The Quests start you off, but you still have to learn many controls, how to initiate communication, how to open an item to collect what it contains, etc. It is *very* complex.

    We perhaps have to distinguish between learning how to interact with the interface, and learning how to ‘be’ and carry out specific activities, in these worlds?

    In my experience, when initially I had staff create avatars and log in to SL, they would then stand there and say ‘now what?’. Students do the same. So, we begin to provide activities for them that not only teach ‘how’ to use the world, but teach ‘about’ the world. I would draw a direct parallel between learning activity in SL, with early Quest activity in WoW. They are both complex environments that require initial scaffolding. If we do not provide this scaffolding in SL, students will be lost.

    This goes for any new technologies that we look to employ in education, of course. It is what we *do* with it, and how we design learning activity for them, that is all important. We know that if we give students discussion boards in Blackboard they will not use them, unless we link their use, initially, to specific learning activity! :-D

    On saying all this, I would agree that on seeing Daniels demo of Metaplace it did look simpler and easier to use, and my thought, I think like most of us there, was that such an environment may be better suited to many of our students at this time as they do not yet have the literacies and skills required to make effective use of a full 3D environment. Metaplace seems more ‘contained’, much less complex, where as SL is quite complex, and WoW incredibly so!

    On a personal note – I found the SL interface easier to get to grips with than I have as yet with WoW! :-)

    This issue certainly needs further investigation. Something for the VIEWS forum to take on too, and share our experiences of such things, whilst we are looking at shared induction materials?

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