Category Archives: virtual college

Second Chance for Second Life?

thumbby Hap Aziz

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education website, Jeffrey R. Young has an article titled, “Remember Second Life? Its Fans Hope to Bring VR Back to the Classroom.” I do remember Second Life, and I actually used in some college courses I taught about eight or nine years ago. It was primarily a tool where I could gather with students for additional lecture time outside of the classroom, and often it was a combination of socializing and course content Q&A. Fortunately, my students were comfortable with technology (the course was on the subject of digital design), otherwise I would not have been able to provide the technical support to get the students signed up, logged in, and comfortable in the environment. The technology is smoother now, but I wouldn’t recommend it for students not confident in their online computing skills.

The history of Second Life is interesting in that it began as a possible game world framework, but the development environment was so robust, SL morphed into an open-ended virtual space that really had no particular purpose. This was both its advantage and its curse, as enthusiastic users that saw potential in the technology worked at finding a purpose for the platform. Many higher education institutions acquired space in SL, and educators used it for lectures, office hours with remote students, and a variety of other activities somehow connected with learning. And while the individual users may have designed unique personal avatars, the education spaces, for the most part, were representation of real campus locations (or at least could have been real). There are a number of reasons SL was unable to sustain itself at its heyday level of engagement, and Young explores them in his article in connection with the latest tech wave of Virtual Reality innovation. Second Life, in fact, is looking to ride the new VR wave with its Project Sansar (indeed, if you go to the SL site, you’ll see that you can explore SL with the Oculus Rift, which is a step in that direction).

Will the addition of 3D VR breathe new life into Second Life? As a technology, there is no question that VR has great novelty out of the gate. But I still believe that without some sort of meta-narrative point to drive engagement, SL could go through another bubble-burst cycle. By “meta-narrative,” I mean that Second Life itself needs to have a point, rather than offer itself up as an environment where users can do anything they want. Why enter a virtually real world to “just hang out and look around” when we can much more easily accomplish that in the really real world?

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Legacy Systems and the Anchors that Work Against Change

by Hap Aziz

Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.

But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).

BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.

The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.

What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:

  • Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
  • Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
  • Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
  • In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.

Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.

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Reimagining Online Education, Continued…

by Martin LaGrow

In the past, I have postulated on this blog that the current model of online education is obsolete.  The expression Web 2.0 has been in use for at least eight years to describe the interactive nature of the internet, but the world of academics has made scant effort to embrace it.  While online education relies on dated, asynchronous tools such as email, discussion boards, and drop boxes, even our leisure pursuits have become vastly more interactive and vibrant…think Farmville, Second Life, and even beyond.  When I say we need to think “outside the box,” I am not talking about a tired cliché.  I am talking about that box under your desk that plugs into your monitor. In other words, online education does not have to be confined to your computer. Why not take advantage of the other box sitting next to the TV in virtually every household—the gaming system?

When evaluating any process, device, or system, I like to ask this:  If there was nothing already in existence, no preconceived notion of how it is ‘supposed’ to work, and we invented it today, what would it look like?  Sometimes you can hypothesize about such things and it avails you nothing because you are restricted by what is already in place.  Take, for example, the highway system.  You can’t just erase what’s already in place and start over if you want to redesign the traffic flow of a city, much less the whole country!  But in online education, the same can’t be said.  Nothing prevents us from starting over from scratch, and designing it based on the tools that are in existence today.  We are not committed to the established pathways of the past in a physical sense.  Starting over is scarcely more difficult than pressing the ‘delete’ key!

My next focus in reimagining online education will be to discuss the advantages of utilizing common elements of Web 2.0 and gaming systems simply to spark discussion.  These elements include avatars, interactive environments, RFID interactivity, and the introduction of gaming systems as academic tools.  Today I want to focus on avatars.

The current model of learning management systems is hallmarked by detachment of student, instructor, and peers.  It is possible for students in many online learning platforms to pass a course and earn credit without ever having a real-time conversation with instructor or peers.  Sometimes this gap is bridged by requiring at least one conference call or online session.  Even so, students who prefer to ‘lurk’ can remain as disconnected as they choose.  Teachers who choose not to share personal information or even a profile picture are easily perceived as an uncaring, non-present grading ‘robot’ by students.  It can be difficult for instructors to have a real understanding of who students are, and to take their work in context when they cannot visualize the student as an individual.  Consider teaching thirty or more students in an online course, and having no knowledge of their identity other than a name—and what if you have four Kimberlys in your class?  Yet this matters to students…A distance educator at Boise State University explained that her research about online learning revealed that students frequently complained about having an unengaged or uninvolved instructor as a reason for their dissatisfaction (Magna Publications, “Distance Education Retention: The SIEME Model,” Retirement & Retention, December 2005).  This is partly a byproduct of the flat nature of online instruction.  So how can avatars promote a more personal connection in online coursework?

The avatar, in its most basic form, is a representative incarnation of a person.  Before you participate in virtually any social media interactive game such as Farmville, you must first design your avatar.  The importance of the avatar is not that it is an exact replica of the individual, but that it is a representation of what the individual wishes to present about himself or herself.  This makes it a much less intimidating tool than using a webcam, for example.  The self-conscious student (or instructor for that matter) can share only those elements of identity they are comfortable to share.  Overweight? Bad acne? Gender confused? Afraid of age discrimination?  Your avatar can represent you in a way that you are comfortable.

When using most LMS’s, students and instructors are unaware of the ‘presence’ of others engaged in the course concurrently.  In an interactive room where an avatar represents the presence of participants, interaction between student, peers, and instructor becomes natural.  A student is far more likely to ask the teacher questions if they can ‘see’ the teacher in the room, rather than having to send an email and wonder if it will be received and returned.  By establishing a presence in the room at regular intervals, instructors can create an environment that promotes interactivity.

The web service Voki (http://www.voki.com) provides instructors with the ability to create an avatar and give it a voice.  While this still lacks the interactivity of a robust, multi-participant environment such as Second Life, it may be a beginning point for instructors who are interested in providing a new ‘face’ for students to connect with in their course. If students were to interact the same way, discussion posts could actually become just that—discussion posts, not written papers gleaned and reproduced from a textbook or a website. This tool is still asynchronous, but it represents a step in the right direction—true interaction that fosters the development of personal connection and dialogue between students and instructors.

In my next article, I will elaborate on the potential of gaming systems as academic tools.

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Reimagining Online Education

Learning Through Play & Technology Welcomes Guest Blogger Martin LaGrow.

After many years as an educator and administrator in elementary education, Martin LaGrow left to pursue several certifications and a career in Information Technology.  After a brief stint as a network analyst, he returned to the world of education to focus his newfound enthusiasm for technology on improving residential and online academic delivery as an instructor and now an online faculty manager for Rasmussen College.  Martin holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from St. Xavier University.


In the 1990’s, the earliest forms of online education started to take shape as organizations like CALCampus used the World Wide Web to allow students to access training modules.  Interaction was minimal—courses consisted of mainly text and often students still needed to submit assignments through the mail.  The first online course I took in the late 1990’s was an Algebra course.  The college mailed me VHS videotapes to view, and I took a multiple question online test when I was done—nothing in the way of online instruction actually took place in the online course!

As the Internet grew and bandwidth increased, online delivery became more robust and engaging.  Text-based lessons are supplemented by video content.  Instructors can engage students through chat rooms, live or archived presentations, and even video conferencing.  Online education has certainly come a long way, yet remnants of an earlier day remain.  Assignments are still largely text-based.  Student interaction is often limited to discussion forum posting.  Colleges are struggling to find ways to make content more synchronous while still meeting the demands of a largely asynchronous student base.  Online instruction, however, is still more influenced by its previous incarnations than it is by how people use the computer today.  Even the most advanced learning environments lag far behind social interaction and gaming environments, developmentally speaking.  A whole new virtual world has been created around Second Life, for example, which presently boasts over a million users, and there are more focused virtual environments built around various game franchises.  In this environment, people can interact, make new friends, shop, play games, and even attend live music performances. But what can’t they do there?  Earn credits toward a degree.

According to In-Stat, over $7 billion was spent on virtual goods in online gaming and social networking sites in 2010 (http://www.instat.com/press.asp?ID=2917&sku=IN1004659CM), and the trend continued into 2011.  Could there not also be a niche in that market for consumers to spend money on virtual interaction that ultimately yields a tangible reward in the form of a college degree?  It’s clear that it’s the increasing desire of today’s computer user to participate in virtual interaction.  More and more businesses are finding ways to innovate in this space and cash in on money already flowing freely for virtual products.  Why haven’t learning institutions jumped on the bandwagon?  With increased competition from for-profit colleges and career training institutions, it may only be a matter of time before the virtual world becomes the next training field for college students.  The technology already exists—it’s just a matter of applying it in an academic context.  A simulated classroom could be the next evolution of academic delivery and interaction, with the following features already in use in the social media gaming world….

A virtual classroom that LOOKS like a classroom.  Online courses are still a venue trademarked by tab and menu browsing within a frame.  Today’s student is accustomed to more interactively designed environments.  Want to submit an assignment?  Click on the teacher’s desk.  Want to see a list of videos related to this week’s content?  Click on the TV.  Want to see this week’s list of assignments?  Click on the chalkboard.  Want to ask the teacher a question?  Leave a note on the door.  If designed properly, the classroom can be a much more intuitive environment for even novice computer users who have already figured out how to click to plant crops, feed fish, build a house, visit neighbors, and deliver messages in similar environments.

Avatar based interaction.  Virtually every social media environment (and even home gaming systems such as the Wii) offers the ability to create a virtual representation of yourself.  In a virtual online classroom, students and instructors can do the same to give a visual manifestation of their presence.  Interaction occurs naturally when students encounter their peers in person.  Use of avatars extends the opportunity for this kind of interaction online if students can see the presence of other student or the instructor in the room at the same time.  Courses that require student posts and interaction can document student interaction for instructors to consider when grading.

An avatar course ‘guide.’  Unlike other avatars in the course, the course guide is a software-based avatar that can remind students of deadlines, point them to new content, and even answer simple questions, taking the place of a searchable FAQ.  This gives students the feeling of responsiveness and interaction no matter when they chose to log in to the course.  The avatar can even be programmed by the instructor to give certain comments or reminders triggered by student activity.

A common course area for multiple sections.  If a college is offering twenty sections of the same course online, the rooms can be linked by a commons area, where avatars from all course students and instructors could have the opportunity to interact.  On a larger scale, colleges could even offer a recreation hall, student union, and lecture hall for special presentations available to all students.  Offering these areas creates a larger sense of community and a greater likelihood that students will have the opportunity to ask questions and exchange ideas.

The time is ripe for a truly new learning environment.  The technology is available; even commonplace.  Today’s student uses the Internet differently than any previous generation.  The first academic institution to develop a new learning environment that mimics the way people use the Internet today is going to have a substantial competitive advantage in the 21st century education marketplace.

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Envisioning the Virtual College… in 1999

by Hap Aziz

I came across this interesting article on “Avatar Pedagogy” from The Technology Source Archives at the University of North Carolina written by Joel Foreman. The piece interested me from a few standpoints: it was written in 1999 while discussing virtual environments for avatars that could be in place by 2010 and it discussed harnessing the educational potential of using avatars in the teaching and learning process. It was instructive to see what people were thinking over a decade ago, before the avatar refinements that have occurred in the 21st century.

Foreman writes that there are three features in avatar pedagogy:

  1. avatar worlds are suited to develop actionable knowledge as opposed to knowledge for knowledge’s sake
  2. avatar environments are leveraged effectively when they support learner centered team work
  3. an avatar world endowed with diverse learning resources supports a discovery approach to education

Based on these items, it appears that avatars are ideally suited to constructivist learning environments. It would be worth developing some learning scenarios to test out the effectiveness of avatar-facilitated learning tied to these three items. Consider a Virtual College in which avatars (like non-player characters in computer games) function as tutors to help students through the courses. This is something that can be executed now, given the current state of game programming technology.

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