Quite often, educators discuss the shortcomings of virtual-world technology or providers. These factors stymie or end good work in these environments.
But have we looked carefully at ourselves and our schools? Where do they hinder or stop our work?
Last week, I had to skip the VWBPE sessions after the first day. The conference has always been inspiring to my work with virtual worlds, during the past three years, and I was certain it would be again. Except things have changed.
Last weekend, instead of going to sessions at VWBPE, I turned my focus on a report to a granting agency, about a mix of Web 1.0 and 2.0 technologies we are deploying at Richmond and Furman University. Faculty like the demo pages, some simple thesis-formation exercises and a video by my colleague David Wright about the art of crafting an effective thesis. More such materials are on the way.
When I was not writing the report, I and two student assistants were putting finishing touches on several of the actual materials. They will be used in classes starting this Fall and will "count" in my annual evaluation. VWBPE, where I presented the last three years, has not seemed to count as a "real conference" with my evaluators. This year, I lacked time but also an impetus to submit a proposal because my latest article, on the politics of Writing Centers and curricular change, has been through no fewer than four drafts. It is about to go to a journal's board of readers.
About ROI and Educators
The irony of this change in my focus has not been lost on me. At one time, Immersive Public Virtual Worlds were labeled "Web 3.0" by many folks eager about the potential of Second Life. Many of these evangelists, including our own campus' Instructional Designers, created avatars and explored SL in 2006-8. Some of these folks are now either focusing on gaming or, like me, designing again with the first two generations of Web technologies. Many others are working on the integration of mobile technologies in education. Indeed, as Nick DeSantis reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the moment for online education and edu-tech start-ups has arrived.
Is this all a case of chasing the latest "shiny object" or, perhaps an older one that had been neglected?
For me, the decision to scale back work with Second Life and OpenSim comes down to "return on investment." Business folks think of this constantly. Many evangelists in the realm of virtual-worlds learning have not. I cannot speak for many colleagues off campus, but for my local colleagues, these challenges have remained daunting after 5 years:
- Time to learn the UI and world: I have long advised educators new to Second Life to spend a semester in world before bringing in students. And for some colleagues I taught to use SL, even moving to a new viewer was troublesome. One just threw up his hands, when asked to put in grid information into Imprudence for OpenSim. "This is not going to work for me," he said. And we were done.
- Time away from what evaluators assess: For tenure-stream faculty, this sort of time-commitment to master an ever-changing set of applications is not possible. One reason that DeSantis is correct about a technological boom on campuses comes from ubiquity: many of the applications he mentions are common, stable, and familiar to students, staff, and faculty (such as digital textbooks or teaching tools driven by Facebook). When it comes to virtual worlds, however, even for faculty with tenure, engagement means time not spent attending to daily business for which we are evaluated. Tenured faculty might find the time, but that means time away from an article likely to lead to promotion.
- Time to learn content creation. This is even more daunting, especially for those virtual worlds that require 3D content-development programs such as Blender or Maya. Unless one already uses these tools as part of one's daily business, go straight to points one and two.
- Eyes on the Prize(s). The work done in a virtual world cannot currently reach a mass audience, except by a YouTube Machinima. Older-variety online content can reach a large audience because is searchable by search engines and can be explored by anyone already familiar with a Web browser.
I said no. Beyond a bit of landscaping I'll do when classes here end for the year, I have no interest in spending any more time on Usher. I won't be teaching with it or being evaluated for that teaching for at least two years. I get zero credit for any other school using this resource that I brought back as a courtesy to those interested in it. In any case, in two years, Second Life may not even be in business. OpenSim's grids will. So will Apple, and in the coming academic year I plan to test the iPad as an e-reader for every text in a 200-level literature course. We have a grant to loan students the tablets, and unlike my last section taught under that course number, there will not be any virtual-world content in the course.
Of Time and Tools
Older Web technologies labor under many of the burdens listed, but they do so with a singular advantage for content creation. At a recent presentation on digital video, a tenure-track colleague in business admitted that the students in his entrepreneurship course enjoyed making documentaries. They also, however, needed to start their own small businesses as a class project. They preferred the latter, and he's considering digital stories as an alternative to the time-consuming work of filming and editing documentaries.
None of his students complained about lacking the tools needed. Most of us have software for content creation we need on our laptops and we've used them for other purposes. With my colleague at Furman, in the course of about 20 hours' work, we got materials prepared on thesis formation and Toulmin Analysis. We used the collaborative spaces of Dropbox and Google Documents to make this happen. When I needed to author new materials my students and I opened Dreamweaver, iMovie, and Photoshop.
If Maya or Blender or SL's building and scripting tools were to become easier to use and more commonly used, perhaps we'd see more uptake.
Oxford Bows Out, The Smaller Schools Take the Stage
While I'm not saying goodbye to teaching with virtual worlds, I am scaling back like many colleagues from schools like mine. There is hope coming for virtual-worlds proponents, however.
In a rather desultory way, I tried to track down a reference about small, and "hungry," schools being the ones to lead the way in virtual worlds. Oxford University gave up on CSteph Mariner's World War I Poetry simulation; Oxford has nothing to prove, I suppose. CSteph found a new sponsor. Increasingly, these sorts of sponsors are not places like Oxford or even my up-and-coming liberal-arts university.
Schools like mine, eager to make their mark among selective private colleges and universities, have a vested interest in being innovative. We can manage that, however, without the investment of faculty and staff time needed for excellent teaching in a virtual world. Instead, we can provide Millennnials with interactive learning experiences using off-the-shelf 2D Web technologies.
I would look to the smaller schools, the community colleges, the less-well known state universities for leaders in virtual-worlds learning. This is why Indiana's Ball State and not Purdue is running Blue Mars now.
Some schools don't expect their faculty to publish. They do assess innovative teaching and good evaluations, and I hope that will spur more of these colleagues to try virtual worlds over a summer's break or as an after-hours hobby, as they consider bringing in students.
And with that sort of start, the Internet 3.0 revolution may..just may..come to class in the near future.
Update: I am eating a most enjoyable helping of Crow, thanks to a notice by Sitearm at the SLED list. Forsyth County Georgia has signed a contract to bring OpenSim technology to every one of its 35 schools and, potentially, 38000 students.
Look to such innovators, far from Oxford or the liberal-arts universities of the States, for innovation in 3D immersive learning.