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Discipleship is costly, it’s not to run away from. I’ve spent a fair bit of the summer (as if I hadn’t before, testified to by a number of my bookshelves) wrestling with being church in this and the next generation.. I came back and spent a long time with Vicky trying to beat the timetable into submission so that I have a programme for this year which allows me to spend quality time on getting to the bottom of why evanglical churches are growing and ‘traditional’ ones are not (please, don’t jump in and tell me I’m an idiot twice in one day, more…

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packing up

I dread to think how much time I’ve put into Second Life over the last four (yes, four) years. Lots of it in the beginning was hanging out with friends on beaches, and exploring. It didn’t cost me much. Learning how to build took a while, and I still can’t script, so I’m still quite slow at creating things a professional might do better in a fraction of the time. Although a professional would charge for it, and I do it for free. In fact I don’t even do it anywhere near on work time, and I do it with my own money, which I always think isn’t very much – it probably still isn’t very much even if I added it up, but I don’t want to, just incase I’m wrong.

I’m having some major frustrations currently/over the last few months and it is quite tempting these days to just walk away. I’m still here because the frustration of throwing away the work I’ve done is (currently, but I don’t know for how much longer) greater than that I keep coming back to. You’re not throwing it away, I might hear you object, but in fact, I probably am. I have tried very hard over the last few months to encourage all the projects that are in planning or development to make use of me while I was there – there’s neither the interest or the time on my team to provide the support that I can. I appreciate this has been a worry to some of them and a reason to not push on with plans that may then be difficult to be supported, but I would have been happy to get them to a point that needed little support. And I appreciate that there are many other demands on academics’ time – I know this, I’ve been there – and I most certainly appreciate that the University is just not kitted out for it, despite having someone on my team tasked to get technical buy-in from IT (thought it had been agreed, then when I  and two other academics tried to actually log in and use for a class, it was borked – not an encouragement for teachers, I generally find) – so to use in class time it costs to hire one of the digital suites that can cope with the graphics. Even our training room which keeps being put off being upgraded is unusable. So there are many – still, even after all the snapshots JK has done – technical and time issues preventing obvious engagement with SL. But this is so SO frustrating because I still STILL believe that there is vast potential.

I’ve not had the time to publish lots of things, and there are many things beginning to be published on work undertaken in SL, so perhaps I’m going to be undermined by the evidence (though from what I’ve read so far, I think not) and there are many many detractors who would like this to be so. Then you get people like Gavin bowing out, and you wonder who might be next. And I wonder, I really wonder, if I should abandon any effort I might have still wanted to put in to trying to support staff with projects in plan/development get them ready and rolled out.

Because for all the work that I’ve put in, I’ve still seen very little come out. And it pains me to admit that, because there are people outside our institution that are impressed by what we’ve done. And, to be true, I go other places and I think, yes, I’m impressed by what we’ve managed to achieve too, but increasingly I think there is more creativity out there and that the environment is entering a new phase of design – I’m not totally a fan of entire scenarios made out of sculpties simply because my experience with crap kit make me know they’ll be inaccessible to many – and we want to be able to keep up. So some of my projects are ok, some are ok currently and fine as fit for purpose goes, and some are getting shabby, because they were begun a while ago.

I’d like to think I’ve been pretty supportive of staff wanting to do virtual world work. I’d like to think I’ve been prepared to do my utmost in helping them deliver it. I’ve certainly done my utmost in helping them to design something that will be worth their and their students’ efforts. Maybe this is why I’ve failed. Reading Stones into Schools and how the sad ending underlined the CAI’s determination that there has to be ownership of the schools has made me think I’ve offered too much help. But then I think without central help there’d be little chance of people being able to deliver or build their own scenarios. I still think that there is a place for students to use SL for building, and there’s a space for using SL for distance provision of teaching (which still has real potential in our institution), but my passion is to see it used for what I think it does best – give the students an environment that they can engage in realistic experience which cannot be rehearsed on campus. This has the potential to provide opportunities to practise ‘being professionals’ and in our culture of employabiliity pressure this is a great and cost-effective potential we should be grasping.

Maybe – well I know so – I have too many ideas. Too many dreams. Many dreams that I don’t have the scripting skills to deliver, and I would so dearly have loved funded projects over the last couple of years to have had as deliverables actual real reusable learning objects in the forms of items or scripts that can be easily re-formed for use in other scenarios. To me, that’s what the learning technology sector used to be about, and one of the things (lessening of collaboration and increase of competitivity) that I’ll not be missing when I leave it. At presentations last year I spent a lot of time trying to encourage people to see what we could share to save inventing so many damn wheels and re-energising the place with new  amazing experiences for students because the staff and the support staff could get further faster. This hasn’t really happened. In my presentation at Coventry (slides repeated below), I listed a few things that it would be helpful for us to have as building blocks for building scenarios and interactivities. I stand by them. As I stand by the earlier post which prompted some of the presentation and the later post which reiterates most of what is still in my head prompting this one.

One of the things that I’ve really wanted to be able to leave behind me are a set – even if it’s a small set – of things that might be useful to other people, whether that be IKEA colour changeable sofas or office chairs or laptops or some scripts. Or the avatar sets that are available free to anyone (not so necessary now LL have provided the whole new set of basic avs). I’ve been for a long while desperate to learn how to do the basic sets of scripting in the Uni Kansas operating room scenario written up in the Educause article, because I think this encapsulates some essentially basic interactive blocks from which you could build up effective learning. A bit like PIVOTE, which I was really excited by, but couldn’t navigate the web forms for and which didn’t actually negate the having to actually build the stuff in SL to get the interactions.

Since I finished work I’ve been up till all hours trying to get my head around some of these bits of scripts, specifically so they could be used in the particular examples of engagements that are wanted by some of my staff. And to a point I’ve succeeded. I’ve got a simple (they’re all very simple) time release running which enables for example a busy maternity ward to get new patient info throughout a simulated day/night shift, or for an NGO disaster operations room to get regular/irregular (text/audio/visual) updates from staff on the ground which can direct the students’ development of strategising, planning and managing. I’ve got a set of little boxes talking to each other so I can invisible some of them and make them ‘appear’ elsewhere (this would be so much more efficient if they were rezzed as opposed to invisible phantom become visible physical, but I still can’t do that) and I can use linked messages to change images on various objects dependent on choice/time. That’s not very impressive really, but I couldn’t do any of that two months ago, and all of it will make a difference to the interactivity and the dynmics of the projects we have that want to use SL.

Except. Except. Except that actually, as Stones into Schools made me think further into my presentation

to the slide on ‘Control’, I still end up with having the potential and not having stuff to act on. Most learning technology projects where they fail, fail because we’re waiting for input from staff who just don’t have the time/energy to produce it. I had a really good few development sessions with one school rep where we decided on the metaphor of a theatre to draw up the tasks for the project. And I think this is a useful way of planning.

It’s about imagining that they the academic is the director of a new play, and I am the technical director/producer. They need to do multiple things in the right order and on time, revising where necessary, to allow me to do the bits I need to do for it all to come together for opening night. (Actually, it could be taken much further if I were going to be producing any more presentations, but as I’m probably not I guess it doesn’t really matter). As technical director, I’m in no way capable of pulling off the production, but I do have a critical role to play. But I can’t do it without them. The director needs to write the screen play, decide a cast list, sort out the look and the image that he/she is aiming for. Then we talk it through, rationalise the technical requirements for each scene and then while he/she is developing the screenplay/script, I can be organising the hardware, furniture, backdrops and working out how scene one is going to transition into scene two, etc. As possibly wouldn’t happen in this scenario in the real world, I can also do a certain amount of scouting (if not actually casting) out the cast, taking photos of potential characters and taking the director to see them. So we end up with three lists, the script/content (academic responsibility); casting/characterisation/costume (academic decision responsibilty, my help out); technical/production director (my share, bringing it all together). However, it’s not my name on the board outside, it’s theirs. It’s not me up in lights. And to get up in lights, you can’t devolve to the producer, even if they’re a capable producer, because much of the input simply has to be yours. Just like the Wirghiz had to finish their school themselves because the US helicopters (ach, you don’t want me to give away the end).

Anyway – most of the projects that have been built on Teeslife have too much my stamp and not enough by the academics. And that is not making them succeed. Maybe I’ve been wrong in offering them a lot of guidance in trying to ensure that pedagogical reasoning underpins the developments, in order to make them really work, not just be flashes in the pan. Maybe my lack of coding skills has meant that they haven’t seen results fast enough to be able to envisage taking the developments and their students further. Maybe that’s been interference they didn’t really want, and should have had more complete control themselves. And yet I don’t see students actively engaging inworld when I log in when I have been around to help, and I know deep down that there’d be less if I wasn’t there. Which there likely will be next academic year as our team numbers are halved and there’s noone daft enough to take on my 1am building.

So where next? I really really really hope that some of the few projects that want to be available in the autumn succeed. I’m here to help before I leave, but then again staff are on holiday and it is already August. So I’m not sure. But if anyone else doesn’t already have more complex scripts for doing some basic interactive things like I’ve just finally managed to produce, and wants them, let me know. I’d like to think I’ve done something useful in the last three years.  I haven’t quite left yet, and I still plan to write up some broader ideas that I want to put out there that people could collaborate on if they were willing, but most days I’m increasingly thinking that the dreams that still deserve to be delivered may just end up going in a box marked ideas the world just wasn’t quite yet ready for. Or rather, my world, as there are lots of projects coming to pilot fruition in SL in UK HE, so it shows that there is the scope and the potential, regardless of the skeptic viewpoint. But it also means that even when the potential has the potential to really address some of the major strategic objectives universities today are facing, that it’s still an investment and you have to invest in it. And that needn’t be massively financially – but it needs more intellectual and time input than it currently is getting. And that needs the mental shift from tinkering about with a bit of a game, to a serious use of virtual worlds for professional need. And I’ve a paper in my head about that. At least I’ll be leaving that if and when I go.

*no, I’m not actually doing, not quite yet, anyhow, but I am considering it.

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