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Student perceptions of Presence in a Virtual World

Together with Ross McKerlich, Terry Anderson, and Bard Eastmann I have a paper out in the Journal of Online Learning and Technology (JOLT). The paper is entitled Student Perceptions of Teaching Presence, Social Presence and Cognitive Presence in a Virtual World, and is based on research collaboration we started back in 2009. Back in January 2099, I participated in a Master Class on Learning 2.0 and Knowledge Media at Aarhus University, where Terry Anderson (Athabasca University) was one of the guest lecturers. When Terry learned about my research in SL, he invited me to participate in a research project that was aimed at investigating the use of the Community of Inquiry (COI) model in 3D environments.

The COI model was developed in the late 1990’s as framework for evaluating educational experience in text-based online environments by D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walther Archer. Given the COI model’s wide spread use in different educational settings it is by no means coincidental that one of the original founders, Terry, has found it important to explore the applicability of the model in new online environments such as the 3D virtual world, SL. Together with Ross McKerlich, Terry conducted a preliminary, qualitative exploratory study in SL in 2007, and basically confirmed that the model also can be used in assessing educational experience in 3D virtual environments (McKerlich & Anderson. 2007).

As part of our collaboration, Terry & Ross, participated in one of my in-world classes with the MIL09 students – something both the students and I appreciated very much.

Terry explaining about the COI-model in the MIL09 class

Discussing different COI concepts in the MIL09 class

Anyways, after such a long time, it is great to finally see our paper published, and I want to thank Ross, Terry, and Brad for the collaboration – it was a very good experience :-)

Here’s the abstract of our paper:

Presence – or having a sense of active participation – in distance education has increased with the expanding use of and affordances of communications technologies. Virtual worlds have been on the forefront of popular and education technology in the last three years and innovative methods of teaching and learning are emerging in these contexts.  Using the recently validated community of inquiry (COI) instrument, this study focuses on students’ perceptions of teaching, social and cognitive presence in virtual world contexts. The authors examine whether the COI Instrument can effectively be applied to virtual world learning events. The results are exciting: in a diverse sample, virtual world learners perceive teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence.


Perceived properties of SL in relation to ADHD-patients

On Thursday, January 20th Milo Spot and Viola Stonesoul from the “MILOVIOLA” group did their presentation and analysis of SL as teaching and learning environment for pupils diagnosed with ADHD. Both Milo and Viola have previously investigated more general use of ICT as tool for people with ADHD in coping with daily activities, and so were interested in exploring if and how this multi-modal medium could be applied with regards to such a target group. We started off in a sandbox up in the sky, where we were asked to switch to sunset setting, and Milo and Viola made it clear that they wanted to focus on different affordances of the teaching and learning space.

The  sandbox above the Danish Visions island

In the NE corner of the sandbox, Milo and Viola had set up several display screens with information about ADHD, and Milo gave us a short introduction, so that we could better understand the background for their design thoughts.

Milo explaining ADHD …

One of the major challenges for people diagnosed with ADHD is their problem with staying in focus if too many impressions are perceived simultaneously, and in the space depicted below Milo and Viola wanted to show us how multiple impressions could become overwhelming because of lacking ability to filter information – the many pictures sort of “coming toward us” in this space illustrated this point very well.

After this short introduction to some of the challenges involved in designing for ADHD-patients, we were asked to fly up above the sandbox to sit down and listen to Viola’s more theoretical presentation of using SL. Viola and Milo explained that it was on purpose they had chosen to place this part up in the air to illustrate the common perception of Theory, and as one of the other students subsequently noted it was hard not to think of Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” ;-)

Scaffolding (as depicted in the slide above) was one of the key words in Viola and Milo’s analysis, and in a related manner, they referred to a model illustrating the stages of learners’ participation in virtual worlds created by Dr. Mark Childs as part of his PhD dissertation. Childs visited the class in-world as Gann McGann on January 3rd, and his thoughts on avatar identity, presence, and embodiment really seem to have influenced the students (and me!).

Gann McGann and one of his alts visiting the MIL Class.

Childs’ model in the horizon …

Back on the ground in the sandbox, Milo and Viola walked us through some of the designs/objects they had considered as part of their teaching and learning design for this particular target group. ADHD-patients tend to become frustrated if their daily routines are disrupted, it is not a target group that handles change well, and as an example one of Viola’s pupils demanded there be a clock in a classroom – otherwise she wouldn’t enter the room.

Chess with its meticulous rules appeal to some ADHD-patients, and strengthen their ability to stay focused. Many ADHD-patients also need private space, even when in a social space, and the tipi in the background could accommodate this need.

In the next part of their session, Milo and Viola divided us into three teams, Red, Blue, and Yellow, and we were asked to enter the similar colored boxes/spaces set up in the south end of the sandbox. We all got note cards with case-scenarios each describing someone with ADHD. Our task in the boxes was to identify learner needs and write them in a shared document.

Petter and I writing in the that was shared among the 3 groups enabling us to see real time what the other groups were writing.

One of the concerns Milo and Viola expressed with regard to using SL in relation to their specific target group was the amount of information that the SL-user constantly is expected to cope with. To exemplify this they asked us to go to a freebie store and see if we could find and buy some doors ….

A typical example of a Freebies Store

and another example, which also includes sounds and animations  Tropical Paradise Designs

Lots of screen info – tuff .. not only for ADHD-patients …

Next stop on the tour was the holodeck on the Danish Vision island. In the setting below ADHD-patients could practice social and communication skills in a safe environment.

We ended the tour visiting the Al Andalus Mezquita, which could be used in teaching more general life skill and as a setting for discussing different perspectives on culture, religion, life, and death.

Al Andalus Mezquita

Finally we all went back to the sandbox for the feedback session. Through this highly packed program Milo and Viola splendidly showed how the space in SL can be transformed into meaningful teaching and learning places, and we all appreciated their effort to use different features in the environment such as audio-visuals and shared media. The connection between pedagogic underpinnings and practical use of the medium was very strong and well reflected. Furthermore, Milo and Viola clearly demonstrated how an educational setting could be designed with free objects found in various freebie shops in-world.

This was the fourth and final student presentation in the course – and I do think that Milo and Viola managed to leave us all with a very good impression of the teaching and learning potentials of SL – not only in relation to ADHD-patients, but in general.


#vwbpe 2010 – 2nd day impressions (part one)

On the 2nd day of the Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education (vwbpe) I started out by participating in a session by Graham Mills entitled “TBinSL – Thinking Big about the Very Small”. Graham spoke of the use of SL for visualization of especially molecules,  gene data and cells and what was particularly interesting was that he rezzed various objects to support his slides such as the TB genome illustrated below.

Afterwards Graham blogged about his experience mentioning a couple of the challenges a presenter may face. First of all he forgot to lock the slide viewer, which meant that people in the audience could change the slides – for those who have not attended a presentation in-world it may seem rude or strange that the anyone in the audience would do this, but in my experience many SL users spend time running their cursors over objects to see if any are interactive – in spite of this, it was not a problem I was disturbed by during Graham’s presentation.

As I understand it, vwbpe-presenters had been encouraged to use the so-called SpeakEasy-tool by the conference organizers. The SpeakEasy-tool enables the presenter to deliver pre-typed text into local chat, while presenting thus allowing the hearing impaired or anyone else to get the information in the form of text too.  I have not tried out the SpeakEasy-tool, but judging from Graham’s post it adds yet another element to the many issues an in-world presenter needs to be aware of. Graham wisely chose to react instantly to the comments and questions in the local chat during his presentation. This local chat phenomenon is in my point of view one of the major strengths of SL because it has the potential of opening the dialogue between the presenter and the audience. Having run 4 course in-world I do however also know how complex the communication becomes, especially if you have no one to help moderate, and I can fully relate to Graham’s description of the situation.

Note that on the University of Liverpool Island it is possible to check out some of the amazing visualizations Graham and his colleagues have been working on. Graham has also started to explore some of the new features in the SLV2 such as Shared Media and shadow effects, and on his blog,  you’ll find some interesting posts on this.

The next session I attended was a presentation by Kattan Hurnung, who spoke of her experiences with “Design to develop Virtual Wolds”. In this post you’ll find both Kattan’s slides and a recording of her presentation.

Via 5 examples of designing respectively a café, a canteen, a dwelling, an office and an operating theatre Kattan presented a very interesting grid that depicted the relations between information provided if forms of text, images and/or scenarios and the expected learning outcome given by teachers prior to the start of the process of designing these different types of learning spaces.

I thought there were many interesting points in Kattan’s presentation and one of the things I took special notice of was her questioning the level of details in designs. Building in-world surely can be very time consuming and perhaps it isn’t necessary to aim for photo-realistic builds – less may suffice as long as the design appears believable.

Next up was a presentation by Kristy Handrick; “Revealing the didactic character of imagery in Second Life.” Unfortunately the technical problems I’d had the day before continued, everything rezzed incredibly slow and I had problems with adjusting the camera, so I gave up and took a break. Kristy also blogged about here experience as an in-world presenter and made an important point on how the SpeakEasy-tool can be helpful to ESL presenters, and since I’m also struggling with the English language, I think I may just try out the tool for my next presentations.

The last session I want to write about in this post was a fascinating conversation between Dusan Writer and Tom Bukowski (author of the book “Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist explores the Virtually Human”).

My computer still acted out, but the sound was good and I was really glad to participate in this since it raised a lot of questions/comments I need to look further into – here merely presented as points, but for those interested in seeing/hearing the conversation a recording can be found here.

  • SL is a site of culture and cultures are constantly changing, though some things remain permanent.
  • On AFK Tom discussed the difference between presence (to be present) and immersion (to be in a place) and how virtual worlds enables us to be immersed without being present.
  • Tom was fascinated by the way “friendship has become the new default mode of social relations”, and questioned 1) how friending presumes a relation that is based on choice, and 2) the apparent egalitarian nature of such a relation. And how does this affect teaching – should we as educators friend our students, is it a cool egalitarian thing or is it just a way of masking the fact that we’ll be grading them?
  • Tom studied SL in its own terms meaning he didn’t try to track down SL users in “actual” or “physical” world. This methodological approach naturally depends on one’s research question(s), but he draws the line with the common idea that no research project can be legit unless it also involves studying people in the actual world. It’s sort of a slap in the face of virtual worlds and it’s misunderstanding that what happens in virtual worlds is real, it is culture.
  • There is more and more evidence of SL users identifying with their virtual personas/life – e.g. writing your avatar name on a receipt or wondering how many prims an actual building represents. We have just scratched the surface of ways in which virtual worlds are going to affect our actual lives.
  • Technologies are neutral – the blow back could be positive or negative – that’s up to us, the users, the creators.
  • There is a lag between the technology being invented and us realizing what we can do with it.
  • “Techne within techne” – e.g. the ability for a group to collaboratively change the world that they’re in real time. The number one thing about a virtual world is that it is a place – techne makes the world; you can have techne inside the world, which is a new possibility.

I personally don’t agree that technology is neutral and I was a bit confused when hearing Tom at the end speak of different levels of user-control in different types of virtual worlds (to me the level of user-control indicates foundational ideas forced upon the users by the system developers), but other than that I really found this conversation highly inspirational!

Uh, and another observation I made by watching the recording of the conversation was how boring or non-interactive it appears because we don’t see the backchat on the screen. This was a very interactive event with many, many questions/comments from the audience and that is not the impression you get from just watching the recording. Both Dusan and Tom made several references to the audience, but I think it goes to prove the point that SL is a place and to get the full experience, you really had to have been THERE ;-)