Project Updates Dec 07, Jan and Feb 08

Hmm. It is quite hard to get us both in shot but here we are, preparing for CMC session no. 2…
For more on this session, see posts under Project Updates, March April May 08.

Preparing for class


This is the plan for the second session:
The plan will be distributed to the class on notecards and on the conventional vle, and by email (!) prior to the session.

The class will break up into groups, according to the research theme investigated. Each group will hold a discussion ‘in the round’ – meaning that each topic group will have an uninterrupted discussion in the centre, while the rest of the class acts as an audience.
The groups are, in running order:
Gender, Identity, Expertise and then Miscellaneous (which is anyone not in the above groups)
Each groups has 10 mins and should address these questions:
1. Which world were you investigating and what did you find?
2. How have you reflected on your experience as a researcher in this context?
3. How can we identify or value the kind of “learning” that might be taking place?
4. What are the implications for educators?
We will put a big red rug on the ground and that’ll be the spotlight/stage for the group who is talking.
After each group has spoken for 10 mins, the class can join in for 5 mins. Then the next group takes the stage.

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.

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.

Last night we had a session on ethics and online research with the students from the Computer Mediated Communications module on the IOE’s MA in ICT and Education. Lots of students, lots of texting – anarchic, and funny. We’ll be collecting feedback and following this up with the students over the next week as they explore a virtual world of their choice. We held the session at Education UK Island (227, 39, 21) in the sandbox.

image from SL

Here is the list of references that we used.
Bruckman, A. (2002) Ethical Guidelines for Research Online, online here.
Useful selection of papers about ethics and online research is available here.
BERA (British Educational Research Association) Revised Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (2004) is online here.
Basett, E.H and O’Riordan, K. (undated) Ethics of Internet Research: Contesting the Human Subjects Research Model, online here
Ess, C. and the AOIR (2002) Ethical decision-making and Internet Research, online here

And here’s a picture of one of the tutors in action.

class tutor

We are preparing for our next taught session in SL. It’s taking place later this month. That will be on the topic of ethics and Internet research, and it is for a module on the MA in ICT and Education. We’re working with Caroline Pelletier, the course tutor. We have also been preparing for a discussion event called Researching Second Life. More information about this event is on the posts under the category ‘Februrary 7th discussion event’.

At the moment we are thinking through and writing up things from the classes last term and the research undertaken thus far, while preparing sessions for the MA in ICT and Education to take place in Second Life this term.

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