Diane’s notes from the taught session ‘Ethics and virtual worlds’ for the module Computer Mediated Communications, on the IOE’s MA in ICT and Education.

As noted in an earlier post, this session was on Monday night (the 18th of February) and it was facilitated by Diane Carr, Caroline Pelletier and Martin Oliver.

The session took place in weeks 6-7 of the course, and it marked the commencement of a week on the topic of online worlds. Students will explore one of a selection of 5 worlds (Second Life, World of Warcraft, Habbo Hotel, Kingdom of Loathing, Anarchy Online) while looking for and collecting evidence relating to one of 5 topics (gender, expertise, community policing, multi-modality, identity). The course is taught by distance learning on a conventional VLE (Blackboard) with a mix of full time and part time MA students.

The students had named the world that they proposed to explore, splitting among the above options. However, this session was held in Second Life.

The purpose of the meeting was 3-fold. Students were to be introduced to the literature and the topic of ethics in online worlds (or Internet research ethics at least). Plus this introduction sensitised them to the issue of ethics in their own practice, prior to their own exploration of a virtual world. Additionally our preparation, delivery and recording of the session contributed to our ongoing research into learning and teaching in virtual worlds.

The set reading prior to the session was Ess and the AOIR’s Internet ethics recommendations, and the BERA ethics recommendations. Other readings were also referenced during the session (these are all listed on an earlier post).

The session was not compulsory because not everyone can access Second Life and because of the issue of consent. We knew that we needed to record the session for the students who could not attend, and for our research, and thus we wanted to give all students the option to choose not to take part in the session or its recording. Students were informed of our research interests, this project and this blog beforehand.

The sessions that we held last term in Second Life (documented elsewhere on this blog) were much smaller in terms of student numbers. We had a group of eight for the role-playing session, for instance, and the group was made up of tutors, visitors and students. At this size, free-flowing text chat is manageable and the group is also mobile.

However, on Monday night there were around 20 students (with a smattering of visitors) and 3 tutors. The volume of text increased exponentially. This made for a very lively and anarchic event.

We are still ‘thinking through’ the ramifications of space and context for taught sessions, and thus we prefer not to hold sessions in spaces that replicate conventional classrooms or seminar rooms. We assume (and we have not tested this yet) that we – as presenters – and our students would be more likely to fall into familiar patterns of delivery and reception if our avatars were standing in a classroom or seminar room setting. We admit that there could be advantages in the evoking of these kinds of norms and expectations.

We met at Education UK Island (227, 39, 21), and our session took place in the sandbox there. The students/avatars were all very chatty, most were very new and obviously ‘buzzed’ about being in Second Life and meeting up in-world. There were lots of introductions going on, compliments about hair and clothes, questions about the interface and guesses as to who was who. Caroline Pelletier, as the course lecturer, had pre-identified her avatar to the class. As the session presenter I had been likewise identified, although some students were still confused about this – they are familiar with 2 tutors from the course, and I was arriving as a 3rd just for this week. Several kept ‘guessing’ that my avatar was Martin Oliver ‘in disguise’. This was all straightened out as the class arranged themselves on the grass. Students had identified their avatar names on Blackboard prior to the session. Some had deliberately created names that resembled their RL names. Others had gone for more fanciful options.

The first thing we were reminded about was how new to SL some of the students were. Some had obviously been in SL and practicing since the topic was announced at the beginning of term (none had been SL users before). Their avatars sat down and drank champagne or played with other SL props.

Asking the class of (more or less newbies) to sit down provoked an in-retrospect-completely-predictable flurry of ‘how do I sit?’ and ‘I can’t right click I’m on a Mac’ (cue jokes about Mac users, and a round of retorts to these). Other participants remarked that they could not sit on the grass because it would mess up their outfits – you can’t sit on the grass in white jeans, for instance. Another student confessed that he/she had had a couple of beers in RL and that this was all a bit much. A late-comer arrived, and ‘she’ had been able to get all her clothes off, but was unable to get any back on. A naked student does make you suddenly appreciated how susceptible you are to anything grief-like. None of the students appeared at all fazed by their naked (non-anatomically-correct) classmate. She took her place and participated in the session. We did have 2 visitors, one who just asked some questions early in the session, and another who took part in later discussions and made interesting contributions. Having ‘permeable walls’ in this instance was actually a plus, then. Mind you, we were on education themed land so it’s safe to assume that a reasonable percentage of drop-ins would be supportive and interested.

As a presenter, I took my place to one side (‘in front’) of the group, Caroline’s avatar sat in their midst, while Martin’s avatar stood outside of the group and to my avatar’s left. I’m going to say ‘I’ when I’m talking about my avatar but it is only because it is faster and because I’m assuming that the reader will know what I mean. We only used text in the session (no visual material other than ourselves and our surroundings, and no voice chat).

I stood outside and to one side of the group and began to marshal some kind of order using emotes. Eventually the waves of text chit-chat subsided and the session began to take on a familiar pattern – we started with an introduction:

Quote: Obviously we have a moral obligation to consider how we treat people, so we need to think about research ethics and ‘good practice’. Additionally – Thinking about ethics is a useful way to think through the nature of social research, and the procedures involved in social research (data gathering, the treatment of subjects, the treatment of data). Unquote

Then I would cut a few lines of text from a prepared document, creating a few lines or a short paragraph or so of dialogue, and end with a question. We moved through the prepared document in this way, introducing and briefly discussing issues such as public/private spaces and user expectations, consent, avatar names, pseudonyms and anonymity, subject anonymity v. artist/author accreditation, the notion of harm, and context (user agreements, terms of service).

We will be gathering feedback from the students, but at this stage I can only speak about my experience/perspective. We are still in the middle of this so it is too soon to present analysis.

First, on a practical level, the amount of text flying around made it difficult to follow things ‘live’ which is why it was so important that more than one tutor was on hand. We did some switching and swapping, but basically my role was to deliver the topic, keep the discussion moving and steer things so that we stayed on and moved through the set content. I could see that Martin was taking care of general marshalling – instant messaging late-comers and answering logistical/operational questions. Caroline, meanwhile, sat in the middle of the students, dropping leading statements and participating in the discussion. With 20 participants it would have been, I think, impossible for a single tutor to deliver each these of these necessary roles unless they were a multi-tasking genius and/or other structures were put in place to formalise things (again, a ‘lecture room’ setting might provide sufficient ‘prompts’ to students, enabling a solo tutor to operate under more controlled and controllable conditions, if that was desired).

So we moved through the session. Set comments, followed by a posed question (eg: ‘But what is privacy in the context of SL?’), followed by a blizzard of lively text-discussion. This section of the session lasted for approx. 30 minutes. The volume of text that was generated was such that following the discussion was possible, but intervening or steering it was quite difficult, even with 3 of us. Despite the informality of the setting, and the fact that we were all avatars, our input was still attended to, and so suggestions, prompts and steering did go on.

However, I was unsure (watching the waves of text) if all the students felt that they were involved. So, once the pre-prepared document had been completed, it was decided that we should divide the group for the final 15 mins of the session and that this would allow for a shift in scale that might be welcomed by any students who were feeling overwhelmed. We had not had a session with these kinds of numbers before (not in SL). The decision to split the group came out of the session itself. Fortunately, again, having 3 tutors meant that we had enough flexibility to respond on the spot. Using IM I got the OK from the other tutors, and the group was split, taking up a place on either side of the sandbox, each far enough away from each other that there was no ‘text noise’ from the other.

Martin facilitated one group, Caroline the other, while I moved between herding any stragglers and IM’ing both of the tutors about timing, etc. This seemed to work very well, allowing for longer exchanges between participants. There were still some students who preferred to read (who were ‘quieter’) but this looked more like a choice, and less like they were silenced by logistical factors or the sheer volume of text. Plus, in a smaller group, the tutor could steer the discussion, identify quieter participants, and draw them in.

We won’t know until we collect feedback from the students, but my impression was that the session went well in terms of getting the students together, and introducing a topic, and having them closely relate the topic (research ethics) to a specific research context (Second Life).

The acceptance of a naked student and much of the lively chat suggested to us that the students did not automatically project (or act out) the conventions of a taught class – although they were happy to take direction from the tutors. This area – between expectations and conventions – is something we will explore in the feedback. That does not mean that judging the success of this session is straightforward. I think that it was a success in terms of exciting and motivating the students – based largely on the fact that everyone did seem very excited. It seems significant, also, that the students had chosen the virtual world they expected to explore prior to the session in SL. Before the SL session, the class was going to be split over 4 of the virtual world options. After this session, however, all the students want to look more at Second Life, with the exception of those 3 students who will be looking at World of Warcraft (2 of whom are already committed WoW players). I think this is more about the experience, than about SL itself – if WoW was free, for instance, and we’d all met there, it might be that most of our students would be motivated to continue to explore WoW.

Based on the discussions that took place I am not sure that all the students had done the set reading, but I am fairly sure that they know of and may read the guidelines now, based on the high levels of engagement, and the close relating of the issues to SL itself that was a feature of much of the chat.

The volume of chat itself might be something that divides the students’ own assessment of the session. If students expected particular forms of instruction and delivery, they might have been disappointed. I expect that some will suggest the benefits of some kind of mechanism to control and order participation (such as a chairing bot that has been experimented with elsewhere).

While I think that putting ordering mechanisms in place – either scripted ones, or just behavioural or pedagogic conventions (the SL equivalent of raising hands, for instance) – is worth considering as an option, I also think that the value of less structured, more ‘open slather’ forms of participation should be assessed rather than prematurely rejected as mayhem. While such sessions might not deliver much opportunity to develop particular lines of inquiry, they can be (or can appear to be, at least) highly motivating. This means that this session was an excellent way to begin a week on the topic of online world research. That is certainly how it felt to me.

I’d add that it is hard to think about how to assess such pedagogic options (the ‘open slather session’) without also thinking about the forms and degrees of order and constraint that might be productive. Also, as facilitator I was very conscious that various constraining factors were in fact employed in our session (from my prepared notes, to our IM marshalling, to the student’s recognition of our roles as tutors). It will be interesting to see in the feedback how the students regarded these constraints. I think the session may have looked more anarchic, and felt more anarchic, than it actually was. We shall see.