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June 21, 2007

efsym2007 revisited

On Tuesday we hosted a mini-event in Second Life, a panel discussion as a follow-up to the symposium held back in May. The aim was to provide an opportunity to continue and extend the discussions which had started in the symposium, and particularly to try to focus in on the questions - which perhaps we didn't quite get to grips with as fully as we would have liked in the symposium itself - of how Second Life is being used, or could/should be used, to deliver and support learning and research.

We were fortunate that five of the six speakers at the symposium - Jim Purbrick (Linden Lab), Roo Reynolds (IBM), Hamish MacLeod (University of Edinburgh), Joanna Scott (Nature Publishing Group) and Stephen Downes (National Research Council of Canada) - were able to participate as panelists. All participants were joining the event remotely and we hadn't set up any audio or video streaming for this event, so communication was entirely via in-world chat. I think there were about thirty-odd people in the audience plus the five panel members - enough for us to experience some degree of "lag", but I don't think it was severe enough to cause real problems (though Paul Walk notes his keystrokes being reduced to a crawl, and I think Stephen did lose his connection briefly.)

However, as Andy notes over on his ArtsPlace weblog, we had something of a, ahem, "learning experience" with the use of the PanelPod software which Andy has developed to provide "virtual chairing". (The PanelPod software manages queues of participants who wish to speak and provides prompts for them to start talking when they reach the front of the queue - simulating the role of a human panel chair in a physical meeting). We started the meeting using that system, but it soon became evident that the "structured" approach imposed by the system was inhibiting discussion, and working against our intent that the discussion should be relatively informal. So we switched it off, and the conversation seemed to flow more freely afterwards. (In a comment on Andy's post, David Tebbutt provides some statistics to support that! Thanks, David!)

In terms of the content of the discussion, Andy has posted the full chat log so I don't intend to try to summarise the whole thing here, but I'll try to highlight a few points which emerged:

  • The opening discussion picked up on a question raised by Diana Laurillard during the symposium of whether SL resulted in, or enabled, "new pedagogies". The consensus seemed to be that SL didn't in itself change pedagogical approaches, but that it did provide a new context and that change of context encouraged more thinking about how we teach and learn in that context.
  • In terms of specific practical applications, there was some agreement on the power of providing 3D visualisations in SL, e.g. Nature's work with molecular structures and IBM's with abstractions such as network architectures.
  • (It was round about this point that a question about the use of SL for discussion led to reflections on the use of the queueing system in this discussion, and the conversation switched into an open chat. Although there were a few moments where threads overlapped and possibly a few points were lost along the way, I think it worked out OK.)
  • This prompted a question of the "gaps" between an individual's conceptualisations and their ability to realise those conceptualisations in SL, e.g. the "learning curve" involved in becoming sufficiently proficient in building and scripting to realise some project - though as Algernon Spackler pointed out, that may be a problem with other software tools (or indeed with pen and paper!). And indeed Kimberley Pascal indicated that his experience was that students did take well to building in SL.
  • Algernon suggested that we should take opportunities to "[reach] students where they currently are (whether its Second Life, Facebook, or wherever)" rather than seeking to replicate such systems. This led into two questions: firstly, whether our students really are currently in SL (which I'm not sure we really addressed!), and secondly, how to ensure that their early engagement with SL in a learning context is a positive one. Babbage Linden acknowledged that probably only 10% of people "got" SL, which raised the question of whether there was a requirement "to make SL better" (improve the interfaces etc) or to acknowledge that for some people perhaps virtual worlds were not the most suitable tools. (Edit: between my drafting this post and publishing it, Andy has expanded on these questions over on ArtsPlace.)
  • The question of how to assess learning in SL was also raised, with the suggestion that assessment was more difficult in SL. I admit I'm not sure I quite grasped the points being made here, as I hadn't thought of the challenges of assessing learning carried out in SL as fundamentally different from those of assessment in Web-based learning environments.
  • The role of SL in encouraging a collaborative approach amongst learners, and more broadly the "social dimension" of SL and its "network effects" proved to be a point of debate, particularly between Babbage Linden and Labatt Pawpaw. Babbage suggested that SL facilitated people meeting other people with shared interests ("places and things provide the points around which communities form" and "you go to the space flight museum for the rockets and stay for the people"), and Labatt argued that this was not borne out by his own experience, where many SL places are relatively empty and large numbers are clustered only around venues like casinos.
  • Following in part from the discussion of socialising/networking, and in part from an earlier point about what made SL attractive/compelling, Art Fossett emphasised that one of the central attractions of SL for him was the ability to build (needless to say, I've noticed this from sitting across the desk for the last six months!), and also that building provided an important point of contact with others (e.g. striking up conversations with other builders in sandbox areas). This sparked some debate about the role that building might play within learning and teaching (Graham Mills: "Building is very demanding". Misha Writer: "most teachers & students will not be going to build". Magistra Clary: "A lot depends on the discipline...do law students like to build?".) Art did expand his comments to emphasise that he was adopting quite a broad notion of "building": "for me, the term 'build' is fairly wide - i include 'make a film', run a virtual courtroom, put on a play, etc." (Edit: again, more thoughts from Andy over on ArtsPlace.)

Overall, once discussion got going it did flow quite well, and it was an enjoyable conversation with contributions from a reasonable proportion of the audience (25, according to David's statistics!). However, on one last note, there was one question asked (also highlighted by Paul Walk) which did leave me wondering about how we had approached this particular event. The question (from avatar Lovely Day) was "Who in this room is reading the chat history? And who is looking at the people? And, if the chat history, why bother with SL?" 

For some of the time I was looking at avatars, but mainly because I was trying to capture some snapshots of the event (and at those points I wasn't really following the chat)! When I was looking at the chat log I certainly wasn't panning round the room to find out which avatar was "speaking" at the time. Having spent a few hours pulling together snapshots and assembling these notes, it does seem to me the questioner had a point. Couldn't we have had a similar discussion using IRC or some Web-based chat forum/message board? What did having the discussion in SL really add? Of course, I'm aware that it would have been perceived as rather odd, given the Foundation's recent activity in this area, if we had decided to hold a "virtual" discussion about SL outside of SL, but, OTOH, I still struggle to articulate exactly what holding the discussion in SL brought to Tuesday's exchanges. Which is not to say that I think SL has nothing to offer to such events - not at all, and indeed I found myself agreeing with some of the points made on Tuesday about visual and spatial cues - but that question made me realise that (with the possible exception of the fact that the panel were seated separately from the audience) I made almost no use of those aspects during the event itself. Hmmm.

Still, a useful discussion, I think. Thanks to all who participated.

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Small confession: Lovely Day is me, David Tebbutt.

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