Changing the student digital experience pt 5

One thing that developing a framework does is enable you to see more clearly where there are gaps. Sort of like Mendeleev and his periodic table. Putting the 13th principle together with the in-between spaces group, and then mapping what we came up with to the Jisc NUS benchmarking tool showed that those categories overlapped with the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th principles of the tool. Which then raises  the question, what about the overlap between blended coalescent spaces and the 12th principle, ie digital well-being?

It’s not something we were focusing on but it is a key aspect of introducing blended and virtual spaces – there are a range of different elements to digital well-being that only emerge when we start transitioning between physical and virtual spaces, or merge the two.

To some extent, this is relatively advanced stuff compared to just regular looking after yourself while online, but virtual spaces usually require an avatar for interaction and that opens up a whole new area of digital experience. (Augmented reality too, although perhaps this isn’t so much digital well-being as physical, inasmuch as watching where you’re going when you’re hunting Pokemon.)  One of the things that emerged when I was looking at virtual worlds is how the sense of presence exposes the user in ways that don’t occur when you’re a disembodied presence in a forum.

One of these is presentation of self. With the whole variety of choices available to you, what you choose has a big impact. Do you choose your physical world sex for your avatar? Do you choose your physical world gender? What if those are different from each other? Do you want to take the opportunity to explore identity by adopting a different ethnicity, sex, species? Will you expose yourself to hostility if you adopt an animal avatar, or a mechanical one? (I spent a lot of time in Second Life as an airship – that got some weird reactions. Though the spider one was the only one that generated outright hostility).

If we as educators introduce virtual worlds to our students, there is some responsibility for their continued interactions with virtual worlds, even outside of the learning situations. If they’ve become interested, and developed an online identity, as a result of our teaching, they may decide to continue and explore more. And there’s some weird stuff in there, which they need to learn to ensure they’re comfortable with before engaging with (or perhaps be resilient enough to be OK with being uncomfortable). That level of embodiment also enables people to form relationships, and there can be a mismatch between the significance that people attach to those. Which can lead to people being hurt.

There is reputation management too. If you want to be taken seriously in online interactions, maybe a giraffe isn’t the best choice of avatar. But then, I did get to know one academic simply because he and I were dressed as punks at an ESRC event in SL when everyone else was in suits. So representation of self is something to be consciously engaged with, and many people first entering virtual worlds tend to be oblivious to the relevance of avatar design.

At the moment, perhaps these concerns aren’t huge ones for educators, but at least we know where to put them on the site once we do start thinking about them.




New courses in Second Life

I’m at a meeting of the Virtual Worlds in Education Roundtable (twice – I mean I have two avatars there) and the subject is what’s new this academic year in virtual worlds. For the first time in a long time I’m not involved in any teaching inworld, which is a disappointment, and quite worrying that this might imply an downward trend in the use of them in education. Some of the others around the table are doing stuff though, and this one looks very interesting .. I’ll paste the entire course info here in case anyone is.


This fall a new kind of course will be taught t by 15 institutions of higher learning. The courses are all connected on the theme of feminism and technology, and the general public is welcome to participate through independent collaborative groups. This is an invitation to join a discussion group in Second Life, which will meet on Sundays at 2pm to discuss the weekly themes of the course.

I hope you can join us, and if you know someone who might be interested, please forward this message.  More information is below.


A discussion group revolving around the FemTechNet Distributed Open Collaborative Course on feminism and new technologies  Please see the press release for this collaborative course below. More information can be found on the website:

DATE:  September 29 – December 8


Sundays at 2pm Eastern Daylight/Standard Time ( 11 am Pacific, 7pm GMT). Check the Minerva OSU Calendar for cancellations or date changes:


The discussions will be held in the virtual world Second Life, in the Ohio State virtual classroom, Minerva OSU. To find Minerva OSU: Simply type Minerva OSU into the Second Life address bar.

If you are new to virtual worlds and would like to join an orientation session in the week preceding the first meeting, please contact Ellie Brewster

If you are exploring in Second Life and need help, please IM Ellie Brewster.


With the approval of the group, we will follow the weekly video dialogues that accompany the course (schedule of videos is here: ). Other suggestions for topics are welcome.


Anyone can join the discussion; however, there will be a weekly limit of 35. If you cannot gain access to the classroom, it will be because the room is full. If you are interested in leading a second discussion group at a different time, please let me know.


For inclusion in the e-mailing list (no more than one e-mail per week), and membership in the Second Life group (necessary for admission), please send a request to this address with DOCC Mailing List  in the subject line. Please include your avatar name.

For Immediate Release

Feminist Digital Initiative Challenges Universities’ Race for MOOCs

Columbus, OH, August 21, 2013: FemTechNet, a network of feminist scholars and educators, is launching a new model for online learning at 15 higher education institutions this fall. The DOCC, or Distributed Open Collaborative Course, is a new approach to collaborative learning and an alternative to MOOCs, the massive open online course model that proponents claim will radicalize twenty-first century higher education.

The DOCC model is not based on centralized pedagogy by a single “expert” faculty, nor on the economic interests of a particular institution. Instead, the DOCC recognizes, and is built on, expertise distributed among participants in diverse institutional contexts. The organization of a DOCC emphasizes learning collaboratively in a digital age and avoids reproducing pedagogical techniques that conceive of the student as a passive listener. A DOCC allows for the active participation of all kinds of learners and for the extension of classroom experience beyond the walls, physical or virtual, of a single institution. FemTechNet’s first DOCC course, “Dialogues in Feminism and Technology,” will launch fall 2013.

The participating institutions range from small liberal arts colleges to major research institutions. They include: Bowling Green University, Brown University, California Polytechnic State University, Colby-Sawyer College, CUNY, Macaulay Honors College and Lehman College (CUNY), The New School, Ohio State University, Ontario College of Art and Design, Pennsylvania State University, Pitzer College, Rutgers University, University of California San Diego, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Yale University.

DOCC participants, both online and in residence, are part of individualized “NODAL courses” within the network. Each institution’s faculty configures its own course within its specific educational setting. Both faculty and students will share ideas, resources, and assignments as a feminist network: the faculty as they develop curricula and deliver the course in real time; the students as they work collaboratively with faculty and each other.

At Ohio State, the course will be taught in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies by Dr. Christine (Cricket) Keating. The course, “Gender, Media, and New Technologies,” will be offered on the undergraduate level. Keating is a recipient of the 2011 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.  This course takes as its starting point the following questions: How are gender identities constituted in technologically mediated environments? How have cyberfeminists used technology to build coalitions and unite people across diverse contexts? How are the “do it yourself” and “do it with others” ethics in technology cultures central to feminist politics? Juxtaposing theoretical considerations and case studies, course topics include: identity and subjectivity; technological activism; gender, race and sexualities; place; labor; ethics; and the transformative potentials of new technologies. The course itself is a part of a cutting-edge experiment in education, culture, and technology. It is “nodal” course within a Distributed Online Collaborative Course (DOCC). In this course, we will collaborate with students and professors across the U.S. and Canada to investigate issues of gender, race, and techno-culture.

These dialogues are also anchored by video curriculum produced by FemTechNet. “Dialogues on Feminism and Technology” are currently twelve recorded video dialogues featuring pairs of scholars and artists from around the world who think and reimagine technology through a feminist lens. Participants in the DOCC — indeed, anyone with a connection to the web — can access the video dialogues, and are invited to discuss them by means of blogs, voicethreads and other electronic media. Even as the course takes place, students and teachers can plug in and join the conversation.  Through the exchanges and participants’ input, course content for the DOCC will continue to grow. From this process emerges a dynamic and self-reflective educational model.


Latest book published

Just heard on the grapevine (not from the publisher or anything helpful like that) that my latest book on virtual worlds Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds has just been published.


Looks good doesn’t it? It’s sort of a hybrid book, in that it’s largely a collection of chapters by a range of authors, edited by Greg Withnail and me (tempted to say Withnail and I, but that would be grammatically incorrect). I’ve got a few chapters in there though, the introduction, which is cannibalising a bit more of my PhD, a chapter I wrote with Anna Peachey on the various reasons why students hate Second Life (again adapted from my PhD) and finally a chapter on the various futures of virtual worlds, including a short description of a potential view of an augmented reality classroom. If you read that description, I’ve deliberately included something that’s almost impossible into the description as a sort of test to see which bit people will pick up on.

Although the book is £25, the introduction is downloadable for free. In the introduction, what I’ve tried to do is write it as a proper academic paper, covering a specific subject (in this case how notions of reality influence learning in virtual worlds), but focusing on the chapters in the book as my literature sources. With this the aim was to try and kill two birds with one stone … both introduce the chapters, but also provide something new to the debate. It was prompted by an argument between Greg and me about whether we should permit the authors to use the phrase “real world” to describe the physical world, my position being that this relegates virtual world activity to a secondary status, of not real when it can seem like that for a lot of people, and Greg pointing out that this is just not how people talk; for most people the physical world is the real world. In the end I went along with Greg and we just let the authors do their own thing, but wanted to raise this as an area that is problematic to some extent.

Most of the book chapters were actually relevant to this argument (the one or two that weren’t were more looking at the technology) and so it became an interesting task to pull together what the other authors had to say about how reality is perceived in a virtual world setting. I came to these conclusions:

  1. Presence and embodiment are key to effective experiential learning, but do not always occur.
  2. Immersion is fostered by the open navigable space of virtual worlds in balance with appropriate learning design. (which is covered in more depth in an upcoming book)
  3. To be effective for learning, not everything has to be perceived as real, but it is more effective if all participants agree on which parts are real and which are not. (Actually that probably applied to life in general, in the physical world too).
  4. In some cases, it is the non-real aspects that have value for learning. (in short, the people that complain that virtual worlds are not real are completely missing the point)

Anyway, take a look and see if you feel like shelling out for the whole thing.

An Edutechy Wonderland

This is written in response to a post about re-entering Second Life and the changes (and lack of changes there after a two year break) written by Bex Ferriday at

Firstly, the problems Bex relates about the course weren’t really due to the design of the course, or the design of SL, in my opinion. I think with anything like that there’s often a problem of commitment from the people taking it. People just over-estimate how much time they have, other things crop up, and so participation wanes. Look out the dropout rate from MOOCs and they only use tried and tested technologies. I got a lot from it anyway.

I think the biggest advantage and disadvantage of using virtual worlds for education was that for most of the latter part of the noughties, virtual worlds were synonymous with just one platform; Second Life. The advantage was that nearly everyone you knew teaching and researching the field were in the one place. If you wanted to visit their build, observe what they were doing, guest lecture in their teaching, then you didn’t need to learn to use a new interface (unless Linden Lab itself decided to screw around with it), you could use your own avatar, inventory etc. If they held a social event, you could meet up with everyone you knew  and worked with, invite other people over to what you were doing. If your work involved a social dimension (like exploring digital culture, or digital identity) then you had a living complex world to send them out into, full of 10s of 1000s of people. There was a real sense of a community of educators working together.

The disadvantage of course was that it was all operating under the discretion of one software company, and when they pulled the plug, it all fell apart.

Well “pull the plug” is a slight exaggeration. For anyone who doesn’t work in the field, Linden Lab, who ran Second Life, ended the educational subsidy. So most institutions could no longer afford to stay in there, and a lot of cheaper options emerged.

Last year I was trying to organise a tour for a group of students, and so went through the normal list of landmarks to show them different resources. Fewer than half were still there. The numbers of people using it are down, but apparently revenue is up. So the customer base is a smaller amount of more committed people. Which I guess suits the provider. Not so helpful for us using it for education though.

The impact on education towards making it more mainstream has been negative. The fragmentation of the community means it’s more difficult to show colleagues the range of stuff it can be used for. It’s more difficult to find good examples of practice, because you first of all have to know where to look.

Bex’s other point is that the technology hasn’t moved on at all. I’m less worried about this. As long as it’s good enough to give you a sense of immersion, (and it can be) and a sense of copresence (and it does) then overall tech quality isn’t a problem. A lot of people’s equipment is still not great, so keeping the graphics at a lower end gives the majority of users a chance to catch up. I’ve given up on IT departments ever doing so though. What I was hoping for though is for the problems to be resolved. But the lag is as bad as ever. In a session I was teaching last week, it was the worst I’ve ever seen, I got booted out several times and struggled to get back in.

But there are still fascinating things to see there, which reassures me that the technology is here to stay, and is an essential part of the educator’s kit. Just the ones I’m involved with:  there’s the palaeontology course at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The Science Ethics course at the University of Iowa. The digital cultures course at Newman University, the Human Behaviour course at University of Southern Maine, the Extract / Insert performance and installation by Stelarc, Joff Chafer and Ian Upton. All fascinating. All excellent from an education perspective, (or performance), and all only really possible in a virtual world. And all, (maybe coincidentally, maybe not), taking place in Second Life.

I think what will emerge is either another single platform that will replace SL and everyone can migrate back to that to recreate that single community, or the technology for hypergridding (i.e. linking together the different platforms) will fill the same role. In this thread responding to Bex’s post in Facebook, Anna Peachey she always thought of SL as the fluffer for the bigger event. In the physical world, the work of the fluffer has been made redundant by Viagra. Hopefully the field of virtual worlds will see a similar game-changing technology.