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.


Peter Miller said...

Possibly not quite what you want (single user afaik) but OpenSim in the "cloud"

Ian Truelove : Cubist Scarborough said...

Thanks for the link Peter. We've been using OpenSim standalone for pre Second Life inductions, but it's a bit of a pain to install and run on each machine. An on demand service might provide us with an easier way to do this.

Foxsushi Oita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Foxsushi Oita said...

Great Post Ian. I've casually looked in on the Open Habitat project now and then, being very interested in a Real world Education project dabbling with Opensim/SL. My own use of Opensim is in the development of Realworld industrial tutorials, Training employees in the orientation of a real Warehouse.

I've not yet used a hosted Server for Opensim, concetrating instead on building an internal network based server..... but i do highly recommend using the Hippo Viewer , Which is a customised version of the SL opensource viewer. The viewer is easily configured to point to a specific web based Opensim world, and can be tweaked to an individual Grid or standalone world. ideal for a closed circuit education sim, behind a firewall etc. Sorry I'm reading and replying to your post after an evening of merryment, I'll sign off, but do let me know if you need any further info on my Babbling.

Ian Truelove : Cubist Scarborough said...

Thanks for your comments Foxsushi. I had a quick peek at the Hippo viewer the other day, but I'll investigate it in more detail. It's good to hear of others doing stuff with OpenSim. There are some aspects of Second Life that just don't fit with what I'd really like to provide for my students, and a customised version of OpenSim might just do the trick.