Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: January 2008

Ideas for "spaces" in Second Life

CQU has recently invested in an island in Second Life for the purposes of finding out how it might be used within learning and teaching. One of the problems we have to face is how and what spaces do we build on the island.

In this post I wonder if there are some lessons to be learned from the work that is being done to develop next generation learning spaces in the real world. In particular, I’m going to rely on a slide or two from a presentation given by Dr Phillip Long at a symposium at UQ last year.

The slides and (some of) the audio from the presentation can be found here. If there were time I’d be taking a more detailed look at this book on the topic from Educause.

Supporting families of pedagogies

Around about slide 150 of the presentation the suggestion is made that next generation learning spaces should be designed to support families of pedagogies. Then a list of 10 spaces are described. The list is

  1. Thinking/conceiving spaces (spaces for deliberating, brainstorming)
  2. Designing spaces (spaces for putting structure, order, and context to free-ranging ideas)
  3. Presenting spaces (spaces for showing things to a group)
  4. Collaborating spaces (spaces for enabling team activities)
  5. Debating or negotiating spaces (spaces for facilitating negotiations)
  6. Documenting spaces (spaces for describing and informing specific activities, objects, or other actions)
  7. Implementing/associating spaces (spaces for bringing together related things needed to accomplish as task or a goal)
  8. Practicing spaces (spaces for investigating specific disciplines)
  9. Sensing spaces (spaces for pervasively monitoring a location)
  10. Operating spaces (spaces for controlling systems, tools, and complex environments)

The list, at first blush, seems to offer a useful framework for thinking about types of spaces that might be usefully developed within a virtual environment. In particular, it identifies that there are many other types of spaces beyond the “presenting spaces” that many will tend towards.

A problem is that the audio of the presentation appears to give out long before these slides are covered which leads to the need for a bit of interpretation about exactly what some of these spaces may be like.

We have some folk here at CQU into the use of technology to enable group-based work including brainstorming etc. A couple of the spaces above could be well informed by that sort of work.

If this is going to prove useful at all, I believe we may need to find some examples in Second Life of spaces which fit into the different categories above.

Dealing with "users", freedom and shadow systems

Apparently Accenture have discovered “user-determined computing” and associated issues.

The definition goes something like this

Today, home technology has outpaced enterprise technology, leaving employees frustrated by the inadequacy of the technology they use at work. As a result, employees are demanding more because of their ever-increasing familiarity and comfort level with technology. It’s an emerging phenomenon Accenture has called “user-determined computing.”

It’s not new

This problem, or aspects of it, have been discussed in a number of places. For example, CIO magazine has a collection of articles it aligns with this issue

This has connections to the literature on workarounds and shadow systems. Practices by which people within organisations workaround the official organisational systems or hierarchies and do things their own way.

This is not a problem limited to IT departments. I work within a group responsible for curriculum design, e-learning and materials development at a University. We’re a provider of services for academic staff. Those staff can and do workaround the services we provide.

The question is, what should we do? How should we handle this?

Reactions from IT folk

I find it interesting that a common knee-jerk reaction from IT folk tends towards the negative and/or aggressive. Check out some of the comments on this blog post or one of the Time to rethink your relationship with end-usersCIO articles.

This is often seen in the official reaction of IT departments to shadow systems. “SHUT THEM DOWN!!!!”. It’s a discourse that have been circulating at my institution in recent times.

Having been a creator and heavy user of shadow systems it’s not an approach which I believe is productive. In fact, some colleagues and I have argued that there is a much better approach. From the abstract

Results of the analysis indicate that shadow systems may be useful indicators of a range of problems with enterprise system implementation. It appears that close examination of shadow systems may help both practitioners and researchers improve enterprise system implementation and evolution.

The gulf

The users who know too much CIO article puts it this way

And that disconnect is fundamental. Users want IT to be responsive to their individual needs and to make them more productive. CIOs want IT to be reliable, secure, scalable and compliant with an ever increasing number of government regulations. Consequently, when corporate IT designs and provides an IT system, manageability usually comes first, the user’s experience second. But the shadow IT department doesn’t give a hoot about manageability and provides its users with ways to end-run corporate IT when the interests of the two groups do not coincide.

Other earlier work has suggested that this gap or gulf, in some cases a yawning chasm, is created by a number of different factors.

Perhaps it is the fundamental nature of some of the factors that create the gap which contribute to the negative reactions. The perspectives creating the gap are so fundamental that the people holding them never question them. They don’t see that their view is actually counter-productive (in some situations) or that there are alternatives. They simply can’t understand the apparent stupidity of the alternate perspective and the hugely negative ramifications.

Super-rational versus complexity

One of the fundamental outlooks which contribute to this gap is that most IT, and most organisations, are based on the ideal of top-down design (teleological design). I’ve written about this previously.

That previous writing includes one of the more interesting characterisations of the difference in these two fundamentally different perspectives. I’ve included it as an mp3. It’s by Dave Snowden, and is an excerpt from a presentation he gave in Helsinki on sense-making and strategy. In the excerpt he describes two approaches to organising a child’s birthday party. One based on traditional top-down approaches and another based on complexity.

What should we do?

This is a real problem which we have to address. How do we do it.

The users who know too much CIO article suggests the following principles as starting points

  1. Find out how people really work
    This connects with ideas in our earlier articles. Look at the shadow systems people are using and understand the factors leading them to use them. We need to know much more about how and why staff are doing curriculum design, e-learning etc.
  2. Say yes to evolution
    On reading the article I wonder if “don’t say no” might not be a better name for this principle. One of the nice quotes in the article is “No one will jump through hoops. They’ll go around them.”. We have to make it easy and safe for folk to do their own thing. Not just understand what they are doing, but allow them to evolve and do different things and keep an eye on why, what and how they do it.
  3. Ask yourself if the threat is real
    There is often a reason why IT believes a shadow system is bad – security, inefficiency etc. This principle suggests spending a lot of time considering whether or not this is really a big problem. In our line of work that might be equated to telling an academic that a particular learning/teaching approach is less than good.

    Another quote from the article ” When a CIO….is setting himself up as a tin idol, a moral arbiter. That’s a guaranteed way to antagonize users. And that’s never a good idea.”.

  4. Enforce rules, don’t make them.
    Some recent local experience reinforces the importance of this. It’s not the support group saying no. It’s the rules that were created by the appropriate folk within the business. As an addition to this I would suggest: “Make sure everyone knows who made the rules.”.
  5. Be invisible.
    This principle relates to the “important things” a service division should do. For example, an IT department is responsible for ensuring security of important data. The processes used to do that should be invisible. It shouldn’t cause the users grief in order to be secure. It should just happen.
  6. Messy but fertile beats neat but sterile.
    It’s not included in the article as one of the principles, but it is used as the closing section and I think it deserves to be included. To much of what goes on in organisations is based on the idea of having tidy diagrams, one way to do something of being neat and sterile. “messiness isn’t as bad as stagnation” and “If you want to be an innovator and leverage IT to get a competitive advantage, there has to be some controlled chaos.”

    Another approach

    Nicholas Carr argues for one response in terms of IT departments.

"CQU Learning" – early days of a Second Life island

The purpose of these posts is to provide a bit of a history of the origins and development of the CQU Learning Second Life island and the initial steps into 3D MUVE’s for learning and teaching. It’s also to encourage a bit of reflection on why and what is happening as well as to make open the ideas, discussions and experiences we’re having for the wider CQU community (and others) if at all interested.

If you have any questions, let me know and/or feel free to add your comments down below.

Access to the island

Until the island is somewhat organised we’re restricting access to any interested CQU staff member. If you’re a CQU staff member and would like to look at the island here’s what you need to do

  • Get yourself a Second Life account/avatar.
  • Become familiar with using Second Life – at least a little.
  • Email me your avatar’s name.

I’ll add you to the group that can access the island and let you know.

Current state of the island

The island has been available to a small group of four or five people for about a week. We’ve all been doing some initial playing around with what can be done in Second Life in terms of building and playing with objects.

When a Second Life island is created there are four basic templates to choose from. The following is an aerial view of CQU Learning at the moment. The white area towards the top left corner is a “mountain” in the middle of the island. The landscape drops away from the mountain down towards the ocean.

Overview of CQU Learning Second Life Island.

The entry area

Initially the island was bare. It’s somewhat simple to add vegetation and other simple objects. The first step we did was to create the entry area. The place most folk enter the island. Including some initial “branding” as CQU. Here’s the current look of the entry area.

Current view when entering the CQU Learning island.

And of course, in a virtual world it can be dark. That’s why there are a few lights sprinkled around the entry area. Here’s what it looks like at night.

The entry at night

And yes, we’ve added a bit of CQU branding to welcome folk to the island.

The eventual plan is to add various teleport devices, signs and other forms of guidance to help folk find other locations on the island.

Ignoring first life in Second Life

There are various, fairly essential components of the real world that do not have much of an effect in Second Life. Little things like gravity and the weather don’t really exist. Consequently there is actually no requirement for buildings in Second Life to be built on the ground or to have a roof.

Here’s a simple building placed on the CQU Learning island. You can just make out that we’ve used the roof for something else not traditional. There’s a whiteboard, couch, bookcase and a tree located on the roof of the building.

A floating house

When you get down to it, there is actually no real reason why you need buildings at all within Second Life. The various bits of furniture could be placed just about anywhere.

On the roof

What’s next

In becoming more familiar with the environment there are a range of tasks left to do including

  • Start using these spaces for gatherings.
    How many folk can gather in one place before there are problems? Both technically with the Second Life platform but also in terms of the quality of the experience and subsequent outcomes.
  • See if different sorts of spaces enable different outcomes?
  • Play around with scripting of in world objects to enable them to respond to folk
  • Experiment with the capability of in world objects to communicate with outside web pages, particularly for the purpose of drawing “live” CQU information into the island.
  • Experiment with the creation of machinima.
  • Experiment with the creation of sculpted prims and other advanced content creation
  • Start developing an idea of the different types of pedagogy that make sense within a 3D world
  • Start thinking about how to do a bit of “urban planning” with the island.

Traditional buildings in Second Life – hassle to navigate

Starting to move around a bit more in Second Life and it hasn’t taken long to hate walls. Traditional buildings with a roof, walls, corridors and small doorways seem to be designed to make navigation a hassle.

The following is an example of a navigation experience this morning where as I walk around inside a building, then turnaround I am (or at least the perspective I have from behind my avatar is) suddenly flung out of the building. Somewhat disconcerting.


I would imagine a seasoned navigator within 3D worlds would take this as a given and work around it. But, at least to me, it raises the question of just how far you should go with re-creating the real-world in Second Life.

I’m sure this is not a new question but as we’re starting our journey into Second Life it is a question that needs to be asked. Already some folk are wanting to re-create physical campus buildings in Second Life. Is that the right thing to do?

This certainly seems to be a common trend amongst many other universities. CQU has some major differences with those other universities which makes this practice somewhat less sensible. These include

  • In 2007 we had over 15 different campuses at which students might be located.
  • The largest grouping of students in 2007 were distance education students (who rarely, if ever, come onto a campus) with 33% of the student population.
  • The largest campus in percentage terms was the Sydney campus with 19.4%. It is one of CQU’s international campuses and is based in a couple of CBD buildings in Sydney.
  • Rockhampton, the first CQU campus and the one at which CQU senior executive is housed, had 12% of the 2007 student population (Sydney 19.4%, Melbourne 13.4% then Rockhampton).
  • The institution has only existed for about 40 years and has only been a full university since the early 1990s (see CQU history).
  • At least from my perspective, none of the buildings are all that memorable or noteworthy.

If we were to re-create some real CQU buildings in Second Life. Which building would we choose? From which campus?

Walls are needed in real life to keep the weather out, the roof up and provide some privacy. the first two of those reasons probably don’t exist in Second Life. Does the third? Do we need to retain walls for privacy? Are there alternate Second Life means to provide privacy?

Retaining a semblance of reality in Second Life can, theoretically, help folk feel familiar and more comfortable. But I wonder if the hassles of navigating within real life buildings in Second Life overwhelms that benefit.

I wonder if you could instead, create spaces that small indicators of real life but don’t go the whole hog. For example, have a meeting space within a small forest clearing that includes a few logs to sit on, a whiteboard and a few other artifacts from a class room. The artifacts provide the familiarity but the open space makes it easy to get around.

Getting started in Second Life

It’s almost official. CQU has an island in Second Life. Going under the name “CQU Learning” the purchase of the island is for the express purpose of examining what can be done in the environment to improve learning and teaching at CQU. The purchase is being funded by Curriculum Design and Development Unit and is connected with the Carrick Web3D project the unit is involved with.

Currently, the island is bare/empty and access to the island is restricted to a few CQU staff. This will change during January 2008, hopefully very quickly, but it all depends. I’m thinking that the open source ethos of “release early and release often” might well apply to the island. i.e. allow folk to access the island earlier and have them help in the improvements to the island, rather than limit it to a few people who are responsible for everything.

I’m hoping to use this blog to save some of the reflection on the experience of setting up this island and our eventual use of it. The rest of this post will reflect on the experience in the last couple of weeks in getting the island purchased.

Information is all over the place

Even the act of finding out how to go about purchasing and island, what is required and how much it will cost seems to be more difficult than it needs to be. The official Second Life information is all over the place, stored in different parts of their web presence (e.g. the official Second Life website, their Wiki, the “grid education page”, the land store and finally the “shopping cart”.

Even the way you pay for the island is different from how you pay to get a premium membership. At least in my experience, paying for the island is very different.

All of this separation and jumping over the place made for a very confusing time.

Then the actual process for purchasing the island seems more complex than it needs to be with

  • arbitary limits; and
    An island name only be between 3 and 25 characters and 3 words or less. So “CQU Learning and Teaching Island” had to become “CQU Learning Island”. And no, for some reason I hadn’t picked up that limitation before actually purchasing the island. I had to change the name after the order had been placed.
  • funny workarounds.
    I’m sure CQU would love to know that the sales order we have from Second Life has a total of over $USD30,000. Which appears to be a necessary workaround in order for them to charge monthly for maintenance on the island.

I don’t think wrinkles like this are unique to Second Life. I’m quite sure students studying at CQU can point to similar sorts of issues.

I’m also quite sure that at least some of the problems I encountered were due to it being the end of the year and me being in holiday mode and skimming much of the information.

Non-second life help

There are some very useful non-second life sources of information about using Second Life (e.g. Second Life in Education and many others) but none seem to have been a really good fit for what I needed during this process.

I don’t mean to sound churlish. There are many great and useful resources on Second Life out there and many have been very useful.

I guess I’ve grown accustomed on the web to being able to Google a problem and very quickly find someone who has already had the same problem and written about how to work around it. This didn’t happen with the purchase of the island.

Obviously, this should be seen as a challenge to me to either search a bit better or to create tat resource. But, like many others I suspect, I probably don’t have the time (I shouldn’t really be wasting time on this post).

Problems paying

Of course the totally unexpected problem was that I couldn’t pay. I couldn’t enter my credit card details, it got rejected. This has apparently been fixed and the details are in. However, the account is still showing up as “awaiting billing” and the island still doesn’t appear to be visible to other folk.

Current status

So the current status of the CQU Learning Island is that it exists, it is completely bare except for a couple of experimental trees and is only accessible by me (the purchaser of the island).

The current focus is on opening up access to a broader (but still limited) group of CQU staff and getting some areas built.

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