There’s No Contagion in the Virtual World!

Bethany's Tiny Cat Avatar with Gas Mask & Goggles

Bethany’s Tiny Cat Avatar with Gas Mask & Goggles

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. 

 

 

More Burning Man in Cyberspace Shenanigans

avatars in a boxing ring

Smackdown Redux!

Bethany's avatar presenting

Bethany presenting at OSCC 2019.

This was my third year attending the OpenSimulator Community Conference, which brings together a global group of developers, educators, and artists who are passionate about the open metaverse of OpenSim virtual worlds. It’s always inspiring to hang out in-world with old friends and to meet new ones, see presentations and hear about what others are doing with their colleagues, students, and friends in OpenSim virtual worlds. 

Panel Discussion & Smackdown Redux

San Jose State University was well represented. In addition to my own short presentation, I participated on a panel discussion with my Community Virtual Library colleagues, Dr. Valerie Hill and Dr. Marie Vans, as we talked about our ongoing projects on the Kitely and Avacon grids.  CVL also presented a redo of our Virtual Worlds vs Virtual Reality Smackdown debate, which was a real hit! (Pun intended!) I even built a boxing ring for the occasion. Val played moderator as before, but this time I was debating Marie, an iSchool alumna. Marie was embodied as a fantasy creature that well suited her passionate advocacy for virtual reality with head mounted displays. (She’s also a wee bit intimidating to debate. Marie is a senior research scientist at Hewlett Packard, and her current research area is virtual reality and education!)  Undaunted, however, I chose to embody the very symbol of OpenSim, the Hippo. And don’t be fooled by the humble appearance, the hippo is actually the most dangerous animal on the African continent. So it’s a worthy symbol of open source virtual worlds. Of course, the OpenSim crowd cheered wildly for me when they saw me come out swinging! 

Immersive Art OER Resources Presentation

My own presentation was about some new OER content I’d developed, initially as an idea for  Dr. Eileen O’Connor, one of my virtual world colleagues. Eileen is the coordinator for SUNY Empire State College’s Masters of Arts Learning & Emerging Technology (MALET) Program.  Eileen has been teaching in virtual worlds for a number of years, and I’ve attended events at Marian Island on Kitely. Marian Island is her OpenSim world where she introduces other faculty to virtual worlds, and it’s where she showcases the work of her students who’ve also built worlds on the Kitely grid.  I had been inspired to create some content and tutorials to help any event organizer like her, (who certainly has their hands full!), to have an immersive activity that could teach a newer participant to learn how to create a simple piece of art they could share in the virtual environment. Of course then, it just made sense to share it with anyone in the community via a Creative Commons license. The more I do in the virtual world, the more I continue to develop expertise about how we can use these spaces in engaging and educational ways. 

If you want to hear more about the content and tutorials I created, you can watch the video of my session Art Gallery Contribution: A Plug-n-Play OER Immersive Activity.

Virtual Reality vs Virtual Worlds Smackdown!

Bethany's Avatars: T-Rex & "Tiny"

Bethany’s Avatars: T-Rex & “Tiny”

I recently joined my Community Virtual Library and SJSU’s VCARA colleagues at a fun event held at iSchool Island in Second Life. We held a Virtual Reality vs Virtual Worlds Smackdown Debate, complete with our impressive avatars ready to duke it out for the audience!

Our sparring was moderated by Dr. Valerie Hill, the director of the Community Virtual Library in Second Life, Avacon, and Kitely. We each had five minutes to speak, and then five minutes to refute our opponent’s position on the most important criteria for immersive environments (as recently identified in an unpublished VCARA survey). The criteria include:

  • Persistence
  • Accessibility
  • Open Educational Resources (OER)
  • Community of Practice
  • Building Independently and Collaboratively

Alyse Dunavant-Jones, the co-director of CVL, argued that  “VR is the future, and the future is now!” while embodied as an enormous fire-breathing dragon. I was embodied as a fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex, arguing that virtual worlds have a much longer and proven history, and still offer a tremendous opportunity for immersive learning. Our avatars were actually so big, we traded into smaller sized ones while standing in the boxing ring to speak. As Alyse spoke she was embodied as a human-sized Gecko in the boxing ring. My T-Rex avatar loomed ominously outside the ring, growling of course. When it was my turn to speak I changed into my “tiny”, a cute black kitten with a fierce attitude. I was fearless of Alyce-as-dragon flying overhead! 

The event concluded as a draw, with both sides conceding that there are benefits and drawbacks to each. Also, it’s critical that pedagogy remain central. It is not enough to merely learn how to use the technology. The main takeaway I wanted to leave with the audience with is that regardless of what platforms we may use in the future, designers of any immersive learning activities have to be familiar with the long history of virtual worlds in education. More importantly, they should already have hands-on experience in virtual worlds. 

Check out more pictures at the VCARA blog post about the event. Anyone interested in networking (and having fun!) with educators in virtual worlds should contact Bethany at eCampus to learn more!

Immersive Learning Research Network Conference 2019

The fifth annual Immersive Learning Research Network conference was held this month in London, England. This conference brings together an international group of developers, educators, and research professionals from a range of  disciplines who collaborate to develop the scientific, technical, and applied potential of immersive learning. In particular, conference participants share their research in an ongoing effort to continually examine the elements that create effective immersive learning experiences. 

I had heard about the conference from one of the organizers, Jonathan Richter, who had presented a keynote at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference in April. I had presented at that in-world conference. Jon had let me know that there was still room for poster presentations at iLRN19, so I had the honor to represent San Jose State University at an international community event.

Bethany at iLRN 2019

My poster synthesized research on the affordances of virtual worlds, and my experiences as both participant and in-world builder for the last year and a half. All of the conference events were great, but I was particularly inspired by Jim Purbrick’s presentation Lessons Learned in Virtual Worlds. As a former developer for Second Life, (and current engineering manager of Oculus VR in the UK), Jim articulated the increasing importance of understanding the social aspect of collaborating in open virtual worlds. Of course, I think the best way to do that is join the educators and librarians who have been holding events and conferences in virtual worlds like Second Life and OpenSim for the last 10 years. So if you have any such interest, do let me know!

If you’re interested in the research, the conference proceedings (linked here) contain 18 final papers selected from 60 submissions. These papers fall into seven different categories; STEM, disciplinary applications, special education, history, pedagogical strategies, immersion and presence. I’ve also linked here to a PDF version of my poster. (From the QR code on my poster you can access additional information and videos about virtual worlds I have posted on Canvas.)

I hope San Jose State will have an even bigger presence at the conference next year, when it will be held in June at Cal Poly San Louis Obispo! 

OpenSim Community Conference 2018

Bethany at OSCC 2018

This is a good follow up to Yingjie’s previous post about the upcoming Immersive Learning Institute for 2019. As I wrap up my thoughts on my conference experiences for this year, I’m most delighted that I was able to attend the sixth annual OpenSimulator Community Conference 2018 on December 8th and 9th. This was my second year attending this virtual world conference, and it allowed me to network with educators, artists, and others from around the world, all of whom are passionate about this open source alternative to a virtual worlds platform such as Second Life.

Presenting in a Virtual World

This was also my first time presenting in a virtual world! Originally I was to co-present with a colleague, Dr. Valerie Hill, the director of the Community Virtual Library (CVL). Valerie wasn’t able to attend, however, so it gave me the opportunity to introduce myself to this community, and tell them about CVL’s plans for a hypergrid resource library on two different virtual worlds that are using the OpenSimulator platform. As the project lead, my presentation included screenshots of the two buildings I’ve put in place where all our content and resources will be housed, along with the portals that allow for visitors to jump easily from one virtual world grid to another.

Bethany presenting at OSCC 2018

Hypergrid?! Hypergridding?!

Since the concept of hypergridding is likely to not be familiar to you, here’s a simple explanation. There are many virtual worlds built on OpenSimulator, and those worlds can be on anybody’s computer or server anywhere in the world. So if virtual worlds are like 3 dimensional websites, hypergridding is the protocol that allows a user to jump from “website” to “website”. Instead of just navigating the different pages of one virtual world, a visitor is empowered to travel from different computers or servers to another.

While there is a bit of a learning curve, and the technology is still kind of wonky, I think of open source virtual worlds and hypergridding as kind of a 2.0 mashup of the internet and social media. It’s every sci-fi geek’s dream –  the emerging metaverse!