Teaching Media and Machinima in Second Life: Interview with Britta Pollmuller
Diane Carr, August 2007, blog report, ‘Learning from Social Worlds; Teaching in Second Life’ project. 

I first meet Britta Pollmuller in Second Life through my colleague Andrew. When I heard that Britta was teaching machinima classes in SL at the Open University’s Schome Park, I asked her if we could talk about the work in SL, and how it differs from the experience of teaching in more conventional settings.

Britta (see her short bio at the end of this document) is very, very enthusiastic about the educational and especially the creative potentials of Second Life. She teaches film, machinima and animation in SL at Schome Park, Schome’s area on the Teen Grid, to pupils aged between 13 and 17. Schome Park is a pilot scheme led by the Open University to develop new education systems in both real and digital worlds.

For more information about Schome, see this article
Visit the Schome website
Or the Schommunity website
And here’s a clip of Schome Park from YouTube (sorry there are no subtitles but it gives you an idea of the place)

I should probably also explain that Britta has moved an airship (it’s like a flying pirate ship) over from the SL main grid. The ‘Schomers’ responded to this giant prop by suggesting and writing a drama/thriller based on the Hindenburg disaster, which they are now filming.

film set
Image: Britta and three schomers ponder the airship

The Interview

Diane: Hello Britta! I know that you’ve been teaching in Second Life. Can you give me some background about the project and your classes?

Britta: I started 3 weeks ago [July 2007]. First, I set up a film-makers forum where Schomers (under18’s) and Sparkers (their supporters) can learn all about machinima. We meet from Monday to Friday, from 17.00 – 19.00 on an airship that I transferred over from the main grid [the teen grid is for under 18’s, the main grid is age open].

Schome Park has a media centre that is entirely made, organised and set up by Schomers. Between meetings we ‘talk film’ and get organised via the discussion forum, which is regularly visited by all. There’s more background and information at the project wiki

Diane: I know that you’ve taught similar subjects (media, animation, film) in a conventional classroom. What are the major differences?

Britta: I taught media studies for 12 months in a secondary school in East London a few years ago, and as part of my work and research I’m teaching new media technology to all ages (see http://www.schooltoons.com or http://www.mediaprojectseast.co.uk).

Teaching in a virtual environment is a very new experience. There is no classroom I have to walk into. No bell, no stress, no staff room (hurrah) Pupils are not sitting and waiting for their lesson.

In Schome Park the students are independent learners, they are in this world because they want to be. By the time I arrive at the machinima session the core group is already IMing [instant messaging] me to get started. We teleport each other to the ship and discuss what scene we can do and who is in world for acting. Sometimes we have to wait for a particular team member to log. But we ALWAYS talk, type, which is amazing. There is never silence. The team is always very keen to demonstrate props they made for the movie. I had one student build a grand piano in 10 – 15 minutes!

Diane: So how would you say that you’ve had to adapt your teaching, for teaching in SL?

Britta: This is a very important question and I think it is worth studying and exploring more. As a classroom teacher you are always taught and reminded about classroom management. After ten years of teaching in real life I think I established a good routine of what works and what doesn’t. I have worked in a variety of schools, with a variety of learners of all abilities.

But teaching in a virtual world is totally different. First of all, most obvious, there is no physical presence of the teacher and students, so there’s no eye contact, no voice to raise if you need them to be quiet; a very new personal space.

However managing a group is still similar – you need to be fast! The first two sessions were totally mad as I organised everyone and gave everyone jobs to do. Here I found myself in a situation not very different from being in an ordinary classroom. You speak and ask the students what they like to do, and about how they think they can do it – and what they think they are best at, and so on.

However one main difference is still that you talk/type to them and ask them what THEY like to do. Kids hate that approach in schools that they are always told do this, do that, and this. The thing is that I found that I had more ‘quality’ time with the students because I could chat with them in IMs too…I never had time to talk to real life students in schools.

Diane: Perhaps that’s to do with the numbers of students involved as well… How do participants communicate? What mode of communication do you use most? (Note: this was all just before the roll out of SL’s voice feature)

Britta: When we are not online we communicate via the Schome forum and the e-mail system.

We have a specific media discussion forum where we set up topics, such as the machinima workshops. We post ideas, scripts, and I also manage to include terminology about film language. We discuss a lot of technology too, how things work such as streaming media, what codec to use, etc…all very clever stuff.

The schomics are also very popular (‘schomics’ are SL comics) see examples here.

Diane: What are your students learning and how?

Britta: We are very ‘hands-on’ and the students learn a variety of skills. It’s not just about technology. I help the team to be a complete film crew, from script writing, prop making, clothes design, filming, to editing. This means that the participants learn how to use the alt-zoom camera, the SL interface camera, how to set up shots, including wide, medium, close as well as over shoulder shots, etc.

They also learn about teamwork and patience. This is important – we might have to wait for 30 minutes before we can film a scene…even more if the camera operator crashes, or actors go off for their tea, and so on…but we get there. It’s also important to keep in mind that these students are 13–16 years old, yet they work with high-powered media production tools. Incredible, isn’t it? Five years ago it was only for professionals in the creative industries. Now it is accessible to all ages. We also learn about acting (I had my first every acting part!) and various production skills. For example, we had a researcher who looked into the Hindenburg story.

Communication is what we all learn all the time because we have to negotiate and coordinate tasks. Publication and distribution will be also part of it, as we will place the film on YouTube. And then of course there is all the Scripting and building in SL, because we have to make sets, props and clothes.

In the middle of all this, we look at film and film grammar, and we will be learning about editing…we are not at that stage yet. And we’ll have to consider sound…

Diane: How would you describe your role (facilitator? Mentor? Teacher?) What form do the lessons take? Is there any assessment involved?

I introduce specific techniques in film making, although they already had some experience. My role is mostly to keep the team focused. I move them along and get them back on track. If they forget their task, I remind them. We often have newcomers too so I have to introduce the project. There is a lot of typing involved especially talking to more than six at a time, plus extra IMs. Fast action is essential. I have to also target each individual’s skills, in the context of the team and a collaborative project.

I also introduce them to outside websites to further research about machinima. I place extra information on the forum, etc. such as information about My Media Box, which allows under-18’s to apply for funding.

Somehow it all feels like a more professional than school life. The teens are (most of the time) very serious about the project – they are motivated, creative and productive. They organise events. But we have such a good laugh too…Honestly I can’t remember ever have laughed or giggled in any ordinary school lesson as I do now. We were trying out animation scripts for the next acting scene…wonderful…

The lessons are all free, and they happen between 17.00-19.00 every weekday. Sometimes they are shorter, sometimes longer, that depends on how we are doing.

Diane: What do you think are the major differences (advantages/disadvantages) of having a youth media centre in SL, rather than in RL?

Britta: First of all I think it would be hard to find a RL media studio that is run by under 18s. The centre is moderated by the schomer/s who built it.

Having the media centre within SL – I see it as a huge advantage. There’s the potential to build or create in SL and then move between media…Radio, TV, Film, schomics…I have to stress that there is amazing creative potential here but, yes, it would need more expert help to have it all run smoothly, and further investment in expertise and technology. I really hope to get more funding to have more tutorial support for each media direction in Schome Park…at the moment I am working for free!

Disadvantages? …I see more disadvantages in conventional schools than I see in SL, where there’s so much opportunity to open up these learning and creative facilities to young people. For various reasons schools don’t have much freedom to innovate, and I think that they’re not providing young people with enough media education…they just don’t have the facilities or resources.

Diane: What technical difficulties or limitations do you face working in SL?

Britta: Well, not many for me (if I don’t crash) but the teens often have trouble as their machines can’t cope with SL sometimes for instance, if they’re looking at video footage at the same time and multi tasking.

There are other limitations. I still need to look into more technical issues, such as live streaming media from SL to RL [real life] and from RL to SL and so on…I assume that this involves more advanced technology than I have now, and I want to learn more about it…I think we also have issues about publicity, dissemination and recruitment…and this has to do with being on the Teen Grid, where we have limited access to sets (for example) compared to the main grid, which offers ‘a total of everything’…in terms of locations and sets.

We can’t take the teens out of the Teen Grid for obvious reasons…but I still imagine taking ‘day trips’ with the students to visit machinima facilities and neighbourhoods on the main grid. Similarly, there are so many amazing educational sites in the main grid, but we can’t take the teens there. For instance, I recently met a Geologist in the main SL. She built and entire island on the History of Geology. Amazing! I’d love to take them there and meanwhile the Geology island has no visitors!

So I see limitations of the access the teens have…because of child protection policy, and I don’t know of any simply answers to this.

Diane: Access is a big issue in ‘SL and education’ (even before disability or protection policies are taken into account). It takes quite a powerful machine to run SL properly…and then within institutions there are also security and firewall issues to deal with.

What other technical limitations do your students face?

Britta: Well, often their machines are not so fast enough, so when we shot footage, for example, our camera operator has to log out of SL to view the scenes. We also need to transfer files from one person to the other, yet they are all anonymous, so we can only communicate through Schome. The students generally have less storage space to keep files…no editing software…things like that.

Diane: What is the nature of the students’ participation? Did they (for instance) suggest the curriculum or design the ‘learning environment’?

Britta: Everything on the island is totally THEIR idea…they design all, make all, run all…They have their own government. For example, if you want to build something you are meant to ask for planning permission. It’s a community where everyone looks out for important issues…check the forum!

Diane: What tips would you give to someone who wants to start teaching in SL, based on what you’ve learnt these past weeks?

Britta: Ha ha – Try to know more than your students!!!!!

It is certainly important to be prepared, just as in RL teaching…test out what you will teach…try out what you will tell the kids. Also, have some notes in word ready, so you can cut and paste instructions in SL, or sort out extra information and provide it on the forum…

You’ll need to be fast and observant to keep your students’ interest so they don’t wonder off. Give each person an IMPORTANT role within media production, so they stay in the team. Treat them in a professional manner, as you would if you were at work in the industry…and NEVER treat them like SCHOOL KIDS!!!!!!

Be positive and also have a laugh. And I’ve noticed that the students really appreciate positive reinforcement and encouragement, so remember that. And learn new tricks!

Diane: So, is SL ‘the future’? What’s the future of education in SL?

Britta: I see great potential and would love to see a bigger media centre online, with regular support and activities. I hope to see far more creativity in the Teen Grid, such as art competitions, art prizes, photography, film-making, multi-media exhibitions, music concerts, radio documentations, TV, game design. There are so many possibilities and opportunities. I hope to see more teens too!

Diane: and finally, Britta, I wanted to ask you if you had to have a re-think about your avatar’s ‘look’ when you thought of yourself in a teaching role?

Britta: It took me two weeks to finally have a moment to change my avatar because I was always busy when logged on. It is relatively limited in Schome Park as you have no access to other shops. Yes, I do miss my outfits from the main grid! In fact, I miss a lot from the main grid. It is frustrating to move between the Teen Grid and the main grid because you’re always aware of what you have to leave behind – like my Dragon avatar! For instance, I moved my airship over, and it kicked of the ideas to film the Hindenburg disaster!

Diane: Oh, I’d forgotten that you create a new avatar specifically for Schome Park. Well, thank you very much for your time Britta. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Britta: Just that I am having an amazing time working with the group of teens, which is significant for me personally, because I gave up teaching under 18’s as I had real difficulty working in a secondary school environment. But since working in the Schome Park community I’m remembering how rewarding teaching can be, and I’m finding out what working with young people in a creative and collaborative setting can be like. I never felt so challenged! And I’d encourage people to visit the sites, wiki and forum to find out more about how Schome Park is organised, from policy and rules, to ideas about governance.

Diane: Is there anything that you think your students would want to add?

Britta: Check out the forum for that!

Or…read this!

This is an interview with J, the Schomer who built and moderates the media centre at Schome Park. Britta interviewed J while I was editing my interview with her. Britta is ‘Pigment SParker’ and ‘J’ is not J’s Schome pseudonym…

Pigment SParker: hello J, as you are in charge of the media centre is there apart from the forum a brief you can send me…a blurb about the main aim of the media centre in SP?

J: Basically we try to look at ways to present and promote our activities within Schome Park. So far we’ve done comics, movies, some sort of writing thing I think

Pigment SParker: Can I cut and paste it and pass this? Or do you want to e-mail me a bit your point of view about the media centre itself please 🙂 🙂 🙂

J: feel free to c and p it :-). The media centre itself I set up as like a base to promote Schome Park. We display schomics, the movie, there is the chat bit, and we’ve room to pop sets and props up using the upper gallery. Is this ok?

Pigment SParker: Yes…You made it all?

J: the centre?

Pigment SParker: yes

J: All by myself, with a bit of design help from E (you know for the waterfall)

SParker: tell me about your job as the moderator for the media part

J: On the forum?

Pigment SParker: yes

J: I like to keep it equal, so anyone can come up with ideas and run them, I basically bring the things together in meetings and stuff, and I built the centre.
I came up with the idea just as you arrived really, so I was lucky 🙂

Pigment SParker: ok.. about media here…how is this different to media in school for example

J: Well personally in my school we don’t do much, which is why I was keen to do it here, I wanted to know what other people know if you get what I mean. I became interesting in promotion when we did a session in school on careers

Pigment SParker: ok and what can you do in here, you and the others, that you can’t do with in school?

J: scenes and sets and stuff. I mean it is costly and timely in RL. Within SL you could have a stage up in minutes. There is the chance to do filming, other people may not have access within school to a camera

Pigment SParker: and how about teaching and support here how is this different?

J: well we have you – a dedicated professional in machinima

Pigment SParker: where would you like to see the media centre in the future?
or how?

J: errr…. lol. Well I guess I’d like to see it expand

Pigment SParker: Yes, me too 🙂 In what areas?

J: well, size, what we do with it, how we can promote schome

Pigment SParker: last question 🙂 Creativity !!!!

J: ok 🙂

Pigment SParker: do you see the media work as creative and why?

J: People can show emotion through it I guess. Like they say, a picture tells 1000 words lol and also, people can help in a number of ways

Pigment SParker: how

J: I mean, A is working on filming, and B and D are being Actors/Actresses, while F and I did Special effects…So everyone can have a job and give a hand

Pigment SParker: yes…:) ok, anything else you think is important to mention?

J: Everyone enjoys it

Pigment SParker: that is most important

Pigment SParker: ha one more:)

J: lol

Pigment SParker: who would you like to see what you all do? I mean as an audience

J: anyone I guess

Pigment SParker: Ok, you are a star 🙂 🙂 🙂 I will pass this on. Have you read the article today?

J: nope, which one?

Pigment SParker: in the Independent

J: no I didn’t, only tend to read local paper lol. Will it be online?
I might go have a look

Pigment SParker: it is a good article but it does not mention enough about the creative hands-on work you all do…so I hope to push this a bit more

J: that’d be good 🙂

End of interview

Biography: Britta has taught media, animation and education for a decade. She is presently studying part-time for a research degree (Ph.d) at Norwich School of Art and Design, while she continues to work in arts and media education. She is presently collaborating with (RL) teachers and schools in the designing and demonstrating methods of integrating 2D and 3D animation within school curriculum. Britta’s previous work includes ‘schooltoons’ (www.schooltunes.com) and Media Project East, (www.mediaprojectseast.co.uk), through which she explored the place of animation in education and its impact on students’ learning, creativity and literacy. Britta originally trained and continues to practice as a visual artist (see http://www.esnips.com/user/Pigment).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Britta, ‘J’ and Peter Twining.

Machinima in Second Life links:

Eric Linden’s Top 10 Machinima Tips for Second Life http://www.machinima.com/article.php?id=447

There’s also the machinima.com sampler:

See this article also: http://www.slatenight.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=40&Itemid=40
It’s an interview with the founder of Alt-Zoom Studios (in SL) Buhbuhcuh Fairchild, by Anya Ixchel published in Slate Magazine.

An article by Mathew Kumar

4 Responses to “7. Machinima”

  1. diane Says:

    Here’s a link to one of Britta’s latest machinima creations (sorry, no subtitles)

  2. […] researcher Britta Pollmüller, Norwich University College of the Arts Machinima pioneer Hugh Hancock, Strange […]

  3. […] Following Speemaster’s presentation we went in-word – via Doctor Asp’s avatar – to meet Britta Pollmüller (Pigment Pye in-world), who is a Machinima artist and teaches in-world machinima classes at the Open University’s Schome Initiative. BTW Dianne Carr from Learning From Online Worlds; Teaching In Second Life – a research project at the London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education, University of London funded by the Eduserv Foundation – did an interesting interview with Pollmüller. […]

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