Monday, August 20, 2012

Who IS a Virtual Worlds Educator?

Location: SLED List

It may be easier to say who is most assuredly not.

A few weeks back, a colleague in VWER asked me "who is an educator" in a private IM.  I replied "well, if you teach at an accredited school..." but then I realized that some folks provide education to others in informal circumstances.

A story about Saj, one of my best students ever, came back to me. Saj is an Indian national who graduated to become a well known economist. He credited his considerable talent in mathematics to informal tutoring done, at a dining room table, by a retired professor who would work out equations by hand for a dozen Indian boys.  The teacher used recycled "green bar" computer paper for the teaching, and one by one he would write down equations and solve them for a horde of pupils who watched and memorized. They had a hunger to learn: Saj learned his "maths" by this method, and he had to watch the professor's work upside down, since Saj was the newest pupil and could not get close enough at the table to see the equations in their proper orientation.

So an accredited position does not an educator make, the material or virtual worlds.

But what makes  you NOT a educator? In the recent SLED-list discussion of Linden Lab's decision to offer SL through Steam, many participants fretted about rising graphics requirements for the virtual-world client. Then one soul chimed in:

"Game gfx have always been scalable. Just for the few that plop down a couple  hundred dollars on a new GeForce will gain the full experience.  Best $200 I ever spent!"

Easy for him to say! Imagine an educator telling students, "to take the course you must own a desktop PC and have this graphic card, or buy one, for something you will never, ever do again while enrolled here."

I have begun to reply to this SLED participant several times by e-mail, but I don't think I could do so politely.

Clearly, this person has not recently taught at a college, where nearly all students employ laptops of various, and usually middling, sorts. Nor has this person taught at any K-12 schools, where budgets are strained and computer replacement cycles run in the five-year range. While volunteering at one middle school in our city, I found that to order a replacement USB mouse from Central Office took six weeks.

Sure. Drop in a new graphics card, class! While a professional might spend that amount for a desktop upgrade...let's be serious. This is not the voice of any educator I know.

So let's try this an a definition: an educator is someone who not only works in an educational setting, be it a lecture hall or a dining-room table. An educator also understands the facts on the ground in these settings: what students need, what they can or cannot do, their level of motivation.

I am sure that a student like Saj would find the money to buy a new graphics card, if that were what he needed to excel in his studies. But most of my charges? It would mean dropping the class at best, grumpily slogging along and slamming me in my evaluations, at worst.

Now here, from the same discussion, in the voice of an educator:

"Interestingly the lowest res graphics game incredibly popular...I don't think kids expect good graphics as much as they expect engaging learning, challenges that are relevant to their lives and acceptance that the world today (Google and the information repository it can search in your pocket) is different from the world 50 years ago (where you had to remember a lot of stuff). "

A new graphics card is a pain in the butt; engaged learning will pull the learner alone to all sorts of challenges, including those posed by rapid technological change.

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