My thoughts and reflections on Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds

Ok, so here I am – back in Lisbon, Portugal and staying at the Real Palacio. I think that in all I have been to Lisbon for 3 times and I have visited Porto once. I have to say that I am not too thoroughly impressed with the promised 5* service of the hotel. To start with, I was thoroughly disappointed with the fact that we were not advised that maintenance works were being carried out at the hotel’s spa. The result was that I had to forgo a much expected and much needed spa relaxation session after 2 long days at the conference. Ah well – it’s not such a big deal but I would have expected star service and well, in that, it lacked. The food was excellent though!

And now to go back to the conference organized by Inter-Disciplinary Net. I have to say that the organization of the conference is pretty impressive, both before we came here as well as during. The one thing which I would have to complain about, is that the acoustics inside the room during our whole group plenaries were absolutely horrible, and it was very difficult to really follow what the speakers were talking about.

Secondly, IDN have this concept of discouraging the use of PowerPoint or keynote slide presentations. Thankfully a number of presenters did not really heed this suggestion, and they did display images and some stuff which we could follow. Unfortunately, in my opinion those who had no visuals, and no resources, could not really communicate well with the participants. Maybe next year, the organizers would rethink the way this is done. The most important thing that should be stressed is that people have got to stop reading their talks and presentations. It makes the presentation really boring!

Re the content, I found that there were a number of presentations which gave me something that I could take back with me. In particular, the presentations that were especially useful to me, and really interesting, were contained within the strands that discussed Blended Learning, and Learning and Teaching in Virtual Worlds. As many were presenting, I started getting together a number of research ideas which I really hope to push forward. I really liked Simon Evans‘ presentation as he showed quite an insightful perspective, looking at research, from the perspective of a researcher who is immersed inside the environment.

In particular though, I enjoyed the presentation delivered by Anna Peachey and Mark Childs, on Blended Learning in Virtual Worlds.

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Their presentation focused on this project that ran in collaboration with the Chicago Museum, the aim of which, was to get students to create and argue hypothesis. The project used a blended environment as young learners attended a 3week summer program, that also featured this immersive environment in Second Life.

As an aside, it has to be noted that SL is definitely the social virtual world that was mentioned the most during this conference. I have to say that because I was working inside my own small Avaya world, I have been ignoring Second Life. Something tells me that I should really try to move back inside the world and somehow I need to find ways of bringing in my students with me. It’s where all the ‘life’ is found, it’s where the students can really find a space to interact and explore, and it’s also where I can make use of the developers’ expertise to develop the 3D area.

So there is much more information about this very interesting project online and I do suggest some more time is dedicated to reading about this. The project site is Virtual World for science: http://fieldmuseum.org/schools/i-dig-science
Student blog project contributions can also be found:
http://idigscience.tumblr.com/

I was also very interested in the way Deakin University in Australia, are managing their blended courses in Virtual Art, using face-to-face and Second Life modalities.
The Deakin Virtual Art Education Centre can be found here:
http://www.deakin.edu.au/arts-ed/education/teach-research/arts-ed/centre-in-sl.php

I think though that my best prize presentation (for the projects that interested me the most) has to go to two different persons, both from Australia (they should be given a prize just for the fact they travelled all the way to Europe for this). Dr Tom Edwards, from Tabor Victoria discussed his project on training Counsellors using a blended approach in face-to-face and SL environments. Sue Gregory from the University of New England in Australia, discussed her own PhD project with pre-service teachers, as she, like me was working with groups of people inside a virtual world, (she used SL) to engage teachers with technology during their classroom teaching. Her project was carried out over a period of 5 years and had some wonderful examples of the different modalities of using virtual worlds for Education, amongst which role playing. I think that my students would love doing something like that. More information about her project can be found here: http://www.virtualclassrooms.info and here
http://www.virtualprex.com.

A final interesting presentation that I think should be worthy of consideration is this project, ABV4Kids project, which is the anti-bullying village for kids. I think that having something like that for our own local context, or else hook up to partners interested in having a more global kids’ virtual village for discussing these issues might be a really good idea.

Ok so that seems to be it, from my end for this conference. I do hope that there is a follow up to this and that the e-books for this conference somehow make it to publication. I look forward to reading in more detail about the research that has been presented here! Well done to all and Ola!
PS I finally made it to go to a Fado Restaurant in Lisbon. Together with a few other conference participants we went to the Clube de Fado – fantastic food, and really lovely Fado music. I do advise this experience if you happen to be around the Lisbon area!

Virtual Worlds – an enhancement to learning or a distraction?

[View the story “Virtual Worlds – an enhancement to learning or a distraction? ” on Storify]

Last Thursday I participated in the #chat2lrn series with the title Virtual Worlds – an enhancement to learning or a distraction? It was actually great, the hour just flew and in the end I thought that I had had an overview of what some people think about in terms of virtual worlds.

The link to the #chat2lrn blog site, can be found here. I do suggest checking out the links, as they are quite interesting to read about. I hope I did manage to expand my network of connections, especially those working in the area of Virtual Worlds. My personal thoughts are that I should try to write a bit more about my views on Virtual Worlds and how these can in reality both enhance and enrich the learning experience as well as, if used incorrectly, prove to be not only a distraction to learning but also a demotivator in adopting them to teach and learn.

Vienna…’exquisite’ HUB for social innovators

So I did manage to spend my birthday in Austria… I wished I could have spent it home with my son, but my plans were slightly disrupted.

I started out with a visit to Linz, a SOCIONICAL project meeting was held at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, and it was overall very nice.

ARS Electronica, Linz

ARS Electronica, Linz

I especially liked the ARS Electronica Centre… extremely unique in its architectural design. The day after I travelled by train to Vienna (the OBB are slightly more expensive than WEST but travelling in comfort has no real price I guess – so well I opted for the OBB).

The reason for visiting Vienna was to check out the Vienna HUB. At the University of Malta, we are in the process of creating our own virtual world HUB and we would very much like to recreate the same atmosphere as in the live real thing.

So what is the HUB? This is a video explaining the concept and well, this concept has taken off in a great number of countries all across the world.

Visiting the Vienna HUB was a really nice experience. I mean I thought it was quite – the word which came to mind then, was exquisite… the decor, the style, the people around…I felt I could really stay there and do some work over there. I mean I would even have been inspired to think about some social innovation business… maybe using Virtual Worlds? Oh, I really and honestly wanted to connect then.. with someone, to discuss, to brainstorm.

The HUB - ViennaSo the bottom line is: how can we design a virtual world which reflects the same experience or atmosphere, as to the real HUB? What we cannot do is definitely recreate the same ambience…

My thoughts so far are to capitalize on the affordances of Virtual Worlds to be able to create an experience which offers its users, that which the real HUB cannot offer.

My initial design reactions would be oriented towards:

  1. Communication which extends beyond geographical borders, time and space, therefore the virtual HUB is open 24/7 and extends to all the global HUBS from Argentina to the Bay Area, to Malta?? So how to design the world so as to foster this aspect of communication. Since Virtual Worlds are persistent, then the overall physical design of the world facilitates this. However we need something else besides buildings, open spaces, libraries, etc. We need agents roaming around, in addition to volunteer avatars, to greet people, to show them around… to make them feel welcome and definitely not lost.
  2. The aspect of creation. Creation and creativity is an important aspect for social innovators. If the virtual HUB can give its users the possibility of visualizing their dreams into a 3D world structure, to test it out, without running the dangers attributed to real world implementation – taking the risk without really risking if you know what I mean, then I think that is one aspect which definitely cannot be derived from the real HUB.
  3. The importance of the content, or the reconciliation of meaningful content in context. Without this ‘meaningful content’ there cannot exist the right amount of self-efficacy which would justify the extended presence into the social virtual world rather than using the real world experience only.

I would say that limitations and challenges are various. I will probably speak more about them, as we get to the actual development stage.However I am looking forward to seeing tangible products and being able to experiment with the various parameters as we seek results into future virtual worlds research.

Things I have learnt so far… this week – the Proteus effect

This week I was writing my thesis… (for a change) and I came across a term which I had already come across before but which is interesting to note again. If we’re discussing the virtual environment irrespective of 2D or 3D platforms, we have to take into consideration how the individuals represent themselves. There are those people who actually say that they feel more comfortable communicating over social networks for example than in real life. There are those people who actually have a parallel life running on the 3D world, whether this is a social world or a game world.

So Yee and Bailenson, in 2007, coined the term “The Proteus Effect” which basically describes how the way people behave in the virtual environment is dependent pretty much on the representation in the online world. So if in a virtual world, the avatar is attractive, and tall, then the behavior of the avatar becomes more assertive, confident, bordering on the aggressive in game contexts. Popularity also increases amongst the other avatars and this could lead to a more productive behavior.

Now my avatar, enaV Follet, is a pretty brunette, with short hair (all over the place) and a motorcyclist outfit… what does THAT say about me, I wonder? 😉

Seeking Out New Worlds and Civilizations: A Workshop for Strategic Design of Virtual Worlds Learning Programs – Day 2

I think the most important considerations that will emerge out of this workshop is the planning for the design of such learning modalities. One of the most effective techniques that was employed throughout this workshop was that of having us work on existent training programs which might or might not be transferred to a virtual world. I think that most often decisions are taken impromptu and spontaneously. One buzz word which starts a trend and you would have someone who would decide that we need to migrate to a Virtual World or that we need to play games to improve efficiency or productivity.

The questions which were asked throughout the course of the workshop helped us I think refocus and reflect on a number of aspects which need to be taken into consideration. It is true as I mentioned in the previous blog post that virtual worlds do support a number of learning archetypes and it is also a fact that virtual worlds can offer a series of immersive experiences which other technologies are unable to provide for. However virtual worlds are simply tools – platforms which might or might not deliver the dream overcoming boundaries and limitations depending on THE PLAN.

I think that as for other technologies, we do not need to recreate the classroom in a virtual 3D world. We want a selling pitch to our superiors to justify the creation of a virtual world? Then we need to talk about priorities and how these can only be reached with and only with the possibility of this technology. If we can somehow create a course, which can definitely be created face to face or online using the much cheaper LMS option, then people will not be convinced. In academia, for example, things have been as they are forever. Employers complain that the graduates are not really up to scratch and cannot somehow live up to the needs of the 21st century workplace. And yet, not many academic organisations change their ways. And when change is proposed it is most often opposed. Therefore what can we propose? How can we design a structure which provides the right balance for the takeoff?

I think that measurement is an important aspect of the success of the design. We need to first understand in-depth what the audience primarily requires – and different audiences will need to be presented with different formats. What I mean is the CEO of an organisation will obviously have different needs to the employee who is undergoing training. However one cannot start simply by listening to one category’s needs. One needs to listen all the time and somehow strike that balance. It’s not easy of course but nobody ever said it was.

What about development? Development needs to be measured, tested and tried. Evaluation is another important tool which needs to be used when strategically designing training courses. It was mentioned that it is hard to monetise the cost-effectiveness of certain training programmes. Evaluation gives the numbers, the statistics, the qualitative address which participants can provide and this is the most important, and valuable information which will ultimately denote the final selling pitch.

I think that the conclusive question of the workshop pretty much sums up how to start this reflective exercise when drawing up a course design for virtual worlds. The question is “what can you start implementing tomorrow?” – what is for certain is that without the right plan, nothing can be implemented tomorrow. A project manager once told me, for a successful project it takes 90% planning and 10% doing. Maybe we need to take that into consideration.

Seeking Out New Worlds and Civilizations: A Workshop for Strategic Design of Virtual Worlds Learning Programs

So yesterday was the first day of the workshop held for training into the design of virtual worlds learning programs. I must say it was really interesting, quite engaging and as always when it comes to virtual worlds I am really fascinated by how immersive they can get. I mean I was following the workshop, alone, from my office on a deserted campus, at 1130pm all the way through 0230am and honestly I came away buzzing with excitement and not in the least feeling myself doze off during the whole workshop. I mean, honestly, how many times have we sat through lectures throughout the day time or maybe early evening and literally nodded our heads off? I remember doing it so often. Lectures were often tedious, we were always so passively taking notes. I think this is still the norm for many. And there we were, twelve adults – all coming in from a day’s work, and all participating quite animatedly I believe.

So what did I take back with me after the first day of the workshop. Quite a number of things I would say:

  1. Planning is a huge success determinant – in everything – but especially when designing Virtual Worlds, and more especially when designing them for training and educational purposes.
  2. The business case which needs to be modelled has to reflect clear, practical and specific objectives. There is no room for theory and ambiguity in Virtual Worlds.
  3. Learning archetypes are an important consideration when designing virtual worlds for training. To this extent, you can visit my delicious bookmarks for a number of links to archetypes for 3D worlds but I found this slideshare presentation particularly concise and it does capture a number of important points.
  4. We have also spoken a bit about the importance of pedagogy in virtual worlds and how these worlds are network formations where learning is facilitated through the interactions created. I learn because I talk to others in the same way informal learning occurs in different settings. Therefore virtual worlds are not simply social space constructions but they represent a series of interactions which humans consume and thrive on at an alarming rate. The idea of supporting reflection is also important and features in a number of training programs. How do I understand what I have in order to make best use of what I have?
  5. But ultimately – the main target is – irrespective of the various learning archetypes some of which (like simulations) can only be done in virtual worlds, what do virtual worlds have to offer which face to face classroom interactions, and maybe LMS cannot?

My answer to that question is very simply immersion… leading to engagement in a way which is only possible to experience through these 3D worlds. I know this is an oversimplified statement. It warrants more research, and it warrants more study. That is what my study is all about really. However it starts from there. Me and my avatar are ready for another session tomorrow night. Together we support each other as we pull another late nighter 🙂

VS-Games2011

Two weeks ago I attended the VS-Games2011 in Athens. The presentations were great and the research work which is going on in the field of serious games and virtual worlds looks very promising. The only glitch was that the attendance for the conference was rather poor. I honestly thought that more academics and researchers would be present and there would be more opportunities for networking and potential collaboration.

I hope there will be the opportunity to catch up on the collaborative aspect and extend project ideas amongst the academics and researchers in the field, at an international scale.

In the meantime here is my collection of tweets for the events using Storify.

Infinite Reality

I have recently read the book Infinite Reality by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson. I found their work inspirational and fantastic. They way they portray virtual reality as our present reality, and the way that they highlight the ‘obvious’ or ‘natural’ in our 21st century lives is really amazing. People are already living as virtual avatars in the online space but many may be reluctant to admit that we have already, as a population, embarked on this journey in the virtual realm. Whether we have a presence as part of a social networking environment, or as an alternative actor in games, or as an avatar in virtual worlds, each one of us is moving along this trajectory in an attempt to live a parallel life which extends that which we are already living as part of this physical life.

Second Life and E-Learning

Second Life is a virtual 3D community created in 2003. When the user becomes a member, he/she becomes a new resident and is given a new identity by using a name and a virtual avatar to represent himself in this virtual community.

Second Life’s virtual world also includes sound/visual environments such as wind and rain, audible conversations, built-in chats and instant messaging. Residents buy property, start businesses, game with other residents, create objects, join clubs, attend classes, or just hang out.

Second Life can also be used as a platform for an e-learning environment. The good thing about Second Life is that, unlike most of the other e-Learning environments, it brings the student into conditions which are very close to real-life situations. It is well suited for direct interaction and working in a specific virtual environment. All of this can be done by programming the avatar to act like a real person and interact with other avatars (other members). This is a good example of immersion into worlds which can extend someone’s perception of reality, and project it into this virtual reality.

The video below shows some examples of how Second Life can be used to provide training simulations. You can find other useful links within the same page.

MiRTLE: A Mixed Reality Teaching & Learning Environment

I came across this very interesting project  which aims to provide students with a great way to immerse themselves from the physical to the virtual reality.

Mixed Reality Teaching & Learning Environment (MiRTLE), was a one-year collaborative research project undertaken by Sun Microsystems Laboratories and the University of Essex from October 2007. Virtual worlds have been used to address some issues such as giving users a greater sense of presence and engagement than other communication/collaboration technologies, such as instant messaging, chat, audio/video conferencing or application sharing. However, few of the virtual worlds enable a mixed reality of physically present and remote students.

The vision for the project MiRTLE was for a combination of physically-present and remote students in a traditional instructive higher education setting. This solution should augment existing teaching practice with the ability to foster a sense of community amongst remote students, and between remote and physically-present students.