Virtual Worlds, Games and Education (another MOOC!)

There is a true explosion going on in open online learning. I don’t know whether it’s always “massive” as in Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), but anyway, there is a lot happening out there.

I don’t have statistics about how many projects there are, nor about the total number of participants and how many “succeed”. One of the issues here is that the definitions are not obvious. When do we say something is “massive”? What does it mean to “succeed”? The other issue is that I don’t care. I just feel that there is so much going on that I cannot find the time to blog about it all. For instance, I did not yet find the time to report about the MOOC  A Virtual Worlds, Games and Education Tour.

You’ll notice that the above link directs you to a site on P2PU, which is The Peer 2 Peer University:

a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables high-quality low-cost education opportunities. P2PU – learning for everyone, by everyone about almost anything.

The participants conduct virtual world tours and exploration, study and experiment using machinima, World of Warcraft and discuss about the bleeding edge of these technologies.

Of course there is a lot of Second Life in all this, which is normal because it really is a world where about all content is being created by the “residents”, using 3D building and scripting techniques. However, the course also discusses Inworldz and New World Grid – virtual worlds based on the OpenSim software (and as such very familiar for those used to Second Life), the games EVE Online and World of Warcraft (WoW), and I guess other virtual or game environments will be discussed as well (Minecraft).

The course is very distributed, participants work in the virtual environments but also on a number of social media platforms, while the whole things is organized and commented through the P2P U site and a WordPress blog. Also have a look at the social bookmark collection at Diigo.

Lack of time prevented me from participating in this course, but I did read posts on the forums. Subjects being discussed:

– How games such as WoW manage to make missions difficult enough to be interesting but not so difficult as to chase the players away.

– How games incite players to analyze situations and to work together in teams (for raids) and in larger groups (guilds). Leadership skills are being learned and practiced which can be useful in the “real world”.

– How can sophisticated virtual world Intelligent Agents (NPCs or BOTs) be used in learning environments?

– Practical stuff about screen capturing and making video in virtual environments, and about the educational application of these practices. (In general: even for those not participating in the course, you’ll learn a lot just browsing through the posts and bookmarks, watching the videos. One also discovers tools such as Livebinder and in Livebinder this collection of tools about screen capturing and video producing in virtual and gaming environments… )

– Interesting discussions about how educators try to use and promote cutting edge technology in their work, which is not always appreciated by everyone in the institutions.

This MOOC follows on a three-day conference  about best practices for virtual worlds in education (VWBPE).  Here is the video announcing the  VWBPE conference – I like it because it illustrates how original and creative gatherings in a virtual world can be. Which makes me believe that even the further expansion of affordable and free videoconferencing will not make such virtual meetings obsolete.

Open online community of digital storytellers DS106 finances itself through Kickstarter

Last week I attended a Rheingold Youniversity Alumni meeting with Bryan Alexander, who talked about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), and he mentioned DS106, an open online community of digital storytellers. Here is how DS106 describes itself:

DS106 is a digital storytelling course that began as a face-to-face course at the University of Mary Washington. In Spring of 2011, Jim Groom opened the course up to allow open online participants to join and become involved. That semester gave birth to a radio station, a TV station, an assignment bank with over 280 contributions, and an explosion of creativity and fostered community like never before. There are now 7 universities participating in DS106 formally with over 1200 open online participants that have generated over 18,000 posts. What’s more, the community is growing every day.

The world is small, and today I read a post by Stephen Downes, who made me discover the delicious madness of MOOCs way back in 2008:

I’ve been interested to follow the story of Jim Groom and company’s use of Kickstarter to raise money to continue the DS106 experiment. In 24 hours they made their goal of $4200 and will be buying “a grown-up server (in the cloud no less!) which comes with its own grown-up costs to the tune of over $2,800 this year.”

So it seems we have a very interesting situation here. We’ve a project which already has a good reputation and seems to be the kind of MOOC I like (creative, non-hierarchical, meritocratic, fun etc) and which uses a very interesting way to finance itself: Kickstarter, a new way to fund creative projects.

WTF… Corporate Rebels???

This was pretty amazing: a post about Corporate Rebels United by Peter Vander Auwera on his personal blog. Peter works for Innotribe:  SWIFT’s innovation initiative.

“Corporate” and “Rebel”? The corporate world seems to be the world of the suits, no? Places where one better can be predictable and reliable, achieving the top-down defined objectives – and oh yes, new ideas are welcome, as long as they don’t rock the boat. The notion of “corporate rebel” is not new but, as could be expected, some express reservations –  “rebel” might be “too negative”. Are there “good” and “bad” rebels, or should that distinction be deconstructed? References to this discussion can be found in Peter’s inspiring post.

His own position is clear:

The aim of “Corporate Rebels United” is to create a global community of extraordinary corporate change agents. It is not an academic exercise or research effort. It’s something deeply actionable.

Our mission is to build the most amazing community of corporate rebels worldwide to ensure that true change and innovation happens virally

The initial idea for Corporate Rebels United emerged when innovation teams of Alcatel-Lucent and Swift met and worked closely in the context of Swift’s Innotribe program. We were excited by the exchange of ideas and energy that emerged when like-minded folks came together. And that got us thinking about some big “what if’s”:

  • What if we could create a tribe of the best and most exceptional corporate rebels worldwide – people like us, people like you?
  • What if we could start leveraging each other’s ideas, energy and best practices?
  • What if we could design a movement to support each other when the going gets tough?
  • What if we could cross-fertilize and infect our organizations with the change-virus from within?

More about the spirit of innovation in Peter’s Prezi presentation:

More about the practical organization of the Corporate Rebels United in Peter’s post. What fascinates me also is whether this can be considered as yet another example of peer2peer learning – at the level of big corporations. Will they recuperate the notion of being a rebel and of peer2peer learning into sanitized versions, acceptable for the status quo? Or will it facilitate a wave of innovation, involving also one person-enterprises, scientific institutions, local groups into a bewildering but highly productive variety of connections?

Three observations about perseverance in online learning

The blog has been idle for about two weeks now – because of family emergencies, the launching of a liveblog and a column at my newspaper. Which allows me to reflect on the issue of loyalty toward online projects and communities.

Gameification does not really work for me. I also participated at CodeYear (the course/campaign to learn coding in 2012) but I gave up on that. CodeYear uses gameification elements, and I got a number of badges, but to be honest: I don’t care about badges. And to give full disclosure: I’m notoriously bad in self-discipline, I cannot count the number of online courses I started without ever getting close to finishing them – like the famous MIT-open course stuff. I even managed to sign up for a Stanford open course thing without ever starting it. I also participated in the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) facilitated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens – with some more success, even though I’m mostly a lurker there. This being said: CodeYear has developed an interesting social layer, such as a forum where participants help each other and also meet-ups in the physical world.

However, I do care about other participants in a course or a project. I had more success in continuing my efforts during a course about the Digital Awakening (reading a selection of texts from the MIT New Media Reader). We met in Second Life, about each week, for synchronous sessions – and doing so we created this feeling of being together in this project, and I experienced a group pressure to keep up with the course.

I had exactly the same experience participating in Howard Rheingold’s courses about Mind Amplifiers and Cooperation Theory. In addition to using synchronous sessions (using Blackboard Collaborate, the former Elluminate) there was also the opportunity to tell more about personal projects in the forums. All of which creates social bonds and a sense of being part of a project – or even a tribe.

Paying for something helps. There is yet another aspect: the two Rheingold courses I mentioned were not free. I’ve the feeling that paying for a course adds some sense of “well, I paid for it, so I’d better get value for my money”.  So, when organizing some course or even a peer2peer-learning project, this is something to consider: maybe asking others to contribute financially can actually help them to pause and ask themselves “do I really want this?”.

Identity. Of course, there is not only the issue of the format (synchronous, asynchronous… ), the group dynamics and whether or not to contribute financially.  It’s about content and practice as well. Again facilitated by Rheingold we’re working on a Peeragogy-handbook (about peer2peer learning). Also, there are other venues such as the WELL  or the Rheingold U Alumni. The project and venues are not really limited in time, and I do contribute from time to time, feeling some guilt when I don’t for a longer time. Why do I care? Because they are important for my “personal value system” – I think that peer2peer learning in the broadest sense of those words is in many ways crucial for our societies and even the planet.

It’s not just about narrowly defined education (like formal school stuff for young people), it’s about more even than lifelong learning because peer2peer learning can lead to peer2peer production and business. (Maybe that’s the reason I’m not really active in the MOOC-courses as they are heavily oriented toward educators in schools and universities while I’m more interested in much broader applications of the MOOC-principles.) In other words, peer2peer could very well become a pillar of our economies while at the same time I feel it resonates with my very personal anarchist sympathies – I really am deeply suspicious about  authority and hierarchical organization (while recognizing these are necessary in many contexts – but then again, in many other contexts classical authoritarian structures are not efficient at all). So a long rant to point out that loyalty to some online learning project also depends on this feeling that the practice and content is an important core of who you are or want to be. This includes the two other aspects: if it really matters, the personal relationships you develop along the way will make those projects even matter more, and eventually you’ll be ready to invest money and time.

 

So, the core question is around engagement

These days I’m working on my contribution for Howard Rheingold’s Peeragogy project. I’m working on “connected learning”, much inspired by the Massive Open Online Courses organized by Stephen Downes en George Siemens. I’ll add some stuff I learned by organizing daily chat sessions and (live)blogs for my newspaper (I wrote some posts about this for MediaShift, like this one about using CoverItLive).

However, the notion “connected learning” is not very precise. Howard just pointed me to the launch of http://connectedlearning.tv — the connected learning hub for MacArthur Foundation’s connected learning effort. They use the term in an overlapping but I guess somewhat different meaning.

Not that I care that much about definitions. The connectedlearning.tv seems very interesting. Connie Yowell, director of education of the MacArthur Foundation, explains their vision, which has everything to do with the experience the kids have, who the kid is, asking the core question “is the kid engaged”. Other experts in the video point out how it’s no longer an issue of transmitting information as efficiently as possible from a single source to the kids, but of match-making, facilitating connections between learners and mentors (cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito):

The Essence of Connected Learning from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

Becoming Net Smart with Howard Rheingold

I just bought the Kindle edition of Net Smart, Howard Rheingold‘s new book, published by the MIT Press. I participated in various of Howard’s courses: one about literacies of cooperation, another one about mind-amplifying tools, and now I’m involved in a collaborative project facilitated by Howard aimed at creating a peeragogy handbook.  Peeragogy is like peer to peer pedagogy, self-learners collaborating via a variety of social media to create, deliver, and learn an agreed curriculum (which they compose themselves).

More about peeragogy by Howard during his UC Berkeley Regents’ lecture:

UC Berkeley Regents’ Lecture: Howard Rheingold (Presented by Berkeley Center for New Media) from Berkeley Center for New Media on Vimeo.

In Net Smart Howard explains that we’re in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology. This is not just a book about how to become a more efficient user of digital technologies, there is a bigger social issue at work here: “if we combine our individual efforts wisely, enough of the right know-how could add up to a more thoughtful society as well as enhance those individuals who master digital network skills.”

The author does not hesitate comparing the web’s architecture of participation to the invention of the printing press and the spread of reading skills which amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Of course, it also lead to revolutions, bloodshed, manipulation and fanaticism. These experiences make it abundantly clear how important literacies such as crap detection and the avoidance of echo chambers are. In other words, Net Smart is a book which is a must-read for people seeking a balance between their physical and virtual environments, for parents, young people, business people and educators.

It’s not just about learning skills which one can practice alone. It’s about the ability to use these skills socially, in concert with others, in an effective way. Howard distinguishes in his book five literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection and network smarts.

Howard is a talented inventor of new words and concepts. He’s the guy who came up with the notion of “virtual community“. More recently he coined the term “infotention”: “a mind-machine combination of brainpowered attention skills and computer-powered information filters” (also have a look at the Infotention Network).

Watch Howard explaining his book and project for the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) Change11:

 

What Aristotle teaches us about our being cyborgs

Applying Aristotle on interactions between humans and computers: it can be done. Just read Brenda Laurel about The Six Elements and the Causal Relations between them (in the New Media Reader, MIT, links and documents here) as we did in the Digital Awakening course.

Aristotle talks about drama as an organic whole. He distinguishes six qualitative elements: action, character, thought, language, pattern and enactment.

I’d like to pick out just one nugget out of this text: how we’re humanizing our tools. Once computers were being considered as big, clunky, intimidating and often maddening machines, a kind of dumb administrators.
Visionaries such as Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson saw very early on that computers could be much more.

It’s not just that the entertainment and social aspects of computers (in all their forms) prove to be so appealing. It’s that something in our relation with those devices is changing dramatically.

In her discussion of the element ’Thought’ Laurel mentions the familiar conundrum:’can computers think’ and the answer is surprisingly easy: ’computer-based agents, like dramatic characters, do not have to think (in fact, there are many ways in which they cannot); they simply have to provide a representation from which thought may be inferred.’

When you double-click on a folder of your Mac and it divulges its content, it seems as if it understood what you wanted. Does it actually understand anything at all? It does not matter; “The real issue is that the representation succeeded in getting me to make the right inferences about it’s “thoughts”. It also succeeded in representing to me that it made the right inferences about mine!”

This idea of making inferences about the “thoughts” of devices spreads of course as our computers become slick, small, nigh-powered devices we carry all the time with us. Increasingly, we’re no longer limited to double-clicking folders, but we can speak to those devices – humanizing them even more.

This may seem self-evident, bit it’s obvious this is a vast project and we’re just in the initial phases. Just think about how we deal with news media. Instead of searching desperately in unwieldy online newspaper archives, your smartphone – as your personal assistant – will alert you when there’s breaking news about, let’s say, Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

You’ll enter into a conversation, you’ll ask a question to get more details, a background question about someone who is mentioned in the report. Your personal assistant will use lot’s of sources, narrating the answers to your questions, indicating sources or taking into account the reputations stats of the sources. Chances are it will not be some mainstream media company developing such an assistant, but yet another young tech company.

The GigaOM Roadmap conference discussed this kind of evolution. Om Malik reports on GigaOm:

Mathew Ingram. The thread I was most interested in that came out of RoadMap was what Jack Dorsey called “the arc where technology meets humanness.” The Twitter and Square founder talked about using technology to help us connect more with what makes us human, Tony Fadell of Nest talked about making devices that respond more intuitively, and Mark Rolston from frog design was really passionate about getting the computer out of the way, to the point where we barely even realize there is a computer at all. Put together, all those make for a very powerful message that I wish more technology companies would pay attention to.

In Natural Born Cyborgs? by Andy Clark the author says:

Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature’s very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.

So the computer becoming human-like is not something external, which happens “out there” and involves just one of the many tools we humans use. It actually is another evolution of our extended mind, our becoming increasingly cyborg-like.

It also has implications for our perceived identity. This could be an aspect of this remark in Clark’s above mentioned text:

In addition it may soon be quite important (morally, socially, and politically) to publicly loosen the bonds between the very ideas of minds and persons and the image of the bounds, properties, locations and limitations of the basic biological organism.

The nice thing for my course-program this Fall is that these texts and discussion allow me to “connect the dots”: Clark and his thinking about the extended mind is an important part of a previous course facilitated by Howard Rheingold (Introduction to Mind Amplifiers) which is not unrelated to his other courseToward a Literacy of Cooperation, while the discussion about Brenda Laurel and the Six Elements is part of the above mentioned Digital Awakening course. Next Wednesday we’ll meet Howard in that course (in Second Life), and we’ll discuss Sherry Turkle’s text Video Games and Computer Holding Power (documents, program and practical details can be found here). One of the aspects of Turkle’s research is about role-playing and the exploration of “aspects of the self” and seems to fit very nicely in the context of the previous discussions.

“Yes, they are digital natives, but not tech-savvy”

I’ve been thinking about the term “digital natives”. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 Tony Bates facilitated a week about “Transforming teaching and learning through technology management“.

In a blogpost about this subject Squire Morley says:

So one of the questions Tony asks of us is whether universities can change from within or if new institutions are required for the 21st Century. Unless there is a disjuncture then there is no incentive to change. The system seems to be self-perpetuating. The training (or apprenticeships) of research graduates to become the next generation of lecturers and academics in the same ways as previously is at least partly responsible for this, as are the pressures for advancement through publication in closed, peer-reviewed journals.

But maybe one of the driving forces for change (facilitated by the use of social media) are the students? A new generation of digital natives? In my own experience, primarily among young journalists and journalism students, the fluency of digital natives in using social networks on a personal level does not really mean they “automatically” use these skills in the context of their learning or journalism. There is a subtle difference between being a “digital native” and being “tech-savvy”.

I gave a presentation at a journalism masterclass in Belgium, MasterClass IHECS 2011 – with Open Newsroom – at Eghezée, Belgium and I had this video interview with facilitator Damien Van Achter:

Visitors and residents

But maybe “digital native” is too problematic a term to use. On the TALL blog David White uses the distinction between “residents” and “visitors” instead of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”:

(Hat tip to Stephen Downes for mentioning this video and blogpost). This distinction between “residents” and “natives” is not age-related nor even skill-related. Residents of the internet seem to inhabit a certain “space” and to maintain and develop a digital identity. Visitors seem to consider the net as a tool box.

This insight could be very useful. I often despaired when presenting Twitter to non-Twitter users, or Second Life for that matter: one can explain easily enough the buttons which one has to press and the basic practices (hashtags, lists for Twitter, creating an avatar and learning how to move around and communicate for a virtual world), but even then people are often reluctant to put that “knowledge” to good use.

So maybe the real issue is not the technology, but a cultural (often unconscious) choice for being a visitor and not a resident (I think active Twitter users are more like residents just as virtual world users are clearly “getting” the spatial metaphor). Which does not mean that promoting stuff such as Twitter is hopeless – it just means that the reluctance has to be recognized and addressed on the right level.

SmallTalk

I could not participate at the weekly Digital Awakening course session in Second Life, but I did my required reading: Alan Kay/Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media“.

In that 1977 essay the authors foretell the importance of notebook computing. “While most saw the computer as a tool for engineers or, at most, businesspeople, Kay thought computers could be used even by children, and could be used creatively”, so it is explained in the MIT New Media Reader.

One of the great aspects of the Dynabook project was that it involved children as users. The kids were not just consumers or filling boxes which were provided by professional designers and developers, they were also programmers:

Considering children as the users radiates a compelling excitement when viewed from a number of different
perspectives. First, the children really can write programs that do serious things. Their programs use symbols to stand for objects, contain loops and recursions, require a fair amount of visualization of alternative strategies before a tactic is chosen, and involve interactive discovery and removal of “bugs” in their ideas.

Second, the kids love it! The interactive nature of the dialogue, the fact that they are in control, the feeling that they are doing real things rather than playing with toys or working out “assigned” problems, the pictorial and auditory nature of their results, all contribute to a tremendous sense of accomplishment to their experience. Their attention spans are measured in hours rather than minutes.

The kids used the Smalltalk-language: “Smalltalk was created as the language to underpin the “new world” of computing exemplified by human–computer symbiosis. It was designed and created in part for educational use, more so for constructionist learning” (Wikipedia)

I cannot help but contrast this enthusiasm with my experiences during a recent debate about the future of the newspaper industry. When I suggested journalism students (so university level, not junior high like in the Dynabook project) should have some basic experience with programming in order to see new story-telling possibilities, there was great indignation. A journalism instructor said that his students would not be interested in such a thing and an editor-in-chief exclaimed that such talk made him very nervous: journalists have to write stories, have scoops, not to mess around in programming languages.

Which means that more than thirty year after these Dynabook experiments, we failed to convey the message that computing literacy is not something for “the nerds in the basement”, but fun stuff which enables people to envision tasks and projects in very new and exhilarating ways.

Connecting the dots between digital awakening, massive online learning and cooperation literacies

I should have done this earlier on already, but here it is (or rather, it’s developing): a mindmap about my online learning experiment. I try to connect the dots between the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Change11 (facilitated by Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes) , the Digital Awakening (Gardner Campbell)  and Introduction to Cooperation Theory (Howard Rheingold). You’ll find links the courses and some course material in the mindmap.

Some very general remarks:

– In Digital Awakening we discuss texts by the pioneers of our digital era. One of the recurring themes is the need to augment human intellect in order to cope with the complexities and the fast developments in an increasingly interconnected world. Computers and computer networks can help to augment human intellect, going far beyond a vision of computers as just “computing machines for nerds”. Questions here are whether these efforts to augment our human intellect do not contribute to the increasing complexity and the velocity of changes, resulting in increasing unpredictability and chaos. Or in other words: is the empowerment of small groups and individuals leading to a decrease of the capabilities of communities to determine their future development?

– Which leads us to the complexities of human cooperation and the relation between individual rationality and what is good for communities. In the course about literacies of cooperation we investigate what game theory learns about the tension between individual rationality and collective outcomes, but we also explore design principles which increase the possibilities of governing common pool resources. How can online networks and virtual communities leverage the possibilities of human cooperation?

– Talking about literacies: we have to acquire the insights but also the social and technological skills in order to augment cooperation. Is our education system doing a good job in this respect? Do we apply those literacies in designing education platforms (talking here about education and learning in a very broad sense, not only about schools and colleges catering primarily for young people in a formal context).

To put it more dramatically: if computer networks, mobile and ubiquitous computing lead to the development of a kind of worldwide thinking, dreaming and creating brain structure, how does this worldwide structure enables self-learning and -improvement, what is the role of human individuals and groups in this process, what about our emerging artificial intelligence overlords which may or may not become intelligent, self-learning and self-organizing entities?

(For using this map: use the icons next to the blue “share” button to zoom in and out, to enlarge the screen. You can also drag the map around in order to explore the different parts. Please take into account this is just a general structure and the map will be updated in the coming days and weeks).