Virtual Pompeii

I’ve just been reading about the Sydenham Crystal Palace project, a JISC funded project to recreate the Pompeii Court in Second Life. Now it’s been a while since I looked at Second Life, having decided that the requirements for high spec graphics cards, the requirement for users to learn to operate in the world and the (let’s face it) naff quality of the animation made it pretty much a non starter for educational purposes.  It’s quite telling that the project page tells potential users to access the world through a non standard Second Life viewer.

Still, things move on, and I was interested  to see that JISC thought this project worth funding.  Here’s what the project team say they’re trying to do:

The aim of our project has to build a digitised collection of the material that was in the Pompeii Court and to create an interactive online space to house it. Visitors will be able to tour the Court and interact with us, other visitors and the objects on display. In the upcoming phases of the project, we want to compare further how the social and educational experiences offered by our Model compare with the successes and failures of the original Court, which itself was a Victorian experiment in education and reconstruction.

Well, I can see the rationale behind that. The original was a reconstruction, so it makes a sort of sense to reconstruct it again to see if the digital world can offer the same experience. But I don’t see how it can be the same. Virtual Worlds aren’t really 3D experiences, but 2D representations of a 3D world.

What is more problematic though is the experience of being a student. If you accept Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework model, there needs to be an opportunity set out your own conceptions first,  to interact with your teachers so that you can modify your conceptions and then to restate them. Laurillard also points out, rightly I think that academic knowledge is second order, that is, it consists of knowledge of others’ descriptions of the world, rather than of the world itself. A reconstruction tries for first order knowledge – that is to allow students to perceive the world. But actually it’s all based on others’ precepts.

For those reasons, I ‘m not sure that the project will be all that helpful in teaching students about classical civilisation. I do realise that this isn’t exactly what the project is about. There’s quite a lot about art, perception and philosophy built into it, and that’s important, but I’m interested in the pedagogical value of the project, so I am going to talk about that aspect anyway. I’ve never done any formal learning about Roman civilisation myself, (other than  school Latin) but a visit I made  to the real Herculaneum  some years ago did really change my conception of what a Roman town might have been like. I remember being very surprised to discover the atmosphere and the architecture put me much more in mind of a Middle Eastern village, than the classical structures we generally associate with Rome.  Equally, reading Mary Beard’s Pompeii (Which, incidentally is the best non fiction book I’ve read in some time.) made me see Roman life in a different way.  Of course had I been able to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii in, say, AD 78 I would probably have a different set of conceptions again.

My point is that I think claims for the kind of environment that the project is trying to claim are a little overblown. Second Life is not immersive, in the way that a visit to a site, or even reading a book is. Certainly students could be asked to discuss the value of this kind of representation before visiting the simulation, and again after a visit. Expert avatars could be provided at regular times to talk to visitors about these cities, or about the other aspects of the project.  I do wonder about the accessibility issues though – there’s quite a lot of evidence in the literature of students who are using technological applications focusing on operational issues, how to work the thing and so on, rather than learning the content. And how users with disabilities will cope remains to be seen.

Still, I look forward to seeing the evaluation report. Should make for interesting reading.

Second Life Workshop, Nottingham

I’ve been interested in the potential that Virtual Worlds offer for education for some time, so a workshop organised by ALT on Second Life, (one of quite a large number of virtual worlds that are available these days) seemed quite an interesting prospect. I went along with a colleague from Forensic Science who has also been quite interested in Second Life, probably spending more time in there than I do. (Actually, I’ve made myself dip out of it, while I focus on finishing my doctoral thesis, so I haven’t been in for quite a while.  

In the event much of the activity was focussed on really quite basic stuff – moving around, talking to people, personalising your avatar, which we both thought might have been better dealt with in an orientation session in Second Life itself – that kind of finding your feet is probably best done in the virtual world, rather than in a formal classroom event, although of course, as anyone who has ever delivered any form of IT training knows, you can not make assumptions about the level of knowledge that members of a group will have, and it’s always safer to start with the lowest common denominator.  There again, in the afternoon, we did start building (and managed to build an Art Gallery by the end of the day) and I found myself struggling to keep up.

There wasn’t a great deal of time for discussion of the educational potential of Second Life which was a pity – we started by going round the table and asking what people were hoping to do with it, which was a promising start. Among the interesting ideas that people wanted to do were role-playing (might be less nerve-wracking in a virtual world), building simulations (One lady from the Royal Veterinary College wanted to build a simulation of the rear end of a cow!), dealing with questions of identity, (we all had to change the appearance of our avatars – I ended up wearing a very fetching Raspberry dress – in-world, I hasten to add!) supporting language learning, or simply providing a different environment for distance learners to interact, the production of assessment artefacts, and many others. There’s certainly a lot of potential, but we all identified quite a lot of downsides too. – It’s a strange world, which can be lonely and a bit scary when you first enter it, and a few of those present noted that it is more popular with older people than with the traditional 18-21 year age groups. (The average age of a Second Life user is 33). My view is that you do need to develop quite high levels of tolerance for oddity if you’re going to use Second Life, because people are playing with identity, and behaving in ways they probably wouldn’t in real life. Anecdotally, it seems that a lot of 18-21 year olds seem very nervous about interacting with people they meet in Second Life. There again, you might argue that the 18-21 year old isn’t really the typical student these days.

There are also fairly serious issues around accessibility. You need a powerful graphics card, a fast Broadband connection and lots of time to make the best use of it. In a classroom situation there will be real issues about setting up students with accounts, getting them to choose names for their avatars, let alone personalising the appearance of those avatars. SL is also a seductive environment (in the nicest possible way of course). What I mean by that is that it is easy to get drawn in, and forget that other people have different preferences. We were told one cautionary tale of an American lecturer who was running all his classes in Second Life, and when the evaluation sheets came in, was horrified to discover that his students hated it! 

I think it comes down to the fact that if you have a teaching and learning problem that Second Life can help with then it’s worth experimenting.  But don’t just go in for the sake of it because it’s an interesting bit of new technology.

More from ALT-C

I thought I ought to show my face at at least one session on Learning Object repositories as I’m managing our own LOR. So the session I went to was advertised as having three papers on this very topic. Now, I have to fess up here. For a variety of reasons I had had a very early start to the day, and my body clock is never at it’s best in the early afternoon. To be honest I really struggled to stay awake. In fact I did find myself nodding off a little bit a couple of times. This was entirely down to me, and not the presenters. The  inexplicable fact that the topic of Learning Object Repositories does not get my adrenalin pumping is not their fault! Nevertheless through the haze I did glean a few useful nuggets.

Firstly, learning object repositories are not really stand alone items. Well, they are, but often they don’t easily fit into what the teacher wants to do with them – So they really need to be adaptable. Secondly there is a risk that they can become a solution looking for a problem. If they’re not wanted, there’s no point creating them. (If they are wanted, then creating them is a very good idea though. But make them adaptable, and also, as the first paper suggested, give some thought to the different devices on which they might be used.) It’s also an idea to think about how they might be used in a web 2.0 context

In the afternoon, I heard a number of papers. The first was on online silence (What if anything do you learn from “lurking”? Why do people lurk. What do you learn from participating in online conversations”. Was there any correlation between silence and learning styles?) Interestingly, the answer to the last question seemed to be that there was, but the presenter acknowledged that learning styles were situated, and that higher level learning occurred when the student reflected on the entire course.  Next up was a paper on Second Life – well, it was more about the SLOODLE project which mashes up Second Life and Moodle. The idea here seemed to be that Moodle (or a VLE in general) provided some of the structure that SL doesn’t in the shape of threaded discussions, chat support and logging,  drop boxes and quiz tools. Well, that’s all very well but what’s SL then bringing to the party? I’ve always suspected that SL’s technology is going to be more use in education when it’s taken out of SL itself. I can see the scope for immersive environments in many subjects – but not when you’re trying to run them across 4,000 servers in California or wherever it is – it’s just not reliable enough at present.  But perhaps I’m being short sighted – Who would have thought when I first saw the Louvre online back in 1994 that I’d be sitting here blogging about a 3-D world I could move around in.  Finished the “academic” work of the day with the presentation on blogging I described in my first post, so I won’t go into it here.  So who knows where it will all end.

Wednesday started with a paper on the e-learning benchmarking exercise. I was heavily involved in this, although if I’m absolutely honest, I never really saw the point of it. There’s a lot of talk about “institutions” doing this and that. Actually, what is happening, is that “some people in institiutions are doing some of this stuff”. Of course that raises the question of do we want everyone to be involved, and that was the question under discussion here although it was phrased rather differently  “Does this type of programme create a culture of dependency in HEIs, because the programmes are externally funded?”  Well, you can’t get away from the fact that the money’s coming from outside as you’ve probably guessed, I don’t think they reach far enough in to do so, but the feeling from those behind the programme was that they had envisioned an “interdependency” culture. – A network of institutions feeding off each other. But that, along with the external funding makes development very difficult to sustain. Having said that, there were some good examples of practice around – I very much liked Leicester’s Carpe Diem initiatives in which (As I understand) they take a whole department and redesign a course with them. That sounds exactly the sort of thing that EDUs should be doing, because the focus is on building institutional capacity rather than just staff development.  So perhaps that was the point of the benchmarking exercise!

 Next up was an excellent keynote speech from Dylan Williams, at the institute of Education. Again you can see it on the conference web site, so I’m not going to give a long account of it. The main points were that in terms of student achievement, it matters much less which school you go to, than which teacher you get when you get there, and that one of the most important things teachers could do to help students learn was to provide good quality formative assessment and respond to what it told them. This was an excellent talk, and I thoroughly recommend having a look at the live version. There were a couple of good throwaway lines that I liked too.

“Schools are places where kids go to watch teachers work!” (of course it is the kids who should be working.)

“Kids choosing not to ask a question are foregoing the opportunity to get smarter”

In the afternoon, I went to a couple of talks about wikis. It’s funny how these get such a bad press. In our own Blackboard training sessions I’ve had colleagues who won’t touch the concept because of what they’ve heard about the inaccuracies in Wikipedia. There’s some justification in that I suppose, but isn’t it the job of the teacher to correct misconceptions – in fact the whole concept gives the lie to the notion that ed. tech. is going to replace teachers. But one interesting point that came out of the session was that students tended to see Wikis as places for finished work rather than for drafts. The presenter had actually hoped to use it to look at drafts – but then, I suppose, who want’s to mark every bit of paper a student has struggled to make a mark on, or noted.  And of course, what student wants to hand all that in? Perhaps attitudes to written work haven’t really changed all that much. The conclusions were that a module leader needed to be clear about

  • how to use wikis
  • Targeted learning behaviour
  • Participation drivers (why would students want to join in?)

Next, I went to a Blackboard sponsored session, where they revealed their latest plug-in. This was something called Safe Assign, which is essentially Turnitin – although it didn’t search as many databases and doesn’t have the on-line marking feature that we’re using in Architecture. (Although I suppose Bb has it’s own gradebook.) I suppose I’ll have to download it and we’ll use it too.

 The final session of a busy day was about whether the sector was ready for learners in control. I was a bit late arriving for this session so had to stand at the back in a very hot room, so I’m afraid my notes are not terribly coherent. Although there was another great one liner “We have to address hearts and minds, not sim cards”  The one thing I did take away from this session was the interesting revelation that “digital natives” (i.e. kids who are well used to and brought up with technology) seem to be least receptive to on-line learning. Could this be because a lot of the subject matter in HE is conceptually very difficult and not readily conveyable in small bits of information?

Unfortunately my dental appointment obliged me to miss the last keynote, but before heading back to Nottingham station I attended a session on using podcasts for pre-lecture preparation. This turned out to be a report into some research about whether those students who had been given pre-lecture material did better than those who had not. I was tempted to ask about the ethical implications of this, but in fact the results showed a slight improvement among those who had been given the material in advance, it was quite small and not statistically significant. Still, I did wonder what might have happened if there had been shown to be a significant difference.

So, a good conference, and I’m glad I went. I haven’t blogged about the social events, although they were very good and enjoyable, and I did make some useful contacts. But the “holiday” is over now and I really need to get my Ed D head back on. I’ve been sitting at the PC since I got back today indulging in every kind of distraction activity to avoid doing any work, but one potential benefit of blogging is that it gets you writing.