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?