Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: web3dx

"Taxonomies" for understanding applications of educational technology

The group I work with is charged with helping CQUniversity staff make use of various innovations around educational technology. One of the difficulties if giving staff a taste of the breadth of possibilities for what a new technology might be able to do.

One tool for doing that is a taxonomy, conceptual framework or a theory for analysis and description (Gregor 2006). These essentially attempt to generate some sort of classification or mapping of a topic area into a number of distinct (and hopefully useful) components/categories.

Some examples related to our need around educational technology include (though not necessarily strictly speaking a taxonomy/framework)

What makes a good descriptive theory

Gregor 2006 offers the following suggestions about a good/useful descriptive theory

  • little is known about some phenomena,
  • descriptions should correspond as far as possible to “what is”,
  • the classification system is useful in aiding analysis in some way,
  • the category labels and groupings are meaningful and natural,
  • the hierarchies of classification are appropriate,
  • the logic for placement of phenomena into categories should be clear,
  • the logic for the characteristics that define each category should be clear,
  • the classification system should be complete and exhaustive.

A suggestion – the 7 principles

CQUniversity has adopted the 7 Principles of Good Practice in Education by Chickering and Gamson (1987) as important to its learning and teaching. One obvious suggestion would be to use those as part of a taxonomy. Especially if the 7 Principles is widely used elsewhere at CQUniversity. It should theoretically become more useful and more clear to our staff if we use this in many places.

The 7 principles, by themselves, may not be sufficient. Perhaps we need to think of supplementing it with other dimensions. Some options here might include Tony Bates’ ACTION model. Though I wonder if that might be starting to get too overwhelming.

Obviously time to be looking at some literature.

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.

"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.

IS diffusion theory research – hints for e-learning implementation

I’ve previously written here about the value I believe which diffusion theory brings to helping understand, design and support the implementation of e-learning within a university context.

Diffusion of Innovations theory has been “>used significantly within the information systems research community. That research has consistently found that three perceived characteristics of an innovation are important antecedents to the adoption of an innovation

  1. Technical compatibility.
    How similar is the innovation to what the potential adopters are currently doing?
  2. Technical complexity.
    How complex is for potential adopters to understand and adopt the innovation?
  3. Relative advantage.
    How much do the potential adopters perceive that they need the innovation?

An innovation that has HIGH compatibility, LOW complexity and HIGH advantage is much more likely to be adopted.

These measures are subjective and are based on the perceptions of the individual participants.

Lessons for Web3dx

My previous post about diffusion theory used the theory to understand what we might need to do with the Web3Dx project.

Concentrating just on these three characteristics, I feel that for most staff their perception will of Web3D will be

  • Low compatibility
    Immersive 3D worlds are very different from what they’ve done before. They will need to have and use new software to get into this.
  • High complexity
    For non-gaming staff using these 3D worlds will be difficult. Understanding and incorporating them into their teaching will also be very difficult.
  • Uncertain relative advantage
    Staff will be uncertain just how to use the technology and what advantage it might have.

So it doesn’t look good. As we’re involved in the project we need to develop tactics we can use to turn around the above perceptions.

Lessons for e-learning development

The above, at least to me, is further evidence to support the proposition that ateleological development is a “better way” to develop university e-learning systems.

Ateleological development, would by its nature, concentrate on implementing innovations that are more likely to have high compatibility (the innovation would be a small change from current practice), low complexity (it would be implemented in as simple and transparent a way as possible) and high relative advantage (it would be chosen to solve a specific problem identified by folk within the system).

Based on diffusion theory, such an approach would lead to greater levels of adoption.

Carrick, Web3D and Sustainability

I’m lucky enough to be involved with a Carrick funded project looking at how to integrate 3D immersive technologies into university education. My fellow project team members have already been put through the uplifting experience that is my pessimism. I’m quite sure that experience was enough for them to reconsider the value of having be involved.

In doing some reading for my PhD thesis (yes I am procrastinating by writing this post) I came across a paper titled Sustaining model systems of educational activity: Designing for the long haul.

It includes the following

In a certain sense, the answer to the question of why successful innovations fail and have constantly to be reinvented was already well known: institutions welcome innovations so long as they are compatible with institutional goals and are supported by external funds. But the host institutions do not integrate the innovations into their core activities, so when the extra money goes, so does the innovation.

Which nicely summarises my fear about the Carrick project and consequently, in order not to be seen as a whinger, it is necessary to come up with some brilliant ideas to prevent this from happening.

So, being a typical academic lets borrow the collective wisdom of much smarter people.

Reading further down the same paper you find the authors discussion how they really don’t know any “universal” ideas to ensure sustainability. They do, however, suggest that they have identified some critical events that influence sustainability.

These include

  • Surfacing of incompatibilities.
    The partners in the project, as they go further into it, realise that there exists some incompatibilities between the project requirements and their capabilities. In terms of the Web3D project I think the major challenges here are around the use of 3D immersive environments. I’m not sure we know just how complex embedding them into a course is and how well the staff and students will take to it. You can guess, given that I’m a pessimist, what I think.
  • Dynamism negatively influencing sustainability.
    The very short memory span of institutions lead to the original reasons for the project disappearing or no longer being important.
  • Dynamism positively influencing sustainability.
    Ad hoc events can also help.

Isn’t that hugely insightful? Oh well, wasted some PhD time. Procrastination achieved.

Diffusion theory to guide adoption of immersive Web3D environments in learning

Through a range of coincidences I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with a team, lead by Penny De-Byl, that was successful in obtaining a Carrick grant to look at how to enable academics adopt the use of immersive 3D environments in their teaching. The project is only just starting, we had our first project meeting just over a week ago at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), and are still feeling our way as a group and a project.

The purpose behind this post is to think about how CDDU might achieve the rather difficult task of getting a reasonable number of Central Queensland University (CQU) academics interested and enabled to use these environments. In particular because CQU, like many other Australian institutions, exist in a context which makes this somewhat difficult task a great deal more “interesting”.

Demonstrating a cognitive bias, i.e. going back to what I already know, and a typical academic flaw (self-referencing), I’ll fall back on a quick paper which some colleagues and I wrote a few years ago. In Jones, Jamieson and Clark (2003) – does this use of “formal” academic referencing make sense in a blog post? – we proposed the use of a model from Rogers’ (???) diffusion theory as a means for understanding the likelihood and the amount of work required to get a percentage of acacdemic staff to adopt a web-based innovation for learning and teaching. Rogers model is very general, so it isn’t limited to e-learning, but that’s what we were interested and, more importantly, what the track of the conference in a nice part of the world was interested in.

So, in the following I’m attempting to apply the model we adopted from Rogers and applying it to the problem facing the Web3D project. For me, the model is a useful tool to identify the potential factors and give some insight into the problems we might face.

Actually, in the paper (Jones, Jamieson and Clark, 2003), we claimed/thought the following.

We suggest that by examining each of these six components a faculty member can:

  1. Generate a range of issues to consider before implementation.
  2. Predict the amount of effort required to achieve the required rate of adoption.
  3. Predict the level of reinvention.

It is important to note that this evaluation is not based not on supposedly objective benefits of the WBE innovation. Instead this evaluation will be based on subjective, contextual, and environmental issues that are unique to each situation.

Variables which influence the rate of adoption

The version of the model we adopted from Rogers looks like this.

Diffusion theory model for rate of adoption

Perceived innovation attributes

When someone is introduced to a particular innovation (e.g. immersive 3D environments) they perceive that innovation to have some characteristics, some attributes. Rogers (1995) work looking at a huge array of innovation diffusion projects hasidentified a set of five innovation attributes that most strongly influence whether or not someone will adopt an innovation. Those five attributes are:

  1. Relative advantage – The degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes.
  2. Compatibility – The degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters.
  3. Complexity – The degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use.
  4. Trialability – The degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis.
  5. Observability – The degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others.

My believe about how the Alive3D technology and its application to learning and teaching at CQU, will be perceived at CQU goes something like this

  • Low relative adantage
    In the CQU context innovations, particularly fairly different ones like this, are not going to be perceived as offering advantage to teaching staff.
  • Low compatibility

    For the majority of folk e-learning is an LMS, sharing documents, holding discussions and similar. Few have done anything within a 3D environment, even fewer have created 3D environments. For the small number of folk who use Macs, the fact that the software only runs on Windows, will further reduce compatibility.

  • Fairly high complexity
    They haven’t done 3D. E-learning and technology, for many, most?, is perceived to be hard. 3D will be perceived to be harder.

Triability and observability will both be fairly low. This will be something that we can build on and improve.

Please recognise that there will be never anything like a consensus view amongst academic staff, this is meant to be very broad brush guessing exercise on my part. It is also not meant to represent any objective set of characteristics of the technology, it is meant to represent how academics at CQU will apply the bounded rationality and the cognitive biases which we all have to how they perceive this project and its technology the first time they see and hear about it.

Innovation decision

When deciding whether or not to adopt an innovation Rogers (1995) identifies three types of decisions

  1. Optional – Each individual in a social system to adopt or reject the innovation.
  2. Collective – The social system makes a consensus-based decision to adopt or reject an innovation
  3. Authority – Made by those in authority with the expectation that the social system will follow that decision.

For most academics, the adoption of Web3D will be an optional decision. For those working within more constrained programs/disciplines it might require either a collective (consensus from the whole disipcline group) or an authority decision (head of program/school).

Rogers indicates that authority decisions generally show the fastest rate of adoption and that optional decisions are made more rapidly than collective decisions. He also suggests that some types of authority decision can also suffer from large amounts of “reinvention” – the degree to which an adopter modifies the innovation in the process of its adoption and implementation.

Communication channels

The Rogers view of diffusion of innovation is of a particular type of communication which is aimed at reducing uncertainty about the innovation. That communication occurs through a channel, a particular medium. The nature of the channel, its attributes, are suggested to influence how effectively the communication is. Diffusion theory characterises communication channels based on the following spectrums

  • mass media or interpersonal; and
    Mass media channels, which enable small group to reach a large audience, are a rapid and efficient means by which to inform an audience of an innovation and lead to changes in weakly held attitudes. Interpersonal channels, links between two or more individuals are more effective in dealing with resistance or apathy.
  • local or cosmopolite.
    Cosmopolite communication channels originate from outside the social system. Potential adopters of an innovation rely more on subjective evaluations from other individuals like themselves who have previously adopted the innovation than objective evaluations of an innovation.

Social system

Every organisation is a collection of social systems. The various connections/networks of individuals that have some thing in common. Typically the joint problem-solving required to achieve common goals. For example, teaching within the same program or perhaps at the same institution. Diffusion theory identifies the following characteristics of a social system which influence adoption

  • Social structure – the formal arrangement of units within the social system.
  • Communication structure – the informal, interpersonal networks which link the social systems members.
  • System norms – the established behavior patterns and beliefs that are common amongst the members of the social system.

The use of Web3D is not likely to challenge the system norms, at least not to a great extent. If might be seen as just another learning innovation for which the responsibility for evaluating, selecting and using is left up to the individual academic. This might change somewhat in some component social systems.

Lessons or activities for Web3D

The following are a collection of “action items” which might apply or which might need to be done within the context of the project

  1. Do some evaluation of academic staff’s perception of Web3D when they are initially (or prior) to hearing about it in order to test whether or not some of the “beliefs” above bare out.
  2. Design the communication strategy (e.g. initial presentations, websites etc) to maximise the chance people while perceive the innovation in a way likely to encouage adoption.
    • Be able to demonstrate in a clear way the advantage this approach brings to the specific context.
    • Frame the communication about the innovation so that it is “fits” with current contextual practice.
    • Provide simple and straight-forward ways through which people can play with the technology – perhaps straight after the introduction.
    • Ensure that what work is done is observable to others
  3. Should theoretically need to know more about the particular program/discipline groups and, in particular, about how decisions of this type are likely to be made.
  4. Aiming to implement Web3D as a simple trial, that doesn’t require consensus or perhaps authority decisions might also be worthwhile.
  5. Identifying a decision-maker with interest in Web3D might also be useful.
  6. Initially, awareness will be raised via a mass-media, cosmopolite communication channel – a CQU wide presentation. It needs to be followed up with a range of interpersonal and local discussions.

Problems with all this

Diffusion theory can contribute towards “development” approaches that are more focused on the human, social and interpresonal aspects of diffusing an innovation rather than on the purely technical aspects of the innovation.

But, as with any theory, technology or idea, diffusion theory is not perfect. It brings with it, it’s own set of blinders. It tends to have an assumption that the social system/the adopters need the innovation. There is a pro-innovation bias. In this case, the project team has made a decision that Web3D is good and that it will make a difference to the practice of learning and teaching. We’ve made the choice and, at least, I am attempting to use diffusion theory to convince (perhaps brainwash) people to adopt Web3D. It can lead to the situation where those who adopt Web3D are seen as superior to the recalcitrants who have not made the positive adoption decision.

To some aspect this is true. I am part of the project team, part of my “success” will be measured by how widely and well Web3D is adopted and used within CQU. I am, not suprisingly, attempting to maximise this. However, I do need to ensure that this process is implemented and perceived to be providing the information about the innovation so that academics can make informed decisions based on their perceptions and understanding of their own context.

I need to be honest that this is not a silver bullet. Which is good, because it isn’t.


David Jones, Kieren Jamieson, Damien Clark. (2003). A model for evaluating potential Web-based education innovations. Paper presented at the 36th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii.

Rogers, E., (1995), Diffusion of Innovations (4th Edition), New York: The Free Press.

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