CMC session in Second Life – Martin’s notes

As Diane has already outlined the format of the session (see her notes posted below) I’m going to focus here much more on my impressions and experiences.

The work for this started long before the session. The students may not have projected their expectations of conventional classes into this event, but I still felt the need to prepare my avatar’s image. I didn’t think the newbie-default outfit nor the scary monster costume that I’m rather fond of would set the right tone for this. As I’ve been determined to subsist entirely cost-free in Second Life, I had to go to freebie outlets before the session started to piece together something that I felt was low-key enough not to distract or draw attention away from the teaching, but presentable enough to be accepted.

On arrival, the first thing that struck me was the mass of name bubbles that I faced. Students were here in numbers – and even though those numbers were’t vast, the interface made it very hard to discern anything much about what was going on. (This wasn’t helped by the usual problems of lag, slow draw, etc.) This is a disorienting position to be in as an educator – how can you respond to your students when you aren’t even aware of some of them? There were also “boundary” questions raised by holding the class in a public space: we had students turn up who we weren’t sure were really our students, and people turn up (and contribute intelligently) who really weren’t. (And by “really”, I mean in terms of institutional records and HEFCE returns, rather than the role they played in that session. This is, after all, part of an institutional activity.)

I watched Diane’s attempt to pull the session together with interest (and no small degree of admiration). This was not an easy task, and I think that anyone planning to teach in this sort of setting would benefit from some practice, or at least vicarious or supported experience. What struck me was how difficult it was to send cues about our intentions. I see teaching as having rhetorical elements, and if some of the participants don’t notice these, it makes it very hard to develop (as opposed to just present) ideas.

The same was true in terms of listening to students. When they were invited to comment and discuss, they did so; however, with this volume of people proffering comments, it was hard enough just reading them all, let alone trying to evaluate, respond or develop. (It was also hard to spot if anyone wasn’t contributing at all, raising questions of exclusion and our ability as educators to intervene in such experiences.) Personally, I think this means we might need more structure: clear phases of generative brainstorming, for example, followed by separate phases of development or whatever. Students need to know what is expected at any point, as this isn’t at all obvious.

As a brief note, I think it’s also important to be patient. There were lots of times where someone said something, and then nothing seemed to happen. Thank goodness for the typing animation – this was the only cue available at that point that students were engaging rather than sitting dumbfounded, and that gave me the confidence not to leap in and say something to fill the gap, which might have been counterproductive to the group’s discussions.

Even simple class management was hard. Students weren’t necessarily being willful when they didn’t sit down, or follow – sometimes they were just unable to. (This could raise interesting questions about other kinds of exclusion in education, although I think that was a tangent to Monday’s topic.) The students seemed to find it hard to spot input from the tutor – the tutors’ voices are privileged in education, and I think that simply hiding this amongst the noise of participation isn’t helpful. (Failure to mark out social differences or inequalities isn’t the same as actually effacing or eroding those.) If tutors’ input had been distinguished by colour, say, this might have helped. In the end, Diane had to resort to emote whistles to get attention and repetition (re-pasting) to make sure people noticed what she’d said. In a conventional class, such struggles to manage the process would be seen as a problem, whereas here they’re just part of the whole suite of difficulties of getting anything achieved. In the longer term, I think we need to aspire to more than just getting through sessions – I would hope that students and educators alike would be fluent enough that just completing a session was replaced by evidence of learning in a session as a criteria for judging success.

Holding the class on UK Education Island worked to our advantage. In a truly open space the comments of a random passer-by are not likely to be helpful; here, though, the educational focus of the space meant that those wandering past were likely to have some level of interest or expertise in the areas being discussed. I’d like to give a special thanks here to Thesis Binder, whose contributions were really constructive and helpful; her involvement was an unexpected asset, and this (to me) was one of the few things where I felt I was benefitting from being in Second Life for this event.

Breaking the big group into smaller ones for the end-of-session discussion worked well for me. It meant I could keep track of the students and their contributions, and that meant that I could respond to points and try to develop them, rather than just generate ideas but not evaluate them. Even within this format, however, I spend at lot of time in dialogue with individuals with others watching or sometimes commenting. This format served well to draw ideas out and develop them through discussion, without generating such a volume of comments that the whole thing broke down. I do think it runs the risk of putting students on the spot, and so might need to be handled with sensitivity (particularly for anyone who seems to be struggling with participation), but it is a pedagogic strategy I feel would be sensible to repeat. I’ve proposed that we use a similar format to this on Monday, so it’ll be interesting to see how well that works.