Thursday, 4 December 2008

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.


bethg said...

Thanks for your mention of Elluminate. Here's an example of how an artist uses Elluminate to hold virtual studio hours to interact with clients and follow artists. Visit

Keep on Elluminating!

- Beth, Elluminate Goddess of Communication

Ian Truelove : Cubist Scarborough said...

Great. Thanks for the link. Good to see artists using Elluminate to bring people into their studio.