Avatars and identity


Yesterday I did my regular guest lecturing spot at Newman University College – oh excuse me – it’s now Newman University, Birmingham, on digital identity in virtual worlds, which is a big part of the research I do (and there’s a book on it http://www.springer.com/computer/hci/book/978-0-85729-360-2). I do a brief lecture, talk about the students’ avatars that they’ve designed, then they do a task that gets them thinking about how their identity has evolved. I posted something on FB about it, so my friends can see I do actually do a proper job. This is the conversation I had with one friend about it (her comments in italics). I thought they might be interesting here for anyone that’s not aware of how these things work so asked her if I could paste it to here.

Just admitted to my class that, not only am I in bed, I’m also wearing Iron Man pyjamas. #tmi #underminingprofessionalimage  Lots of students, many very interactive; two naked, a couple of furries, a lot in hats and one a Ferrari. Also one very very fat which is* unusual.

Also one very very fat which is* unusual. So, you can be anything you want. Humanoid. Robot. Little ball of mist. Even a car. Something out of The Only Way is Essex. Dressed, undressed. (Do the naked ones improve on what nature gave them?)

Yep each avatar can have lots of forms if they want, you can swtich between them as easily as dragging and dropping files from one directory to another. Usually people have one form that they stick with for most of the time with a small range of costume changes. They might have a freaky one for occasions. There’s some stats that 94% might be more, of participants have avatars with a main form that’s human. And yes, they can be humanoid, robot, ball of mist, car, I have an eyeball, an airship, werewolf, minotaur, loads actually. Most people stick to the gender and ethnicity of their physical forms. But almost always younger, thinner, more muscular, taller.

Change gender. Fly. Be really fit  – in both senses of the word – or not.

In fit terms, only in the sense of muscly. You can be in a wheelchair, but  none of this affects the speed of the avatar. They can all fly, but you can acquire scripted objects that change the way you move, fly better, teleport along line of sight, that type of thing.

How do people decide what their avatar will be?

Ahhh that’s the interesting thing. That’s what my session was about. What makes them choose their appearance? There are some standard answers. some say “I want to be me” meaning they want to appear as they appear offline. Some will actually match body shape, most will go for skin colour and so on. Some people pick something that will shock. The naked guy in my class said he did that. Others will also say that they want to be themselves, but mean it has being their hidden true self that they can’t be IRL. They will pick something that will represent something unrealised in their physical self, if they’re transgender they’ll pick another sex, the otherkin love it because they can finally be the animal they identify with. The people that don’t really care are usually the ones that aren’t taking to SL particularly. they may be using it just as a form of communication, or they may think the whole thing is damn silly. The guy who just wanted to shock couldn’t see the point of SL. If he was upsetting people it wouldn’t matter to him so much presumably. Whereas those  for whom it does matter would want to be seen for who they really are.

You said something about people referring to their avatar as “I” when they’re more confident. So does the avatar evolve, learn to do different things, look different as the student gains confidence?

It’s not so much about confidence as about presence, the feeling that they are part of the world, that people see them and react to them, that they start noticing communities or make contacts. The experience becomes more real to them – it matters more. They also learn things like where to shop, where to get the good stuff, how to modify or build things, all of this drives them towards more personalisation and also gives them the skills to personalise. It’s very close to how we build up an image IRL … it’s called a technology of self … how we learn to represent ourselves to others through the clothes we choose, through modifying our bodies.

But it’s unusual for an avatar to be very very fat. Now, this was the thing that made my ears prick up. You could probably (?) be a Doctor Who Adipose. That would be kawaii, so it might be acceptable whereas maybe being fat isn’t 🙂
Yes … there are some users who think it’s griefing to be ugly, that because everyone can be beautiful that they should be, and that if you’re not you’re just doing it to be confrontational. For example http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=672 The adipose would be more acceptable, but some places don’t approve of non-humans, I’ve been banned from some places because my avatar isn’t human enough. an adipose would be a tiny and that’s a specific subset of avatars that have their own places and their own culture and are recognised as such. Being kawaii is key for them and people are usually more accommodating than other non-human avatar precisely because they are so cute. Actually an adipose would make a cool avatar.

I started thinking: Is that student reflecting how they are in real life or how they think they are in real life? Do they have some kind of body dysmorphia?

There is a definite allure for things like SL for people with body dysmorphia … although i think body dichotomy is more accurate a phrase, when you get down to it; since everyone has some sort of dissonance between their physical self and their idealised or “true” self it’s not really “dys” any more. Some people feel trapped in the wrong sex, others wrong species, or wrong age. but for others it can just be height or weight or eye colour. All of them would probably act out that preference in SL., But for those for whom the dichotomy is greatest, for example the morbidly obese, then there is something about the rejection of the physical that i think makes SL particularly pleasurable.

Has anyone built the avatar equivalent of a fat suit to explore the idea of morbid obesity?

I don’t know. I did take part in an experiment where we all were pregnant  for a while. The bottom line is though, that you’re not really phyiscally disadvantaged by any of these things, what does happen is that you can get some idea of the social responses that someone may experience, and that in itself is interesting.

Are older people more prone to have fat avatars as theoretically they’re less prone to peer pressure?? Is peer pressure ever an issue?

I think peer pressure is hugely an issue for everyone who spends a lot of time in SL and becomes immersed. Even if you’re like me and you’ve got an avatar that gets a negative response often, you’re conscious of the reactions of others and are consciously resisting peer pressure. So it’s still a factor. I think older people are perhaps more prone to peer pressure because SL tends to mean more to them. The younger ones are likely to be having too much fun IRL to really care.

Being precious and presenting

Responding to Bex’s blog post http://mavendorf.tumblr.com/post/43978411437/useful-things-what-i-have-discovered-as-a-learning some really useful stuff in there. The comment about not being precious about sharing your materials is so true. I still don’t understand the rationale behind not sharing stuff. As I said at an ALT conference presentation on repositories*, there are only three justifiable reasons for not sharing your teaching materials – because they’re crap, they’re ripped off or they’re not finished.  Most people in the room agreed with me, but it’s surprising how often you’ll come across someone who doesn’t want anyone else to use the stuff they’ve produced. And it’s usually the people who don’t have that much stuff to share. I assume it’s because it is so rare for them to create something they want to hang on to every litte bit.

One of the first projects I did in eLearning was the DIVERSE project – a TLTP funded project which had room built lecture capture equipment at various universities. A lot of the lecturers refused to have their lectures videoed; their fear was that if a lecture they gave was recorded, then it could be used in future instead of them. The reponse of the project manager was that if someone could be replaced by a video then they should be. The point being was that if all they brought to a session was exactly the same as they brought the previous time, and would to the next, then they aren’t worth employing as a teacher anyway.

The same is true of a presentation, or any learning materials. If they essence of what you do in a presentation or a lesson can be reduced to a PowerPoint presentation, then what you do isn’t very good. There’s a book by Hubert Knoblauch http://cus.sagepub.com/content/2/1/75 about PowerPoint presentations, which examines this … I remember his keynote partly because his was the only presentation apart from mine at the conference I saw it at that was in English, but mainly because it really put the final nail in the coffin of every complaint against PowerPoint. His point is that the important part in a presentation isn’t the presentation materials, it’s the presenter; there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it as a medium. If a presentation is done badly with it, it’s because the presenter is a bad presenter. I’m at a conference next week, and PowerPoint was banned in the earlier years it ran; now text in PowerPoint is banned. I enjoy the difference in approach, but really it misses the point. It’s not text, it’s too much text, it’s not PowerPoint, it’s people who read off screen. Remove the PowerPoint and replace it with someone reading off a bit of paper – it’s still going to be awful. And really, unless English isn’t your first language, then there’s no excuse for reading out your paper. You should know your subject well enough to talk about it with only a few prompts. If you don’t then don’t waste my time talking about it.

The other extreme is the pseudo-hip and trendy TED stuff where the presenter is usually totally the focus and if any imagery is used it’s very flashy. Sometimes this works, but usually it just looks and sounds very cheesy. It’s academia trying to be too rock n roll and it’s just a bit embarassing really. Yes you want to be entertained to some extent, but substance beats style hands down every time. I would still argue though, that the majority of the substance is you, the presenter, your ideas, and the way you communicate with your audience. And no matter how many times your materials are downloaded, re-used, replicated, that’s stil unique to you.

*Childs, M., Bell, V., Rothery, A., Smith, K. and Thomas, A. (2006) Digital Repositories: The next big thing or another failed learning technology?, ALT-C 2006

Mind Your Language

A new piece of research seems to indicate that how we view our future selves depends on how the language we use constructs tenses around future activiites http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21518574 A lot of linguists criticise this idea, saying that language doesn’t influence the way we think. Really? I am not a linguist, and may be leaning towards ultracrepidarianism here but, it doesn’t seem that farfetched to me.

In the research I’ve done, the use of language does seem to influence how well we can express things and so push our thoughts in a particular direction, and also indicate how our minds are working. I did an MScEcon in media studies (20 years ago now) and the dissertation was on how science and scientists were represented in the media, focusing mainly on the twin stereotypes of Faust and Frankenstein. For the empirical bit I looked at newspaper reports on the use of genetic manipulation in food. The arguments for and against were filling the newspapers back then. At least the arguments against were. My local MP was involved in a campaign against what he called Frankenstein farming. And it caught on. The arguments against GM were so much more forthright, easily communicated, and powerful, than those for because they could be expressed more succinctly and with more resonance. Because you only have to use the word Frankenstein and suddenly everyone knew where you were coming from.

We have good guy scientists in our popular culture, but on the whole they’re not mainly known for their science. A large proportion of the most wellknown superheroes are scientists, if you think about it, mainly because the guy who created them was into science. But that’s not what you think about. There are hero scientists. Sagan and Feynman are two of mine, but even though I studied the fields they researched in (I did a BSc in Physics with Astrophysics) it’s actually their roles as humanists and that expression of truthful spirituality that only atheists really get right, that I think about mostly when I think of them. So our language, I think, suffers from not having a catch-all signifier to stand for all the great stuff technology does for us, and probably our culture suffers as a result.

In the work I do now, I see the language students use as a very useful barometer for how well their sense of embodiment in a virtual world via their avatar is developing. The first hour or so, the avatar is referred to as “it”, then as “he” or “she”. It’s when their avatar becomes “I” that you really know that they’re in the right position to start learning in that environment. And that’s simply the one effect of language that I particularly look for. How many others are there all around us that we’re not attuned to, and miss?

The liberation of online interaction

I’m finding that blogging is easier if I find another post or forum discussion that triggers a thought and this one http://e4innovation.com/?p=638 by Grainne Conole prompted a lot of thoughts – the dangers of online interaction. I interact a lot online, I occasionally interact offline. Most of the people I interact with offline I also interact with online. Most but not all. I find that those that I only interact with offline I’m not as close to, I don’t know them as well.There is a distance between us and I realise this is because of two reasons. One is that our communication is infrequent. The other is that it’s through the constant engagement online that I get closer to people. I had this conversation with someone recently – she commented that we would have not got to know each other if it wasn’t for the Internet. True. It’s also true of probably the majority of the friends I’ve made in the last 15 years. I had lunch with five people I know, and whom I know or at least like well enough to count as friends. Four of us do a lot of work in Second Life and we all commented on the experience of getting to know someone in a virtual world first and then meeting them IRL. It’s a strange experience, like double vision, you know someone and yet simultaneously you don’t know them. sometime the physical person can be quite different from the avatar and yet I feel I know someone so much better if I’ve seen their avatar first. You’ve seen a glimpse of how they see themselves, not just what the physical world has imposed upon them (what has been termed “the tyranny of meatspace”).

I am deeply suspicious of a viewpoint that presumes that technology that alters social or behavioural interactions is problematic, or worse, detrimental. The underlying assumption of something like Alone Together that technology is separating us because we are spending more time online prompted me to refer to Sherry Turkle as having “gone to the dark side”. Which she (quite rightly) picked me up on, since I had made the mortal sin of making this judgment based on what I’d read of her book, not actually of the book itself. What I meant though was that, from what I knew of the approach, it was to look at the movement from offline to online as intrinsically a deficit model. Like Daniel Goleman’s underlying concept of cyberdisinhibition, which is that this makes us behave antisocially. Actually I’ve seen the benefits of cyberdisinhibition in that students who are too shy to interact offline blossom when given the chance to interact online. Anyone who complains about stepping away from “real life” needs to first justify what’s so great about “real life” anyway. I like the tack Caitlin Moran once took in her column, as a busy person and mother, the options aren’t online interaction or offline interaction. they are online interaction or no interaction. The time we spend online communicating shouldn’t be compared unfavourably to time spent with people. It should be compared favourably to the absence of communication offline. Online interaction overcomes isolation, not encourages it. And the quality of online interaction is often better than offline. Compare a simultaneous one-to-one with a few people on facebook with sitting in a pub unable to get a word in edgeways as one person monopolises the conversation and the background noise drowns out most of what’s said? Dump your preconceptions about the relative value of offline and online. Be honest. Which really is the better conversation? And sure there are weirdos and stalkers and god know what online, but again, offline is worse. At least online you can just unfriend them. Or ignore them.

Ultimately though, the doubts and worries about what technology is doing to us are completely pointless, since they are happening irrespective of what we feel about them. The whole notion that the offline world is real and the online one isn’t, is flawed in itself. Both are real, we have been a mixture of biological and mechanical for a long while. Again my view may be biased due to my transhumanist viewpoint, but the technology is us. Welcoming the way it transforms us is always going to be better than rejecting it, because change is fun, exciting, challenging in and of itself. Thinking back to lunch. There were six of us, three of us had our vision augmented by glasses, one of us had dyed hair, one of us was tattoed, one of us was in a wheelchair, three of us were probably more wellknown through our avatars than our physical selves, one of us had a prosthetic ear on his forearm.  We segued fluidly between discussing our online bodies (hair loss, knee pain) to our avatars (whether we’d acquired genitalia). As a group we represented a range of different cyborg selves, bodies modified, identities distributed. And we weren’t exceptional by any means. As a society we are a body electric, our commuinication our identities extend through the machine. Let’s just accept it and not get so hung up on it.

eLearning Today

There’s been an interesting discussion happening on the ALT forum recently about the use of the term eLearning. As a senior research fellow for elearning at Coventry Uni (actually I think I might be THE senior research fellow for elearning at Uni), I don’t actually have a problem with the term. Yes I know people have preferences for Technology Enhanced Learning, or Technology Supported Learning, but really these are just labels. As long as we all have a general idea of what we mean by the term, it’s trivial to get hung up on labels.

The more interesting debate though is … what exactly do we mean by the term? And also, do we really need it anyway? Ask most people and it’ll be something to do with computers and technology and education, that sort of overlap. It seems pretty arbitrary though which technologies are included. I’d put LMSes (or VLEs if you prefer, but I think the US label describes what they do better) in the category, and videoconferencing, but not word processing, or spreadsheets, or even photocopiers. And if you look at Vygotsky, Leon’tev et sec and their stuff on mediating artefacts, then they’d argue that anything, a blackboard, a book, even language, is a tool which we use. For a lot of people it begins and ends with their institution’s VLE. But I like what can be done with getting students producing video so would add that.But not watching video … unless it’s online and linked in to discussions or learning content … :-/ it’s a blurry line.

Looking at the distinction between which tech I mean when I talk about elearning, I realise that it’s no more a really strict defining criterion than “things that I didn’t use or see being used in a classroom during my PGCE”. Since I finished that in 1989, that’s a lot of stuff. One of the outputs of The 52 Group (a think tank of academics pulled together by Lawrie Phipps, though small enough for me to instead refer to it as a ponder pool, there were only 6 of us) was the concept of postdigitalism, that digital technology now is so commonplace that we should no longer see it as distinct from anything else. That makes a lot of sense to me.

And yes, there are a lot of other interesting innovations in learning that can excite people. Activity-Led Learning is taking off in a big way in my faculty, led by my erstwhile fellow Teaching Development Fellow there, Sarah Wilson-Medhurst. Some fascinating stuff, so eLearning isn;t distinct because it’s innovative.

The discussion then is, do we need a separate label for what is, really, just another form of teaching. Is there anything distinctive about eLearning or can we just dump it as a concept?

I think one thing we can agree on though is that the technology ultimately, is not what eLearning is about. At least those of us who do it can. There was an interesting debate at the Oxford Union on eLearning a few years back http://bit.ly/Ym2pAz 2009 to be precise, with Diana Laurillard  on whether eLearning can meet the needs for tomorrow. There did seem to be some confusion there about the term, with those arguing against believing that “The e-learning of today was not all things e and learning; for the majority, it was much more limited, it was e-courses for compliance and basic knowledge acquisition”. Errrm no, that may be the view in the private sector delivering computer based training (if you look at the magazine for the industry called Elearning today it’s largely appalling … lots of ads proclaiming “content is king”) but for the rest of us it’s about bringing people together, about find new ways to get them to think and to engage with material, and new ways to express themselves. Content is cheap, most places will give it away, it’s teaching that’s important. Dave White did a study looking at the optimum ratio of online tutors to online learners. Errm I can’t remember the optimum number, but I do remember the maximum was 30. The idea that eLearning provides a pile em high, sell em cheap solution is erroneous.

It still gets trotted out as a reason to do it, or not to do it though. On one project I worked on which was making academic tutoring accessible over videoconferencing, a tutor refused to take part, complaining that introducing technology was symptomatic of capitalist … blah blah blah, … he referenced self-service checkouts and god knows what else. The reality, that whether you’re delivering it face-to-face or over the internet, you still have a one-to-one interaction, so aren’t actually cutting down at all, completely failed to make a dent in his knee-jerk reactionism.

The other extreme from seeing technology as some sort of neocon bogeyman is seeing it as a solution in itself. The most difficult part of staff development in eLearning is people seeing you as someone who just shows them how to use the technology. a number of times I’ve met with a lecturer who wants to use a technology, I’ll have shown them how it works, then arrange to meet them to support them with their teaching. That meeting gets cancelled, they go ahead and use it, and when it all falls apart, because they haven’t realised they also need a new set of skills to make use of it they seem surprised and either reject the technology or make a big deal of learning from their mistakes. Errrm no, the bit you skipped is precisely what my role was. That’s the interesting bit.

And I think that’s why I think eLearning is a recognisable and distinct thing, and why it fascinates me. Because of that step in the process. Yes I agree that, ultimately eLearning is just a form of learning, the pedagogy comes first, in as much as that is the goal. I wrote about this nearly 10 years ago now in http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ldc/resource/interactions/celi/chap7/article2/childs which was originally titled “Is there an e difference?” (see what i did there?). But the skills that need to be learnt to use it effectively in learning and teaching, how accomodating and exploiting what technology does alters our practice, that’s what’s interesting. Josie Fraser makes an interesting point about the idea of putting the pedagogy first. Yes of course, she says, that’s ultimately what the point is of eLearning, but it’s not as simple as knowing what you want to do and then finding the technology to do it. Her point is that it’s a two-way street, understanding and knowing what the technology can do opens up new areas for learning.

And technology does change us, as we adapt to it as much as it adapts to us. It’s a mechanism for social, cultural, physical change more than anything else, (other forms of innovation notwithstanding). It has the specific forms of problems noted above (seen as bogeyman by some colleagues, and the change it requires in practice overlooked by others), it has a specific set of selling points to colleagues too (use of ICT always looks good on an OFSTED inspection), but I think it requires that adaptable, explorative and (I’m going to say it) transhumanist perspective to exploit if fully. And, really, to be honest, the bottom line is that it’s about playing with all the shiny cool stuff.


Transcribing an interview with Ian Upton, and heard a comment I made saying that the difference between life now and pre-internet (now 20 years ago) is that then I had to make an effort to be present, to stay in touch with people. Now the effort is to be absent. It takes a real concentrated focus to remove myself from communication with others. With everyone in constant touch with everyone else, it’s amazing any work gets done at all.

Recent inspirations

Well what am I working on at the moment? Three things this weekend. Yesterday I met with people from mediacore and The Flipped Institute and I hope to be doing more work with them. The Flipped Institute is an onsite focus for all of the discussions around the flipped classroom; the idea of which is to do all of the associative transmission mode stuff outside of the class, so the actual time spent in class can be spent discussing it, building on it, and getting the students to do activities around it. In other words using teachers for what they’re best at. Finally activity-based learning is becoming mainstream (it left me quite Dewey-eyed … see what I did there). I first came across the concept around ’97 / ’98 when the director of a VLE project I was working on (anyone remember Broadnet? It’s now Learnwise) Steve Molyneux produced an online module for his students to learn from, and then used the lecture time to answer their queries about it, and provide one-to-one advice. I think the word “flip” wasn’t around then.

Another thing is a project on creating a bot as an intelligent tutor, and looking at how its design actually will encourage students to engage with it, and how appearance and behaviour influence the affinity the students feel for it; the hypothesis being the greater the affinity the more effective the learning. My job atm? To design the evaluation, which the bot is to conduct itself. :-/

Third thing. Also at the moment I’m working on some stuff for the performance artist Stelarc, and two colleagues, Joff Chafer and Ian Upton. Last year they worked on a performance and installation in Coventry called Extract / Insert and I’m writing it up for a chapter in my most recent book (Making Sense of Space, by Iryna Kuksa and me, coming soon …. ish). The work they did really challenged the distinction between real and virtual, and it was fascinating the way it connected with so many people (and didn’t connect with some too).

Well, how did I get here?

OK … the first real post. I’m not sure what happened with the last one … gave up on the so-called inspiration and clicked “finish” and it posted it. And now I can’t see anything on my screen that says “edit” or “delete” so it looks like I’m stuck with it. An inauspicious start. Though is a good example of a bad experience as a customer.

So … why start a blog? Well I was encouraged to do so by Grainne Conole when I was chatting to her recently. I’ve had a blog for a while over at http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/markchilds/ but never really kept it up. The reason Grainne was saying is that inspiration comes from being part of a community of bloggers; that if I got myself a spot on a more open community, where people could follow and vice versa, then I would be motivated to blog. Well we’ll give it a go.

I first checked out Steve Wheeler’s blog Learning with E’s http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.co.uk/ but the blogspot interface is horrendous … pop-out sidebars!! Who can deal with them? (Well Steve evidently, not me). So I went back to a platform I first used for the connectivism MOOC back in 2008. Seems to be working for me better so far (apart from the initial post).

I’ve known Steve for about 10 years, and was first inspired to do a PhD by his work, we copresented a seminar on videoconferencing at ALT-C, and he was all theorised up with a transactional distance and I was just saying the equivalent of “well the kids liked it” and I realised I was missing a trick. So his example seemed a good place to start.

The next tricky bit was a name for the blog. I went for inspiration to that a conference presentation I did last year with another friend and colleague Aase Knudsen, on embodiment in the physical and virtual worlds, and how one reinforces the other (and is often overlooked in discussions on telepresence). It seemed like a snappy title (and references Ray Bradbury so can’t be bad) but also summarises the area of technology and education that I’m most interested in, which is how we experience it, and connect to it, and the impact that has on our learning.

So, Aase, Steve, Grainne. The reason I like the job I have (a sort of “freelance academic”) is that there’s a community of people in Technology Enhanced, Supported, E Learning (whatever is the in thing this year) who count as friends, colleagues, inspiration etc. all rolled into one. I guess ultimately the point of the post is to have a voice in that community.

Oh .. .managed to delete the actual first post .. “delete” is apparently called “move to trash” :&