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Month: October 2008

What I learned (and thought about) in Copenhagen

What I learned (and thought about) in Copenhagen

I tried to think of a way to present what I learned via Internet Research 9 in Copenhagen, but I’m still heavily jet lagged. So I’m going to present it in discrete chunks.

Work and Play
There are certain ideas and words that trigger a very serious gut reaction in me. I really appreciate these conferences so I can sit with those feelings and talk with others about them to see if I need to fight with my gut or against it. One of those triggers went off during the pre-conference workshop when we talked about the terms “game”, “play”, “recreation”, and “leisure”.

First, game: this came up in the perennial (and yawn-inducing) question about whether or not Second Life is a game. In my opinion, Second Life is a game engine with the game pulled out, just like MOOs before them. But the term came up again. My answer is the same: no. It’s not a game.

“What’s wrong with play?”

No no no, “game” does not mean “play”, and “play” does not mean “game”. I have no objection to games, but turning all play into a game is a dangerous slide in terminology. I’ve read Julian Dibbell‘s fantastic book Play Money and I already know that there’s a difference between play and games. You may “play a game”, but play is much more than a game. A game has rules and outcomes, play can be just about anything that’s fun. Julian Dibbell notes that there are always elements of play in work, and those are the most productive times across the board. He also notes that there is a lot of work in games, so the classic allocation of “play” behaviour to games alone is a misnomer. No. Just because it’s play doesn’t make it a game. And that goes on with “leisure” and “recreation”. Limiting our days to “work” and “non-work/fun” portions makes my skin crawl. The only distinction there is that one is rewarded financially and (presumably) is not, and I’m not sure I’m ready to let capitalism dictate the basic terminology of my life. There are so many areas where I want to break down the false dichotomy between work and play for the sake of my own sanity, I just can’t get into a worldview where fun is a thing that happens when not working. I must back away slowly from that entire set of terminology.

But the conversation is important. Play has value in education, and needs to be understood that way. Working with social networks and technology on a full time (more than full time) basis, I run into a lot of people who have problems with people “playing” or having fun at work or in school. So one of my goals, added to all the others I already have, is to help people understand and accept the amazing value that play brings to our work and to academic success.

This isn’t about fighting work-life balance; I’m all for that. But I’m also all for letting your “play” life bleed into your work life and not deliberately holding back the most productive and creative parts of yourself for only one or the other. In a way, this is like the old blogging argument; a good blog, according to some, has one topic and sticks to it. This is “work”. Then there’s the rest of us, who blog about whatever’s going on and catches our interest, and thus lets it all blend together in a big creative pile. My current case in point: I “played” in Second Life for many hours to build Cancerland, which is ultimately expression of something so personal I was assigned an agent at work to help me manage the communication of it. But now it’s very much linked to my work life as well, as an experience, as an idea, and an example, and by turning my brain around to the idea that you can create experiential learning spaces that express information in amazingly effective ways. That’s valuable, in spite of the false distinctions of work and play.

Ubiquitous Computing
One of the conference’s keynotes involved a fascinating look at what a fully integrated city would look like; where the internet is a part of everything. I like this idea, and I need to spend more time considering it. Unshackle the world from computers themselves but hook them into the internet in million new ways. Walk through the world and stay online at the same time; overlay a google map on the world as you see it with your own eyes. One of the ideas that tweaked my imagination was the idea of using the city as your interface. I’m kind of already down that road in my thoughts about replica builds in Second Life and how the replica element of it allows us to provide layers of meaning into the interactivity and affordances; the idea of your city as interface takes that idea and turns it around. Being out in the world and playing an online game with your city. (Probably not Grand Theft Auto.) My first thought was this: how do we turn the library into a location for a ubiquitous computer game? How do we take students offline but keep them online? It’s an expensive proposition (maybe), but it’s something I’d like to keep thinking about. There are lo-tech ways to do it, and I want to try them.

In/Formal Learning
I realized during this conference that my true interest in education goes beyond just technology. My interest, at its heart, is in examining the many (many) means and methods of informal learning, and bringing them to formal learning. When people make the distinction between formal and informal learning there’s a big part of me that wants to shout: “Why are you making those two things so distinct?” The passion that’s so often present in spades in informal learning is what I want to see more often in formal settings.