Thursday, April 30, 2009

Faculty & Technology: Epic Fail

Location: Antique Desk, Scoring Writing Portfolios

It's time for us to assess a random sample of student work again.

I'm both pleased at the progress in using wikis, blogs, video, and even Second Life among our adjunct and full-time faculty teaching first-year writing.

At Richmond, the writing program has gradually integrated forms of technology, and what we in composition call "multiliteracies," over the past decade. Gone (thankfully) is the era when "comp" meant personal narratives (and grade inflation) or "lit lite," with short critical essays divorced from the schools of theory and research that have both enlivened and bedeviled literary studies in the past 20 years.

At the same time, other signature programs at our school and elsewhere in the humanities are mired in a pedagogy of Great Books or facile Multiculturalism, both of which I find out of touch with students' needs and interests in various ways. Both approaches presume that students know little and need to be exposed to a new form of thinking, either to civilize or sensitize them.

On May 11, the faculty here vote on a curriculum reform that has devoured dozens of hours of my rare free time. We've drafted a good proposal, one step to take us past the pedagogy of the 20th century. And we may fail.

Higher education, like the publishing industry, libraries, and even the "record store," faces the biggest change in literacy and the transmission of intellectual content since Gutenberg's press began to run. Faculty by and large are not prepared. To our students it's largely a non-issue.

This is the new generation gap.

It's not that students are careful users or even all that adept at new forms (they struggled this semester with video editing and backing up files on their iPods) . It's that they are so much further ahead, even in this clumsy way, than mainstream faculty who often have terrible problems posting to an online forum or learning a new version of MS Office.

But deeper still is the difference in epistemology: it's a difference of seeking knowledge from the hive-mind vs. great minds. Faculty, at my school and nationally, made strides in using Web 1.0 technology such as course-management software, online quizzes, and discussion lists. Where they have not adapted is with technology that is not so teacher-centered: wikis, embedded media, social networks, student-generated multimedia, and (of course) virtual worlds. To paraphrase from the a recent Second Life educational roundtable, too many faculty come to SL and expect to lecture...or build a lecture hall.

It's an ancient, and doomed, impulse. Consider this line from our current Core Course common syllabus, that "one of the best ways to learn to read, think, and express oneself well is to study the work of proven good readers, thinkers, and writers." Not a word about creating content, the basis of Web 2.0 technologies. Granted, studying "masterworks" is a fine notion, and it can advance student learning, but only to a point. The great minds of the past we've studied were largely Cartesian thinkers who relied upon an Aristotelian sense of order. Even Jefferson, with his protean mind, would have a hard time teaching college freshman today.

Now it's the link, not the line, as the mode of communication. And it's less "I think" than "others tweeted/blogged/tagged" that matters to the generation I'm teaching.

There's a saying I heard (source? I've lost it!) that Millennials want things to be free and they want them not to suck.
For too many of them, what is on offer in higher education is both expensive and out-of-touch.

To appropriate some gamer-talk: Fail. Epic Fail.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Metaplace Update: More Building

An old pal
Location: IggyO's World, Daallinii's Egyptian Temple and CynthiaB's World

Cynthia, like Tenchi, has made the migration. They'll soon pass me as they level up; I would find more time for Metaplace, but work in SL beckons, and I actually enjoy the Armada roleplay enough to stick around.

Today's session on adult content at the SL Educational Roundtable promises to be a drama-fest, so getting away to Metaplace was a delight. I just cannot imagine, for the life of me, these Metaplace bobble-heads being naughty.

Wrecking a virtual city with a giant robot as part of a plan for global conquest, yes.

First, I visited the Egyptian setting created by Daallinii. I'm impressed. His building skills far exceed my own. And the background music was quite nice! Traveling about there, and then to visit Cynthia, I realized that land-marking is very easy: just copy and share the URL.

Egyptian Temple

At home I had fun with several features of building. I made one of my mad-scientist props speak lines from classic science-fiction films, with a delay of 60 seconds between each of them. Very easy and really fun.

Adding Chat

Cynthia was putting up a treehouse when I visited her world. Soon all of the virtual hillbillies will be in Metaplace!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Armada Roleplay Dispatch: Two Books Missing, Another Saved

Location: My Bookshop

I fear that some "borrower" has made off my my second copy of Von Junzt and my only copy of the Liber Ivonis.

Luckily, the ink on these books is not capable of being harmed by water, and the language in which they are written is not one my fellow citizens know. May those who walk between the worlds be thanked for that miracle. If they are deciphered by an unwitting and untrained person...well, anything can happen.

Second, with my limited use of charms and glyphs of warding, I've protected my remaining copy of Von Junzt and The King in Yellow, a wonderfully opaque tome that promises to bring many things of interest into light, if I can only translate it!

One worrisome thing: I had put the lesser sign of Gweroth upon the tomes when they began to whisper whenever I open them...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

SL Educators' Roundtable Tuesday: Adult Content!

Location: Edge of my Seat
photo by Olivia Hotshot

Next Tuesday, the "Linden Tour" will bring Claudia, George, and Pathfinder Linden to Montclair State University, where they will talk (via voice) about the changes in zoning that will soon irrevocably change the SL experience.

When Linden Lab announced the changes, a number of harsh comments at New World Notes and elsewhere accused educators of driving this shift in policy. Recent remarks about it in NWN revived that idea, as Hamlet Au summed up Kend Linden's remarks:
"PG is going to be almost a special use case used by educators and real world businesses," they believe, while "the vast middle ground" of Second Life will be rated Mature.
I don't think educators are primarily responsible for this, but that's a gut reaction. In fact, at the Lindens' e-list for educators, I detected the opposite, a libertarian impulse to say and do what one pleased. For instance, when I questioned an educator who is very active in Gorean roleplay why she does not use an alt for her adventures, she explained that while her educational work and hobby are two separate worlds, she'd not hide it with an alt or in her avatar's profile. She is proud of the Gorean lifestyle. It's a matter of creative freedom for her.

Others have noted that their administrators do not look so kindly on adult activity, even "gaming" on the computers they house on campus. I can only imagine the reaction were such admins to find that a faculty member or, worse for the employee, a nontenured staff member were a slave or Gorean master in SL.

I'll be most curious to see what the Lindens say, and I'll post a synopsis here along with links to the full chat-transcript.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

For Sale at Work of Genius

Location: Web site

Linden Lab acquired this Web marketplace a while back, and the variety of goods is staggering. Sometimes, however, a work of genius crops up there. But mind creator Etiq Prague's caveat emptor:

Warning: You can get a prim also in-world using some crazy woodoo click or something. But I suspect some bootleg activity behind that - I don't trust any prim except this one. So buy THIS PRIM and BUILD NOW! It's a GREAT DEAL! Hot TIP: There is a rumor that the millionaire Anshe Chung get fortune thanks to the PRIM. I'm not saying it's true, but there is going around a rumor about it. So do you want to be a millionaire? BUY IT!

The responses from buyers also made my sides ache with laughter:
  • Well all I can say is I am greatly dissapoined! Here I was thinking as it is full-perm, I would propably get the plywood texture with it, but I didnt! So I can not make all my already made builds match it! (PantzerHamzter Petshop)
  • I have a few problems with my prim although I cannot obtain it far from my hand? how do I be able I help this? Etiq Prague please can help me that I have all is an image of the prim. I need aid of client (Redd Columbia)
  • This thing literally helped me pay off my rent and allowed me to move into a new house without ever having to work at McDonalds again. (Chase Quinnell)
  • OMFG I just bought prim and I couldn't be happier..suddenly all the guys are flocking to me (Raylene Galicia)
  • HELP HELP! I cain't git this ding-dang thing off'n my HEAD! I are blind, an' I cain't even find the jug, so I ain't drinkin' yet! Help me! I are blind! (Pappy Enoch).
This item is a steal at 10 Linden Dollars...Go buy it right now.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Armada Roleplay Dispatch: Guests, Invited and Otherwise

Location: Armada Breakaway

From the hidden notebooks of Professor Onomatopoeia. A copy of these notes, as well as one copy of Von Junzt's book, seem to have been "borrowed" by someone who entered the shop when I was out taking the morning air.

Monday: A lovely Mer, known as Melaniya, came by the shop and drank a glass of Absinthe with me. They are a charming race but perhaps a little overly curious.

Tuesday: Built a stout plank hatch over the companionway to the lower deck.

Wednesday: Completed work late at night with my salvaged copies of Von Junzt (two in stock) and Eibon's Liber Ivonis (in the translation recovered from the ruins of Suroch).

A book salvaged from my shipwr...

Thursday: Discovered that my copy of these notes has gone missing, as well as one of the Von Junzt editions! The Eye of the Thanati revealed this image of the intruders....Cray, another race here that have been very friendly to me so far.
Cray Visitors

My only hope is that the language of the text cannot be employed as it was meant to be. I added charms to the Elder Sign by the specimen I found floating after my ship sank. The thing, which looks more and more like an egg, has begun to glow and turn inside a translucent green bubble. It demonstrates some characteristics found in the wild beasts (if beasts they be, and not humans) warped by Torque-weapons used at Suroch.

Friday: Must acquire mummy-dust to make the power of Ibn-Ghazi. With that item, I can attempt the Warding of Krederon, or even the Greater Seal of Thubrat Mitaluku. Given that the specimen has not responded to fire, cold, or sharp objects, if it grows to hatching it could pose grave dangers to the community. I fear that my flintlock will not suffice, unless I devise some sort of arcane projectile.

Cecil's Latest Machinima: The Sunfisher

Location: YouTube

Take a look at this preview for Cecil Hirvi's new machinima, shot in the Wastelands regions of Second Life.

Cecil's fifteen-minute film will be released in May. Watch here and at Cecil's blog for more information!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Metaplace Update: Hillbillies Arrive in Metaplace!

Hillbilly Home
Location: Tenchi's World

My Second Life friend Tenchi Morigi, also my "Mysterious Mentor" for class and frequent mischief-maker on this blog, made the leap to bobble-head land to create a Metaplace account.

Her first act? To make a trailer worthy of Pappy Enoch himself (who is off on work-release from the alien zoo where he's been held hostage, but that is a tall tale for another time).

Buying Stuff:
I had to one-up Tenchi, so I visited her world (I'm now a sixth-level Mad Scientist) and with 200 of my Metaplace Coins I purchased a bulldozer from the marketplace. Unlike SL, with its in-world shops and Web-based Xstreetsl site, Metaplace combines both functions in a marketplace that a player can invoke while wandering about. I guess that there are in-world shops too, but my travels have been limited so far.

Modifying an Item:

Pulling up the "my stuff" box, I placed the dozer on Tenchi's land. I've no idea if she gave me permission to build there or how long the object will remain. Then I used a "behavior tool" to add a few features to the vehicle.
Behavior Tool

It now wanders Tenchi's land randomly. It did not run me over, however, as I was secretly hoping, so I could yell mad-scientist dialogue into chat such as "Curses! The infernal thing will not bend to my iron will and superior intellect!"

Well, I could have picked the machine back up, but no hillbilly paradise would be complete without a demonically possessed "Killdozer," straight from the 1970s Movie of the Week by that name.

Intuitive Play:
The "scripting" of the object was instant and involved no Byzantine lines of code, something I despise in SL but am learning to do, reluctantly. In many other respects Metaplace is intuitive, but I still have to unlearn many SL habits. I can only zoom in on IggyO when I'm in build mode, but once I did that, when I returned to Play Mode I was still in a close up. This proved ideal for the shots I took for this post.

Now that I've begun my career of chaos, I need a few items that may not be in the marketplace:

  • Tesla Coil (for ambience)
  • Giant Robot (for mayhem)
  • Death Ray (ditto)
  • Sniveling Assistant Willing to Rob Graves (for spare parts)
  • Grant Money (for...well, every scientist needs that)

Friday, April 17, 2009


Location: Online Meeting Room, NITLE

Today I did my first-ever video conference. It was a practice/get-acquainted session for the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, where I am to be on a faculty panel next week. Our topic? "Using Technology for Collaborative Student Projects," and I'm to hold forth on both SL and wikis in the writing classroom.

Our organizer and NITLE's technologist did a great job in getting us ready, but to be honest, Second Life skills came in really handy. Like the table-etiquette simulation I reported here a while back, SL proves handy for preparing students to other virtual meeting places where their headshots, not an avatar's, fill the screen.

Of course, I could not be completely serious, once we were all at ease. So I froze my camera-feed for a moment, and then put a bust Socrates in Mardi-Gras beads in my place.

Scared them for a second.

I'll behave better when we have the real event. Maybe.

I was able to multitask well between the Marratech's client's features: text-chat, voice, video, and a nifty smartboard feature that lets us all collaborate on making notes, drawing pictures, embedding images, and more. It points the way past the sorts of atrophied forms we have been teaching in universities, to collaboratively authored projects rich in multimedia and, now, interaction from all over the globe.

How will we grade such work?

My class brainstormed some ideas about assessing online work, and three aspects of projects, as compared to "papers" stuck out:
  • Increased Interactivity
  • Non-linear Navigation
  • Different Accessibility (for those with an impairment or different sorts of technologies)
The summer ahead gives me time to come up with rubrics for next year, as my students and I begin looking at these sorts of projects.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Armada Dispatch: YouTube Teaser

Location: Armada Breakaway

I enjoyed this tourist's guide to Armada. I just hope the naval battles don't damage my shop! I understand we have an eccentric resident with an ironclad who likes to sail about and randomly shell us...Professor Onomatopoeia may have to invent Armada's first torpedo.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

(News)Print is Dead

Location: Newspaper Graveyard

The Rocky Mountain News is gone, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has quite literally stopped the presses to enter an uncertain future online. The Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer appear to be on the endangered-species list now.

No one has any idea of how many papers will survive the ongoing newsprint-apocalypse. Classifieds are moving to Craig's List. Comics are going online.

Only those whose names will appear soon on the obituary page continue to read daily papers.

A few papers will hold on and devise a new business model, like local bookstores not Barnes-and-Nobled out of business. But for many, the way forward looks more like the "record" stores that have closed nearly everywhere. They are victims of a new technology that offers more convenience and a hard-to-beat price.

Some papers, like the New York Times, provide depth in their archives (only available to subscribers) that will keep some of us on the rolls. I take a Sunday New York Times precisely for this reason, and then I can use the archives in my classes. That is probably not a model for survival at the Times. As to where they will get revenue, the answer remains mysterious.

The Times seems to get thinner every month.

Some news companies are shifting gears, attempting to capture some of the eyeballs that go to free services. Even the venerable Richmond Times-Dispatch went down this road, buying up a local web-portal for local news, events, and human-interest stories. A version of this blog, now featuring selected content from this site, has been at the TD for two years. To be honest, I did not expect a mainstream-media outlet to continue wanting coverage about Second Life, even if it were provided free.

I am happy to be wrong, and my TD editor was hoping I'd make a leap into the future with the paper.

The TD's version of "In a Strange Land" will soon move over to the new portal with other content clearly intended for the types of readers interested in popular culture, technology, and other topics not typically associated with the news Goliaths of decades past.

I will be wistful about this. It was fun, for a while, to be a pro-bono member of the old media. I'll miss their company, as I wonder who will cover the news in the future in enough depth to keep me interested.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Max, The Guide Dog of Second Life

Louise & Polgara
Location: Kennesaw State University Campus & Wheelies On the Water

It sounds odd that a world as visual as Second Life now has a growing number of residents with visual impairments. The client itself provides some daunting hurdles, since screen readers cannot access SL inventory. This really limits the ability of the visually impaired to enjoy SL's content.

That is changing fast. During the recent conference on Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education, I attended a workshop with Polgara Paine, Louise Later, and Max, the star of the show. Max is a guide dog for avatars.

When Louise was new to SL, it took her one week to get to Wheelies, a region dedicated to assisting residents with disabilities. Louise wears white because she has central vision in one eye. She can locate her avatar more quickly because white rezzes first on her screen.

Polgara met Louise and accompanied her at first. This limited them both, and Louise decided that she wanted to use a guide dog. Her first dog was a prop, attached to her left wrist. It cued folks into her visual impairment, and they responded well and with a lot of curiosity.

This hit home to me in a rather unsettling way. I strain to read some of the smaller type in this blog-client, and think how often these days I'm changing prescriptions for my bifocals. Since my mother was legally blind in one eye, and barely sighted in her other, by her early 80s, I wonder about my own eventually use for some of these virtual-world technologies.

As Louise noted, most of us are temporarily able.

Louise was encouraged with the reception that a mere prop had received, so she pressed on with Max, working with scripter Charles Mountain (pictured in the next image) to give the dog radar, then a follow function. I got my own copy of Max and began using simple typed commands to recognize avatars around me, then I asked Max to take me to them. Finally I used Max's help to teleport back to Richmond, since Max can use SL map directions and and has a script inside him to read scripted "Polo objects" as he and his avatar travel SL.
Charles & Louise

I had added landmarks to Max, each renamed with short names, and then, with a simple typewritten command, I called up the SL map and typed another command to invoke my landmark and teleport me.

The latest version, Max Voice Plus, will send a screen shot of the location to a helper. Charles has added chat-text recognition. So now chat will read to the visually impaired resident. Soon, with a raised braille refreshable display and a text-to-braille program under development, residents will be able to type chat and read chat as braille.

We all took Max home with us. Several old friends, such as Tuxedo Ninetails of the SL Education Roundtable, and Feldie Epstein of The Metaverse Journal, joined the workshop and were as impressed as I was not only by this technology but also by the passion that drove this team to assist others.
Feldie & me
Louise ended her talk with a statement by Helen Keller that "Many people have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained though self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."

Louise, Polgara, Charles, and the avatars at Wheelies are certainly dedicated to something worthy, and ever more necessary. According to World Health Organization, the population of the blind will double in the next decade. They deserve, Louise notes, the same access to online materials that others have.

Those interested in trying Max can get dogs from Louise or Polgara, or from the bridge at Wheelies on the Water.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Metaplace Update: Iggy the Evangelist

mad science
Location: Iggy's World, Metaplace

I've been invited to write about this virtual world, still in Open Beta, and so far, I enjoy what I'm seeing. The only caveat is that under the agreement to be a MetaPlace Evangelist, I'm only supposed to write "favorably" about it.

That is fair enough; so far my limited experience means I'll limit myself to discussing features and initial impressions of the virtual world.

1) The browser-based client means low hurdles for graphics. It's an apples-to-oranges comparison to Second Life, of course, which strives for immersion even as ever-increasing graphics requirements strand some residents. Even my own laptop is gradually getting less able to run SL.

Metaplace's client, however, doesn't even make my laptop's fan start up. If the graphics seem simplistic compared to many stand-alone games and worlds, consider what it does provide: a place with user-generated content, chat, IM, and a currency.

The Metaplace client's default settings provide a word-bubble for my chat as well as a chat window with tabs for the current world or the entire universe...I guess it's rude to overuse the latter, like some group-chat spammers do in SL.
System requirements aside, I like the clean simplicity of the Metaplace client. At the bottom I see Iggyo's "Coins," a currency Metaplacers can exchange for goods and Metacred, a total that levels up the player as soon as the yellow bar fills. I've earned Coins and Metacred so far by visiting a few other worlds, posting messages, and spending time in-world planning world domination.
Every mad scientist, even a 4th level one, needs a) a bunch of machines with blinking lights plus b) a dog named Tesla.

3) Immersive? We'll see. Fun? Yes. I don't think I'll identify with little Iggyo anytime soon, or lose myself in being him. Is that a bad thing? My students have an initial reaction--naive and childish in my opinion--that SL and other immersive worlds are "creepy," a little mantra that must have been drilled into them by hovering and overprotective adults. I don't think anyone would find Metaplace creepy. Silly? Perhaps. But some of us like silly, as long as it's silly in a playful and clever way. Luigi yells, look out, Mario!

I grin whenever Tesla sniffs me out and comes over to stand with my little bobble-head.Tesla, the squirrel, and rabbit were free from the marketplace; they all have simple movement scripts that follow me, in Tesla's case or, in the squirrel's case, flees when I get too close. Tesla seems uninterested in killing squirrels.

I'll work on that if I can figure out how to script...and put in a vegetable garden.

4) My Small Piece of Land. So far, every Metaplace player gets his or her plot of land, called a world, when the register. That's a wonderful feature reminiscent of the First Land initiative that Linden Lab had a long time ago. Some residents still lament its passing.

5) One Final Graphics-Grumble about SL. As gamelike as Metaplace seems, it offers utility that was missing during my crash-prone April road trip in SL. If mainstream users like my students--who primarily use laptops--are ever going to use a virtual world widely, the world cannot require frequent hardware upgrades as a prerequisite for full engagement. Linden Lab has not addressed this issue as they keep updating their client software.

If Metaplace or browser-based worlds like it can develop the sort of detailed and pedagogically useful materials I see in SL, and if a world like Metaplace could be embedded into a Course Management System like Blackboard, then Linden Lab had best worry.

There's a bit of arrogance at work when experienced SL residents reply "buy a desktop tower and swap graphics cards as needed." No, I would rather go play in my garden and quit SL at home. I'd just have to enter it from a high-end lab at work and reduce my time in-world.

And look for alternatives for my classes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Road Kill in SL

Road Kill
Location: Undisclosed

I ran someone down. Squish.

I didn't mean to do if you are reading this, consider it the Grid's fault. By the time your avatar rezzed, in the middle of the road, it was too late.

You must have flown a mile.

I feel so awful...wait.

What were you doing STANDING IN THE ROAD??

Monday, April 6, 2009

Side of the Road in SL

Sansara Road Map
Location: Sansara Mainland

Tough day at work. And by the time I got home, there was no time to garden. So I hit the virtual road in SL, as I'm wont to do when I need to clear my head.

I learned the term "samsara" in a Buddhism class many years ago, as a cycle in which we are born, die, and are reborn through the ages. I had, perhaps erroneously, associated it with suffering. Nirvana, on the other hand, meant perfection achieved beyond the circles of our world.

So when I set out, from my usual spot near Prokofy Neva's Memory Bazaar, I did not realize that my favored mainland for motoring was called Sansara. It's SL's "Old Continent," suggested by Robin Linden many years ago. I found a vehicle rezzing area with the handy map, shown above. After more than two years, my old home has a name.

Fun abounds on Sansara's roads. I wanted to see how many truly "adult" businesses remain, now that the Linden Lab policies regarding the mainland will force them to move. Only one sighting: a kinky toy-store called "Divine Discipline," which had a person on my friends list suggesting that it re-brand as a form of Catholic education. I know I was beaten a lot by nuns and priests...might be a model for the shop's survival in SL.

Not long before I spotted this shop, I came across a lovely juxtaposition. First, there is this Celebrity-Skin emporium. It's clearly designed for motorists like me, but as usual I passed no other vehicles. A few pedestrians wandered around, and I did my best not to hit them.

Celeb Skins 2/2
Then, right next door, there was a seemingly educational exhibit on urinary sediments. Since the billboard had no interactivity, I was left to guess at its purpose.
Roadside "Attraction"

I'm not one to judge, but the proximity was so ironic that I cackled long and hard.
Celeb Skins 1/2

Then my car vanished at a sim-crossing...and I floated far above the cycles of hyperbole and despair. If the mainland vanishes one day, or just becomes a huge park with highways, I will miss this tawdry glory.
Damn...Sim Crossing