De-briefing the symposium - running a blended real life/Second Life event
The third Eduserv Foundation Symposium took place at the Congress Centre in London on Thursday 10th May. The event was a blended real life (RL) and Second Life (SL) symposium with approximately 130 delegates in the RL venue and 75 delegates in three different SL venues. We are very grateful to all the speakers on the day - Jim Purbrick, Roo Reynolds, Hamish MacLeod, Joanna Scott, Gilly Salmon and Stephen Downes - and to Diana Laurillard for chairing the panel session and speaking at the drinks reception and to Sara De Freitas for joining the panel.
This was the first time we have put together an event of this type. We had to learn and/or make up a significant amount as we went along! To try and consolidate our learning we spent some time de-briefing internally about how the day went, particularly in terms of the organisational and operational aspects. What follows is a summary of our thoughts. I share them here in the hope that they might be of interest to others and potentially of use to people who are organising similar kinds of events.
Note that the intention here is not to discuss the content of the talks during the day and/or the issues they raised - that will be done thru other entries in this blog and thru other blogs and articles in due course. The intention here is to focus on the mechanics of the day itself in order to try and determine what worked well and what could have been done better. Having said that, it is worth noting that there seems to be general consensus that the day offered a good balance of speakers and topics. In particular, the choice of Stephen Downes as the closing speaker was generally viewed very positively, even by those that don't necessarily agree with his views! It was unfortunate that for personal reasons Gráinne Conole couldn’t be with us for the day. However, Diana Laurillard did a great job, both in chairing the final panel session and in summing up the event during the drinks reception.
Overall, the day seems to have been very successful and has attracted quite a lot of positive blog coverage. 92% of the returned RL evaluation forms (49 out of 53) rated the event overall as either Good or Excellent (with similar responses to the other questions). The virtual feedback buttons in SL endorsed this finding, with the vast majority rating the event as Good (out of the three options presented – Good, Average or Poor). However, the relatively small number of responses using this method and the fact that the voting buttons were only available in one of the SL venues means that this data is not necessarily indicative of the SL delegates as a whole.
Presentations from the RL event were video-streamed into each of the virtual venues. The stream consisted of a composite image containing both the speaker’s slides and a head shot. The streaming was arranged and operated by i|s|media. Conversely, a view of SL was displayed on 6 large flat-screen monitors in the RL venue and this made it possible for questions raised during in-world chat to be relayed on to the RL speakers. This view of SL was controlled by Pete Johnston (Peregrine Juneau), who also acted as our in-world greeter and MC for the whole day.
In general, people seemed very impressed with the way the technology worked. The SL flat-screen monitors in the RL venue (provided by Revelation, our event management company) were crisp and clear and the quality of the streamed video appears to have been very good (several blog entries noted that it was the best quality streaming that they had seen inside SL). The acoustics of the RL venue were also good.
We used the access control mechanisms in SL to control the number of avatars in the primary (Eduserv Island) venue. This worked very well and meant that we didn’t suffer too badly from the kind of lag-related problems that typically beset popular events in SL. We also made a virtual delegate bag available before the event and on the day, which provided SL delegates with information about the programme and speakers (and a free tee-shirt!).
Note that we were forced to use multiple SL venues because of limitations on the number of avatars that can be in one place at one time in SL. We are grateful to Alan Levine at NMC and Lori Bell at the Alliance Library System for the use of their venues for the virtual symposium.
There was a real buzz at the RL venue, most notably during the lunchtime break. The venue offered a good space for socialising and networking and it seems that most delegates took advantage of this. From the various blog entries, it would appear that there was a similar feeling in the SL venues.
So, what can we learn?
The following points arose from our internal de-briefing about the event, comments raised in delegate’s blog entries, comments on the RL feedback form and informal verbal feedback from delegates.
- Despite a good balance of presentations, some delegates felt that there should have been more focus on the practical use of SL in education. Additionally, there could have been more demonstrations of the use of SL during the day. We fully accept this view. We had this in mind in our original vision for the event, but unfortunately it got lost as we turned the vision into reality :-(
- The panel session was quite short and this made it difficult to properly integrate questions from SL delegates into the discussion. In particular, the limited bandwidth on the wireless network in the RL venue meant that it was impossible to get a second Eduserv avatar (Art Fossett) into SL during the panel session. The original intention was to use Art Fossett as the channel for questions. With hindsight, we now recognise that this would have backfired anyway. It was actually much better to have SL questions being asked in public. (Originally we were concerned that selecting from amongst a set of public questions might be problematic but this turned out not to be the case).
- We probably should have advertised the SL streaming earlier and more widely, which would have resulted in greater in-world attendance. We didn't do this because it was our first attempt at streaming into SL and we wanted to be absolutely sure that it would work before announcing it too widely.
- The streaming seems to have been very successful, though there were some minor issues at the beginning of the day with people seeing the stream upside-down. This appears to have been caused by a bug in the SL client, rather than by the streaming itself. The stream was delivered at a resolution of 320x240. This gave a perfectly acceptable image when embedded into SL using the screens at the venues. However, people viewing the stream on the Web (i.e. using their Web browser rather than their SL client) reported that the image was too small and they didn’t know how to re-size it. I suspect that we should have spent more time before the event documenting how to view the stream on the Web. (Note that we did prepare some material, a YouTube video no less, explaining how to view the streaming media in SL). Note that we paid the streaming company to support up to 500 connections, so I think we had plenty of bandwidth available on the day.
- As noted above, we ran the day with a single member of Eduserv staff in-world, acting as a greeter and MC for all three venues. With hindsight, this was too much for Pete to take on alone. We needed a greeter at each venue for whole day in order that we could make repeated announcement s about what was happening and to encourage debate and discussion.
- As chair of the RL event, I described the technical setup at the start of the day and asked a couple of trivial questions of both audiences to try and build a feeling of participation. More could have been made of this opening set of questions to try and bring the two audiences together. Furthermore, the description of the technical setup should have been repeated at several points in the day, particularly for the benefit of those SL delegates that joined as the day progressed.
- We set up an in-world group called ‘Eduserv Symposium’ for SL delegates to use for discussions during the day. The notes we provided in the virtual delegate bag and the in-world announcements made by Pete explicitly encouraged in-world discussion during the talks. The intention of the SL group was to encourage discussion across the three virtual venues. However, in practice most SL discussions happened using the SL chat facility and were therefore limited to each of the venues. It is interesting to observe that people much prefer speaking openly to people that they can see than to people that they can't, even in a virtual world setting.
- The wireless network in the RL venue appears to have been sufficient for delegates to access their email and so on. Unfortunately it did not offer sufficient bandwidth for accessing SL, either by delegates or by the other Eduserv staff in the room. This was somewhat unfortunate, though it didn't overtly affect the running of the day. For similar events in the future it would be nice to have sufficient wireless bandwidth available to allow a reasonable number of delegates to connect to SL.
- It might also have been sensible for us to have looked into alternative, lightweight mechanisms by which RL delegates could have communicated directly with SL delegates. For example, we could have experimented with collaborative use of Twitter. We could have also considered using some kind of dual RL/SL voting mechanism to allow both audiences to be involved in the same activity at the same time.
- In general therefore, the integration of the two parallel events was rather poorer than we would have liked. There was not enough cross-over between the two worlds (though, thankfully, the visibility of the SL delegates to the RL audience meant that at a couple of points during the day people in the RL audience were able to point out to me, as chair, that avatars in SL were wanting to ask questions of a speaker or panelist).
- The SL audience wanted more input to the RL event. With hindsight, asking SL delegates to wait until the panel before asking questions wasn't the right thing to do. Putting ourselves in their shoes, it was probably not realistic to expect SL delegates to commit to sitting in front of SL all day waiting to ask the speaker they heard five hours previously a question. We should have allowed more time in RL for questions after each presentation and made sure we took some questions from SL. (In practice we did take some questions from SL in the morning sessions, but we should probably have said upfront that was what we were going to do).
- A minor point, but perhaps worth noting, is that some SL participants complained about the noise from people taking snapshots interfering with the audio from the stream. As greeter, Pete took a few in-world snapshots without thinking about the noise. Note that there may be an option somewhere to switch off camera sound.
- One of the reasons for lack of interaction between the two audiences was that there wasn't a great deal of time during the day for questions. One could argue that we should have dropped one of the speakers and allowed more room for questions and answers after each of the speakers.
- Each of the SL venues was configured with two or more screens. We used one for the streamed video. The other was used to hold a single Eduserv Foundation Symposium slide, telling people what event they were at! With hindsight, we could have made more use of the second screen, perhaps putting up slides indicating who was currently talking and what point we were at in the programme. This would have been particularly helpful for delegates joining from different timezones.
- As mentioned above, controlling access to the Eduserv Island venue was quite successful in terms of people's overall experience of the event. However, we should have put up an in-world sign outside the venue, explaining why access was restricted and pointing people that were denied access to the alternative venues.
- The lunch break was very useful for RL delegates to socialise and network. For SL delegates it probably felt like they were being left out in the cold a little. It would have been nice if we could have found some sort of activity for SL delegates to do during the lunch break, preferably one that involved interaction with some of the RL delegates in some way.
- Finally, it is somewhat inevitable that being the hosts of an RL event and having to deal with technical and other arrangements on the day meant that it was difficult for us to do as much networking as we would have liked. I felt somewhat frustrated on the day not to simply be able to sit down and chat to people!
The stated aim of the symposium was to "attempt to look past the hype surrounding virtual worlds such as Second Life and evaluate whether they offer real opportunities for learners at UK educational institutions". The day certainly succeeded in moving the community significantly towards that aim. It raised awareness of some of the issues around using SL, and gave people a chance to listen to and debate those issues.
One delegate commented in their evaluation form that they felt the day missed it's target because of the lack of depth about the practical use of SL for learning and teaching. As noted above, we think that is fair comment – the day as originally conceived might have met the aim rather better but for various reasons it fell short in practice. However, that view does not negate the other positive benefits of the day's events. What we have clearly done is to start (or at least made an early contribution to) a debate that will continue into the future
I noted at the start of the day that the event gave Linden Lab, the commercial owners of Second Life, a good platform. In many ways that is unusual for an academic conference. I make no apologies for this, for the reasons spelt out at the start of the symposium - SL is where much of the 3-D virtual world action is at the moment. I think we have to acknowledge that and see SL for what it is - a useful place to experiment and learn about our potential future. It remains to be seen whether or how Linden Lab's position in the market will change. For what it's worth, I don't think Linden Lab got an easy ride on the day, and to be fair to them I don't think they abused their position as a vendor on the day. I think we simply had a good debate.
There is no doubt that timing worked in our favour for this event, in terms of the public awareness of 3-D virtual worlds. Getting coverage in the Education Guardian a few days before the event is evidence of that interest. However, once facet of that level of interest was that we got oversubscribed for the RL event very quickly. Within an hour of announcing the event to the lists we had 40 delegates registered - within three working days we had to close the registration form. That took us completely by surprise and we had to spend a significant amount of time working out how we were going to turn people away from the event - which is unfortunate. On the other hand, it's nice to have organised something that lots of people clearly wanted to attend! :-)
All in all I'd like to hope that Eduserv can continue to play a part in this area as the community continues to work out the role of Second Life and other 3-D virtual worlds in the future of learning and research.
[Images by Roo Reynolds, Peregrine Juneau and Silversprite Helsinki]