Monday, August 31, 2009

Saving Isis: Critical Thinking with Rezzable's Open Sim Tut

The South Wall
Location: Rezzable's Valley of the Kings in Open Sim

On my first tour of Rezzable's Heritage Key site dedicated to King Tut, and when the entire project was quite new, I was taken by the South Wall of the young king's tomb.

It was an immersive moment; I felt that I was as close to the actual site in Egypt as I'd ever get.

Anubis and Hathor greet Tut as he enters the other world, but Howard Carter had to destroy a figure of the goddess Isis (to the left of Anubis, in the image above) as he and this team made their way into the tomb. This struck me as a tragedy that might have been avoided.

With modern technology, we might have been able to plunder (there's no kind word for it) the tomb without destroying Isis' image. So I've decided to let my writing students have a crack at this. They'll work in teams to solve the problem, if they can. And to make their writing "count for something" beyond a grade, I'll have readers I invite vote for the strongest solution to this archeological dilemma.

Read the assignment here. Projects are due Oct. 29 and I'll provide updates and may open up judging the projects to readers here. Meanwhile, my Heritage Key avatar will be bumbling around virtual Egypt, trying to look like the poor man's Indiana Jones...

Room of Swag

Friday, August 28, 2009

CANVAS in Scotland: Students Display Artwork in Open Sim

Location: CANVAS Web Site

Scottish students and their teachers now have a new canvas for their projects: CANVAS (Children’s Art at the National Virtual Arena of Scotland).

This Open Sim virtual world will provide learners a space to display art projects while avoiding the administrative difficulties associated with other worlds blocked by school-system firewalls. The Consolarium of Learning and Teaching Scotland partnered with virtual-worlds developer Second Places to develop the showcase for student work. All 23 Scottish local authorities will have a virtual gallery for both still images and digital video created by students. Children using the virtual world can earn currency to spand at the gallery shop, where they can buy items to cusotmize their avatars' appearances. CANVAS also houses seminar space in an auditorium and a building where students (and faculty) learn about good behavior in virtual worlds.

Educators often encounter resistance when proposing that they employ open virtual worlds, and some, like Second Life®, do not permit minors on their main grids. This initiative, however, allows administraors and teachers "to create our own bespoke virtual world that can be hosted on our servers so that we have full control over whom we allow in to view and interact in the world." With this technology in place, students ranging in age from nursery to high school will be able to log in and work on projects with their teachers and invited guests.

This type of behind-the-firewall solution provides more evidence that educators and administrators can work closely to devise solutions that encourage multimodal projects in virtual worlds. Today my wife's kindergarten students do podcasts that are sent all over her county; tomorrow, perhaps, they'll be building content in limited-access virtual worlds like CANVAS.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do avatars dream of electric hillbillies?

Location: In the freezing cold

Oh well, where shall I start? Its difficult, since the reasons for taking a break are numerous.
LL is definately not innocent here. The experience using SL worsened from month to month while at the same time nothing has been done to improve it. The lag was constantly killing me and SL became more and more a graphical chat client.

Losing my ability to explore took one of the foundations of my time in SL from me. Additionally I had to cut short on my expenses and so had to give up my land and lost the ability to build and experiment. Even if I could have continued to maintain it, I guess that LLs current unwillingness to give the major part of developing resources to the improvement of the user experience would have spoiled it anyway.

But the main reason in fact was, that the social interaction on the grid turned in a way that made me do that last step back to the meatspace.

A friend of mine noted once that the pace of SL roughly equals five times the speed of the meatspace and I think he is right with this one. The consequences out of this are on the hand.
People pop up and vanish from day to day and the fact that you have build up a connection to them doesn´t make it easier. Losing friends (and I mean real friends) that way is a hard loaf of bread and I think that Iggy is right here, when he states that people can become friends in SL. What makes the essence of a friendship? Its surely not the physical closeness, its far more. And this essence can be transported via SL very well. So losing people at 5 times the speed of normal life can be a very sad experience. Things even turn worse, when when the friendship becomes intense and from one day to the next you get to know that the person on the other side of the monitor tells you that it was discovered she has cancer and will die in a few months. SL is surely not a game, and people saying so, haven´t understood it.

When I came to SL it was filled with people that were very like minded and that is surely the "fault" of the big hype around SL in early 2007 (no wonder it made me curious myself). Many of those have long gone and today I meet less and less avatars that have mastered more then the two sentence "wanna fuck?" conversation. Additionally the vast growth of the grid has dispersed the avatars over virtual square miles and traveling to find a person sometimes is as hard as back in those frontier days.

Those whom I am still in touch with I connect mainly via external sources now, rendering the SL client useless. IM and Mail are still very potent ways of communication and I intend to stay in touch with every single one of them.

To refresh your memory Iggy: We met when a Hillbilly started working for you as a guest writer. That charming do no good constantly asked me to meet you and write as well and the rest is history ;) as is Pappy Enoch I guess, since I haven´t heard of him in months.

[Iggy's note: Pappy is alive and as well as he'll ever be, though he's not in-world as much. He can be found as a "Pullet-Surprise Winning Reporter" for the Alphaville Herald. He's being paid in virtual chickens.]

The one that has to say "thank you" is surely me, since the experience you offered me with mentoring your classes was awesome and I would surely haven´t had that opportunity in meatspace.

I don´t know whether I will return some day or not. It will depend on my lust for SL to return which could happen. I haven´t deleted the avatar and it can be reactivated any time. So rumors about my death are hugely exaggerated.

Take Care everyone,

Logging out for now,


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sleep Tight, Tenchi

Tenchi Morigi
Location: Blue Mood

I read this at Tenchi Morigi's wiki last night:

This unit has been shut down and is in cryogenic stasis. Tenchi Morigi undergoes major rebuilding and alteration for a possible return to the grid. Any important matter can be directed to her digitally connected cortex via known procedures.

My good friend and class mentor is calling it quits, for the time being, in SL. She's not alone.

I hope she'll write here about her decision; I know she's reading this. Amid the chaos of the start of the academic term and the ungentle demands from many people, I wanted to take time to thank Tenchi for all she's done and been for the past two years.

How on earth did I meet her and Cynthia, my two German SL friends? My memory is spotty on this, but they are memorable ladies. Cynthia, also a skilled builder, is spending less time with SL. So is my long-time buddy and advice columnist Dianna Defiant.

When someone as talented and witty as Tenchi leaves SL, it makes a hole in one's life. She was never loathe to show up at Richmond Island to help students, to show off a new outfit, to recommend a place I simply had to visit. Mostly, however, it was her ability to share in practical jokes that were friendly and clever. Her and Cynthia's (also hibernating) blog "Absolutely Amazing SL Discoveries" is full of that brand of wit.

And any wag who claims that SL friends are not "real" friends can go straight to hell on the horse he rode in on.

I'll miss you a lot, Tenchi. Sleep well and dream often.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Silence of The Floppy Disks

Location: Rummaging Through Desk Drawer

The annual office-cleaning before the semester turns up some interesting artifacts. This year, it was a 3.5" floppy disk of an external reviewer's 1998 report on our writing program.

I mused on this homely item and the fate of our media-storage technologies.

The report is on one of four or five disks I have left, after a massive dumpster-dump of the rest (I broke cartridges, one by one, to make data-retreival harder). They now reside in a strata above the cassette tapes, and those lie above the Eight-Tracks in our landfill, one day to be an archeological dig when Richmond lies in quaint ruins.

The report in question had become important again. We are in the midst of curricular change again, so instead of slapping more prims (and removing some redundant ones) in our Second Life simulation of Poe's House of Usher, I decided to make sure I had a backup copy of the report.

I have it on paper, but puh-leeze.

For a technology only a few years out of date, the floppy sounded positively Victorian once I hooked up the small USB drive I keep around just for such antiquities (I've a USB Zip Drive here too--for 100MB or 250MB cartridges).

I soon found that I did not have an electronic copy of the report on my laptop or backup hard disk. The floppy, creaks, clunks, and groans, saved the day.

Now to make MORE backups. I wonder, as I go back to adding features to the House of Usher, how transferable the skills from SL will prove, when I move on to other virtual worlds. Let's hope those skills have more longevity than, say, an Eight Track of Barry Manilow.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Second Life Student's Pledge

The Dining Room
Location: Butt in Chair, Working on Syllabus in Both Worlds

It's time to roll out the Iggy's Syllabus wiki again, and this semester I will ask students to sign, date, and return a sheet that I'll keep on file.

This contract contains statements to the effect of "I have read understand your attendance policy, Dr. Essid." But this year, this appears:

I will represent the University of Richmond in a responsible manner in person and online as a writer, as well as in Second Life as an avatar. Furthermore, I understand that SL will contain some content (either violent or sexual) found broadly offensive but unless I choose to research such content, it will not be part of my coursework.

This will give them an idea of what they are getting into. Another item reads:

I've checked my own laptop/desktop system and feel that it meets the minimum requirements listed at [and I agree] to use computers at the Writing Center or Technology Learning Center that meet the requirements for Second Life, if my system does not.

For all of their supposed savvy about working online, Millennial students' abilities with technology underwhelm me. They have not blogged or ventured far beyond Facebook. They simply do not know what they are "in for" in a virtual world.

So teachers still have a role and some job security.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Them Bones Them Bones: Making a Crypt in Second Life

Location: House of Usher, Lowest Level

I've spent way too much time making sure that walls are textured, prims are linked, and permissions fixed. All in all, however, making the House work has been a great experience. The next time a faculty member wants to embark on a building project, I know to orient the student team first to lessons we've learned the hard way:
  • Have one owner for every prim
  • Have all prims set to full permissions and shared with the group
  • Lock stuff after linking large segments together
  • Don't give tours to anyone outside the building team until steps 1-3 are completed.
Despite the hard work, we have had a lot of fun and our two NPC avatars, Roderick and Madeline, are both in-world as noobs. The look and garb will come later.

Jordan, our student builder, put up with lots of SL-related messes. Permission for items she made changed in mid-build, perhaps because I laid on textures with different permissions. Little details fixed one day looked not so great the next. In the end, however, she was a great sport about this project. I'm overwhelmed by the prim-work she did, without sculpties, on the stairs down the Crypt levels.

Speaking of, I must say that my gaff of sending the following invoice out to the SL Education Roundtable group, instead of our campus group, was a moment of good humor for one and all. How else could I brag about buying BONES??

To wit: This has to be the funniest invoice I have ever prepared. Fred gave Iggy 5000L

Here we are so far:
--230L: 23 uploads @10L each
--450L for 3 ravens and some bones
--200L for Vamporium's "Regal Tomb"
--173L for sculpted gargolye for door
--78L for hitching post with ropes (no it's not kinky) by the front door
--300L for "Display Skeleton"
--99L for cheap pine box coffin
-- 99L for RATS
--20L for spiderweb
--1000L for student-builder's wardrobe "I'm wearing a body suit! I need real clothes!"

Full immersion in a simulation of a Poe story: priceless.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lessons for Teachers New to SL

Carters Camp in SL
Location: Working on my Syllabus Wiki

It's been a busy week working on the House of Usher and preparing for Orientation Week...hence, no posts for seven days.

It might be another seven before I add to the it goes. School begins.

This year will mark my fourth time using SL with a class, and it will be my second use in a writing course that worked very well last fall. Here's some advice I've culled over my time as an SL educator:
  • Don't Cheerlead: US Millennials are goal-oriented and like "games with a point." This means that non-game SL will see odd to them. I prefer to orient students to the pedagogical goals of class, first. My students learn that the goal of the class is to teach them to reason to claims and not from them, all in the service of learning to write for academic readers. Students hear about SL as a new form of communication, not the "NEXT BIG THING THAT WILL CHANGE HUMAN CIVILIZATION." Ho-hum. When they find out that SL will not run easily (if at all) on an iPhone, they know such claims are hype.
  • Set Policies Carefully: I now have a "no goofing off in the lab" policy. The first time I catch a writer Facebooking or surfing, I give them a "mark of shame" in my grade book (and retain my good humor in class). In a British accent, I say "You have been warned" and show them the policy: every instance after means an absence and a note to their advisor and residential dean (we are a hands-on private university). I fail one student a year, on average, for excessive skips. If students use SL in class (in mine they don't) faculty may have to consider what constitutes "on task" SL usage.
  • Be There When They Rez: More than anything last fall, this made the engagement in SL better. I was present when my students drew up avatars and rezzed them in-world. I'll be bringing my class in through the New Media Consortium's portal this fall, not Orientation Island, precisely so I can be right there for the crucial first hour. My students make appointments for this time, and we sit together, in person and in SL, for my tips, freebies, and landmarks to the campus island.
Before classes begin, I hope to trot out some tips on writing good assignments about SL (using Rezzable's OpenSim build to Tut's Tomb as an example).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Granting Permission

Location: House of Usher

Poe's ghost is after us. Or maybe it's just Linden Lab's quirky permissions system.

Jordan, the student builder on this project, swore that she had shared many items with our group, so I could lay down textures and add details at the House of Usher. And so she had.

When we both walked the space today, we found that her changes had come undone.

Thanks to Viv Trafalgar, no slouch as a builder, I found that mixed-permission/ownership builds are tricky in SL. Permissions tend to change for shared items. It becomes endlessly frustrating to go back to a wall or floor that I'd partially textured yesterday to find it locked to me today.

It's small wonder to me that so many builders don't trust the LL system for their content and want to back it all up offline. The brou-ha-ha over Rezzable's decision to sell a BuilderBot to export content caused an uproar. Seems to this non-technical blogger that LL needs to fix the permissions system--if it can be fixed--quickly. An entry in their blog today does at least show that they are weighing IP issues as well as the need for secure backup.

When Richmond's build is done, we'll "sell" it to an avatar from our builder's group who can then retain ownership of the House.

Ravens included.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Chinese Walls & Second Life

Location: Alphaville Herald

There's an interesting story over at the Herald about China's government trying to block access to Second Life. It may be part of a larger campaign to protect youth from violence in gaming. China has, of course, blocked Twitter and YouTube for political reasons.

Yes, they've put up a wall that, in the long run, will crumble as surely as the Great Wall itself.

I chuckle at China's efforts, even though were it the US government doing this, my blood would boil. I don't take well to being told what to do.

Time for another revolution, folks. China's geriatric government is just postponing its Day of Doom. All those bright Chinese students who study abroad and the return know what lies beyond the Great Red Firewall.

As much as I like the quotation attributed to him, I don't think Chairman Mao was correct when he said "It's always darkest just before it gets completely black."

As bad as it looks for civil rights in China, it's just a matter of time before repressive governments like those in Beijing and Tehran are undermined by the very tools they provide workers and students to boost their economies. Both nations have good I.T. infrastructure and large numbers of educated young people. Old theocrats like Ayatollah Khamenei and old Chinese autocrats like those in China's Politburo will have to live with the results.

A nice ray of hope in troubled times, that.