Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Technology damaged learning

I was devastated when my 5 year old son came home and said that he didn't like computers. Accounts from a 5 year old of what actually happens at school are prone to inaccuracies and exaggerations, but it was clear that he felt, or had been made to feel, that he wasn't very good at computers. Apparently, he had been told off for taking too long to complete some godforsaken educational typing tutor 'game'. Anyway, the problem was easily fixed. I opened up NotePad and encouraged him to take as long as he liked, typing whatever he liked, making as many mistakes as he liked. No bouncing clowns or stupid multi-media distractions. Just simple and ultra-easy. Just the keyboard, some words and someone who cares to provide help and encouragement. When you are just beginning, things need to be as simple as possible.

I kind of see OpenSim as the equivalent of NotePad in this context. By hiding some of the 'features' of virtual worlds from new users, it might be easier for them to get a handle on things. It might also be easier for someone who cares to provide help and encouragement.

Jiscland suggestion 2

A different suggestion for how islands might be joined together. JISC/eduserv would run the show on the centre nine sims, with orientation island at the centre. Maybe. It's a suggestion.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

UK educators landmass

We've been talking about the advantages of moving some of the UK education sims together to form an NMC style land mass. I have a suggestion for how we might do this. If each project/institution placed their islands next to each other, west to east, then anyone with more than one sim could place them north to south. This would allow institutions to expand north and south without any other sims getting in the way. This picture shows what I mean:

Monday, 28 January 2008

Incentives and prizes?

One issue I have with the plan to set a competition and award a prize is that it might distort our evaluation of the successfulness of OpenSim for drawing new users into MUVEs. Someone could quite easily knock a big hole in our claims of success for the OpenSim pre-induction approach by pointing to the prize.

The other thing I've realised is that once the students are in Second Life for the pilot proper, they will need to be able to upload images, which will cost them 10 Linden dollars per texture. We are going to have to give them some cash to ensure that they don't hold back on the uploads. Might this promise of free cash serve as the legitimate and necessary incentive to participate?

What if the end products of the pilot, i.e. the knowledge sculpture artifacts, were set to 'for sale' by the students, and the deal was that the 'judges' went round and bought what they liked? (It's all starting to get a bit free market economy, perhaps.) The prices that the students place on their objects might reveal how much they valued the artifact that they created. "How much is this learning worth, in Lindens?"


What do we need to evaluate? How do we evaluate it?
There are two things about MUVEs that are potentially beneficial for art and design students. The most obvious one is the opportunity to produce art and design using this new media type. I believe that MUVEs like Second Life are a future graduate destination, and I fully expect some of my students, at some point in the future, to get a full time job in a MUVE. So this first area is about MUVEs as one particular form of creative practice. The criteria for evaluating this first area would be to do with the success of individual artifacts and their application.

The second aspect of usefulness, and one that has broader educational relevance, is the opportunity for MUVEs to enhance learning through the act of creating stuff. I'm keen that we evaluate whether the process of building a structure in a 3D virtual space has helped students to understand themselves and their practice more fully, whoever they are and whatever their practice may be. This second area is about supporting the development of knowledge pertinent to many different types of practice. The criteria for evaluating the success of this would relate to the development and consolidation of knowledge.

It is important to separate out these two areas and make a firm commitment to the latter. The danger is that we focus too much on technical skills and aesthetics, and skirt over the deeper, more generic learning that is taking place. It would be easy to mistake the best bit of design that comes out of the pilot for the best bit of learning. Our evaluation needs to be able to reveal the learning of the individuals that created a bit of a mess, but got loads of learning out of the experience.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

The 3D Learning Agreement

The Graphics course that I teach on is very broad. My students are studying all sorts of stuff. Animation, kinetic typography, editorial illustration, scriptwriting, design for print, documentary making, printmaking, interactive media and everything in between. One of the reasons the instructivist approach doesn't work on our course is because a traditional lecture on anything subject will only be relevant and useful for a handful of the audience. We don't really have one course, but lots and lots of mini courses, each relevant to an individual student. How do we manage this potential anarchy? We use something we call a Learning Agreement. This is a document that each student produces that documents their progress, allows them to reflect on, negotiate and plan their learning, and enables them to explore the underlying theories related to their practice. In level 3 it combines aspects of a dissertation with elements of a personal and professional development document, and is central to the assessment of work. It acts not only as support for the development of learning, but also provides the window that we view the work when we assess it. We have become more and more adventurous in what we permit this document to be, with students making films and producing image based Learning Agreements. It personalises learning in a structured and coherent way, and when it works well, it is hugely effective and popular with staff, students and external examiners. The Learning Agreement is introduced towards the end of level 1, developed in level 2, and is central to everything in level 3.
As we are running the first pilot at the end of level 1, it would make sense to link it in with the learning agreement. If the brief for the A&D pilot asked the participating students to create content based on the work that they have produced so far in their first year, and then asked them to arranged this work in the 3D space in a meaningful way, then got them to add more content to connect the work together, investigate any areas that were unclear and create new content to add to the sculpture, then that would be very useful.
They would effectively be creating a 3D learning agreement.
The other possibility here would be for students to make links between their individual 3D learning agreements, to create a collaborative 3D map of the collective knowledge that had been gained in the first year of the course.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Doing a philosophy degree? Be a builder.

Why can't students that don't do art & design build things in Second Life? I'm sure most people that build things in SL are not from an art & design background, otherwise the mainland would look a lot nicer. If we are thinking that building stuff is a good way of learning, then aesthetics isn't really that important. It's the knowledge that is gained and cemented that is important. So, what if it was the philosophy students that built the shrine to a philosopher?
Some potential problems with this, maybe. Teaching building skills at a distance is a nightmare. I've tried it. Mind you, Steven did a good job at the emerge online event, so maybe it might work. Maybe it is too much to expect them to take on the technical burdens that many claim building is.
The other thing we could do is team up the newly enthused and skilled A&D students, fresh from the first pilot, to do some building for the philosophy lot. This would work well for ours, as the Phil lot would be like clients with a brief. Mmm...

3D reflections?

The plan is that Art & Design students build a Shine to a philosopher in Second Life. I am having a couple of little worries about this. The first is that there will be very little time over the first pilot for them to get very in depth about philosophy. It might just be too much for them to take on board at once. This might put some of them off the whole thing, and the work produced might be a bit meaningless and disappointing. More importantly, as I'm getting my head around the educational theories, I am thinking that I believe in constuctivism really quite forcefully. I know from experience that learning works best when it links new stuff onto existing knowledge. The parallels with the idea of constructing visual chunks of knowledge in a 3D space are notable. What am I saying? Erm...
Philosophy is not what my lot know, so they are unlikely to be able to connect it together. It will float around randomly in space, and drift away.
They will be coming towards the end of their first year on the course, so how about if we got them to build something that represents the knowledge that they have gained so far. A 3D reflection? I would like it to be theoretical, like the idea of the philosophical concept, so maybe whatever they wrote their essay on earlier in the year? It would be very interesting to compare their views on writing an essay and building a thing. Which one is actually the best tool for learning?

The Virtual Studio

Traditionally, art and design students have learned things through making stuff in a big, mucky studio. Over the last 10 years, the studios have gone quiet. Funnily enough, the computer rooms have got really busy. There may be a link. We are moving to a new art school building in a year and a bit. We plan to revive the studio culture in the new space by spreading the IT equipment, and all of the other workshop kit across the big studio space. We will have flexible, reconfigurable spaces, with movable walls and wireless and fast network sockets everywhere. We will implement in this new environment 'work spaces' or possibly 'areas of activity'. Witnessing how our students are engaging with Second Life, it strikes me that we have a really good model for the 'workspace' concept in place. I wrote this article for the Second Life Community Convention publication last year:

"Second Life is many different things to many different people. For me, it is a studio and a workshop. It is that place where I invent stuff. Stuff that is a product of my overactive imagination.

My imagination has been overactive for a long time. I am fortunate enough to have spent most of my adult life swimming in a sea of learning. This sea is a particularly adventurous take on the U.K. art-education system. Our version of this educational model places the individual at the centre of learning and asks them to look outwards and inwards to unearth their own personal passions. They do this in a variety of conventional and unconventional ways, but the most significant method for generating and cementing knowledge is the creation of artwork. There is not much in the way of delivery of set content. Knowledge is generated through an ongoing process of dialogue and production. The users power the learning. It is Learning 2.0, and it’s been like that ever since I’ve known it.

Key to this process is the studio, the environment that enables such learning to happen. The studio is a research area, a social space, a place to view work and a space to exchange ideas with peers and experts. It hosts parties and relationships develop there. Most of all, it is a workshop where we learn through doing, through making. When the studio environment is just right, learning explodes throughout, and amazing things are created.

Second Life has provided us with a new studio, and this new environment is just right. The media that we manipulate in this space is different, but the mental processes are familiar. This new type of media enables a more rapid manifestation of ideas, and so the mental processes are accelerated. That is why I am so in love with Second Life. It is hyper-learning. It enables me to mainline my creativity.

Second Life provides an opportunity for many others to benefit from such accelerated learning. I wonder what would happen if other discipline area had their own studios, and approached learning in the same way that we do. Perhaps it wouldn’t work, but Second Life could give us an opportunity to try it out without too much risk. I can’t see how it would do any great harm. I know that many other educators are using Second Life to enable learning, and there are many different educational models that are being explored. It is a very exciting time, and I relish each new way that this world can be used to enhance learning.

Another hugely significant part of our particular educational model is the emphasis we place on the professional practice of staff. We are all practitioners, and our practice informs our teaching not just because it keeps our personal knowledge up to date, but also because it forces us to adopt the role of a learner. Our job is not to feed our students on a diet of ‘what you should know’ or to make them to do things the ‘proper way’ (not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just not our particular focus). We seek to inspire our students by sharing our love of learning and our methods for acquiring knowledge. That is why I do what I do in Second Life. I do it for the sheer joy of learning."

Re-reading this reminds me of something else that might be important, the Master-Apprentice model. This is something else that has gone out of the window a bit over recent years, as staff have had to sacrifice research and professional practice to cope with increased student numbers. I want to re-establish this model across our School of Art and, again, this is happening in Second Life. I'm an artist in SL, and I work alongside my students, with some of my greatness (ironic) hopefully rubbing off on them, with them learning by seeing etc. This might be too much for Habitat. Maybe I'll save it for another project.

Constructivism and Noobs

Linden Labs SL orientation island is not always the best thing to start with (It does the job, but is too much, too soon for many).
Even though it is interactive, LL orientation island represents the instructivist approach to learning - i.e. you need to be taught stuff first before you can do anything (am I right? It's probably not instructivist.). We take a predominantly constructivist (?) approach to learning on our art & Design courses at Leeds Met. For our students, almost the very first thing we want them to do is to make something. If we used a competency matrix type thing, building would be in stage one. Identity and social side of things are hugely important aspects of the Second Life learning experience, but these overwhelm A&D noobs. Money and buying stuff, and even communications (IMs etc) can come later. Creating stuff and showing it off is the primary motivator (Positive sense of identity, shaped by social forces - situated learning?) for an A&D student. We shape this learning by putting structures in place (scaffold?), like negotiated learning plans and problems to solve in the form of project briefs (PBL?).

Here is an example of what I mean. If I want my student to learn about kinetic typography, I don't deliver a lecture, or tell them they have to look at Saul Bass's title sequences, or read up on Lambie-Nairn. I set them the following project:

BA(Hons) Graphic Arts and Design
Level 2 Module GAD 2.2 Studio Practice
150 Learning Hours
Kinetic typography project brief
The student shared folder contains a folder called “GAD2-2”. In this folder are some audio clips. The clip with your name on it (e.g. Jimmy_McScraggins.aif) is your clip. The words spoken on your clip are the words that you need to type-set. You must re-set all of the spoken words that are in your clip, plus your name, in the form of a moving type sequence. Your sequence must last for exactly the same amount of time as your audio clip. The final submission must not contain the original audio clip, or any of the original words in spoken form. A computer in H809 will be used to assemble all of the clips. You are expected to update your section on this computer on a daily basis, from the 7th January until the final deadline of 18th January. You must not use images. You must not make images out of letterforms. You may only use black, white and shades of gray. No other colours are allowed.

Learning outcomes
By the end of this project, we would expect you to show that you can identify, plan and discuss a specific project, make appropriate use of processes, techniques and materials, and start to work out ways to apply your personal approach to specific situations.

I start with a lab based workshop to kick things off and clarify the brief, and ask the students to Google 'Kinetic Typography' and see where it leads them (Mayes & Fowler - Conceptualisation stage? Referring to other people's concepts?), then encourage a discussion around what people have found (Laurillard? Discussing, debating. Communicative Media form?) There is no Final Cut Pro instruction or Flash induction. The student start with what they know and develop new knowledge in order to solve the problem (Mayes & Fowler - Construction stage?). By applying restriction, such as not being able to use or make pictures, specific fundamental aspects of the discipline (in this case typography) are forced into focus and the student has to learn how to deal with this. This forces them to seek help from tutors and peers, and a meaningful dialogue, relevant to exactly where the student is on the path of learning, is the outcome. (M & F, Application stage?)

So, we don't believe in 'teach them first what we think they should all know. Then, and only then, will they be able to do something'. We believe in 'Make them do something themselves first, and then help them to make sense of it. Rinse and repeat, several times until the learning is clear'.

Linden Lab's orientation island is very much about the former (Instructivist, maybe? Perhaps Conceptualisation), so we need to create something more like the latter (Constructivist) if we are going to get the best out of our pilot. How might we do this?
If my students' first taste of Second Life was actually OpenSim, we could strip away the stuff to do with identity, by either pre-registering avatars on our own OpenSim server, or by creating an avatar that is tied to a particular computer in a lab. This would be a quick-hit teaser, where students could create something immediately, and see their mates (who would be in the same room physically as well at the time) creating stuff. It would be easy, a laugh, and I think it would leave them wanting more. The activities could have a simple task structure to avoid anarchy. One suggested example would be to ask them to build a tower as tall as they could. (I'll elaborate on this later.) I could do a quick-hit OpenSim induction for 120 students, 20 at a time over a day or two. Then, when they are (hopefully) hooked, we offer the competition to anyone interested. The incentives to enter the competition are to have more fun with their friends, make more things, win prizes and produce work that is submit-able for assessment as part of a future self directed module. At this stage, I would have a band of committed individuals who would be ready for the Second Life experience. We could just do the LL sign-up and orientation at this stage and then structure some induction type activities, but we might start losing them if we do this. I think we need to look at creating a specific, tailored sign-in and our own, LeedsMet A&D student specific orientation experience. I found this NMC teacher's Buzz chat log that discusses this:

(One OpenSim worry is that we won't be able to support 20 simultaneous users. Need to test this soon.)

If we made a Noobie sign-up and orientation experience that was completely tailored to our needs, then had links to all the other Orientation experiences that everyone else has made around Second Life, then that could become a set of guidelines that we could write up and deliver to JISC as suggested way for other colleges to tackle the Noob/induction problem. We can do our own sign-up process via the Registration API, and this gives the option of plonking your Noobs in a specific location. This might be an important part of Phase 2, where we might want cross institution sign-ups to the big competition (complete with legal and ethical disclaimers) and re-direction to an orientation experience where we can lurk and gather evidence. Maybe. Phase two is too far off to be thinking about yet.

I have a reason to blog at last

Having failed to get into the habit of blogging with my previous attempt, the cubistscarborough blog, I finally have a reason to share my thoughts. I am part of the 'Habitat' project, which is looking at user generated content and social presence in multi-user virtual environments. This project is a partnership between Oxford University (who are leading the project), Leeds Metropolitan University (where my colleague and fellow team member, Graham Hibbert and I teach), and Kings College London. I intend to use this blog to spill out half-formed ideas about the project, as a way of formulating my thoughts and sharing them with the team.