Second Life veterans unite

I remember, in the good old days of the Metanomics show in Second Life, that we discussed a study about what happens when people have to leave a virtual world. You get a virtual diaspora, groups of people settling in new virtual worlds, and eventually you get tensions between those groups and people who already ‘live’ there.

Second Life is not closing down or forcing huge groups out, but there is this other phenomenon that people get tired after a few years. They look for something else and lose interest, or at least they reduce the time spent in Second Life. However, for many of those ‘old’ residents, Second Life changed their lives in some way, and they feel a need to meet up with their old friends and former fellow-residents.

That’s what happens on Facebook, where veterans launched the group Second Lifers for Life. People compile lists of names, remember those who passed away, discuss what they’re doing these days. Maybe it’s not really like a diaspora but more like former classmates meeting again. There is even a little bit of drama, with people complaining about the initiative and telling others they should look at the future, not the past. But then again, maybe it’s by meeting again that new projects will be born.

Destructive Personal Learning Environments

‘The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice.’ That’s the title of an opinion article in the Financial Times, written by Robert Hannigan, the chief of Britain’s electronic spying agency GCHQ.

The digital natives who joined the terrorist organization Isis are very adept in using social media and in the use of encryption techniques. Their practices, such as beheadings and stoning, often seems to date from the Middle Ages or pre-medieval times, but they also produce high quality video footage and they use WhatsApp to coordinate their operations.

Hannigan points out the internet skills of these terrorist digital natives and laments the fact that big internet companies are less ready to collaborate with government agencies.

While I do have many questions about the surveillance practices of the various spy agencies, I’m also worried about what Hannigan describes. The augmentation of the human intellect made possible by the internet has a very dark side. The individual or small groups of individuals can engage into peer-to-peer learning in order to build a better and more tolerant and compassionate world, but they can also learn to master techniques aimed at the destruction of such world.

The ‘personal learning environments’ of young terrorists can help them not only to master social media techniques and ways to hide on the internet, but also how to build and use weapons of mass destruction. It seems that the empowerment of the individual is culminating in a race with the empowerment of state agencies trying to prevent the worst scenarios. These are interesting but sad times.

Understanding Media by Understanding Facebook

Professor Owen R. Youngman teaches a great course about Understanding Media by Understanding Google, but maybe he should consider a follow-up: Understanding Media by Understanding Facebook. Ravi Somaiya explains in The New York Times how Facebook is changing the way its users consume journalism. For quite some time media experts have been talking about the ‘unbundling’ of news – the fact that people no longer want to buy complete newspapers or magazines, but focus on individual stories which they find through search and social networks. What they ‘consume’ is determined at least partially by the algorithms used by Google and Facebook. It seems that the unbundling is happening right now.

Aaron Sankin posted on The Kernel a story about how Facebook is ‘wrecking political news’. In his opinion, the ‘trending topics’ feature on Facebook causes media to surf along whatever is ‘trending’ in order to attract the crowds they need for their traffic and advertizing revenues. Not only the choice of the topics is debatable, also the fact that stories are published in a hurry in order to benefit from the momentum leads to particularly bad journalism.

These are issues which should be discussed in both courses I’m following right now: the above mentioned Understanding Media by Understanding Google but also the Connected Courses which studies education and web culture. Facebook is changing online culture in very important but not always very visible ways. The world of blogs, RSS-feeds, social bookmarks and probably even web-based search is increasingly being replaced by a very different environment dominated by mobile social networks.

‘One does not own social capital’

The ConnectedCourses were discussing social capital and networks last week. Kira Baker-Doyle – Assistant Professor of Education, Arcadia University. Author of The Networked Teacher – started by explaining that one can own financial capital but not social capital. That is because your social capital is situated outside of yourself, in loose or dense networks.

Dense networks tend to be great for building trust and for sharing the same background and values while loose networks are more efficient for innovation and creativity as those networks link up people from different contexts.

These notions should be taken into consideration when thinking about Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). On a practical level, such networks use tools such as Twitter but also blog networks and RSS feeds. Shelly Sanchez Terrell (Teacher Trainer, Instructional Designer, Author of The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers & Learning to Go) recommends to look for the right hashtag corresponding to your interests and the community you want to find. She pointed out that hashtags are not just used on Twitter but also on Facebook and Google+.

Howard Rheingold mentioned other methods such as the social bookmarking services Diigo and Delicious.

As Howard Rheingold explains in the video these networks are also about emotions and camaraderie. By signalling people indicate they are willing to collaborate. It’s a huge asset and of course it not only applies to educators.

Kira Baker-Doyle brought in another crucial element in building communities and networks: actually making something together.

Watch the video, other topics being discussed are the relationship between online and offline contacts, the importance of local connections and collaboration and the risk of burn-out. Also have a look at the course page about trust and network fluency.

Learning is tinkering and narrating it

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Why should you blog? Own a domain name? Because learning is so tremendously enjoyable and the web teaches us so much about what learning is. The web is not just a tool for learning, it’s an experience which allows one to experience, to live learning. In this video Jim Groom (Edupunk, ds106), Alan Levine (cogdogblog), and Howard Rheingold (social media, virtual communities) talk about the how and why of setting up your blog – in this case for Connected Courses – but what they say is valid far beyond this particular course.

My very short summary of there arguments: the web and learning are both about tinkering. There is something more though: one should narrate the tinkering. Narrating it makes you reach out to others and leads to conversation and connections. RSS-feeds, hyperlinks, blogs, social networks, forums, social bookmark services, video and audio platforms – it’s all about narrating, connecting and tinkering.

Mindmapping Oculus Rift

I’m still working on the Oculus Rift coverage and will meet users and developers. I made a wiki mind map (so you can add, change to it) about Oculus, using sources such as the Oculus subreddit and Wired Magazine.

Scanning the reviews and reactions it seems obvious that Virtual Reality is back again. The application go far beyond gaming and new exciting developments can be expected such as haptic feedback and eye tracking.

So here is my fledgling mind map:

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Create your own mind maps at MindMeister
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Second Life 2.0 will be interesting, but no breakthrough for the multiverse

Quite some excitement among virtual worlds fans: Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, confirmed that they work on a new virtual world. They won’t let themselves be restrained by concerns about backward compatibility with the eleven year old Second Life as they want a fundamentally better virtual world and not just incremental improvements. CEO Ebbe Altberg of Linden Lab said that the ‘old’ Second Life will continue and new developers are being recruited for the new project. In the meantime, the founder of the Lab, Philip Rosedale, is working on yet another new virtual world, called High Fidelity.

More can be found on New World Notes and on Living in a Modemworld.

I cannot help being excited about these new developments, yet I don’t think we’ll see a spectacular growth in virtual worlds usage. My impression is that Linden Lab tries to benefit from the excitement around Oculus Rift, telling the world that the biggest open-ended and user generated virtual world is Second Life. However, people outside the fan base of Second Life are sceptical (as reading the discussions on Reddit makes abundantly clear).

My guess is that the niche of users of Second Life and OpenSim (the open-source version of Second Life) will be dispersed over three worlds now: the old and the new Second Life and Rosedale’s new project, but that the whole open-ended user-generated virtual worlds scene will remain a niche-thing. Will it change in a few years time when motion trackers, body sensors and 3D-cameras will become more mainstream? Maybe, but it won’t be next year.

Second Life fans often say that the lack of traction of virtual worlds is because of the learning curve and the difficulties in using mouse and keyboard to navigate those worlds. I think the real difficulty is the identity-play: the fact that people represent themselves by avatars which may be very different from the physical person using those avatars. For some this opens a world of creativity and exploration, for many others it’s just a bit creepy, especially in ‘serious’ (for instance work-related) contexts.

The other issue with these worlds is that they tend to be very time-consuming. Social networks and mobile communications help people to navigate from the physical to the digital world in fast bursts of time – checking updates, having a facetime of Google Hangout videotalk etc – but without spending hours immersed in a virtual environment.

Both these behavioral phenomena – preference for short time span interventions and for seeing ‘the real other’ – make widespread usage of open ended virtual worlds a tough sell.

History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education

I’m participating in the course History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, the proceedings take place on the Coursera platform and the Professor is Cathy N. Davidson (Duke University). It’s not yet another course for professional teachers only:

This course is designed for anyone concerned with the best ways of learning and thriving in the world we live in now.  It’s for students, teachers, professors, researchers, administrators, policy makers, business leaders, job counselors and recruiters, parents, and lifelong learners around the globe.

The course is massive, online, open and free, it contains videos, quizzes and assignments, yet it is different from many other Coursera, Udemy or edX-courses: Professor Davidson tries to transform her class into a community and the learning which so often is that of a ‘Doc on a Laptop’ into peer-to-peer learning. In this way her project is very related to the Peeragogy Handbook.

I’d love to be part of a reading and discussion group about the course, we could do that in Second Life, Google Plus or another platform… If you’re interested, let me know, I think it’s not too late to sign up for the course.

A new year, a new edition of the Peeragogy Handbook!

Good news to start the new year: the revised, second edition of the Peeragogy Handbook (“Version 2″) is available now. The Handbook is the world’s first book to present Peeragogy, a synthesis of techniques for collaborative learning and collaborative work. Itself the result of the techniques it presents, this version features a new Foreword from the internet pioneer and collaboration thinker, Stanford University educator, and founding editor of the Handbook, Howard Rheingold. What is it really about? I’ll let Howard explain it:
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The Peeragogy Handbook project started in January 2012. Howard describes in his Foreword the process:

In the Peeragogy project, we started with a wiki and then we decided that we needed to have a mechanism for people who were self-electing to write articles on the wiki to say, OK, this is ready for editing, and then for an editor to come in and say, this is ready for WordPress, and then for someone to say, this has been moved to WordPress. We used a forum to hash out these issues and met often via Elluminate, which enabled us to all use audio and video, to share screens, to text-chat, and to simultaneously draw on a whiteboard. We tried Piratepad for a while. Eventually we settled on WordPress as our publication platform and moved our most of our discussions to Google+. It was a messy process, learning to work together while deciding what, exactly it was we were doing and how we were going to go about it. In the end we ended up evolving methods and settled on tools that worked pretty well.

It’s a remarkable project, involving volunteers from various continents. They’re working on the third edition now, and if you feel you could help, have a close look on the project and join us. I participated myself for the first edition, unfortunately I lacked time and energy to contribute to this second edition, but I hope I’ll be able to join in again (maybe for a translation in Dutch). Participating in such a project is in itself a very valuable lesson in peeragogy.

The Open Newsroom: the crucial difference between tools and method

Newsroom in Berdsk.

Newsroom in Berdsk, workshop co-facilitator Charles Maynes is on the left.

Should a newsroom be totally open? As in ‘tell everyone in real-time what you’re discussing and doing’? I don’t think so. Investigative reporting for instance needs discretion, and sources do not always want to be in the open. However, there are also less convincing reasons for keeping the doors – physically and virtually – closed, such as ‘we can’t let the competition know what we’re planning’. In general, I believe newsrooms should be far more open than they are now.

Why? Because right now, people don’t trust journalists. Whether it’s in Russia or in the United States, media are regarded with suspicion. What are the hidden agendas? How independent are newsrooms? Telling the world ‘outside’ about news projects, from the very beginning (even right from the brainstorming phase) can improve the reputation of news services.

It’s not just a reputation issue. A lot of innovation in countless industries is taking place at the intersection of the digital and the physical world. It’s in that ‘mixed reality’ that journalists can experiment with crowdsourcing, data-gathering, networking with external coders etc. Having a more open newsroom facilitates all that.

The New Journalist’s Full Circle presentation I included in a previous blogpost points out in some detail which tools to use and which methodology to follow in order to benefit from an Open Newsroom approach.

The Eurasia Foundation gave me the opportunity to discuss these ideas with journalists in Russia. I worked with a local newspaper in Siberia, Kurer-Sreda, which reports diligently about local news in Berdsk.

The journalists had a very natural reaction when I presented the Full Circle tools: they pick and choose. They won’t use that particular social bookmark tool, but they will consider using some visualization tool or maybe some chat and video-streaming tools. I get the same reaction in my own newsroom and during other workshops.

Newsroom in Iskitim, Siberia

Newsroom in Iskitim, Siberia

It’s totally okay to pick and choose, and in the Russian case there is an additional element: it simply isn’t true that English is universally spoken. Non-Russian interfaces can be a considerable hurdle. Furthermore, Facebook and Google are global companies, but in huge countries such as Russia there are strong local competitors: VKontakte is an alternative for Facebook and Yandex beats Google in Russia. Which is an additional complication if you want to introduce people to stuff such as Google Hangout On Air.

Demonstrating Google Hangout

Here I’m demonstrating Google Hangout on Air, but Google is not universal.

However, the specific tools are not crucial. What is most important is the philosophy. There are many tools out there for organizing public collaborative mind maps, social media radars, forums, blogs and online discussions. What is most needed is the change of mentality, away from private note-taking and brainstorming behind closed doors. Newsrooms should embrace the sharing of ideas and resources. Journalists can try this out for specific projects but my real hope is that they will embrace it for the daily newsroom activities, by default livestreaming their deliberations and information gathering and only closing the doors in order to protect sources and delicate aspects of investigative work.