Grokking Virtual Worlds

On Edudemic‘s site I read about a new tool called instaGrok – a search engine targeted at education – that I decided to try out.

About instaGrok

Start “grokking”

You can start “grokking” immediately, but to be able to use the features properly, you need to log in, and so I decided to log in and do a search on Virtual Worlds;

Search for Virtual Worlds

  1. You can adjust the level of difficulty/detail via the slider
  2. The users’ search history is saved
  3. Search results are shown as Key Facts, Websites, Videos, Images, Quizzes, and Concepts. Key Facts and Quizzes enable clicks on “more” information leading to original sources. Results can be pinned and will show on the graph, in the journal, and under the visited tab.
  4. There are 3 displays to choose from
  5. You can share by e-mail or Twitter (currently there seems to be a bug though; my tweet showed a dead link). Sharing is apparently limited to the original query – not the one you’ve pinned?
Click on the nodes to increase the search
Journal display
Edudemic highlights the quizzes, but I have to admit that I’m not a fan of quizzes – not here, not in general. The questions generated from the search seem to result in some rather strange questions that test the user’s grammatical skills, rather that his/her general knowledge of the topic;

Examples of quizzes

Apart from the quiz section, I think it’s a rather nice tool. I like the fact that you can visualize your queries and the journal feature could also be very useful. Edudemic predicts that Google will buy instaGrok, and that seems very plausible. I think the tool has the potential to evolve into something very useful. Some of the improvements I’d like to see would be:

  • View History without having to do a search first – make available the History tab once the user logs in
  • A “save” tab – it saves instantly, but for the UX I think a tab would seem reassuring (he, but that could be just me ;-)
  • Ability to download the different displays
  • Ability to share pinned queries
  • Ability to co-create
  • More image examples
  • Some sort of ” summarized result” for the quizzes to increase the gamification element
  • Improved search results – i.e. the first pin/example under Key Facts in my search is a wikipedia article on Virtual world language learning …

Anyways, I think instaGrok is a tool to keep an eye on :-) Follow here on twitter.


Mariis – Liking and linking #Thinglink

Whenever I run courses in SL the participants naturally always ask for interesting places to visit, and every time I start a new course I spend a lot of time creating/updating notecards. I’ve long been considering creating a wiki or the like, but must admit I never really had the energy. Through twitter I recently heard of a new tool, Thinglink that enables you to tag/put several links on photos. I’ve only been exploring it for a couple of days, but was so impressed with it that I decided to make use of it to solve my “SL place problem”, and voila my new blog:

When you hover over the pictures little rings with links will appear.

For now I’ve just posted a few places, and only in SL, but I’m hoping the blog will grow in time. I really appreciate the ability to link – something which I think will be a time saver – especially because you don’t have to log in to the blog to edit/remove links, you just need to be logged into Thinglink. Thinglink is really, really easy to use – my only problem was that WP only allows the plugin on self hosted WP-blogs, so I had to create a new place and chose Blogger after trying a few other options. Evidently, Thinglink can be used for anything and the tool has already caught the attention of educators – see for instance @AuntyTech‘s Educate with Thinglink :-) W00T!


Great field trip to Pathfinder’s Jibe world

One of the classes I’ve been teaching this spring has been dealing with interpersonal CMC, and as part of this I have of course been talking about avatar-based communication. Based on my experience with bringing newbies into SL, I knew that I had to find another example of a 3D Virtual World to use with this particular class that had 89 students. During the 5th annual Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education Conference  (March 15-17, 2012), I ran into John “Pathfinder “Lester, and I was reminded of the Jibe platform created by ReactionGrid .

Pathfinder is currently Chief Learning Officer at ReactionGrid Inc., but worked for LL/SL for five years where he led the development of education and healthcare, and I’ve actually met Pathfinder a couple of times in RL too – even here in Denmark :-) I’ve been following Pathfinder’s work with alternate Grids/worlds since he left LL, and I consider him a true innovator and visionary within the field of 3D Virtual Worlds.

So on March 19th, I decided to try to bring my class into Pathfinder’s Jibe world. Being used to many technical obstacles with SL, I did not know exactly what to expect. As it turned out only a few of the students had any experience with 3D Virtual Worlds (and only from WoW and The Sims), so I was admittedly a bit worried. However, from a technical point of view things went very well – I was really impressed with just how easy it was for the students to start using Jibe! Some of the students had to install a Unity3d plugin (the player), but that didn’t cause any problems and within minutes from showing the students the url, they were in-world gaining their first experiences with navigating a 3D-avatar. I have rarely heard students laugh this much in class!

All the students on laptops managed to get into Jibe without any problems, but a few of the students use iPads, and sadly Jibe/Unity3d doesn’t work on those yet. I did try to see if I could access Jibe via Chrome in the AlwaysOn PC app, but no ;-) In user forums on Unity3d I’ve read about attempts to jailbreak the iOS and work around the plugin need, but this is not a solution I’m going to pursue or even recommend to my students, so for now we’ll have to settle for using laptops, and that’s ok.

These 2. semester students had a very limited knowledge of 3D Virtual Worlds, and even though I did demonstrate SL, being able to access and play around on their own in such a world really enhanced their understanding. They did find the whole idea of using 3D Virtual Worlds for serious purposes quite exotic, and it will take much more time (and practice) to convince them of the virtues of such communication media. However, based on this very positive (especially from a technical point of view) experience, I will try to learn more about Jibe and consider if I can somehow use it in my future classes. Compared to SL, Jibe has three very important features that makes it an interesting platform in relation to my (often times very large) on-campus classes:

  • The platform easily holds 100+ participants
  • The platform is browser based
  • The platform is very user friendly – at least in terms of initial UX

For demonstration and first hand experience of avatars and 3D virtual environments, this makes Jibe very interesting. Further, Jibe supports industry standard 3D modeling programs and scripting, and that could also make it an interesting tool to use for some of the more advanced classes where our students have to learn this, and perhaps this could mean that more colleagues would take an interest in this type of technology. As much as I love SL, I really think that the future of 3D Virtual Worlds will be browser based, and to further enhance interoperability standards are a must, so Jibe really seems to be heading in the right direction.

Here’s a short introduction by Pathfinder, and be sure to follow his blog, if you want to learn more :-)

On ReactionGrid’s own blog there were some interesting news today;

  1. An open source version of Jibe is underway officially today.  LearnNC & ReactionGrid are partnering to allow teachers and students to qualify for no cost editions of Jibe.
  2. Jibe-Enterprise is now available for corporate training, meetings, collaboration and more.
  3. Jibe-Blend is also underway.  Jibe-Blend is a real-time shared collaborative building system which allows users to model in Blender and stream their work live into a Jibe/Unity3D world.


Interesting news regarding Kitely – 3D VW on demand service

Over on Ener Hax’ blog there are some very interesting news regarding Kitely – a 3D Virtual World “on demand” service;

  • Kitely now has a very favorable billing system in place
  • Kitely will soon open up to both email and Twitter logins – so far it has been restricted to Facebook users
  • Kitely is working on LDAP integration
Almost a year ago,  I logged in to Kitely for the first time. After just installing the Kitely plugin and a few easy clicks, I was able to login to my own “world”.

My first Kitely “world” – Mariis’ Meta – on March 28th, 2011 – accessed via the SL viewer.

Accessing Kitely via the SL viewer, there was something very familiar to this new “world”. I’m placing world in double quotes because it’s not a world in the common (SL) sense, the “worlds” are not connected in the way we know from SL, but function more as separate grids, where you have to access other “worlds” via the Kitely website (but I think they’re working on a teleport system too). On the other hand, there was something very strange (at least to me) about this new “world”; I had to use my RL name for my avatar because of the required Facebook login. Back in the spring of 2011, I was already fed up with Facebook, and I eventually decided to leave Facebook in August, 2011. I still thought the idea of being able to access VW-settings in an easy, affordable, and “on demand” way, was quite brilliant, so I’m very happy to see the recent news on the upcoming changes. One of the trends, we’ve seen in the growing field of VWs, is that they’re becoming “situational”. And because less sometimes is more, I think Kitely really represents a very interesting option in the field.

As an educator the upcoming LDAP integration also sounds very interesting because it would enable an easy way of adding larger groups of students. I have to admit that I haven’t been following the development of Kitely closely, so I’m not sure exactly how they plan to go about the future changes, but the Kitely founders seem impressingly willing to listen to their users, and there is also some indication that they are working on other education-related features.

So far, my educational use of VWs has been restricted to my adult, distance ed students because I run longer courses with this kind of students that I do with my younger on-campus students. However, with Kitely I see possibilities of introducing the concept of VWs in a much easier way, so I’ll be back in Kitely to explore and have more fun as soon as they implement the new changes :-)


#GRCviz2011 – selected resources on visualization

At the Gordon Research conference on Visualization in Science and Education, I was invited to talk about some of the findings from my research in SL.

For unknown reasons slideshare changes the colours and parts of the format, so here’s a pdf-version MariisTalk-GRCviz11. Judging from the feedback, my talk went very well, and I got some highly useful questions, comments, and suggestions. Since the deadline for my dissertation is in September, I’ll not be able to incorporate new ideas, but I did get a lot of inspiration for future research in SL. Even though this blog so far has focused primarily on SL, I do teach other subjects, and based on the other talks from the conference, I also got lots of inspiration for new directions in other areas both in terms of theory, methods, and tools. Below I’ve listed some selected resources – all focusing on bringing forward different types of visualizations in education.

The Mars Expedition Strategy Challenge is a research project on “Immersive Reality Challenge to Explore Strategies for Human Spaceflight Beyond Low-Earth Orbit”. The Mars Expedition Strategy Challenge learning simulation is private. However, FVWC reviewers may contact SL residents Apollo Segall, Spinoza Quinnell or Lyr Lobo to request a guided tour during the evenings.

Medical Illustrator, Graham Johnson‘s youtube channel displays some amazing visualizations, such as the one below on muscle anatomy.

Further, Johnson’s website offers lots of resources, incl. tutorials and plugins for creation of complex visualizations in ePMV.

Virulent is a new game for iPads on virus infections and the way our immune system fights them off – developed by Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

Cell Press also has a youtube channel with so-called video abstracts.

GigaPan is a site where users can upload, share, and explore gigapixel panoramas – best way to describe it is: Wauw! With the possibility to annotate, we were shown some very interesting potential educational uses. Further, the GigaPan Time Machine is even more impressive.

Cartoonist, Larry Gonick creates comic books, which according to some of the conference participants had helped them learn the basics of especially chemistry and genetics.

The Best Illusions of the Year website offers a lot of intriguing videos of different kinds of illusions. In a similar vein, the video below on attention caused many laughs and lots of puzzlement – how attentive are you, really?

Kongregate was mentioned as an excellent site to find free online games and connect with a community.

“How NOT to lie with visualization” (Rogowitz & Treinish,1996)  is an article recommended by several of the conference participants, and so is another article by the same authors “Data visualization: the end of the rainbow” (Rogowitz & Treinish, 1998).

Continuing the challenges in visualization, “How to lie with maps” was also recommended. In this book, the author, Mark Monmonier, explains the methods cartographers must use to distort reality in representing a complex, three-dimensional world on a flat sheet or screen, and how they exclude information and geographic features in order to create a readable and understandable map.

Cynthia A. Brewer’s website Color Brewer 2.0 also offers advice.

The Explaining Climate Change website offers a set of peer-reviewed, interactive, web-based materials to help learners visualize and understand the underlying science of climate change.

NARC’s Color Tool is designed to provide the designer with views of the perceptual relationships among the possible color choices. It improves on previous tools by more clearly representing the constraints imposed by the physical display and the structure of human color vision. 

The National Academy Press has published an interesting review of available research on learning science through interaction with digital simulations and games. The book considers the potential of digital games and simulations to contribute to learning science in schools, in informal out-of-school settings, and everyday life, and the book also identifies the areas in which more research and research-based development is needed to fully capitalize on this potential. Get a free copy here.

Another book, Visible Learning by John Hattie, was also recommended and looks like a must-read.

The final resource, I want to point too is actually not directly linked to the conference, but still deals very much with visualization. Whenever I travel internationally, I have a habit of buying a hard copy of Wired magazine, and the August 2011 edition features an article on Khan Academy.

The article gives a very good overview of the Kahn Academy, it’s history, activities, supporters, and opponents. Even though the “skill and drill” approach to teaching and learning is far from my own approach, I do think it can be useful for certain topics and in certain contexts, but in terms of reforming education, I’d hope for a broader strategy incl. more social constructivist methods.

From a personal point of view, the best part of the conference was to get the opportunity to spend extended time with two of my favorite SL friends, Chimera and Spiral. I’ve had the great fortune of meeting Chimera several times f2f, but it was the first (and hopefully not last) time I met Spiral RL :-)


… and yes the format of this post is horrific, but Code is King … and sticks to autocracy :-(


One of my Danish SL friends, Charlotta Jenkins, just directed my attention to the Montage tool, which enables you to curate self-chosen topics, so here’s one on Visualization in Science and Education 2011.