Jan
29
2010

A Different Kind of Educator’s Workshop

Spiral Theas and Chimera Cosmos

Spiral Theas and Chimera Cosmos

A friend and colleague of mine, Liz Dorland and I decided to organize a Second Life Eduator’s group.  We kept meeting these fabulous teachers who wanted to learn  more about the application of the virtual world to education and so, we thought, what the heck – let’s set up a workshop series for these teachers. We’ll meet for just an hour – two times per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for four weeks, as an experiment.  We can show them beginning navigational stuff, introduce them to basic building skills, and take them to other educational builds, favorites of ours, for inspiration.

For those of you unfamiliar with Second Life – it is an online virtual world that consists of a flat-earth simulation of roughly 1.8 billion square meters (if it were a physical place, it would be about the size of Houston, Texas). First launched in 2003, SL is an example of an immersive, three-dimensional (3D) environment that supports a high level of social networking and interaction with information.  Visitors can access the virtual world through a free, client program called the Second Life viewer. You enter the SL virtual world, which residents refer to as “the grid”, as an avatar (Second Life “users” are referred to as “residents”). Once there, you can explore environments, meet and socialize with other residents (using voice and text chat), participate in group and individual activities, and learn from designed experiences. Built into the software is a three-dimensional modeling tool, based around simple geometric shapes, that allows anyone to build virtual objects. These objects can be used, in combination with a scripting language, to add functionality.

While virtual worlds with their 3D landscapes and customizable avatars, seem similar to popular massively multiplayer online games, they do not adhere to the traditional definition of a game.  Virtual worlds, like SL, are more focused on socializing, exploring, and building.  As a result, there is an active educational community in SL. Over 300 colleges and universities have “builds” in SL where they teach courses and conduct research. A number of organizations (NASA, NOAA, NIH, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Public Radio), along with a host of government agencies, museums, and educational groups stage regular events, seminars and workshops in world.

Since I started exploring around in Second Life last year, it’s seemed to me to be a great way to involve students in science.  But before we can think about the applications with students, I knew we needed to get teachers in there.  So, Liz and I thought we’d start with these simple workshops.

Comicbook-Style Handouts, designed by Liz Dorland

Comicbook-Style Handouts, designed by Liz Dorland

What sounded like a relatively simple (and fun idea!) has turned out to be quite a bit of work – but it’s also even more fun that I would have imagined. First of all, it gives Liz and I an iron-clad excuse to investigate lots of interesting places and activities we’ve been wanting to learn about any way.  It’s also forced us to be more systematic about understanding the basics of getting around in Second Life (as always, you learn the most when you are going to teach). We’ve created handouts and step-by-step instructions for the participants. Then, of course, we needed an online place to store and display all of those, as well as a place to keep the schedule – so we built a wiki site for the group.  And then we wanted to document the sessions – so we started a Koin-Up group where everyone in the class can post photos.  Now, I’m experimenting with recording options so that we can archive the sessions.

This week, we had our first session.  13 teachers showed up (there will be 17 when everyone attends) and they’re from all over – Great Britain, Colorado, Missouri, Indiana, and Boston.  Some teach college students, some are curriculum developers, some teach primary years, and some secondary grades.  Men and women – older and younger – some experienced in SL and some brand spankin’ new.  I love the diversity.

Teachers in our Second Life "Skybox' Classroom

Teachers in our Second Life "Skybox' Classroom

We started with some basic navigational stuff (creating landmarks, map reading, inventory) and then we teleported up to our skybox classroom.  Everyone learned how to “buy” a chair, find it in their inventory, and then rez it on their spot on the classroom floor.  Then we had a little lesson in camera controls, learning how to zoom in/out and focus.

Chichenitza – view from the top (taken by Kirsten Loza)

After that. we teleported down to the ground and then bounced over to Chichenitza for a bit of fun.  Everyone picked up the free Mayan costume and then climbed the magnificent stairs to take in the view from the top.

I was very impressed with how well everyone did.  They seemed to follow along beautifully and were patient with the various technical hassles one inevitably has with a platform like this.  For Liz and me, it was great fun and a welcome challenge (that’s us, up there in the photo at the top of the post – I’m the one with the  yellow hardhat).  We work well together – trading off the various responsibilities, and supporting each other (I would never do this by myself!).  When one is leading the class, the other is adding helpful explanations to the backchat, taking snapshots, and giving extra support to those who need it.

Next week we’ll be visiting Yifeng Hu’s Department of Communications Studies virtual location.  Yifeng Hu is an instructor at The College of New Jersey (in Ewing, NJ) where she teaches a course called ‘New Media and Health Communications’.  As part of her course, Professor Hu take students into Second Life for activities, lectures, and touring. We’re going to visit her virtual campus and hear how she uses the virtual world with her students.  They’ve used their time in Second Life to, among other things, examine whether the communications theories they learn about in class are applicable in the virtual world. Here is an article about Professor Hu’s work.  We also hope to visit Michael Demers virtual classroom.  Dr. Demers teaches geology at New Mexico State University and has done some really interesting things (including how to use GIS equipment) with his students in the virtual world. Here’s an article about his experiences.

All in all, this is turning out to be a worthwhile experiment.  I’m learning so much from our “students” and seeing my way toward a path to make this work for students.  If anyone is interested in joining us, in world, drop me a line!