Sunday, 28 December 2008

Wandering Aimlessly

It's good to have a sense of purpose, but it's also good to wander aimlessly. I tend to wander aimlessly when I first start using a new bit of technology that I sense has huge creative potential.

I did it when I first started using the web all those years ago. In the days before Google, Yahoo had a random website button on their search page, and I spent hours, days, months clicking on it and discovering all that the early web had to offer. The early web mostly offered purple and green striped backgrounds covered with red body text and "My Home Page!!!!!!!" in 72 point yellow Times New Roman. There was no real sense of purpose to my expeditions, but my brain was in a kind of 'neutral-receptive' mode, feeding on the dross and allowing my subconscious to speculate on what might be.

Webcams were my next meaningless time waster. You were lucky to get 1 frame per minute in those days, but I found these nearly live windows on the world fascinating. No immediately obvious creative potential, but feeding the brain all the same.

I did it again when I first signed up to Second Life. This time, I got into double clicking on random location on the map, seeing where I ended up and flying around for a bit. I got a bit obsessed with this, spending hours soaking up the nonsense and storing it, encrypted in my subconscious, for a later date.

During this Chrismas break, I've allowed myself the luxury of more meaningless meandering through technology. This time, it's Google's Streetview. I've spent far too long over the last few days wandering the streets of Lille, Paris, lots of random locations in the U.S. and some bits of Sydney. Not the interesting obvious places, but the normal streets and suburbs and backstreets and remote woodland tracks. Nothing of any great significance. I don't know why. It's like there is a secret hidden somewhere in the banal. Maybe the secret will be unlocked when Google start to make use of the 3D laser scanner data that they have started to capture from their cars. Wandering through Streetview is lonely, but if Google give us a detailed and accurate 3D world to explore, wouldn't it be fun if it was full of avatars to share the experience?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Rhizome of proximal development

I couldn't work out which berries were poisonous in the woods, and the wild learners just ignored me, so I've decided to go back into farming. Rather than going back to egg farming, I've decided to grow rhizomes.

Rhizomes usually spontaneously swell up in the wild when the conditions are right, but I reckon that if we dig some fertiliser into our field, and plant enough baby rhizomes, then keep a close eye on them and feed them with just the right amount of miracle grow when they need it, then we'll get ourselves a bumper harvest at the end of the academic year.

Field = Learning environment = Virtual studio space

Fertiliser = Graham's ePortfolio/VSE tool + OpenSim for all 600 students in the School.

Baby rhizomes = all 600 students in the School.

Keep a close eye on them = regular ongoing formative assessment.

Feed them with miracle grow = feedback, feed-forward and goal setting.

Bumper harvest = summative assessment = accreditation.

Monday, 15 December 2008


I discovered the term 'Free range learning' the other day. This is an intriguing phrase.

We might suppose that at one extreme we have intensively farmed battery learners in module sized cages constructed from VLE wire.

At the other extreme we have wild learners, surviving on instinct, but unprotected from predators and sudden changes to their environment.

Free range learners have the protection of a fence, too far away for them to notice, and a farmer whose best interests are served if the learner is well-fed and happy.


Battery learners - force fed with mobility severely restricted. Lay lots of eggs. Industry thinks it wants them because they're cheap, but they leave a bad taste. Safe but miserable learners.

Wild learners - free but unsupported and vulnerable. Hard to find their eggs. Industry hasn't got time to go hunting for them. Likely to get devoured by wild animals, die of old age or perish in a harsh winter storm.

Free range learners - free to roam, but supported and protected. Blissfully unaware of their ultimate fate. Less attractive to industry due to their expensive eggs, but omelettes are tasty and satisfying.

As I let this thought exercise pan out, I can feel myself being drawn to the wild learner. However, in this bizarre parallel universe, I think I'm probably an egg farmer, and if I don't sell eggs, my family will starve.

Maybe I'll jack this egg farming malarky in, become a vegan, live in the woods and eat berries with the wild learners.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Nicht in Berlin

It's been painful not being in Berlin at the Educa conference this week. I was all geared up for the usual live video link, but was shocked to find that there was no stream. The only link I had was a healthy Twitter channel, but this just teased me and made me wish I was there even more. Judging from the tweets, Graham Hibbert was doing a sterling job, but I felt 'disempowered', as they used to say in the 80s. I was stuck in snowy Leeds wasting my efforts on local problems that haven't changed for 20 years and could be tackled by any number of people, when I should have been in Germany helping to shape the future of education. Well, in the absence of detailed information, that's what I imagined was happening. Even two intense blog posting sessions (Inventing the VSE concept and making sense of the entire Open Habitat project) didn't really make me feel any better.

However, this morning a tweet came through flagging up the live 'Sounds of the Bazaar' radio broadcast with Graham Attwell and Josie Fraser, and a link to a parallel chat room. Ah, this was just what I needed to cheer me up. I challenge anyone to feel negative when Graham A and Josie F are on the mic. The chatroom gave me an opportunity to talk some rubbish and tell a few bad jokes which, at the end of the day, was all I was really missing.

The parallel text chat room seemed to be some sort of instant freeby widget/gadget/mini-application type thing. Essentially, a load of random people clicked a link and signed in and suddenly we were all together in a spontaneously generated virtual text-space.

Now, there is no reason why that couldn't have been a multi-user virtual environment. Maybe Wonderland could be put to use to provide a simple on demand Java webstart 3D chat space, with open log-ins just like today. No sign-up hassles. Noobs welcome. An open 3D world just when you need it.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Augment with OpenSim. Immerse with Second Life.

As we start rounding up the Open Habitat project, I've been thinking about how things might be in the future. I think the relationship between OpenSim and Second Life is an important one to focus on, especially when we are considering the use of virtual worlds in a fee paying, assessment driven, accreditation dependent blended learning context. Let me try to explain:

A student applies to a course and pays fees. They want marks, because marks equal credit points, and credit points add up to a degree. Fair enough. If we want to give them marks, we need to know who they are and what they have done. If they produce work in Second Life, then we invariably need to betray the identity of the avatar, so the puppeteer can get credit for the learning. This limits the potential for the really deep learning that a full-on immersionist/role play/fantasy apporoach enables. Can the immersionist ideal ever fully function in a traditional accreditation dependent framework? How might an immersionist programme of learning function? Is there really a need for any sort of formal framework for this immersonist extreme? Perhaps the role play involves an avatar going to University. The person behind the avatar may lack the usual credentials required to gain entry into a proper University, but in Second Life, the admissions criteria might be different, and the evidence could be fabricated. Maybe the avatar could pay fees (in Linden Dollars, obviously), and this could pay for the tutorial support and course design. Maybe this already happens, I don't know. What if the teacher-avatars were playing this role? Maybe pretend teachers could learn how to teach pretend students who are pretending to learn? What about quality? Perhaps a pretend Ofsted or QAA inspector could pay an unannounced visit, and suck all of the energy and enthusiasm out of everyone with an overly simplistic snap judgement about how everyone is doing it all wrong.

I'm rambling a bit, but one of the most significant aspects of the Open Habitat project for me has been the way that I've been able to role play pedagogy. By adapting my beliefs about education to suit a virtual environment, I've had to work out what my beliefs really are. In the process, I've realised just how powerful the art education model is, and that we aren't actually implementing it as well as we should in 'real life'. Recently, I've been reeled back in by the institution to run such a real-life course, but because of Open Habitat I know exactly how to do it. And I'm doing it. And it's better. Real benefits from virtual world research.

Still rambling. Stay with me...

Back to the OpenSim thing. Lets go to the augmentationist side now. On my real life course, I have 317 students. They all use the (dare I call it) virtual studio environment that Graham built to share their joy with fellow students and staff. They don't need to sign up. If they've enrolled on the course, they just log in and start uploading. They don't need to agree to the terms and conditions of some mystery company in America. They are all called what they are called in real life. Some of them sync their Flickr accounts, but many have never heard of Flickr, and might not want to share themselves and their work with the world anyway. So, might OpenSim provide every student with an instant virtual world to create, communicate and collaborate? No sign up. No name choosing. Just download a customised client, and log in using your usual user-name and password.

In the same way that all students can upload images to the VSE, but some also choose to have public Flickr accounts, could some students then choose to sign up to Second Life and do the whole public/role play thing? If they are familiar with OpenSim, I think that they will be more likely to engage meaningfully with Second Life. This also tackles that problem of the taught delivery part of the pilots, which were great in many ways, especially in our use of the standalone version of OpenSim, but I like the rhizome thing. It's what's happened with our VSE. Graham designed a tool that everyone could log into and work out how to use, all by themselves, in minutes. We were supposed to train everybody up in the 'teacher in front' way, but we got distracted, and the students and staff just got on with it. If you make a well designed tool available to everyone, then they will work it out. Especially if it is fun and useful. If we put a button on our VSE to an OpenSim world, they would click it and log in. They would phone their friends who would also log in, their avatars would meet, and the whole thing would explode.

Right. I've convinced myself. How can we make this happen? We need OpenSim running on a server somewhere. I could do this through LeedsMet's computing services department, but I'm a bit scared of them (my problem, not theirs), so I probably won't. Is there an OpenSim community dude who might host an island for us? We would need to create 317 accounts (or 600 if we do the whole School) using the database of usernames and passwords we have for the VSE. Graham could work with a friendly OpenSim dude to do this quite quickly. We will need a tweaked version of the Second Life client. This is just a standard client with a different login URI in the arguments.txt file. Can we do this under the T&C of the opensource client? Surely we can.

I want to do it! I want to do it! Lets do it!

For me, the logical conclusion to the Open Habitat project is to create an open-source open habitat for our students. We must recognise that the Second Life focussed art & design mini pilots, despite our best efforts, have produced visitors. Only by giving the whole school their own virtual playground and plenty of playtime, will our students ever become residents in a virtual world.

Virtual Studio Environment

More thoughts about the virtual studio environment idea:

What is a studio environment?

Art & Design education is predominantly studio based. Large, open spaces provide students with opportunities to learn through doing, supported by peers, tutors and technicians. The space and the overall learning experience is shaped by the students and the work that they produce. The walls and floors are filled with the ongoing products of learning, and provide a focus for dialogue. Informal, conversation based formative assessment is the predominant form of academic support. Formal delivery of content is minimal, and sometimes completely absent. Knowledge is transmitted from tutors to students through individualised feedback, and by students working alongside staff who are also active creative practitioners.

What is the virtual studio environment?

The VSE provides a range of networked software tools to augment or replicate the studio environment.

The primary tool for supporting the studio environment approach is an asynchronous web-based ePortfolio-like tool with a range of familiar features.

Uploads - Let's stick our work on the walls
Students and staff are able to upload work in progress in the form of images, video and text to their personal space within this tool.

Comments - Lets chat about your work
Work can be viewed by any member of the community, and comments can be added, enabling dialogue around particular piece of work.

Groups - This is our corner of the studio
The community provides the provision for multiple membership of groups within the tool to support a range of focussed learning activities. If the VSE is used in a formal educational context, community members are automatically assigned to their relevant course and level groups. Any member of the community can set up their own group, which provides them with similar functionality to the course groups. The membership of these sub-groups is invitation, but group owners can allow open membership, permitting anyone from the wider community to join. All groups provide a list of all members of that group (all students and staff, in the case of a course group), with links to their work.

Notices - I read it on the notice board.
The tool also provides a facility for posting notices that are relevant to that group, which appear as soon as a member logs in.

Sending images to a group - Lets pin all this stuff on our wall
Any member of a group can send a piece of their work to the group which appears in the 'recent items' stream. In the case of the course groups, work is automatically shown in the course stream when it is uploaded, providing a constantly refreshing view of recent activity.

Resources - I picked up a handout with all that stuff on it
There is a section within each group for the administrator to upload core resources such as PDFs of assessment criteria, but the emphasis is on the contributions of the members.

Discussion boards - Let's have a debate about this.
A discussion board tool is provided in each group to facilitate focussed dialogue.

Messages - Can I have a quiet word?
A messaging system allows private communication between members of the community, and a facility exists for the administrators of groups to send bulk messages to members of their group. For tutors, this provides an efficient and focussed method for communicating course and level specific information, such as upcoming events or meetings. For the administrators of other groups, such as a project group, it allows focussed communication to the members of that sub-group.

Feedback - Don't tell my mates, but...
Each student is provided with a feedback section which is only visible to that particular student and their tutors, allowing a level of privacy but allowing several tutors to support individual students. Both the individual students and staff can add text to this ongoing tutorial record, and students are encouraged to record and reflect on feedback received in synchronous tutorials in this section. Students record all relevant conversations with staff, and personal tutors check this section to ensure that the conversations were understood. This also allows tutors to gain an insight into conversations that their personal students are having with other tutors.

External services - I also stuck this on the wall outside.
As well as providing a core set of tools that all students and staff can use, the VSE allows members to integrate external services such as Flickr, Delicious and Blogger. The tool can be configured by the user to either automatically publish to these tools, or to fetch new content from them. This allows members to continue using familiar third party tools, and gives them the opportunity to show their work to a wider audience whilst sharing this activity with the local community via the VSE.

Identity management - Who are you?
Like the VLE and the ePortfolio, the gatekeeper of the VSE is an identity management system. Students log-in using either a central institutional database linked to their enrolment status (if the provision is paid for and students require accreditation), or via an open identity management system.

Synchronous tools
If the VSE is used to augment a physical learning context, then the primary synchronous learning environment is a traditional studio, and the primary form of support is in the form of face-to-face dialogue and formative assessment. In this context, the tool is used to reduce the amount of time staff traditionally spend on tracking, recording and controlling students, freeing up time to maximise face-to-face learning conversations.

In a distance context, other synchronous tools are required to replicate the studio environment.

Multi-user virtual environments.
User generated content focussed MUVEs such as Second Life provide learners with an environment that is highly conducive to studio based learning. Students and staff are able to function as creative practitioners in these environments in a manner that is very similar to how they would operate in a physical studio. The production of artwork in these virtual spaces can be witnessed by peers and tutors, and the synchronous communication tools allow learning conversations to take place around the work. When identity authenticity and a closed environment are important, open source solution such as OpenSim provide the opportunity for a close integration of the 2D and 3D aspects of the VSE. Commercial services such as Second Life provide the potential for richer learning through role play and exploration, and may have a looser link with the VSE. In the case of an open community, the Second Life identity may be the authentic identity in the VSE.

Conferencing tools.
Live conferencing tools such as Elluminate can facilitate group and individual tutorials, as they provide the facility not only for voice and video chat, but also for sharing and annotating 2D artwork. The whiteboard facility acts at the 'table' of the tutorial. Any artwork placed on it can be drawn and written on, as would happen in traditional tutorial. Conferencing tools are also suitable for the traditional 'crit' or presentation of outcomes in a group situation, as well as supporting ideation and brainstorming activities. They also provide an ideal platform for collaborative working. When 3D conferencing platforms such as Sun's Wonderland platform mature, they may also provide the VSE with an enhanced environment for dialogue.

Sounds good in theory, but will it work?
The description of a VSE above is based on a system that is currently operational within the Leeds School of Contemporary Art & Graphic Design at Leeds Metropolitan University. The asynchronous toolset is a php/mySQL system that has been developed in-house over the last three years, and is currently used by over 600 students and staff. The system has proved to be huge success with both students and staff alike, and over 59 000 items have been uploaded to the tool. As this VSE has been implemented on a physically located set of courses, the synchronous toolset described above has proved less necessary. However, through the JISC funded Open Habitat project, we have developed good practice guidelines for the use of multi user virtual environments in a studio context, making use of both OpenSim and Second Life with students in the School. Through our membership of the JISC Emerge community of practice, we have made extensive use of Elluminate, which has just been adopted by LeedsMet as its conferencing platform.

What next?
We need to work with others to evaluate and develop the virtual studio environment concept. We currently lack the capacity to evaluate the wealth of existing data in our current system, and we do not have the resources to turn our prototype into a robust and scalable solution. Graham Hibbert has developed the current prototype, and Ian Truelove has implemented it across the School. In addition to Ian and Graham, we need an experienced evaluator, a software developer with expertise in php/SQL, .net and service orientated architecture, networking support from LeedsMet computing services, a project manager and some funding to pay for it all.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The future of the VLE - The VSE?

I've been dipping in and out of the JISC Emerge online conference as best I can over the last two days. It's great to be involved in these debates with a bunch of people that really know what they are on about.

Today's session was about the future of the Virtual Learning Environment. As the leader of a course that has 'opted out' of the institutional VLE, and built something that serves the needs of our students a lot better, I was heartened to hear other voices questioning the supremacy of the VLE. There were a couple of things that set me thinking. The big one was the connectivist thing about future educational institutions primarily serving the purpose of accreditation. This was echoed by talk of the importance of identity management and interoperability, when a range of technical services are combined by students to enhance learning. Other thoughts I had, but didn't necessarily voice, were around the importance of different sized groupings of learners. My biggest problem with our VLE is the wall that is put around each module. This denies other, in my opinion, more powerful groupings of learners. The one day project with 20 students that are, on that day, interested in learning about solving an advertising brief. The 3 year long grouping of a cohort. The 3 years worth of students on a programme. The trans-institutional and non-institutionalised groups of learners. There are many ways in which we can encourage and permit different sized learning communities, with different membership, but the VLE seems only to permit and encourage one that is based on the module.

Other thoughts: Do we have an ePortfolio tool? I keep calling our Flickr-like VLE alternative an ePortfolio tool, but it's clear that we have something that is quite different to other eportfolios. One term that was mentioned was the VRE - the Virtual Research Environment. Maybe it's that. I always think of it as being like the traditional art school studio learning environment - a space that students and staff occupy, where work is produced and stuck onto the walls, and it is discussed and reflected on. So I might invent a new thing to call our tool - the Virtual Studio Environment, or VSE. It sounds a bit more like an evolution of a VLE, and less confrontational. It also links perfectly with our Open Habitat research, as we are essentially applying the same principal there, but in 3D.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Lessons ignored

I've just run a Second Life induction session for Library staff. I originally intended to do the established 'OpenSim standalone first' plan of action, but as I only had an hour with them, I decided to jump straight into the Second Life sign up, so that I could show off LeedsMet's islands.

All was going well, until the second person in the room got through the registration process. And it all came flooding back to me.

'Registration Denied!'

The old 'multiple sign-up from the same IP address' thing reared its ugly head, and I remembered why we worked out a different way of tackling Second Life induction. Anyway, it was too late to start fiddling about with Terminal to get OpenSim up and running, so I did a big screen fly through of the islands, and went onto Lecture auto-pilot.

Note to self: Follow the recommendations of your own research project in future, idiot.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

World for sale

I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Despite rebelling against this in my teens and going to University (I like to think of myself as the white sheep of the family), I occasionally feel an uncontrollable entrepreneurial urge welling up inside me. However, having witnessed the hard work involved in turning a good idea into a profit, I usually see sense and divert my creative energies towards my day job.

There is one idea I had a while ago that just won't go away, so I thought I'd spill it out here.
Here's the pitch:


Imagine that the whole world is for sale.

Every square metre of land on earth is up for grabs, and anyone can buy it.

A 16 metre square plot cost only 1 cent.

You can put anything you like on your land. Each 4 metre x 4 metre plot supports a 64 pixel x 64 pixel image. 10 cents should buy you a decent sized picture.

You'll probably want to buy up the land your house is on first. You could put a picture of yourself on it, or maybe your email address.

It might be a good idea to buy up the land that your company's headquarters occupy before someone else does. Maybe buy up your competitors headquarters and put your logo there, just to wind them up a bit.

Strapped for cash? No problem. We'll give you an interest free loan to buy your land. You can pay us back if you sell it on to someone else.

You could buy up some famous places. Like Piccadilly Circus, or The White-house, or Old Trafford. Someone will want them for sure. They'd definitely pay more than a few cents to put their stuff on those popular spots. Well, it's up to you to set a price. It's your land. All of the profit is yours to keep.


Anyway, you get the idea. It's basically 'the million dollar web-page' meets 'Google maps' meets 'buying and selling land in Second Life'.

It's a sure fire winner, I'm sure of it. All I need to do is rework Google maps via the API, install a decent e-commerce system, get some scalable image-server capacity and do a bit of viral marketing.

Fuelled by easy credit, the global virtual real estate free market economy will explode like an electronic antidote to real world recession.

Right, back to the day job.

Friday, 7 November 2008

The future of online HE

I should be posting about the pilot, but that bit of my brain has blown a fuse after today's 4 hour solid crit with the students. Instead, I've found a link from the JISC online conference discussions to a speech by John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, at the UUK Annual Conference
 in September. This quote caught my eye:

So a key question for universities in Britain is this: How can we be one of the leading - if not the leading - centres of online higher education learning in the world. I am convinced if we want to achieve this aim, it cannot be achieved by a rush to dump more course material onto the internet than other higher education systems.

Our aim should be to be the best by showing that online learning can offer those features of higher education which make our university world class today: Our challenge is to support students in developing their skills of evaluation, critical analysis and reflection, synthesis, problem-solving, creativity and thinking across discipline boundaries, as well as giving them any extra skills they needed to make their use of IT fully effective.

Denham, J. (2008) UUK Annual Conference Cambridge. Keynote. [Internet] September 11. Available from [Accessed 7th Nov 2008]

So, don't dump course material onto the internet. Develop skills of evaluation, critical analysis and reflection, synthesis, problem-solving, creativity and thinking. Cross discipline boundaries. Give extra skills needed to make best use of technology.

How well has Open Habitat fulfilled these aims?
Are virtual worlds a key component in the future of online HE?
What is the role of the art and design approach in all of this?

Monday, 3 November 2008

Week 3

Ah, it's been a long time since day 2. The reality of learning in virtual world is that tutors keep getting dragged kicking and screaming back to the real world. Lots has happened in-world though. Check out my Flickr stream for some pics of activities. More to follow soon.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

2nd A&D pilot - Day 2

First day totally in world.

We all met on LeedsMet island and the students considered the Manual tasks. I suggested doing the 'Red' task to start off with, and the teams split to make a decision. Both teams decided to do the word association-seating area creation task instead, which was much better. I hung around with team A, and helped them to get the word association going. Kisa went off with team B and did the same.

This particular task turned out to be a great way of getting all of the students involved in an initial, not too taxing chat based task. Everyone, whatever level of skill, can type the first thing that comes into their head, so it proved to be good way of structuring a simple, reassuring socialisation activity. When we got bored (actually, a couple of them wanted to carry on playing word association all morning), each student picked their 2 favourite words from the ones spoken in the game, and the task was to make or find two chairs that relate to those words and create a group seating area on the team plot.
Anyway, after some freebie plundering and pretty impressive building activities for ones so young, a collection of 'chairs' were assembled and everyone seemed pretty pleased with themselves. I particularly liked the toothpaste sofa.

Tomorrow: 2 hour real world session in the Mac room to help improve building skills.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Second Pilot main project - Day 1

Today was the first official day of the main part of the second art & design pilot.

Just a quick update on what's happened leading up to today's project launch: I started off by taking about 100 first year Graphic Arts & Design undergraduates through a half-hour OpenSim workshop as one of their inductions in the first 15 credit point introductory module a couple of weeks ago. The Manual, which is a collection of mini-projects, was issued as part of this module to get students working, and I created a post induction hand-out in a similar vein to take interested students through the first few hours in Second Life. About 7 students completed the tasks on this handout in their own time. The second module started today, with the theme of community (which is handy, considering the collaborative ambitions we have for the second pilot). 5 projects, including mine, are being run in parallel over the next 3 weeks, and students have signed up to the one they liked the look of. The other available projects are: workshop based photography, illustration activities, fanzine production, and setting up a stall in Leeds Market to sell art. I limited the places on the Second Life project to 10 participants, which I subsequently split into two teams.

The project kicked off today with all 9 (one didn't show, which was a bit annoying) participants in the real life computer room. Although one of the principals that emerged from the first pilot was that 'collaboration benefits from distance', I needed to make sure that all the students were up to speed, and this is much easier in a blended learning setting. We experienced the same confusion over real verses virtual, but I see this as a necessary evil to get things running smoothly before committing totally to the distance mode. It turns out that 3 of the participants hadn't yet signed up to Second Life, so I let the others play for a bit whilst these three latecomers zipped through Help island before joined the rest of the group on the steps of H-Building. It will be interesting to see how jumping from the OpenSim induction straight to today's project launch without completing the tasks on the handout affects the experience of these students.

I've set up two groups on the course ePortfolio tool to provide each team with a web-based tool to bring together their snapshots, have asynchronous discussions and send group messages. This fits with the idea of using third party tools to support collaboration. Each team has been allocated a generous plot of land on LeedsMet island to build all of their stuff on over the next three weeks. In the first pilot, we gave each student individual plots, which probably discouraged collaboration, so it will be interesting to see how each team gets on sharing land. The activities over the next three weeks, as mentioned in previous posts, will come from the 75 mini-tasks in 'The Manual - Second Life edition', which is displayed in the centre of LeedsMet island. Most of these mini-projects have a collaborative slant, but there are plenty of opportunities for individual effort within the set tasks.

One of the other key points that came out of the first pilot was 'Socialisation before collaboration', so the focus of today's activities was very much on the students getting to know each other. After the customary friend making ritual (which I limited to making friends within teams), Kisa was on hand to drop everyone a notecard with a bunch of landmarks to interesting locations on the mainland. We decided to all visit Svarga first, as this is a good example of what it is possible to build in Second Life. Everyone flew about on the new 'giant wasp' guided tours, and then we all teleported back to LeedsMet. After separating the two groups back into their respective teams, I asked each team to discuss where they were going to visit next out of the collection of landmarks on the notecard. They all seemed to tackle this task without too much anxiety, and without feeling the need to talk about it in real life. A couple of quick tours later, and clutching team snapshots, the students returned to their homes on LeedsMet. The last thing I did was check that everyone could build on LeedsMet, and we arranged to meet up tomorrow in-world at 10am for 'The Manual' inspired building fun.

This second pilot feels quite different to the first one. The fact that I am running this as an official project within a bigger module, running alongside other projects, and with assessable outcomes, makes it all feel a lot more real. The first pilot was a lot more experimental, with more time devoted to the induction phases, and a lot more staff around to get things going. This pilot is running within the resourcing constraints of a typical undergraduate provision, with less staff time and technical support, with the added complication of having to fit into a busy first year schedule. It is real learning in virtual environments happening on a real course at a real University. As a new course leader, virtual worlds need to prove themselves worthy of the limited resources I have available to indulge new-fangled technologies. I find myself in the unusual position of both championing virtual worlds, and simultaneously demanding evidence that they are worth the money. If this project proves to be clearly beneficial to first year graphics students, then I will run it every year. If I think that these students would have been better off spending their time selling pictures in the market, then I will axe it. Oh, my own harshest critic. What fun.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Second A&D Pilot starts next week.

Right. I better give you all a quick update before I get dragged back into the day job.
I did 6 x half-hour OpenSim inductions last Wednesday, introducing about 100 of our first year Graphics Students to a virtual world. They all seemed pretty happy about the experience, and some of them manage to build some pretty cool stuff. One of them even managed to terraform the island into a face (above). Not bad for a complete Noob.

I left them with a quick start guide to Second Life, and several have manage to log in since and send me an instant message.
The second pilot proper starts next Monday, and I've ended up deciding to run it as one of five projects that occupy the first three weeks of the second module. Students have an option of continue with the project after this three week block, running alongside the next lot of projects. About 10 people have signed up so far, so we should have enough to create two teams. The project is based on 'The Manual', which is a book of mini-projects, quotes and ideas relating to Graphic Arts & Design, written by all 17 staff that teach on the graphics course. Along with Graham and other project team members, I've adapted the tasks to suit Second Life and collaboration, and I plan to display these mini-projects in the middle of LeedsMet island. Each team gets a big plot to build on, and Kisa & Cubist will be providing support for the development of the work over the 3 week slot. We also have a Big Draw event going on in the middle week, so we plan to link in with this as well. Here is the timetable of initial events:
Monday 20th October - Module GAD1.2 and project launch - Second Life session in H701 or remotely.
Tuesday 21st October - In-world session on Leeds Met island. Activities.
Wednesday 22nd October - Second Life session in H701 at 10am.
Friday 24th October - Activities on LeedsMet island
Monday 27th October - Live Second Life Big Draw session in Library and on Leeds Met island.
Tuesday 28th October - Live Second Life Big Draw session in Library and on Leeds Met island.
Wednesday 29th October - Live Second Life Big Draw session in Library and on Leeds Met island.
Thursday 30th October - Live Second Life Big Draw session in Library and on Leeds Met island.
Friday 31st October - Live Second Life Big Draw session in Library and on Leeds Met island.
Tuesday 4th November - Exhibition and feedback on LeedsMet island.
Friday 7th November - Exhibition and feedback on LeedsMet island. Party.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Oil spill

Twitter is the oil that has lubricated my ideas today.
A JISC-Emerge tweet alerted me to a blog post by Josie Frazer about Dave White's work on Residents and Visitors for the JISC funded Isthmus project. Dave is, of course, Open Habitat's project manager, which is quite handy.

My fuzzy thinking about all of this at the moment needn't prevent me from spilling a few ideas here.

It strikes me that the idea of 'Residents' might be the key to unlocking the problem of collaboration in the Art & Design pilot. We have just decided to split participants in the second pilot into teams, and to give each team a home. We are trying to make them into residents in a virtual world, rather than just visitors. The difference, I think, is that Isthmus is looking at web based communities and is dealing with a more abstract sense of residents and visitors. We are thinking much more literally about our students building a home (albeit a fairly abstracted one) and becoming residents in it. The collaboration aspect will come from the fact that we are forcing our students to share a house (which is, after all, what being a student is all about).

I've not quite got this one clear yet. I may well be missing some points. I'll try and pin things down a bit better tomorrow.

From Habitat to G-Plan

Intrigued by a PhD student that I am advising, inspired by a conversation with Graham yesterday, and supported by this article I've just stumbled upon, I think we have the plan sorted.

Reality Check.
The reality of meeting all 127 first year students on Monday, and discussing the schedule of projects, activities and assessments with the Level One staff has really focussed my thinking. The original strap line for Open Habitat was "Real learning in virtual worlds." Some real learning happened in the phase one pilot, but if we want to integrate the second pilot into our student's programme of study, much more real learning needs to take place. The harsh reality is that unless the work produced in a virtual world counts towards assessment, and is seen to be directly relevant to the other activities that are going on in the first year, we won't get any real learning, as nobody will turn up. With this in mind, I have abandoned my immersionist dream of totally disconnecting the avatars from their students, and instead have decided to take a more integrated approach. I am in the process of writing a virtual worlds element into both the induction and main module that will be running at the same time as the pilot in level 1. Students will be given an option to work in the virtual world, either bringing in the real world project activities to explore, or to work on specific tasks and negotiated activities. All of the work will be assessable.

The other slightly vague area in all of our previous pilot plans was collaboration. I think Graham has cracked this one. One of the things that many noobs want to do is create a place to call home. I suggested that we enable collaboration through peer support by splitting the participants up into teams, and Graham suggested that each team should first be directed to build a home for the team. This home would force collaboration, as team members would need to discuss the implementation of their home building. I see each home becoming the focus for subsequent activities, acting as a shared studio, meeting place, exhibition space and crit area. The idea of collaboration through a team can also be the basis of other activities, such as more competitive quests (the Spartosophy idea that I still have under wraps).

Anyway, the initial plan of the 1 day OpenSim induction on the 8th October, with a period of exploration guided by 'Kisa's 50 micro-quests for Noobs', will now be followed by team and plot allocation at the first in-world meeting on the 17th Oct, and an initial home building quest. Further details to follow.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Back to plan, er, E, F?

For a variety of reasons, the Faculty wide idea is no longer on the cards, so I'm reverting back to the A&D students for the second pilot.
The ruthless culling of seemingly fully-formed plans is an essential part of the creative process, but my apologies to those readers not used to this turbulent approach to project planning.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Pruning my previous ideas, and planting a big new one.

I recently helped the Police get their Freshers' safety message across by installing a poster on one of our islands:
The V.C. mentions it here in his daily reflection,
and here's a report in the Yorkshire Evening Post

On Tuesday, the Faculty is hosting a special Freshers' welcome day, where the Police will be promoting their Safety message and, hopefully, pointing Second Life savvy first years to our island. It has suddenly stuck me that this might provide an ideal opportunity to recruit the sort of experienced avatars to our study that we need. One of the findings from the evaluation of the first pilot was the limitations associated with getting noobs up to speed before we could tackle some of the more focussed activities around collaboration. I'm estimating that there will be around a thousand freshers at the event on Tuesday, so there is a good chance that there will be several SL experts in the audience. The faculty runs a broad range of programmes, including art & design, building & construction, cultural studies, social sciences, film and television, architecture and tourism. If we could bring together students from across these disciplines, we would stand a much better chance of getting some meaningful collaboration going.
One issue might be the potential conflict between the students' involvement with a weird virtual worlds project, and their chosen programme of study. I can imagine some of my colleagues in other parts of the Faculty perhaps taking exception to me interfering with their students learning. One solution to this that I've thought of is to support the University's strong commitment to volunteering. If the focus of collaboration between Faculty students in Second Life had a worthy aim, then not only would we sit comfortably outside the constraints of curriculum, but we could do something good for the world. There are several charity events exist already in Second Life. Relay for Life is in July, so this doesn't fit into out timeframe for the project. We're cutting it a bit fine for Burning Life, which starts on 27th September, but this event could provide a timely focus for socialisation activities, and to get the idea across about what we might do.

The other idea I had was to gather together the SL expert freshers next week and make them Leeds Met mentors, and than draft them in to assist with the previous plan that I blogged about recently. This would be a good way to test out the mentoring opportunity identified in the evaluation of the first pilot.

I think that if we could bring together a much bigger group of students on the fertile ground of Leeds Met's islands, then the sort of rhizomatic swellings of collaboration that Dave C talks about might just happen. If Kisa and I can act as gardeners, then we might just get something special growing out of this project.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Working the detail into the phase 2 pilot plan.

I've just come out of a very positive and productive Elluminate meeting with fellow Open Habitat project members, and I just want to capture a few thoughts that are in my head in relation to my proposed phase 2 pilot plan.

The main issues that need addressing at the moment are around socialisation and collaboration, and the purpose and opportunities of 'The Book'.

Socialisation is a complex and subtle problem to address. The fact that I am working with brand new first year students pretty much as soon as they walk through the door is significant. As well as the idea of using Second Life as a tool to help these students make sense of everything, with the ultimate aim of increasing the long term effectiveness of their engagement with the real life course, the focus on in-world socialisation in the early stages of the pilot will help the process of collaboration later on. However, more detail need to be worked into this process of socialisation. In particular, the 9 day gap between the hand-holding in OpenSim, and the first formal in-world event needs addressing. This is an interesting problem, as the deliberate separation of the real students from their avatars to maintain their anonymity makes support difficult in this transition stage. Part of me wants to see if an OpenSim pre-induction is enough to give them them enough to survive when dumped into Second Life, but I also acknowledge that a little extra help might vastly improve their sense of purpose and direction. One way I've thought of addressing this is to produce a printed mini-guide, possibly containing a series of 'quests' for students to complete in over the 9 days in the wilderness. Kisa is an experienced official Second Life mentor, and I'm sure she would know what to put into this rough guide. It would also provide a nice output for others to use in conjunction with the OpenSim pre-induction approach.

The book of ideas, quotes and micro-projects that our students make use of in their first year might also provide the template for guiding students in both their acclimatisation, and their subsequent engagement. If we could hand each student a printed book of many Second Life relevant tips, quotes, micro-quests, places to go and things to do, then they can pick the ones that feel most relevant and do them during the first few days in world. I see them primarily working on these alone initially, so that when they appear nine days later in LeedsMet island, we have a diverse range of things to discuss.

This leads onto the whole issue of collaboration. I know from my often bitter experiences of group-working that collaboration can be a very difficult process to manage. I am convinced that the collaboration works best when an experienced manager works to identify the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, and constructs project work that engineers the complimentary qualities of individuals into a team. This makes the pre-construction of specific projects and activities difficult, as the manager of the team must construct a project which is best suited to the abilities and needs of the team. This links in with both the directive mentoring approach identified in the first pilot evaluation, and the non-directive coaching approach that I am keen to explore. The pedagogical design of this pilot is primarily a reflexive approach. The collaboration will be managed through a non-directive process of identifying abilities and needs through the formative assessment of the initial activities, and a directive process of specific project creation and management by a mentor. The precise nature of collaboration is impossible to predict at this stage, as it will depend on the students, what they have done, and what they need.

So, this is what I think I'm proposing:
A guide book needs to be produced, with a series of tips and mini-quests.
This book will be given to students at the end of the OpenSim pre-induction,and will provide individualised focus for independent learning and discovery for their nine days in the wilderness.
The first formal meeting on Leeds Met will connect together the avatars through dialogue and the e-portfolio tool.
This meeting will kick start the process of identifying the needs of the avatars through structured discussions, the publishing of images on the e-portfolio tool, the reflections of the avatars on their experiences so far, and the use of forums to manage asynchronous discussions.
Subsequent sessions in-world will focus on the construction of teams and collaborative projects that respond to the identified needs of each individual team member. For example, a student with who has recognised the importance of their avatar's appearance when in social situations would be put together with a student who wants to explore fashion design. A student with an interest in photography would work with a set designer to create a fashion photo shoot. Another student may put together an in-world exhibition of the photos and another may organise the opening of this event.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The parallel BA(Hons) Graphic Arts & Design course.

126 students will join level one of the BA(Hons) Graphic Arts & Design course at Leeds Met in September 08. Moving to a big, strange city and joining a large course with an unfamiliar approach to learning is an intimidating experience for many students. Students often struggle to establish their status in the complex social structure of the course, and many feel compelled to re-define their identity to enable them to fit in. The enormity of starting a new course often prevents new students from seeking the guidance they desperately need, both in relation to their course work and their personal developmental needs. The obsession that many students have with summative assessment dominates their thoughts, and the fear of being seen to be failing in any way prevents them from engaging in the dialogue that may quickly solve their problems. Second Life can provide students with a safe haven to voice their concerns, define a new identity and test out different ways of being a creative practitioner.

The following plan for the phase 2 pilot of the Open Habitat project seeks to provide level one Graphics students with a safe, responsive and open habitat to explore new ways of being. The approach suggested here seeks to establish a direct line of communication between the students and the course leader, with the protection of students' anonymity through their avatars. It also seeks to provides a parallel studio/workshop learning environment for students' avatars to simulate the real world activities that they are engaging with as part of their course work. It is, in short, a parallel course, populated by the alter-egos of the level one students that choose to participate.

Central to this plan is the need to separate the initial skills acquisition required to engage with Second Life from the creation of an personal and private identity. During phase one, OpenSim standalone was successfully used to prepare students for their subsequent use of Second Life. This pre-induction worked well in a blended learning setting, as the default avatar and pre-configured account permitted the delaying of identity construction. The pre-induction focussed on core technical skills, particularly building skills, and enabled students to gain confidence in the technology with real world support at the point of need. The subsequent attempt to engage with Second Life in a blended environment was less successful. Students felt confused by the awkward collision of their real life and in-world identities. It emerged that Second Life was best done at a distance.
The following outline project plan has been designed to address the points detailed above.


Wednesday 8th October.
Leading Horses to Water.
OpenSim pre-Second Life induction for all 126 students. 6 x 1 hour blended sessions to run over the course of one day.
Session covers basic navigation, building and camera controls, adopting the 'quest' based approach tested in the first pilot.
A simplified version of the 'name game' from the first pilot will also be used to prepare students for the important task of choosing a name.
At the end of the hour, students will sign-up to Second Life, but keep their new identity secret, and complete Linden Lab's standard induction in their own time, either in the department's open access I.T. labs, or on their own computers. As an incentive to engage, students will be offered the chance to claim 150 linden dollars each and the promise of walking round a virtual version of the new art school that they will be moving into next year, if they turn up on LeedsMet island on Friday 17th at 12 noon.

Students may also choose not to sign up to Second Life and will take no further part in the pilot.

Participants will have 9 days to fend for themselves in Second Life before the first formal meeting. This will enable us to evaluate the effectiveness of the OpenSim pre-induction, and will enable students to bring a range of experiences to the first formal meeting as a basis for initial discussions.

Friday 17th October
Deadline Party.
The deadline for the students' first real life module is 12 noon on this day. In the morning, in-world support will be provided for students panicking about their submission for assessment.

At 12 noon, any avatar who attends will be awarded 150 linden dollars and shown how to sign up to the e-portfolio tool.

A tour round a mock up of the new building that the students will move into next year will be provided, and a discussion will take place about the course so far, providing students with an opportunity to anonymously feed back about their experiences.

'The Book' will be introduced as the primary device for guiding the students' subsequent engagement with Second Life.
The Book is a collection of mini-projects, quotes and suggestions that all level one students receive at the start of the course. It provides the basis for both tutor directed and self directed real life study throughout the first year of study. The Book is full of creative stimulation. The Book will form the basis of the virtual Graphics course, echoing the real course. Collaboration will be drawn out of the tasks engaged with from the book through a process of feedback and coaching by tutors. A notecard/in-world version of the book will be distributed at this session.

At 9pm on the 17th, a party will take place on LeedsMet for any students that haven't, for any reason, found other students in real life to celebrate the end of the first module with.

Friday 24th October
The Book - feedback and support for activities from the book. (Kisa and Cubist). Coordination of collaborative opportunities.
Identity coaching (Kisa)
Discussion and feedback about the real course. (Cubist)

Friday 31st October
The Book - feedback and support for activities from the book. (Kisa and Cubist). Coordination of collaborative opportunities.
Identity coaching (Kisa)
Discussion and feedback about the real course. (Cubist)

Friday 7th November
Exhibition of Book outputs, with feedback and discussion.

Friday 14th November
The Book - feedback and support for activities from the book. (Kisa and Cubist). Coordination of collaborative opportunities.
Identity coaching (Kisa)
Discussion and feedback about the real course. (Cubist)

Friday 21st November
Students gate-crash ReLIVE08.

Friday 28th November
Students gatecrash Emerge online conference.
Private view of exhibition.
Students conduct a tour round their exhibition for Emerge online social event.

Friday 5th December
Discussion and feedback about the real course. (Cubist)
All day session focussing on issues arising for the students 10 week into the course.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Enabling lucidity in a complex, fragmented world of knowledge.

I'm still absorbing George Siemens' keynote at the ALT-C conference. I found it very inspiring, and it made me realise that I need to revisit connectivism.

I just want to capture a couple of things before they get too mixed up with everything else in my head.
The first is the importance of acknowledging and embracing complexity in learning, and the need to seek lucidity through the connection of fragmented nuggets of potential learning. I just want to make a note that a coaching approach may be a way of addressing this. This links in with Professor Graham Gibbs' talk on the importance of feedback in student achievement.

The second thing I want to pick up on is the deliberately provocative statement that George made about the future role of the University. He suggested that the only purpose of the institution in the future will be validation. I'd like to add 3 more things that I think we will be able to provide students with for their fees:

1 Universities will provide exclusive communities of high quality learners. Other worldwide, local, free, commercial, open and closed learning communities will be still used by students, and will be central to their learning, but the University will provide quality course-mates through effective marketing, incentives and a rigorous selection process.

2 Universities will provide the best learning environments to support a learning community with a physical, face to face element.

3 Universities will provide quality feedback. Tutors will be expert mentors and coaches, helping students to navigate through the turbulent ocean of potential. Validation will be extracted from this process through an ongoing process of formative assessment. The diversity of individual learning plans will require criteria for assessment to be agreed between the tutor and the learner. Marking will increasingly be seen as too crude a tool for bringing lucidity to complex learning patterns, and conversations will form the basis of assessment.

Maybe. Maybe not. It's always dangerous to predict the future. However, trying to shape it is good fun.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Developing Assessment to support Student Learning

I've just watched Professor Graham Gibbs deliver a very powerful keynote speech at the Assessment, Learning and Teaching day of our annual staff development festival at Leeds Met. He presented empirical evidence that revealed the approaches to assessment that support student learning, and the approaches that don't.

The key points, as I interpreted them, were:

Lots of feedback is the route to quality learning. The majority of resources should be devoted to this.

The more summative assessment you have, the worse off everybody is.

The programme, award, course - whatever you want to call it - that thing that has a discipline specific title and lasts for 3 years - is the most effective container for learning. Splitting a course into 24 mini courses makes things worse.

Students need to be welcomed into their course's community of practice, which is populated by 3 full years of co-learners, plus staff.

The more explicit you are about criteria, the more students will work for a mark and miss the point of learning.

Students often see marks as a judgement about them as a person, rather than a judgement of their learning. There is great value in learning that doesn't result in a mark.

Feedback needs to be received as soon as possible to have any real value. Quick and dirty feedback is better than accurate but delayed feedback.

Peer support and peer pressure help quality learning to take place.

All of these points reinforce the strong beliefs that I hold about effective assessment and learning, gained through my experience as an art & design educator. They also confirm my suspicions about other popular approaches.

I have a very clear idea of how this evidence relates to the 3 year undergraduate programme that I lead, but how might it relate to learning in virtual worlds?

Friday, 29 August 2008

Face Book

I picked up an interesting book at Oxfam. 'The Human Face Reconsidered', by John Brophy isn't particularly scientific, (any science that is present has probably been discredited, since the book was written in 1962), but it is very poetic.
I've just been reading the section about eyes.

"It is through the eyes that we attain the most intimate communion with other human beings and step nearest to the ultimate mystery which locks us, each separately, while life endures, inside the prison-house of one body, whence we may shout and listen to other prisoners, and out of which the only peep-hole is the eyes."

If we could look each other in the eye when we talk at a distance, rather being forced to stare at each other's navels by our screen-top webcams, we might enjoy a more intimate communion, and step nearer to the ultimate mystery. Or at the very least, have a better meeting.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

A world within a world

Just had a thought that I need to capture before it escapes:
Could you run OpenSim as a shared application inside Wonderland? This may seem like an insane idea, I realise. Why would you want a 3D environment inside a 3D environment?

Well, I'm thinking about the draft evaluation of the first pilot by Steve and Marga, and one of the important issues that has been identified is the need to know when to do 'distance', and when to do 'blended'. I think that OpenSim standalone is just right for teaching building skills in a real life blended learning situation (Ian & Graham tutors), and Second Life is best done at a distance (Cubist and Kisa mentors).

Wonderland is closer to a blended learning environment, in that you are your real life self, speaking with your real voice, and you can interact properly with an application (interface elements and all) like you do in an I.T. lab. That's why I think it might be interesting to have OpenSim standalone as a shared virtual application. I can teach some building skills at a distance without it getting muddied by the whole role play and social complexity thing.

Well, it's just an idea.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Browser Tutorial

Quick note to Open Habitat project:
The new Browser Tutorial that Linden Lab are introducing as an alternative the to current Orientation island/HUD solution will need to be considered in relation to our first pilot. I sense new opportunities for smoother, better designed noobs inductions. Need to test.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

PC News 2012: Thousands sue for repetitive neck strain injury

Now then. A 3D head tracking controlled operating system. That would be interesting. Webcams are pretty widespread, so it would be easy for Apple or the Linux mob to create a head tracking powered 3D desktop. It would seem that many of the benefits of stereoscopic displays can be provided by a realtime head tracking, but at a fraction of the cost and/or inconvenience (nobody really likes wearing those glasses for very long, however spectacular the stereo vision is.).

Now imagine that a friend's 3D head-avatar (see previous posts) pops up on your 3D desktop (well, he'd have to knock first). He can see what's on your desktop, and his 3D head rotates around so you can see which bits he's looking at. You can show him how to do something cool in photoshop, or show him something on the web, accompanied by a VoIP-conversation. Click a switch and you're looking at his screen, and he can see your 3D head-avatar on his 3D desktop.

Head tracking enabled MMORPG

This is the sort of thing I'm on about:

I'll have a search and see if anyone has done it with Second Life yet.

Augmental reality

AR 5
I've been messing about with the open source, cross platform ARToolKit. This uses your webcam to detect the relative position of a special pattern that you print out. I've also just stumbled on this face detection API that does a similar thing, but without the need for a special pattern (other than your face). The second video on this page suggests an interesting creative possibility. The API is a low level C library, so it would probably be fairly easy to integrate it into a hack of the Second Life client. The idea is that you would be able to tilt your head to see round objects slightly. This would be a massive help when building things in world, as you would get a much better sense of the relative position of objects in the 3D space.

Imagining a future augmentationist virtual world

OK. Time for a bit of abductive reasoning. I'm imagining a future shared virtual environment for the augmentationists.

I'm assuming that Second Life has become the best immersionist solution - great for role-play (fantasy identities, not spoilt by voice), content creation etc. So no need to bother trying to compete in these areas. The thing that I'm imagining is a 3D conferencing tool, with voice as the central communication device, and shared applications such as browsers and whiteboards to facilitate discussion, ideas generation and collaborative working.

So, let's pretend I'm a student. My tutor has given me a web-link to a Java Web-start application. The first time I run it, it checks my PC spec and installs all the necessary bits on my computer. My user ID (taken from BANNER or whatever standard is in place for student IDs) is already on the database, so I just need to log in using this and my usual password. As this is the first time I have logged in, I need to first create my avatar. The application checks to see if I have a functioning webcam, and if so, allows me to take a snapshot of myself. If I have no webcam, I have the option of uploading a mug-shot instead. I click a few points on the snapshot to calibrate my face, and click 'Generate'. A 3D face is created and uploaded to the server. Now I log into the virtual world, and my avatar is my 3D face (do we need bodies in virtual worlds? I went to a virtual reality conference about 15 years ago, and one of the speakers was dead against avatars having legs).
As I wander around this 3D world, I see other faces that I recognise. I wander up to them and say 'Hello!', with my voice. They say 'Hello!' back, with their familiar voices. I click on a 'Smiley' button and my 3D face smiles at them. I can see what they are looking at by the orientation of their 3D faces. We walk up to a giant web browser and I key in a URL. My friend admires my new artwork that I have navigated to via the browser. He clicks on an 'impressed' button and his 3D face's expression morphs into an impressed looking version of himself. He has an idea, and draws it on the whiteboard next to the browser. We agree to meet up for a drink later to discuss our new ideas.

Looking a little further into the future, instead of a fixed 3D face, my 3D webcam places a live hologram of me into the virtual environment, massively enhancing communication via non-verbal cues. I interact with the environment by waving my arms about, maybe.

3D faces from mug-shots

I've found a great tool for generating 3D heads from a single mug-shot. (Click on the 3D face and then move the slider). The one above was created from a standard Photo Booth snap from the built in webcam on my MacBook. The processing is all done via a web interface, probably server side. It's a bit useless at the moment, as all you get is the thing above, but there are plans to allow export of the meshes and textures. I think some of the other augmentationist commercial virtual worlds might already be using something like this (Twinity?). It would make a lot of sense to see something that actually looks like the student you are dealing with in an augmentationist environment, rather than the spooky doll avatars that exist currently. It might be a good intermediate stage until the technology speeds up enough to allow the sort of live 3D video that I mentioned in my last post.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Realtime 3D face scanning

You can imagine that a low cost, low quality version of something like this:
might create some interesting creative possibilities in a shared virtual environment.
I've found a few 3D scanning systems like this that use projected bands of light. The physical components of these systems tend to be off-the-shelf digital cameras and data projectors, with most of the clever stuff happening in the software. This suggests that the future price of similar systems will plummet as the home-brew crowd reverse engineer the software (Patents de-pending). If a low-cost device could be manufactured to project the correct pattern of light onto your face, your webcam could capture your face, and the virtual world client could perform the necessary processing required to beam you into a shared space.
This systems would allow users in multi-user virtual environment to present themselves in the form of a realtime 'hologram'.
It would be interesting to see how the eye-contact problem present in video conferencing systems, translates in such a holo-conferencing system.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Future-avatar dance party

In the future, the Augmentationist's avatars will look like this:

Why does an avatar have to look like a Pre–Raphaelite painting? Cubist tries hard to look cubist, but Ian would prefer to look like an impressionist painting. Vibrancy and life at the expense of detail.

Imagine a shared space occupied by the live 'holograms' of real people like the one in the link. How would a virtual meeting be different if you could virtually shake hands at the start? Maybe people could learn dance moves together. (Dance distance learning?). The lack of authentic body language cues in conventional conferencing systems is a major problem. Slightly glitchy, but undeniably alive avatars might give off all the right signals to improve our chances of accurately judging mood.

The scary thing is, this could be actually quite straightforward, technically. We should play.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008


I've been messing about with full 360 x 180 degree panoramics. When you map one of these photographs onto a sphere and walk inside it, it gives a good sense of being in a real space. The image distorts a little as you move around in the sphere, but your brain seems to be able to make adjustments quite easily, so I can imagine that you could map other objects within this space and you would get a reasonable sense of their position in relation to the projected panoramic. If you had a bunch of avatars inside this space, and each avatar had a rectangular cone object which projected out in the direction they were facing (the cone would correspond to the field of view of their camera), then everyone would be able to see what they were looking at. This would be very useful in group discussion about the location of the panoramic image that everyone was inside. It would also indicate when someone was looking you in the face, providing another valuable visual cue in the 3D virtual space. Browsers and whiteboards could also be placed within the sphere to facilitate the discussion.
I reckon all of this is do-able with Wonderland.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Walking in an Inter-Wonderland

Some more quick thoughts on 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.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Wonderland spillage

Some initial ideas about Wonderland after spending half an hour messing about with Open Habitat's MPK20-based test area:

It ain't Second Life. This is both bad and good.

The shared applications are great. Walk up to a whiteboard and shift-click on it and you can just draw straight onto it. No external applications needed like in SL.

The avatars just look disturbing, and editing them is clunky and pretty pointless really. What would be better would be to allow users to upload a mugshot of themselves and apply it to a box.

The bots are even more disturbing. They create a sense of confusion (your not sure if they have real people connected to them at the other end or not). Hearing a voice coming from them makes you want to find out how to walk away faster (Press shift to double walk speed).

The performance is terrible, until you adjust the clipping settings to something sensible.

As MPK20 is geared up for 'you being you', using your own voice and using 2D applications in a 3D world, the first person (mouselook) camera view makes more sense. Being able to see your avatar forces you to see them as an external character, and you can't help going down the road of wanting to dress them and love them etc. Second Life is a million times better for this role play, and it's looking like it will take a long time before wonderland's avatar rendering will catch up with SL's sophistication. I'd quite confidently say that it never will, so why not ditch the 3D avatar side of things now? A good photo of someone's face when you're on the phone to them helps. Seeing a creepy generic doll does not.

The range of possibilities for what you can do using Wonderland/MPK20 are far more limited than SL, for sure, but the few things that you can do - if tweaked and focussed - will have much wider appeal for business and education. This is something that I could imagine would benefit a large number of my Graphics students. Second Life is one type of media out of many. Wonderland could be a tool that could help students whatever type of media they work with.

I'm imagining something quite abstract. Minimise the lag inducing things. Trim the clipping right down. Fill the place with loads of browsers and whiteboards and make it into an ideas studio. Write some specifically adapted web based application, and link to Graham's e-portfolio tool. e-Studio?

With the services of a decent Java developer, we could make something really good out of Wonderland.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

United! United!

According to Christine Kenneally (New Scientist 21 May 2008) the only things that are uniquely human are art, cooking, religion, humour, sport and world wide domination. I can't help wanting to combine these things together somehow. The art bit is already there. The world wide domination thing is relevant to the sorts of global technologies we are messing about with. Graham and I spend quite a lot of time laughing about our preposterous plans. Someone once suggested that I start a virtual cult, with my hologram of Clive Egginton as the God of Second Life (I think Philip Linden has already claimed that one.) Not sure about cooking, although mixing up prims to a recipe for a tasty dish of art might be an interesting line of inquiry.
The one that I am really intrigued by is sport.
I must point out at this point that I always got picked last for the team at school, and I can barely throw a ball let alone catch one. I also have little interest in sport as a spectator, except the odd football game on the tele. However, my interest in sport as a potential model for learning in virtual worlds has been stoked up by two things. The first is the need to find a more effective way of getting productive collaboration going in phase 2 of the project. The other is the announcement that Leeds Met is to become the UK Centre for Coaching Excellence.
I have been interested in coaching ever since I attended three coaching sessions as part payment for a website I made for a life coach (This was no cowboy coach. She had qualifications and everything, and usually charged £200 quid an hour). These sessions had a profound effect on me. It helped to reveal to me what I really valued, and gave me permission to be brilliant as me, not what other people thought was me. I certainly wouldn't have got involved in JISC if I hadn't had those three one hour sessions. I realised when I was getting coached that there were many similarities with life coaching and the negotiated learning/tutorial based approach that is central to the way we do things. I also stole some her techniques and tried them out on colleagues and students, with some success. So, I'm a fan of coaching based approaches to personal development and the subsequent learning that is unlocked as a result.
Back to sport. As I was spilling 50 ideas for Phase 2 onto the floor of my last blog post, 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.
Another issue that is limiting the potential of the Open Habitat project is working with Noobs. I wonder how we might recruit good players for a team? Can we look outside of the University, in the same way that clubs sign players from abroad? Oh, the brain's working now. More on this soon.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

50 ideas for phase 2

Time to start the brain up again. Phase two starts tomorrow.

1. Explore/test SL/OpenSim hybrid via Open Grid Public Beta
2. Make OpenSim standalone package (Mac)
3. Make VMware standalone package (PC & *nix)
4. Run sessions on Graphics course from October to February (5 month run)
5. Just do OpenSim standalone induction and name game, then set free in SL.
6. Make them collaborate.
7. Redefine collaboration,
8. Ditch SL/OpenSim and use Wonderland instead.
9. Use Wonderland for Philosophy/project meeting (Mac issue - project buys us Bootcamp/Windows)
10. Run cross institution competiton.
11. Run cross discipline/Leeds Met based competition.
12. Explore immersionist angle - no RL bits - no blended bits (Apart from seperate OpenSim induction.)
13. Only use experienced avatars.
14. Open up beyond institutions.
15. Run a grid wide competition.
16. Set up an OpenSim grid with free entry and see what happens.
17. Create fertile ground for rhizomatic collaboration.
18. Make a tool that glues avatars together into collaborative thing.
19. Engineer collaborations through human management.
20. Think global.
21. Be a magnet for diverse talent.
22. Apply all we know about learning in our art & design world to global virtual collaboration.
23. Create a standardised, free, assessable 15 credit point, 150 learning hours elective module that anyone in LeedsMet/UK/the world can study.
24. Harness and validate informal learning.
25. Create a structure for assessing informal learning through regular formative feedback and dialogue.
26. Do everything in-world. No web 2.0 crutches.
27. Structure learning through broad learning outcomes.
28. Motivate not through prize money, but through assessment, marks and credit points.
29. Develop a model for sub-letting learning.
30. Link SL with a course length programme of personal development.
31. Link SL with coaching. Leeds Met has just become a center for coaching excellence. There is massive potential to obtain resources and support for a coaching focussed approach.
32. Create a structure for placing coaching at the center of learning, using SL and web 2.0 tools to support a mentoring approach.
33. SL is not a game, but could the underlying principals of sport be used to provide scaffolding for learning activities?
34. Look at the sports team (i.e. a football team) as a model for collaboration.
35. The tutor as coach - he/she picks the team, based on strengths identified in training, decides on the game strategy, but the players play the game.
36. Explore competitive games. Team playing against team following set rules.
37. Organise cross institutional tournaments. E.G. LeedsMet, coached by Kisa Naumova, take on Leeds College of Art, coached by AngryBeth Shortbread in a game of art. Half a sim each. May the best team win.
38. Explore the role of branding in team building - i.e. the brand of Manchester United, the pride of the player working for the club. The loyalty of the fans.
39. Evaluators are pundits. Steven W is Alan Hansen. Margarita is Alan Shearer.
40. Organise weekly training sessions at the training ground. Structured activities to develop the skills.
41. Devise individual fitness programmes fro each student. They have to but in the effort though.
42. Make sure the training ground and pitch are suitable and well maintained. makes sure relevant equipment is available.
43. The project manager is the Chairman of the board.
44. Look at the theories of life coaching. (stripping away the voices of others to reveal your personal values etc.)
45. Invent design sport.
46. Design sport could be a way of structuring collaborative learning with a focus on problem solving? Link with Maggi's PBL work.
47. The job of the coach-educator is to make up new games, explain the rules, and train the player-students. The job of the player-student is to understand and play by the rules, exercise and compete in the games.
48. Invent some design team games.
49. Test out the games with experienced avatars.
50. Publicise the games and rules amongst art educators worldwide, and coordinate a tournament.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Trans-institutional education.

Yesterday's Emerge conference social event was more than just jolly tower building fun for me. A number of vague ideas that have been bouncing around my head since we finished the first art & design pilot were suddenly brought into focus. Earlier yesterday, whilst giving StevenW a hand preparing for the event, I got the chance to chat very briefly to Margarita about the initial evaluation of the pilot. One issue that has emerged is the restrictive nature of dealing with noobs. Another is the limitations of restricting learning to a three week block. The pilot made great use of OpenSim standalone to show how induction of new students could be made more effective, and we are already planning to base SL inductions in other parts of LeedsMet on our findings, but the Open Habitat project is primarily about collaboration. This proved elusive in the 3 week noob-fest that was our first pilot. Last night, Cubist and Paz tried to collaborate to build a tower. We were time-bound, and had little 'scaffolding' to support our constructionist learning excercise. Our tower kept falling over and wasn't very tall, but the struggle to work directly together helped to confirm what we suspected from the pilot, that collaboration is a broad and complex thing. It is much more than having permission to edit each other's objects.

Communities and collaborative relationships develop over time, but the hierarchical, time-bound structure of a conventional course seem to get in the way of this. The rhizomes keep getting dug up by over zealous educational traditionalists with the spade of summative assessment.

My thoughts are also being stirred up by reading 'Wikinomics' by Don Tapscott and Antony D. Williams. The focus of this book (so far. I'm only on page 30) is the way that commerce is being transformed by the application of the values of openness, peering, sharing and acting globally. I'm imagining how these principals apply to 'taught' education (they kind of already apply to academic research, I think). I know that I am guilty of trying to fit the educational potential of virtual worlds into a traditional framework, albeit a very open and appropriate art school model. But I am still hung up on:

Enclosing the learning within the course walls.
The hierarchy of levels of study and staff authority.
The difficulties inherent in assessing collaborative work.
Acting too locally - (Just art and design students. Just my art & design students.)

The real challenge for me and for others is how to embrace openness, sharing, peering and acting globally in a meaningful and useful way.

The other significant thing that happened yesterday was a chat I had with the mighty guru, her royal highness, AngryBeth Shortbread (she of the Whiteboard). She has just taken over the management of 'The Port' sim, which is my all time favourite art island. It's been around since 2005, and the work there still impresses me two years since I first saw it. AngryBeth is planning to do a bit of a revamp of The Port, and has created a Ning site to revive and support the community.

Anyway, whilst Cubist was dancing on the catwalk on Emerge island, I had an idea. What if The Port were to create an academy? The following raw thoughts then spilled out of my head:

Phase 2 ideas

The Port Academy

Trans-institutional education

Dedicated sim for the development of artwork by invited 'students', with the theme of The Port as the guide.

Real artists that exhibit on the Port are the 'Masters'. (link with master apprentice/atelier model).

Some of the masters are real tutors with real students, but maybe they forget whose students are whose when in world.

The Port is used as a study aid, with the Masters contributing understanding through their work and, if appropriate, through interactions with the students.

Each apprentice has to be invited by a Master. They must be competent and willing to learn. They may be studying in real life, or may just consider themselves to be a student.

Collaboration will not be forced, but encouraged and enabled by the environment of The Port Academy sim. Rhizomes are the order of the day.

The avatars are the students.

Use a Ning based tool, Flickr/blogger or a bespoke tool to support global collaboration via the web.

It is the responsibility of the students to integrate their work into their real life studies if they want to.

We follow the Wikinomics principals:
Openness, peering, sharing, acting globally.

Open Habitat operates within this academy as masters, coordinators, facilitators. We evaluate the learning that is taking place in this alternative educational set-up through virtual means.

Should the Open Habitat sim become the collaborative art studio for The Port academy, with individual studio spaces provided by participating institutions/individual students? (e.g. Practice on your own on LeedsMet, work together with others in The Port Academy on Open Habitat?)

This is about immersion, not augmentation. It is about embracing the new possibilities by suspending the need to directly integrate this form of learning into traditional institutional structures.

In the same way that commerce is wary of losing its control and obvious revenue streams by opening up and sharing, so traditional education is wary of losing its module based, assignment led, fees financed model. Can the model of wikinomics be applied to learning, yielding something between formal and informal education? Something more powerful? What about revenue? Costs are low, so can fees be replaced by something else?

Can Universities provide validation and awards for this 'new' approach to learning? What would that mechanism be? Like a PhD by submitted papers? Can students choose which institution they want to be validated by when the time is right?

Philosophy students and masters are invited to participate in the same way. The Port is used as a basis for discussion and analysis, bringing the benefits of heavy duty read/write/discuss theoretical rigour into the mix.

What about other disciplines? How can they get involved in this collective learning endeavour?

How do we avoid anarchy? What scaffolding do we provide?

Can a system for formative feedback and assessment glue everything together?

Mmmmm. /me thinks.

Friday, 30 May 2008

The ultimate OpenSim standalone installer

I have an idea. I wonder if it's possible?

We have a stack of dusty old PCs cluttering up the place at Uni. Their old network sockets have been stolen by the shiny new computers, and without a network connection, they're pretty useless. So useless, in fact, that their hard-drives could be wiped without anyone getting upset.

So, this is the idea:

Somebody clever creates an magic installer CD that I can boot up an old PC with.

The installer CD wipes the hard-drive and installs the Debian OS+OpenSim standalone+Second Life client.

I reboot the PC and it automatically loads OpenSim and connects to it via the Second Life client (preferably running full screen for maximum tidiness).

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Eduserv's 2008 Second Life Snapshot

Eduserv has just published John Kirriemuir's latest snapshot of Second Life use in UK HE/FE:

Apart from the fact that my contributions seem to have had words inexplicably added or removed (almost certainly by me), making me sound a bit daft, it's a great report.


Susan Greenfield worries about the impact of technology on our future identities in her article in this week's New Scientist magazine.

She defines three types of identity:
'Nobody' is the hedonistic, impulsive self.
'Anybody' is the collaborative spirit, working to serve the identity of the group.
'Somebody' is about personal achievement.

Greenfield's concern is that the 2D, screen based lives that we are all increasingly living will lead to the overdevelopment of the 'Nobody', as our imaginations are spoon-fed literal representations. I'm sure there are plenty of people queuing up to dispute many of Greenfield's arguments, but the expertise of a brain scientist should never be dismissed without some careful consideration.

She concludes the article with a message of hope for our future identities. She adds a fourth type of identity, the 'Eureka', which is defined by those 'Aha!' moments achieved during a creative process. She imagines a future in which a balanced individual flips between all four types of identity, with creativity central to our well-being.

The only real issue I have with this article is that it proposes a strategy for the future that has already happened. 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).

Our first Open Habitat pilot study ends tomorrow, and we are just beginning to digest the data, but it is clear that individual and collective identity is bound together with the creative process. Greenfield's identity work provides a useful framework for helping us to understanding the significance of creativity in relation to identity in virtual worlds.

Idea Stains