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.