eCampus has been especially busy recently, with multiple inquiries coming in about options for remote teaching with technology. Those of us who are young and healthy might not be particularly worried about the escalation of COVID-19 in the US, but for those of us with elderly parents or friends with compromised immune systems, we certainly are worried about contracting this and passing it along. Now is an ideal time to plan for the very real possibility we may need to self-quarantine, or that our students might need to do so.
This disruption is also not just affecting teaching and learning in the classroom. One of my eCampus colleagues flew out of town for an ed tech conference last weekend that was cancelled upon arrival. Dealing with this sort of thing is inconvenient or even scary, but the truth is it need not disrupt our education or conferences. We have long had all the tools we need, but we’ve just not been in a position where we really had to use them. Obviously there’s no time like the present to start taking a serious look at the many underutilized tools we have that can help us connect digitally. And that includes virtual environments.
Coincidentally, I’m scheduled to present at the Online Learning Consortium conference at the end of this month. It hasn’t been cancelled….(yet?). And ionically I’m presenting on Purposeful Tinkering: Experiential Preparation & Networking In Virtual Worlds For VR-Ready Educators. So I’m going to a physical world conference where I’ll be talking about my ongoing virtual collaborations with global colleagues using desktop VR. At these physical events I’ve often mentioned cost, accessibility, engagement, and environmental factors as just a few of the good reasons we should all be advocating for the wider adoption of virtual worlds for meetings, teaching, and conferences. It had never occurred to me until now to add pandemics and social distancing to the list. Yet here we are.
So I’m scheduled to present on this topic at a physical world conference that likely has no good plan to host it any other way if it gets canceled. Even more inronically, however, I’ll be presenting in-world in two weeks time at the 13th annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education, which of course will not get cancelled because it’s (gasp!) held in a virtual environment! And let me be entirely clear what I mean when I say a virtual conference, because I’m certainly not talking about a live streamed webcast. That’s a very poor substitute and not interactive at all. Have you ever attended such a thing, only to actually spend most of the time on a second screen? So tell me how good a virtual conference is, when you can walk away from it and nobody even knows you’re missing?!
A conference in a virtual world, however, is totally different. If you take your headset off while sitting at your computer, you better set your status on your avatar as “away”. Otherwise people might actually talk and chat at you and think you’re just being rude by not responding. They assume you are on the other end because you are literally present in the digital environment represented by your avatar. In a virtual conference, when a presenter takes questions from the audience, everyone can see who you are, everyone can hear you speak, everyone can see your questions and comments when you post them in chat. It’s incredible interactive. If the group is exploring someone’s exhibit and you don’t keep up as people walk or fly around the corner, the audio actually drifts away. If you don’t keep up, you won’t be able to hear them. If you don’t participate actively, you actually miss out. You don’t really have an option to be passive. So a virtual conference is a lot like a physical one. (Well, except for the flying part!….And the part about being able to log in from anywhere in the world while in your pajamas, and that your avatar can represent any aspect of your personality that you want, etc., etc.)
So I have little tolerance for crappy “virtual” events that are non-immersive and non-interactive. If you want to experience a real virtual conference, now is your chance to attend one of the very best! The 13th annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education starts in two weeks and it’s free! You can meet some really innovative educators from around the world who regularly meet up in-world with their students and other educators to promote teaching and learning and global citizenship. If you want to attend, I can teach everything you need to know in less than an hour. We can do this in-person or via Zoom. I think it will blow your mind, and spoil you for what more conferences should be.
I’m also excited to be presenting again at VWBPE this year. I have an immersive event on March 15th, I’ve also built an exhibit for the Stellar space theme which ties in nicely with what I’ve build in OpenSim, and I’m also on a panel discussion with my iSchool VCARA and CVL colleagues. The panel discussion is about the findings of a survey conducted late last year. We wanted to know what educators thought were the most important features needed for the educational use of VR platforms. (By the way, SJSU’s School of Information recently posted an interview with me about my work with them in virtual worlds for their Community Profiles page.) Like many of my colleagues that have used virtual worlds for years, and who are also actively exploring social VR platforms with head-mounted displays, I too have some opinions on the topic. All of us have valuable insights to share about what features we think are needed for education, and how different VR platforms stack up with what we’ve been using for the last 16 years with desktop VR. In fact, I made a video of an in-world presentation on this topic for a colleague at SUNY Empire State College. It’s for her student educators in one of her classes. My presentation is titled Beyond the Hype of Head Mounted Display (HMD) Virtual Reality.
So that’s my update. There’s no contagion in the virtual world, so come join us! Contact me if you have any questions! I’m happy to help your or your students get in-world. eCampus has computers with the Firestorm viewer already installed, so you or your students can access Second Life or OpenSim. And if you want to learn more before reaching out to me, check out my Canvas course, VW101: Burning Man in Cyberspace. You’ll find links to more information about some of the educators I know, many of whom I expect will be presenting this year at the conference.