Badgification of learning

A response to

I remember at school we had a credit system, earn a credit for your house. It was a way to exert some extrinsic pressure on us to perform, but I was enough of a nerd to want to learn the stuff anyway. I remember once a maths teacher congratulating me on solving some problem and asking if I wanted a credit. I answered that if she wanted to give me one then fine, but I wasn’t really interested. I think she was quite non-plussed. I think it unsettled her whole notion of how to motivate students.

Today though, although I won’t go much out of my way to unlock an achievement when playing on the Xbox, I will occasionally. I play the games just for fun, to get to the end, but if I see there’s an achievement for, for example, stabbing people with an arrow rather than shooting them with one, I’ll hit the B button occasionally rather than the Y one. That’s pretty much as far as I’ll go to get a badge.

It surprises me therefore the degree to which badgification of courses is taken seriously as a concept. Qualifications are weak enough as an indication of learning. I got through all of my A levels by simply rote learning, and actually only really understood the material when I had to teach it 10 years later. The whole attributing a badge automatically, which is really the only attribution a system can make without the intervention of an actual human to assess the learner, seems to be particularly pointless, on the level of an attendance certificate. The only time I ever really felt my learning was properly being assessed was during my viva. A nerve-wracking experience, and I felt I’d been put through the wringer, but I knew at the end that I’d proven I knew what I knew, and knew my externals knew I knew. But to hand out something just because something is completed, rather than understood, is the other end of the spectrum. We might as well put a badge in the back of a book for someone to peel off and stick to their shirt when they’ve got to the end of it to prove they know what it’s about.

To me, the idea of badges is another example of the sleight of hand involved in MOOCs which replaces education with content, and yet still calls it education. I think they’re useful, they make materials accessible to far more people, but materials are only one aspect, and to complete one really proves nothing.


Tips for travelling in Brazil

Well I don’t have many, I’ve only really spent a few days looking round so far but here are some you probably won’t have thought of.

Remember those days (not so long ago, really, but they seem way off) where you had to struggle to get by because people didn’t speak English. I actually miss them when I’m travelling. I loved having to get a phrase book out and trying the language, or getting through with gesticulating and mime. I think it must be about 10 years since I had to do that while travelling round Europe. Well in Brazil they don’t speak English on the whole, so dust off your Portuguese phrase book and pop it in your luggage.

Bring your staff card with you. Professors (by which they mean anyone who teaches, not just the title) get in musea and galleries half price. I didn’t bring mine, but they believe me because I’m travelling with academics and my bank card has Dr on it. This is possibly the first time having a PhD has paid off.

Try the Brazilian tea. Everyone goes on about the coffee, so you expect that (and so far the ratio of bad to good coffee in cafes I’ve tried is about 2:1, better than the UK but not brilliant). The tea gets overlooked. It’s very good.

PS: Firefox – yes musea is a word, so is travelling. Stop redlining proper words or I’m going to turn off the spellcheck.

On the importance of practise

I had dinner last night with Shekar Viswanathan, who was recounting some of the stories of his friend Ravi Shankar. Pandit Shankar was 92 when he died, and not long before that, Shekar went round to his house to find him practising and when he finished asked him why he still practised every day, since he’d been playing the sitar for well over 70 years. I liked the response so much I thought I’d post it here. “If I didn’t play every day, my wife would know. If I didn’t practise for 2 or 3 days, I’d know. If I didn’t practise for a week, everyone would know.” I think I got that right. Just goes to show the relative importance for everyone, no matter how talented 1) of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and  2) keeping your hand in, no matter what you do, or how good you are. Which is why I spent a couple of hours today writing 🙂

Augmented Reality and history

Just a brief post this time, since I’m still trying to write the conclusion to the book and don’t want to be too distracted, but here’s a thought: …

virtual worlds help to redefine what our notion of history actually is. Understanding what translates from the physical world to the virtual world when buildings with which we have an historical relationship are reproduced within a computer-generated environment leads to questions about our experiences and how these become associated with space. In part the new virtual builds may recall our own personal historical connection with the physical version of the building, but our emotional connection with that space is probably at one remove if we are just observing it within the virtual world. However, it is possible to imbue virtual spaces with their own history, through the design of activities, such as in Ian Upton’s Ritual Circles, to foster these experiences and through the actions of people exploring, using and attributing meaning to those spaces under their own auspices. The different nature of the various Globe Theatres within Second Life is testament to that, in that some, though less historically accurate, are located within community spaces and so have a historical significance to the community in which they are embedded, others which are historically accurate survive as showcases of the building skills and interests of its creators, and others are no longer in Second Life and now only exist as 3D models and photographs.

As we move more towards using virtual spaces, and in meaning being accrued to physical spaces via augmented realities, will history itself become a more fluid concept? As people modify the augmented aspect of buildings through their own adding of geotagged paradata, will this augmented aspect be considered part of the intrinsic historical meaning of a site, in the same way that a Banksy graffito is preserved and lauded in the physical world at present, or merely ephemeral or a nuisance? As different applications layer different paradata onto sites, will the history of spaces diverge, depending on whether you follow an Apple or an Android historical perspective?

And a final thought:

Through augmented reality, the mingling of avatars and physical bodies, as pioneered in the Extract Insert installation, will become more commonplace. The worlds through which we move will become tagged with paradata and the wider psychological immersion that comes with understanding a space will be greater. This will have its bigger impact, potentially, in those fourth places within the physical world. Places of ritual significance, performance spaces and game spaces are all those that possess greater semiotic significance and benefit from having that wealth of meaning made manifest.  As paradata are tagged to the artefacts and people around us, then boundary objects become more accessible and the other members in our communities become more known to us. If we can enter these spaces projecting our avatars to others, through mapping them onto our physical bodies, identity becomes more malleable and roleplay more attainable. Potentially new types of spaces will arise, with new conventions and new ways to communicate as the affordances of both worlds collide and create a new synthesis. Those of us who can will live constantly in a state of metaxis. Those who cannot adapt will become increasingly alienated and isolated.

Immersion, immediacy and augmented reality

I’ve been writing a bit more about the differences between immediacy and immersion and why they’re not the same, and thought that this applies to the idea of augmented reality as well as virtual reality. To recap: One of the definitions of presence I take issue with is that it can be described as “the perception of non-mediation”, a definition that is sometimes applied to the phrase immediacy as if these are the same things. They’re linked, but there are important differences. The idea of immediacy is that if we are completely unaware that there is a technology between us and the environment, then we will be completely immersed. Actually, though, if you reflect on your experiences of virtual environments it’s evident they are different things – there’s definitely no immediacy, but there is immersion – well one sort of immersion.

What I should have said last time I talked about this is that a helpful distinction is the one made by Lombard and Ditton in that paper I keep quoting, where they talk about psychological immersion, which is what I’ve been talking about as immersion up to now, and perceptual immersion, which is both immediacy (there is no interface) and the extent to which the technology dominates our senses (its immersiveness).

The stuff that gets between – the mediations we perceive – sometimes can detract from a feeling of psychological immersion, but sometimes can enhance it. I mentioned before that wayfinding via maps on the screen can enable the user to feel more part of the environment despite the fact that they are a visible layer between the viewer and the environment. Another example is when exploring the theatres in Theatron (a virtual worlds project I evaluated which recreated about 20 historical theatres in Second Life the paradata available to students made sense of the space for them, and provided additional context. The ability of the user of technology to adapt to technology, to develop an unconscious competency at sense-making using these pop-up boxes and clickable menus means that, once accustomed to them, although perceived, the interface is not intrusive, it simply becomes another sense through which the virtual is perceived.

But now with the advent of augmented reality, then the affordances of the virtual world are being imported to the physical. Through the use of devices such as Google Glass, the physical world will no longer be interfaceless. Like the virtual worlds viewers, although intrusive at first, the heads up displays and available paradata will become second nature as we adapt to their use. The cultural context and additional information around us can be added to historical sites, and the added level of significance of artefacts in that form the signifying system in semiotic social spaces such as cathedrals (I always need someone who isn’t an atheist to explain what’s going on in them to me). [And if you don’t know what semiotic social spaces are, read Gee, or better yet, the book by Iryna and me when it comes out, I don’t mean our book is better, it’s just better for us since we probably need the royalties more than Gee does].

Rather than then being alienating spaces in which information is not communicated and lack of knowledge of boundary objects preclude full understanding of the space, the paradata added via augmented reality act as boundary spanners to full participation in the space. [OK and now I’m quoting Wenger – oh maybe our book is better because it mashes up two different theories]. Therefore, in the same way that accompanying interfaces can help make the virtual world more psychologically immersive, augmented reality has the potential to make the physical world more psychologically immersive. By providing us with paradata about our surroundings we can become more part of them, not less, psychological immersion is increased though immediacy is decreased.

That’s what i’m claiming anyway. Does that sound plausible though?

Defining space

I’m currently working on a book with Iryna Kuksa at NTU – it’s called Making Sense of Space and will be published by Chandos. We always collaborate well — she kind of organises me to go off and do something and I go off and do it. There’s usually a bit of to and fro, and when we collaborate directly on something by merging our stuff into a combined chapter (like the intro to this book) even we can’t really tell who wrote which bit.

Anyway, my instruction for the introduction was “define space”. Good point. My response was to find an excuse to defer the task … the rationale being that it would go better in the conclusion since we needed to explore the concepts underpinning it in the rest of the book first. Now I’m on the conclusion I couldn’t put it off any longer, so this is my go at it — by comparing the idea of virtual space with physical space, and when the digital feels like space and when it doesn’t.

Anyway this is my first attempt, it may go through editing and improvement before it makes it into the book, however.

Digital to virtual: is cyberspace a space?

Cyberspace is a common metaphor, and yet its usefulness has been challenged, for example by Katherine Olson, an expert in mass communication law at Lehigh University (2000). While acknowledging that employing metaphors in accommodating new technologies is natural, and noting that early ones drew on parallels to communications networks (2000, p 10) she argues that the tendency to employ the spatial metaphors that were noted in the introductory chapter to this book (websites, for example) has led the way to adopting the metaphor more widely and less usefully than is appropriate. On a legal level too, the idea of the Internet as a space has led to the concept of cybertrespass, that unwanted communication violates one’s space rather than one’s things (p 14). In addition it has led to the idea that the information that exists on one’s display is a separate place from the location in which that display sits, and so subject to different laws than those that apply to the actual physical location.

However, when we move from considering cyberspace to the three-dimensional worlds of virtual reality, then the idea that this is a purely metaphorical use of the word space is not so obvious. Unlike the separate webpages of a website, the space in a virtual world has three dimensions which can these be navigated and moved through with changing perspectives in a manner very similar to physical spaces. Not only is this done in a disembodied way, as in a three-dimensional model, but we have a reality in that space through the presence of our avatars. Interactions with objects and other people become available when our avatars move into spaces giving a strong sense of it us being in that location. In fact, it is that self-presence in a virtual world that can make a MUD (which is purely text-based) feel more like a space than a 3D model, which though more perceptually immersive, still does not bestow us a reality within it.

Olson calls virtual reality an oxymoron, (p 14) which it is, Michele Ryan, then a doctoral student at Lancaster University, explored the etymology of the phrase and concluded it is a fake reality, one which is not real, make believe (Ryan and Childs, 2011, p 256). An opposing viewpoint is that we can invest whatever importance we choose to alternative realities, that a space in which we move, interact, have friendships and communities may not be completely solid and independently real, but it is virtually reality (p 257). It is the significance we give to the objects, people and societies in our surroundings, and the very fact that these feel like surroundings because they are encountered serendipitously within their environment, that we have emotional agency within those spaces, and because they require our intention to engage belief in them to make them real to us, that makes virtual worlds space-like. Thus the space that we inhabit in a virtual world is not habitable because it is a space; it is a space because we inhabit it.

Olson, K.K. (2000) Cyberspace as Place and the Limits of Metaphor, Convergence, 11 (1), 10-18

Ryan, M. and Childs, M. (2011) Chapter 13: Synthetic Societies or Pseudo Realities? Debating the Ethical Dilemmas of Second Life in D. Weir and N. Sultan (eds) From Critique to Action: The practical ethics of the organizational world, UK: Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 254 – 272

Skills of online learners

I was reading this post via an email my friend Tim sent out to the ALT mailing list. I’ve been a student and teacher offline and online, so thought I’d respond to the tips. I think these also are relevant to the discussions on MOOCs and where I see the problems with them. So these are the skills that the article says learners must have:

Highly motivated: yes … but then that’s true offline too. No-one offline is pushing you to hand in your homework, or at least in no educational establishment i’ve worked in people do. I think it’s good to keep an eye out for students who are struggling, or not attending, and approach them if they need help, but ultimately the responsibility to do the work is theirs. I think the big difference here is not between online and offline, but between synchronous and asynchronous. With asynchronous courses it’s difficult to see who’s not doing the work because they never have to show up. At least with a synchronous component then there’s a chance to see who is stopping turning up, and contact them to see if everything is OK.

Strong time management: yes true. But I am going to say something that’s recently occurred to me about time management. I have the worst time-management skills imaginable. I faff, procrastinate, get distracted. I’ve recently quit using FB so much, I limit myself to alternate days. but it did sap a lot of my time. I now blog instead, which is possibly worse. My working pattern over the last week or so has been … get up at around 9:00 make a coffee, lie on the sofa to drink it. Under a duvet. One of my cats then usually climbs in next to me. The purring sends me off to sleep and i wake up about 11. I then make another coffee, Then lunch. Then start work about 2 or maybe 3 depending on how long i faff for. By the time i get the emails out of the way it’s about five, which means it’s only then i get the work started that i need to. Yet I always get it done. OK, I might work until about 10 or 11, and so have skipped the gym rather a lot. And I maybe don’t socialise a lot. But I still get it done. So maybe brilliant time management isn’t the most important thing. Self-discipline I’d put in the same category.

Technology skills. Yes support for these is important, but it’s best not to make the mistake that young people are used to technology and mature people aren’t. It’s about the appropriate use of them, and the skills required in using a forum, or in blogging, aren’t necessarily transferable from being able to use FB or Twitter.

Being highly communicative. I think this is one of the most important things. I was really shocked when meeting a new group of PhD students that some of them were put off by my suggestion that they needed to contribute to seminars to get experience of presenting, and taking part in forums. One or two just wanted to do the private ivory tower study tucked away in a library somewhere. I may have over-emphasised it, one actually seemed to reconsider the whole thing as a result. I’d rather people got a solitary education than none at all, but to do so is very poor preparation for life, particularly an academic one. The only social value for doing research is that you actually tell someone about it.

So in an online course, it’s not enough to just read the materials, it’s also about contributing to the forums, commenting on others’ posts, and attending the synchronous sessions. For me this is what felt lacking from the MOOC i went on (I didn’t realise it at the time but it was the very first ever MOOC back in 2008). There was no-one communicating with me. Sure there were plenty of emails, blog posts, stuff in the RSS feeds, and i posted on forums and blogged. I think my blog is somewhere on wordpress actually, i keep getting spam on it anyway. But in all those 20 000 people, no-one ever spoke to me, or answered a post. It was a very lonely experience. Getting past that could be to form MOOCs into smaller learning sets, so that there is encouragement and extrinsic motivation by manufacturing an obligation to participation to support the education of others. Extrinsic motivation (aka emotional blackmail) is always an effective means to keep people on task and on schedule.

One thing we can do as educators though is build up a better idea of what people need to communicate to each other. On the first of the online courses I’ve attended as a student we were in small groups and these worked very well. However i was workign part time, so dedicated three days a week to the job, three days a week to the course. I told the convenor this, but didn’t pass that info on to anyone else. Three weeks in I had quite a fraught email from the course tutor complaining that I was letting the group down by not responding. This was though during the three days I was working. Apparently she’d had another member of the group extremely distressed by this. I explained my work pattern again and it smoothed everything out.

However, the lesson is, yes we need learning sets to make online learning work, and .. overall that this needs commitment etc to the set … we also need to be clear about what our commitments are to the group (and as teachers get our students to be explicit about that). Bottom line is, online works, but those periods in online courses where the others aren’t actually online can seem particularly daunting.

On presence, III

OK so, what was, I thought a fairly obscure ramble through ideas on presence, (I actually almost didn’t post anything about it at all) has generated a lot of interest. who’d have thought it? so anyway to re-cap …

Immersion seems to matter for virtual worlds, moreso than for LMSes (aka VLEs) or other technologies. Engagement isn’t the same as immersion, engagement really involves a critical stance apart from the medium being viewed. Presence improves our interaction and motivation in learning in different environments. Presence is a combination of mediated presence (“being there” aka immersion) + social presence (projection of ourselves, perception of others) + copresence (being somewhere with others) + self presence (or embodiment).

So what actually is embodiment?

At the moment I’m writing (or should be writing) the introduction to the book Understanding Learning in Virtual Worlds. Introductions are always tricky, because, if you’re introducing a book on a topic similar to one you’ve written before, there will be some overlap with previous introductions. Keeping it fresh forces you to refine your argument each time. With the ULVW intro I’m really bringing VWs down to two unique things, the 3D space and the avatar. The 3D space gives us the opportunity to fully experience the sense of “being there” in the virtual world. The avatar is a basis for us to create social presence and copresence, through being an attachment on which to hang our identities, or a body through which to create an identity, or portray one. Avatars give us a body image in that space.

However, avatars don’t just give us a body image, (we can actually have those to some extent through environments like this, with our gravatars). They also give us a body schema in the virtual world.

I said before that many media are immersive, we feel immersed in them. We feel like we are there. But it’s a formless, and bodiless form of being there. When we’re watching a movie or reading a book, we can feel like the world surrounds us, it absorbs our attention (psychological immersion) or in a 3D movie we can actually see it around us (perceptual immersion). However our bodies don’t actually have a presence in that space. One of my friends was playing Halo for the first time last week, and posted in FB “when i look down i can see my legs. Awesome” and yes, yes it is. Taylor in The social life of avatars used the phrase “through avatars our interaction in virtual worlds is grounded in the practice of the body” which is a fantastic phrase, because it sums it up so well. We have a body in that space. We can express ourselves through movement, we can feel awkward if someone stands too close to us. We have a locus for direct, personal, experience. When you have a body within an online environment, shit just got real.

How does embodiment happen? Well, our body schemata are plastic. For most of us. A prosthesis can feel part of us. The rubber hand illusion can freak us out. Our sense of selfhood is not necessarily located within our physical body, it can be transferred to an extension of that body. Including an avatar. If that happens, that’s embodiment. There’s a neurological basis for this happening. I don’t really understand the biology, but have learnt that if you say left inferior parietal cortex with enough conviction, that doesn’t really matter. But one day I would like to get the authors of this: “How the Human Brain Goes Virtual: Distinct Cortical Regions of the Person-Processing Network Are Involved in Self-Identification with Virtual Agents” by Shanti Ganesh, Hein T. van Schie, Floris P. de Lange, Evan Thompson and Danie¨ l H. J. Wigboldus, in the journal Cerebral Cortex to explain it to me in layperson’s terms. Studies also indicate that if you spend time in virtual worlds, when you recall the memory of being there, the same parts of your brain activate as in the real physical world. The strikethrough there is important. Because if we’re talking about experiences (the basis of cognitivist learning theories) then our brains don’t distinguish between the physical and the virtual. Here’s something in New Scientist about that  Biocca pre-empted a lot of this in his paper that I referenced in the first post on this   “increases in self-presence are correlated with higher levels of cognitive performance, and, possibly, emotional development”. If we want our students to experience experiential learning in virtual worlds, then creating a feeling of embodiment is key.

For most of us. Remember I said that? Taking that cue from Biocca, for my PhD I asked groups of students about their experience of presence (all four types), I also asked them about their perceptions of the learning experience (I didn’t have access to the data on whether or not they did learn, so this was the next best thing). One in four of the students reported experiencing very low presence in the environment. Carrie Heeter asked similar questions in a study about 15 years ago now, on people’s sense of embodiment in a video image. 1 in 4 didn’t feel any. I recently did a survey of attendees of a virtual world installation at an art gallery.I asked them how many really didn’t feel they got anything out of it. the answer was 1 in 4. 1 in 4 people aren’t affected by the rubber hand illusion. According to Ganesh et al, 1 in 4 people don’t have a plasticity in body schema, their right inferior parietal cortex dominates, not their left one (see how that sounds authoritative when i say that?). Now I’m not making any claims here, but I think that’s probably a pattern. I’m also very pleased with myself for, I think, being the first person to spot that.

Oh, the other half of my survey. About the students’ perception of learning anything. Almost without exception, the students who experienced presence (in all of its forms) perceived the learning activity as worthwhile. Those that didn’t, didn’t. It was a smallish sample size (36) but the correlation was strong enough to be able to say that this is not by chance. In fact in quantitative data analysis you can do a statistical thing called a chi -squared test to work out what the probability is for this to just be a fluke. It’s called a p value or confidence value. 1 in 20 is ok, 1 in 100 is pretty good. The p value for this is 1 in 860 million (if i did my maths right). So that’s pretty solid.

So why does this matter so much for virtual worlds, when immersion doesn’t matter so much for other media in order to learn? Which was my original question really. Well three things possibly. One is that virtual worlds are so hard to get the hang of, you’ve got to really get something valuable out of it to find them worthwhile. Secondly remember, there are a lot of other forms of presence going on besides immersion. They don’t happen in other environments at all, cannot happen, but to observe them happening around you and not experiencing them yourself must be an alienating experience. Thirdly, if you’re just observing information, reading, writing, downloading uploading, then immersion isn’t important, but with the activities we were doing, where they were based on the learners having experiences, then if those experiences weren’t actually felt because the students weren’t embodied, then they must have been failry hollow activities for them. The fact that that matters is a good thing (it means we’re offering something unique for learners, that they can’t get anywhere else, which is “real” experiential learning). It also means that if we’re using them to their fullest extent, in the most meaningful pedagogical way, that there will be a quarter of the student base who will not get it, and may not benefit from it.

Metacritic: Matt Rudd

Taking a break from the elearning posts to do something I wanted to start doing after hearing Stephen Fry complain about critics, imagining them being quizzed at the pearly gates by St Peter asking them what they did with their lives “oh I commented on what other people did and whether I thought it was any good or not” and what a waste of a life that was. I thought perhaps they deserved a taste of their own medicine, so wanted to do a critique of critics. Whether they’re any good or not. This is usually prompted by a visit to my parents, since it’s only people of that generation that I know actually buy newspapers. They get the Sunday Times, which has a particularly poor range of critics.

This weekend it was Matt Rudd, standing in for AA Gill and he did a passable job of coming out with equally inane comments. The line that got me riled was in his review of Dr Who in which he says “Science fiction is fighting a losing batte with science nonfiction. Now the telescopes have peered into the farther reaches of our galaxy and found absolutely no Daleks, it is clear we don;t have to hide behind the sofa. We are alone, the space race is over and sci-fi has to be relevant in other ways.” This is the most profoundly stupid thing I have ever read in a newspaper. Does Matt Rudd have any idea of the resolution of the best telescope, if he imagines that a Dalek (or any life form) would show up on a telescope? Nothing that has been seen so far indicates that life is rare in the galaxy, in fact there are some good contenders discovered in recent exoplanet discoveries for harbouring life. Besides, Daleks come from another galaxy anyway. Rudd later goes on to say that sci-fi is dead, clearly a point he wants to believe is true, so likes to use his complete failure to understand basic science as a means to get to that conclusion.

On the plus side, he makes some valid comments about how intrusive the music is, but really, with those kind of ineptitudes in his awareness of how the universe actually works, it’s best he’s kept away from electrical appliances from now on.