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Yet another OLDS-MOOC narrative

Cloud created by:

Peter Miller
3 March 2013

This project was intended to develop a taster session for a small group of Masters students on the use of virtual worlds for collaborative working. In case you think that's odd, see this very recent paper on the professional use of virtual worlds (paywalled, alas) and then reflect on how much has changed over the past 10 years and how much is likely to change in the next decade or so.

The academic context saw this as the last iteration of the class as the relevant skills module (of which this session is but a small part) is not running next year. Unfortunately, for logistical reasons (change of grid) I couldn't reuse last year's class. The situation is also complicated by the fact that the students come from a wide range of science backgrounds so something subject-neutral or inter/trans-disciplinary was preferable with the former arguably simpler. As I am both developer and “deliverer”, simple is good. It also fits with the virtual worlds expertise of the students which, understandably, approaches zero.

While virtual worlds had some vogue 5-6 years ago, they have failed to thrive in the public consciousness although I clearly feel they have some virtues if used appropriately. Moreover, some of the barriers to adoption (cost, usability) have diminished. Nevertheless, they still languish in the post-hype Trough of Disillusionment in the Gartner Hype Curve and I was quite open about this with the students and in the briefing discussed a range of alternative approaches as well. The session, incidentally, was optional so students who had a particular aversion could do something different if they wished (it was actually quite a popular option).

Students tend to have varied reactions to virtual worlds, not least in the freedoms they afford to fly (away), change your avatar’s appearance (drastically), and build inworld (anywhere). This can be both overwhelming (what’s the point?) and underwhelming (where’s the game-quality graphics?). My initial thoughts were that I needed to have some kind of group-oriented narrative to give the students an objective and some cohesion as a group (there were eventually 11 in all so I was planning to run sub-groups). This would see each sub-group role-playing amateur detectives in a mystery set in a Victorian realization of part of our city. The aim was to get them working as a team without making a big deal of it.

While I haven’t abandoned the Victorian builds, I did fairly rapidly change focus when I saw the (increasingly tenuous) story begin to take over from the broader pedagogic aims. I restarted the project, this time with the simplest of builds, an empty desert dunescape (this first surfaced in the context of the Dreambazaar as an alternative landscape for self-organisation). This had the virtue of being low lag (not much to show/build) and supporting a whole range of possible application areas (desertification, desert greening, desert/dune ecology, solar energy farms, etc). While I ultimately abandoned that tack as well, I did at least have the opportunity to make the point to the students that the ability to inhabit a model as an avatar can sponsor interesting perspectives. Your mileage may vary!

Ultimately I decided to focus on the somewhat abstract themes of Competition, Cooperation, Collaboration and Co-creation (the 4Cs, not a novel concept) and attempted to source examples of each from virtual worlds (possibly a mis-step). Competition, for example, involved students racing around a flight circuit in a time trial, Cooperation saw them work independently around a group base (teams of 3-4) to create teleport boards to other worlds/regions that illustrated their group’s 4Cs theme (provided on an inworld notecard and occasionally a bit of a stretch). Collaboration involved their working together to build a single path (defined using inworld planting of system trees etc) between their base and the next. Co-creation was supposed to involve their providing a backchannel in the context of watching videos about Google Glass (augmented reality) and Qualcomm Gimbal (Internet of Things).

The context was provided by the Metaverse Roadmap of 2007 which semi-incorporated these technologies alongside virtual worlds. At one time I thought I could shoehorn some science outreach in there too but it didn't happen. Likewise, use of virtual worlds to model the Roadmap 2015-style didn't happen overly either. A bridge too far basically.

I had originally planned to release a get-you-started introductory video in advance of the class but time constraints stopped that happening. Instead the students had an introductory talk on the principles and practice of virtual worlds, with a bit of a science bias, accompanied by printed instructions on what was to come. Both were delivered in a PC centre; I used to show my slides only to discover that users are now capped at 10 (there are alternatives available but now wasn’t the time so a couple of students had to share screens).

How did it go? Technically not so bad if you count teleport boards and paths completed as useful metrics. That implies that the students practised a fairly wide range of skills. Beyond that, it's "no comment".

From the perspective of the OLDS-MOOC, I realistically had to plough my own furrow as I was responsible for delivering actual teaching to a fairly tight timescale with multiple competing demands on my time. Accordingly, I wasn’t especially encouraging to potential collaborators though I did comment a little from a virtual worlds perspective where it seemed apposite. Time limitations meant that I could only address the MOOC objectives with the lightest of touches and even so I felt guilty about the time it took. However, the pMOOC aspect did help drive my own courseware development efforts, even if many of the ideas that surfaced ultimately led down blind alleys. Moreover, the MOOC has enhanced my understanding of Learning Design and, under expert tuition from course organisers and fellow students, identified a number of tools and approaches that I would not otherwise have considered. From a professional development perspective, I value it highly and reckon the selective, structured, sequential format preferable to a wiki-style smorgasbord approach. I haven’t sought or earned any badges (the brief yearning was readily overcome) and have not created anything like the requisite number of clouds, preferring to focus on the original scenario cloud to avoid ideas getting lost.

I’ve started a fair number of xMOOCs and cMOOCs, including the original CCK08, but  haven’t finished any yet. Let’s hope this is the first!

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