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Month: August 2008



I object to anyone getting homework. I object to it in elementary school, in middle school, and even in high school. University doesn’t count because it’s not homework. You could, if you were dedicated, spend only as much time as you spent in high school doing university level work and you’d probably still gets As. Think about it. 8:30am to 3:30pm every day, Monday through Friday. That would do it, including class time.

You know why I object to homework? It doesn’t teach you the value of work/life balance. Kids sit in those desks all day for hours on end, and then you want them to go home and do more? What are you teaching them? That they should eschew their weekends when they grow up and work themselves into a frenzy, burning out early? Sure, there are times when work has to come home. You do it because you love it, and you want things to be easier. But as a rule? Don’t do it. I wish I’d had this revelation when I was a phd student, because it’s crushing to think, every moment of every day, that you should be working. No. You shouldn’t be doing homework at 7pm on a Thursday night, little middle-schooler. You should be out playing road hockey or jumping rope or swimming in your best friend’s pool. That’s better for you, mind and body. Math can wait.

Made the Front Page!

Made the Front Page!

Check it out! Hot off the presses: the latest edition of the Metaverse Messenger, with Dulcie Mills and Verde Otaared’s article, “Cancerland offers a close look at disease”, profiling my build in Second Life. I kind of sound like an airhead, since I couldn’t really claim to have built it for the good of cancer survivors, and I have no good sound bites for the how and why or what of it. Ah well. Poppy and Feeg, who I met through the American Cancer Society’s support group in world, had some great and very kind quotations in there too. There’s my rather crappy model of a tumour on the front cover! OMG my 15 minutes of fame have begun!

How to Dehumanize a Person in One Easy Step

How to Dehumanize a Person in One Easy Step

Today on the train downtown, I got to thinking about my sick leave. Before I had to take it, there was a big part of me that dreaded it, since I knew I would be very sick, but there was this other part of me, a smaller, quieter part, that longed for it. I just wanted the break. I was so incredibly tired and stressed out and panicked, the idea of a long time out seemed like a good idea.

And it was, for a while. There’s something about lying on an operating table and facing a cancer diagnosis that puts things like paperwork and job stress into perspective. My job basically faded away into the wallpaper while I focused on my health. My main priorities were sleeping and keeping warm.

These days, I’m back to work full time, and I love it. I love so much of what I do, I feel so lucky and blessed at every turn. I’m learning a lot of new skills that are sharpening my brain and organizing my life. My projects are interesting and challenging and fun. But some days aren’t as good as others for me, health-wise. I have bad days. I often have very groggy mornings that make it difficult for me to get myself moving at a normal speed. And some days I have pain management problems that make it impossible for me to do anything other than curl up and try to keep breathing. So I have to take those days off. Fortunately those days aren’t too common, but at this point there is nothing I hate more than taking more time off work.

I’ve been away long enough. I’m supposed to be all better by now. (Har har.) I want to be perfectly healthy and on all the time. I want to catch up somehow, make up for lost time. I love my job and the people I work for and with, and don’t want to be a losing proposition for them. While paid time off work sounds nice, there’s a serious downside.

I’ve come to realize how dehumanizing it is to have no working relationship with the world you inhabit. Does that make sense? When I’m not part of the human community as a functioning, productive member, I feel lesser. I feel embarrassed and cut off. I feel like a leech. I feel like my opinion is irrelevant, like I’m erased. I’m not participating, I’m not pulling my weight; that’s guilt talking. But I’m also not able to exert control/power/influence, either. That sounds more sinister. I’m not able to shape my world in the way I want it shaped, the way I think it aught to be shaped. I can’t argue my points and make my case. I can’t direct the flow of things. My presence recedes, the world doesn’t have my stamp on it like it feels like it does when I’m working. Work defines me in ways I wouldn’t have guessed. It’s linked into my self-esteem in a way that I find intriguing.

We are social animals. We build working communities and participate in them. The nature of our value comes from the ways in which we participate in our community and help improve it, or make it run, or provide some kind of service. I feel it most strongly when I have to miss work for unfun reasons, as if I’m being dragged out of my community; I’m being removed. My voice doesn’t matter as much, if at all. I’m dehumanized.

So then I started thinking about the numbers of people who are constantly marginalized in our culture, the people who don’t provide a service, who don’t improve the world or make it run. The people who are expected to be the recipients of our goodwill and charity. Those same people who get noses turned up at them because they are “lazily living off the public dime”. What a terrible place to be in this culture, where your input determines not only your community worth but your sense of self-worth. Am I overstating the point? I am certainly one of those people who want their actions to at least subtly alter someone else’s day/life in a positive way every day. When I feel I don’t have that ability or option, I feel shut out, on the outside, no longer part of the human community. It gets me down.

Everyone brings value to the human community in their own way. Perhaps this is the heart of why I felt I needed to build Cancerland in Second Life, so that at least my fallow period could be transformed into something useful. September is Thyroid Cancer awareness month. In my optimistic moments I can imagine that this blog and my Cancerland build are monuments to my attempt to raise awareness about thyroid cancer, to help others to cope with what they’re facing, to help those who love someone with thyroid cancer to understand what they’re going through, and how sick they are even when they don’t look as sick as you expect someone with cancer to look. I can spin it all that way. Maybe I need to spin it that way.

But it shouldn’t be that difficult to feel that you have value; on the flip side, everyone should have the opportunity to demonstrate their value in some way. Perhaps your disability doesn’t allow you to hold down a job; do you feel, as I did, dehumanized by that reality, unable to contribute to the all-mighty economy like everyone else? The bleakness of it jars me. My own guilt and formulation of “value” in that sense absolutely reeks of privilege. It makes me want to seek out and support alternative ways for people to contribute, regardless of their sickness or disability or personal struggles. There are so many wonderful things that can make our community a better one; they don’t all involve going to work every day. It reminds me of the power of play, the power of art, the power of voice. These things can have more impact on people’s lives than many workaday jobs. I want to have a personal revolution on the qualities that define that nebulous concept of an individual’s “worth”.

The Value in Replicas

The Value in Replicas

Jeremy and I have a recurring argument about replica builds. Well, it’s not an argument so much; mostly I agree with him. He does an excellent presentation describing his point that’s very convincing. There are a lot of replica builds in Second Life. And it’s not really a good thing.

By replicas I mean exact reproductions of real-world locations in Second Life. Spending significant money and time to reproduce, say, your campus down to the most minute detail. Jeremy’s argument is that the purpose behind these builds is primarily branding, and he questions the point of it. You branded a piece of Second Life by building your campus on it, but the campus in world is empty. So what was the point? He anticipates that most of these virtual campuses will start shutting down one by one as they fail to produce any recruitment or interest in the real life institution.

I agree with him, easily, that building a replica of your campus for the purposes of branding is a fairly pointless idea. The population of Second Life is not that big, given that it’s a global system. They claim to have over 14 million residents (at present), but only roughly 500K have logged in in the last 7 days, and to be honest I’ve rarely seen more than 60K on at any given time. Sure, by any human standards that’s a lot of people, but compare that to facebook: 90 million active users. Second Life is a small fish in a big internet; it’s filled with some tourists, some business people, some mavens who love building and coding, and a whole bunch of people who just like hanging out. The chances of any university administration having even a tiny minority of its students in Second Life is pretty minimal. The chances of any university administration having any prospective students in world is practically nil; remember that the minimum age requirement to log into Second Life is 18. I personally assumed that no students at my school have ever logged on until someone caught a glimpse of Second Life on a laptop in the library (so maybe there’s one). Putting things in Second Life to get attention of parents and prospective students simply won’t work. Whose attention are you going to get?

The best thing you can do in Second Life, the wisdom goes (and I don’t dispute it), is create something you can’t create in real life. Create impossible structures; the weather is always great and everyone can fly. Create a physical manifestation of a concept, an idea, a feeling. I’ve tried my hand at this and it has proved compelling. It works. It works and it’s unique, it’s using a tool to do something that breaks the barriers to which we’re accustomed. Doing something that you can’t do anywhere else; that’s the only way to make it worthwhile. There’s no point using the place as a chat room. Too much bandwidth, to expensive to maintain. So when you choose to do something, it needs to be worthwhile.

So replicas: where’s the value?

Same principles. Do something you can’t do in real life. What if you need to build the replica first in order to do that?

Example one:


Build a building in Second Life that doesn’t actually exist yet. Make a movie about it. If I were them, I’d probably use that build for presentations, or displays. Have a character running around inside it, doing a virtual tour, while you’re talking about it. Set up stations and let people log in and wander around through it. Make a movie of it without sound and display it on digital signage. You’re encouraging interest in something that doesn’t exist yet, allaying fears, answering questions, letting people feel like part of the process. What a fantastic idea.

But that’s not quite a replica, is it. It’s realistic, it’s real world, it’s abiding by real world physics and a literal plan, but it’s still something virtual (for now). You could do something similar with a renovation; make the soon-to-be real virtually. But what about things that really do exist?

The standard line does indeed run along branding lines; set up your campus, let people explore it. It’s not a bad idea, at its heart. But maybe it’s not enough to just recreate it. What if you recreate it, but add something impossible to it? Something real, something legitimate, but not something you’d ever get in real life?

One of my very favourite art projects was dotted around the streets of Toronto a few years ago. It was a sign in the shape of an ear, with a cell phone number on it. When you call it, you get a recording, someone telling you about a memory about the spot you’re standing on. It’s like a digital tour of the city, in personal stories. This is hard to do in real life, but relatively easy to do in person. What about a story around every corner? The collected stories of students on your campus, added to regularly. Add them in audio, text, pictures. Bring your campus to personal, legitimate, intimate life. People it not with avatars but with real stories, voices of real people, talking about what it’s like to be there, experiences. Moments of epiphany, stories about coffee with instructors, mentorship, enjoying the beauty of an autumn morning. Sounds of the street, random conversations. The options are really unlimited.

It’s not really so very far from the concept/feeling idea. You can use replicas in the service of those things, as the canvas on which you can build your masterpiece. But the masterpiece needs to be built; it’s not enough to just nail the canvas together. Don’t just brand; convey genuine, honest information. Use the tool to its fullest.

But who’s going to see it? Again, I think it’s something you demonstrate rather than expect people to stumble upon (though: if they do stumble on it, great!). Maybe you make movies; maybe you do something else with it that I can’t think of. Though I think it’s not unlikely that, once built, prospective students would jump in to see something full of stories and information from other students, especially if it grows every year. I imagine it would be a neat project for graduating students. Force number one to contend with: first year students are excited. They’re excited the moment they get that letter of acceptance. They want to pick their courses, meet students, ask questions, buy books. They want any scrap of advice or information they can get. They are keen. And yet for some reason we don’t do a heck of a lot to entertain that energy. We make them wait until September. For some of the less sexy but more useful services (like, say, reference, or interlibrary loan, or career services) that eager time where all information is absorbed with great glee, wouldn’t that be a great moment to express what is really available for them? Maybe they’re the audience, one way or another. And I can’t think of many other places where you could do it.

So I’ve come full circle with the replica build. On its own, not so interesting. But I can see it getting more interesting the more stories you add to it.

Best Underused Technologies in Education

Best Underused Technologies in Education

I’ve been searching and watching and experimenting, and in the last few months I’ve come to realize that these handful of technologies, some very well known, some less so, have a lot to offer teaching and learning but are less well-used for those purposes than they perhaps ought to be. Here’s my rationale:

Some of the real leaders in instructional technology have been using wikis with students for some time, but they’re just not as widely-used as they should be, not by a long shot. Wikis can be both extraordinarily challenging for both the instructor and the students, or they can fit rather seamlessly into a traditional classroom. This flexibility makes them almost universally useful. Students can use wikis to keep collaborative notes in small groups or with the entire class, collectively annotate a poem or other text, create a collective bibliography, collaborate on assignments, write documents in a group, or create a document (an encyclopedia, a book of chapters, a picture book, anything) that end up supporting, say, a classroom in an underprivileged area, for instance; collectively rewriting the syllabus of the class; the options are almost limitless. Wikis, in short, are cool. They take very little training to use, they revolve around traditional skills and activities of writing and citing, and there are few classes that can’t benefit from their use. In time I believe they will be a standard tool inside courseware, simply because they are so incredibly flexible.

Pretty much anyone with a camera and an internet connection uses flickr already, so flickr alone isn’t the revelation. The reason I include it here is primarily because I’ve pretty much given up trying to discourage people from using powerpoint. Most people in my circle of influence are married to powerpoint and won’t give it up regardless. So I’ve decided instead to encourage people to be a bit more conceptual and interesting with their powerpoint instead. Why not use creative commons licensed images from flickr to make that powerpoint more punchy? Under advanced search, flickr allows you to search only for content that you can borrow and reuse. Why not take advantage of a free source of amazing-looking images? My favourite powerpoint presentations are the ones that use no text at all, but represent points and ideas through creative commons images only. It fulfills the instructor’s desire to have a prompt for the next point, and it at least gives the class an opportunity to try and guess the point based on the picture alone. Hey, at least it’s something beyond endless bullet points on slides, right? We are turning into a user-content driven society, but so far we have been focusing more on creating it rather than using it. There’s a time for both!

Odeo and Seesmic
I’m linking these two particular technologies, but really it could be any of the significant number of online audio and video recorders. Odeo and Seesmic are, I think, only the simplest of them. (Though, the video recorder in facebook is stellar.) Here’s why I put it here: we waste a lot of time in education being talking heads. Often, people don’t even want to be interrupted; they want to read their their paper, or process their way through their detailed notes of the lecture, and take questions afterwards. Why are we wasting valuable in-class time for this? Why not read the paper at home into a microphone and/or webcam a couple of weeks beforehand and post the audio/video stream as a reading? Then you can use the time you have in class to actually build upon that lecture, build on the ideas and communicate with the students. I know lots of faculty feel students won’t watch it or listen to it or pay attention to it, but I think our fear around that support it happening. Listening to or watching the lecture is required; put them on the spot when you’re face to face. Tell them they need to come up with 3 questions and 3 comments based on the lecture and the readings, and post them before class starts. Expect them to do it. Students might be just lazy, but I think in fact we train them that they don’t need to do the required reading, because most of the time they sit in a lecture hall bored out of their skins and they don’t see the point of all that preparation. They’ll do the reading when it will matter, ie, before an exam. In graduate seminars you are expected to talk, and everyone feels the pressure to get the reading done and have something to say. Put the same pressure on undergrads! I see audio as a way to off-load our easiest ways to use a 2 hour lecture slot and do something that actually requires everyone’s presence and attention during that time. Life is short. Every face-to face minute should have value. The hardest part is figuring out what to do with 2 hours when everyone’s already heard your excellent lecture. What a great problem to have, I’d say.

Second Life
As much as some technologies are almost universally useful, Second Life is not. I know there are cohorts of educators that believe all courses should be at least partially in Second Life, but I don’t understand their reasons. Second Life is an amazing tool, but only where its particular kind of tool is needed. I think most people are excited by the togetherness factor; unlike message boards or email, when you’re all logged into Second Life, you’re all in there together. You can see each other moving around, and lately, you can hear each other’s voices. That’s very cool for distance ed courses that require face-to-face time. It’s also pretty cool for language learning. However, I’d say for the most part that Second Life’s greatest use is in building. I believe that the tools inside Second Life are excellent for in-depth research projects where students work either alone or in groups, where it is too easy to plagiarize or buy a paper rather than learn anything. If you’re ready to throw the traditional essay assignment out the window, a Second Life building project (say, a particular historical moment, a biography, an idea or concept like postmodernism or the nature of the hijab) might be just the thing. Students need to do a lot of research to get the details right and build it, and then they make a movie out of it that fits into another class, or on a website, or as part of a larger project. It’s interesting, it’s different, it’s engaging and unique, and it’s a lot of fun. With the right concept and the right support, I think this could be one of the most rewarding projects for instructors and students alike.
This is brand new. When people first look at it, they don’t get why I think it has any relationship to education. I did a bad thing in that I grabbed an article from First Monday to try and explain it: check it out here. Look for the little bar at the bottom with the button “start chatting”. Get it? Basically it puts cursors and chat over top of a document, anchored to the document. So if I start typing while I’m reading the introduction, anyone else reading the introduction will see it. If I start typing while I’m in paragraph 5, others at that point will see it. If I get confused part way through, I can hover around the confusing part with others who are also confused. Essentially, we can now book a time and read collaboratively with students. Students can meet together and go through a document. You don’t have to wait until you get to the end anymore. I think this is way more valuable than you’d think, because one of the first skills students need to pick up when they start university is a new kind of reading. Reading an academic article is not like reading a book; it’s more like sitting in someone’s office and hearing a personal lecture. You to learn to respond as you hear it, you need to become part of a conversation with the article. If we encourage that early on, we end up with more vocal students. Also an advantage: with a tricky article, the class and read together and the TA or instructor can scroll through and see where the clusters of cursors are to see where students get stuck. And work it through right there!

Those are my current top 5. More next week or so, I’m sure.

Tell me a Story

Tell me a Story

A message I sent to the Second Life in Education Mailing list today:

I was just listening to the latest Radio Lab episode, which summed up a great deal of what I’d argue Second Life has to offer academic communication: the tools to create interactive, powerful, immersive and engaging narrative out of scholarly ideas and works. In this podcast, Robert Krulwich talks about the long conflict between “popular” means of communication and the sciences, and how that stand-off between them has resulted in the dramatic gulf between the ivory tower and everyone else. He links it directly to the power of the anti-evolution front springing forth from the US and spreading out over the world, because the anti-evolution front has an excellent *story* to tell, while science has agreed that story is not useful, is “play”, and science must be “work” and “fact” rather than metaphor and play.

At the same time I’m currently reading Julian Dibbell‘s excellent book Play Money, which underscores the odd divide western culture places between work and play, even when it becomes startlingly clear that productive work and play are by no means seperate entities.

So this podcast brings together these ideas; metaphor, story, and “play” have a valid place even in academic/scientific communication. Play and metaphor doesn’t cheapen or simplify ideas; it merely makes their implications strike us at deeper levels than mere facts. They are the driving mechanism for facts, perhaps. The means to deliver information.

And really, since language is really just a derivative of song, how is metaphor any less frivilous a means than singing?

Second Life, and and any other constructivist worlds that have appeared before and will appear in future, provides the tools to communicate concepts and ideas in a different, more emmersive way. In a way more like play, more like story, with a strong metaphor. I think this is crucially valuable.