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What’s needed is education!?

About a month ago, I spent one week at the Universidad Nacional (UNA) in Costa Rica participating in two research projects, and on some level this Mimi & Eunice strip sums up my experience:


Source

I don’t mean to say that I went to Costa Rica thinking that my colleagues there are doing anything wrong, but I did have a rather naïve presumption that the greatest challenge for facilitating change would be pedagogical.  However, as it happened there were other just as important challenges, and the research stay turned out to be very educational for me.

From the UNA campus – very exotic seen from the eyes of a Dane.

The first project is called ” Curricular Innovation of Study Plans in the disciplinary area of System Engineering at the Universidad Nacional, considering POPP (problem oriented project pedagogy) as a methodological approach”. Dra. Mayela Coto and Máster Sonia Mora are the local researchers in this project. Maylea Coto received her PhD from Aalborg University (AAU) in December 2010, but is back living in Costa Rica with her family.

My role in this project is fairly limited. I was invited to give an introductory lecture on the Aalborg PBL model (incl. the particular POPP approach) and to participate in a couple of workshops and research meetings focusing on implementing PBL.

My AAU colleague, Professor Marianne Lykke, will go to Costa Rica in January to continue this work.

The second project is called “AVATAR: The use of Second Life as pedagogical approach”, and Máster Carmen Cordero, Máster Willy Castro & Máster Dinia Rojas are the local researchers in this project. My AAU colleague, Post Doc. Heilyn Camacho, who also is from Costa Rica, and I are working together in this project, and this is the context for the UNA-AAU course in SL that we currently are running. In the UNA-AAU course, we are also lucky to collaborate with Danish SL designer and educator, Inge Knudsen.


Kick-off session in the UNA-AAU course.

Before leaving for Costa Rica, Inge and I had tried to kick off the UNA-AAU course in SL, but we experienced quite a lot of technical problems and language challenges making it difficult to figure out exactly why things weren’t going as expected. Originally, Heilyn and I were supposed to go together to Costa Rica, but due to unforeseen administrative issues, I ended up going alone. Heilyn went a couple weeks later and experimented specifically with the Lego Serious Play concept to help the participants understand the course assignment better.


SL participants in UNA Virtual’s computer lab.

In relation to the UNA-AAU course, the participants and I spent two days in the lab mainly doing hands-on exercises, and we had a lot of fun. Introducing SL is always such a pleasure, and I really enjoy helping participants discover the many possibilities of this medium.

There are nine participants in the UNA-AAU course, and for the course I’ve asked them to work in three teams. In one of the in-world exercises, each team had to go to a representation of a specific country (Denmark, Costa Rica, and China (Inge is also a Sinologist)), explore, find facts and take pictures, and finally present their findings to the rest of us. Not only did this exercise demand the mastery of basic SL skills, it also highlighted the inter-cultural aspect of the course, and it seemed to work very well.

Setting up the three presentations in the sandbox.

On the second day, I gave a short talk about my research in SL, tried to elaborate on the pedagogical underpinnings of the course, and we continued exploring and trying out different SL features.

I was truly impressed by how fast the participants understood the more technical aspects of SL, but it was also very apparent that the majority of the participants did not understand English very well. Another challenge was the time that the participants are able to allocate for the course. In Costa Rica there seems to be little tradition in Academia for giving the faculty time to participate in Professional Development (PD), and because the salaries are low, many teachers actually hold two jobs to make ends meet. In the UNA-AAU course this means that the participants can only allocate 3-4 hours/week, and anyone who has been working with and in SL knows that it takes time to learn the basics and time passes quickly once you have logged in. Therefore I decided to cut the course literature (for many it would take more than 3-4 hours to read one English text), and focus on giving the participants some good and relevant experiences in SL.  I have designed the course based on some of the fundamental principles of PBL (problem orientation and formulation, student control, open-ended curriculum, and qualitative assessment), but given the above-mentioned challenges, I have found it necessary to play a more instructional role than I usually would do. By the end of the course, the participants still have to present an analysis of SL as teaching and learning environment in relation to a self-chosen target group, but I have asked them to use a particular model for their analyses to ensure that they cover some of the most important didactic/instructional elements. For the presentations, each team has its own sandbox in the air above the Danish Visions Island.


Sandboxes in the air.

In both research projects, UNA has asked us to collaborate in terms of teaching and research. Though the projects are different, they are both aiming at implementing new pedagogical strategies and technologies. Making the change to start using a PBL framework and SL as technology is a big change in itself, but based on my experience in Costa Rica, I would say that the biggest challenge has to do with culture.


Visiting the Poas Volcano.

Ready to embark a gondola ride into the rainforest.

All of the teachers I met in both projects were eager to change and to learn about new kinds of pedagogical practice, and I feel confident that they will. I do, however think that there are several challenges that need to be addressed. Certainly, my colleagues and I will do our best to support these Costa Rican teachers, but unless the management of the university recognizes that PD demands time (and credit), I fear that the changes they are all hoping for may take many years. A very interesting – and somewhat paradoxical – perspective on this, is the fact that education per se is highly prioritized in Costa Rica. There are more than 50 universities in this small country with only approx. 5 mio. people! Changing a pedagogical/academic culture is obviously not something that happens over night, but it does seem like the appropriate place to start, and at least the context is something that we (from the outside) need to consider very carefully when designing for change.

And yes I still do believe that education is what’s needed – perhaps just not only as in “teacher training”, but also on a more complex level and for all of us involved in this process. Thinking about this, cultural anthropologists, Bates & Plog (1990)’s definition of culture comes to mind:

[Culture] is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of a society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.

/Mariis

Bates, D.G. and Plog, F. (1990:7): “Cultural Anthropology”. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

In-world kick-off session with technical challenges

Yesterday, my colleagues Inge Qunhua, Heilyn Abbot, and I were ready to kick-off the first in-world session in the UNA-AAU course. As part of the course, we have designed for two kick-off sessions in SL, before Heilyn and I go to Costa Rica and start the course with a 2-day f2f-workshop at the Universidad Nacional. As far as, we had understood it, our two Costa Rican colleagues, Ena & Wica did a f2f-session with the course participants last week where they created the SL-accounts and settled possible technical challenges. Therefore, the main purpose of the in-world kick-off session was to socialize (make friends, and join our group) and to familiarize the participants with the sandbox and the island where the majority of the course activities will take place. However, another important reason to have sessions before we go to Costa Rica, was to see how the participants would manage to get into/and navigate in SL from a technical point of view – how would the participants’ user experience turn out? In planning the course, we have been discussing the technical challenges that may occur, and we have been somewhat worried about this aspect – and sadly, we did experience many technical difficulties in yesterday’s session.

The first participant to turn up in the sandbox was our Costa Rican co-facilitator, Ena. However, as the picture below illustrates, Ena’s avatar did not rezz well, and in the text chat she managed to tell us that everything looked grey, and that she had no voice/audio.

Ena’s grey avatar in front of Heilyn, me, and Inge

Technical difficulties in SL can occur for a variety of reasons one of which can be incorrect settings (e.g. for audio and graphics), so Inge quickly decided to put up a board explaining how to set the audio settings properly.

Inge sets up a board explaining audio settings on the fly

However, as Ena also had problem with an unrezzed (grey) environment, she couldn’t see this properly, so Inge ended up calling her on Skype. Meanwhile, Heilyn and I were waiting for more participants to arrive, but we soon realized that most of them apparently experienced technical difficulties. Two more participants did show, and we all got into a Skype call, and even though advice on how to set audio and graphics correctly helped the participants a bit, we did not manage to settle all the technical difficulties, and finally decided to cut the session short.

Our 3 Costa Rican participants – all dressed in grey :D

Our next kick-off session is planned for next week, and before then we hope to settle the technical problems, but we have also started to discuss alternative plans; a) we use Skype instead of the built-in SL-voice (and hope the problems with graphics can be solved locally), b) we use an alternative viewer (for some users this does seem to help in terms of graphics). None of these solutions are perfect, and if the problems stem from insufficient bandwidth, I’m not sure how we will solve it.  This UNA-AAU course is envisioned as a pilot-project where the main goal is to investigate if it will be possible to run bilateral courses between Aalborg University and Universidad Nacional through SL and Moodle in the future, and so we are already gaining important information about some of the possible challenges. I’m confident that we will solve the problems somehow, but I also can’t wait to actually go to Costa Rica to experience the challenges first-hand – some problems can simply be to difficult to solve on a distance …

/Mariis

Upcoming PD course in SL for teachers at Universidad Nacional, Heredia Costa Rica

In September, I’ll be kicking off a new PD course in SL. Participants will be teachers from The Computing School at Universidad Nacional (UNA) in Heredia, Costa Rica. The main objective of the course is to provide the participants with a combination of conceptual, theoretical, and practical (in-world) strategies with regard to designing, implementing, and teaching/learning courses of different duration using SL as main medium/approach. Unlike most of my previous courses in SL, I will not work alone in this course, but will be joined by an amazing group of co-facilitators;

  • Inge Qunhua – Danish Instructional designer and teacher in SL since 2007
  • Heilyn Abbot – Costa Rican colleague, Post Doc at e-Learning Lab, Aalborg University (AAU), co-facilitator in the COMBLE course
  • Wica Sorbet & Ena Adjani – new Costa Rican colleagues from UNA

In-world the majority of the teaching activities will be taking place in a region with 3 Danish islands; Region Denmark, Innovative Learning, and Danish Visions.

In designing this course, I’ve naturally been drawing on my experience from previous SL courses. However, our Costa Rican colleagues are also interested in learning more about the particular PBL model we have implemented at AAU, the so-called Aalborg PBL-model. Further, during my PhD-research in SL, I’ve found the “Communities of Practice” (CoP) ideas from Wenger, 1998 to be particularly useful when teaching new technologies/media. The goal of the design is to try to establish a pedagogical Community of Practice, wherein the teaching and learning processes will be situated. Core principles in this design strategy therefore are:

  • A strong and ongoing focus on learning as transformation of identity and negotiation of meaning
  • Focus on Legitimate Peripheral Participation
  • A socio-cultural, constructivist perspective on learning
  • Learning is participant-centred
  • Focus on problem orientation where learning combines theory and practice
  • Learning is usually realized in pairs/groups
  • Responsibility of the learning process is mutual – both between learners and learners/facilitators
  • Self- and peer assessment through reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action is central

An important part of this strategy is to respect the newbie experience of the participants. The ontological challenge that is to become an avatar should be acknowledged and designed for. In practice, this means that Inge and I, who will be the main in-world facilitators, will focus on creating a safe learning environment where the newbie participants will be able to learn some of the most important basic SL skills before we actually proceed to focus on the subject matter. Today, Inge invited me in-world to see the sky sandbox, she has designed for the initial stage of the course:

Overview of the sky sandbox


The participants will learn how to navigate their avatars in trying to get their teams across the board that includes invisible holes.


For the building exercise the participants also will have to work in teams.


In the presentation and discussion area all sorts of media can be used; Slide shows, Type-with-Me, videos, and websites are included.

And so, now that Inge has done all the hard work, all I need to do is to take some time in front of the fire to reflect on more fun, engaging, and interesting activities :-)

The dubbed UNA-AAU course starts in-world on September 12th, and I’m sure it will generate some future posts …

/Mariis