Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lessons Learned-Teaching Adult Students & Faculty in Second Life

Spring semester 2009 I taught my first course as an adjunct instructor for my university's School of Education. EDFL 625 - "Intro to Second Life for Educators" was offered to graduate/doctoral students and faculty. The class, made up of four students and seven faculty members, would journey together in this strange new land.

The purpose of the course, as stated in the syllabus, is "to acquaint participants with Second Life (SL), a 3D virtual environment. Our intent is to discover the functions, processes and relationships that exist, as well as the potential of virtual worlds (VWs) for educators and education."

In a prior blog post I discuss being asked to assist a prof at my univ with his first SL course as a type of embedded/blended librarian, and I sought feedback on what people thought of librarians in virtual worlds. After that experience I was asked to teach as an adjunct. I've learned a great deal from these experiences. My learning has been broad and includes: becoming more adept using various technologies, gaining a deeper understanding of online teaching & learning, what the immediate needs are to prepare those new to SL so they are ready to learn, learning how best to utilize the 3D environment for teaching & learning purposes, how to play and have fun in these environments and how that can lead to deeper learning and more.

I've also been privileged to be able to work with two other faculty members on publications and presentations related to these efforts. Scot Headley, Professor of education, George Fox University and Anita Zijdemans-Boudreau, Assistant Professor of Education, Pacific University.

Being a part of this team has been a huge learning experience for me and one for which I'm most appreciative. It has greatly expanded my understanding of the publication process. We continue to build on our work. From 2008 to present I've had a number of opportunities to co-present at juried/peer reviewed/invitation events and publcations directly related to our work with teaching and learning in SL. Some of those include, a poster session at EDUCAUSE Learning Institute 2009, a presentation/publication for (SITE) Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2009, Presentation at TCC Worldwide Online Conference 2009 and our newly accepted poster session and paper presentation for the upcoming E-Learn 2009 World Conference. (12/09 Updated presentations listed here.)

What I will share below here is a set of questions presented to me by my two team members for reflection. They felt answers to the following questions would be useful for the final draft of our upcoming E-Learn 2009 paper presentation. This will also help me as I reflect on what worked, what didn't and how I can make this course better for the next semester.

What were some satisfying elements about the Spring 09 course?

The most satisfying elements were related to seeing growth in everyone, including myself. Watching the lights go on regarding the possibilities of virtual worlds and education. Experiencing the excitement that comes from being so fully engaged in learning. Learning from each other, what was working, what wasn't and why. Since all in the class were educators, the reflections on our course wiki were in the context of education, which was most helpful. We were able to have rich discussions both synchronous (inworld) and asynchronously (on wiki and email) in which we could all participate and learn from each other.

What were some unsatisfying elements or detractors?

The technology itself was, at times, a cause for frustration. This was especially the case for a couple of people with computers which did not meet the Linden Labs recommended system requirements to run Second Life and/or strong broadband connections. This is an ongoing problem with SL and one which must be addressed before SL will be able to become a mainstream teaching and learning environment.

What are some adjustments that you want to make in the upcoming fall course and why?

There will be three main adjustments -
1) Continue to require a mandatory orientation before the first live SL class but I'll add an assessment to that so I am sure all students are closer to the same minimum level of adeptness in using SL before our group classes begin. Second Life is complex with a fairly steep learning curve. It's not difficult to learn, however, time must be invested in learning the basics before one can fully benefit from the learning environment.

2) Second Life is a playful environment, which concerns some educators. I plan to make better use of this fact. I experienced an aha moment during one live class where everyone met on the skydeck to create a t-shirt together. I had a power point display there and also walked students through the steps, watching as I saw the new t-shirts appear on each avatar and the delight expressed at accomplishing this task. Some lost their shirts completely and others made jokes about no nudity, etc. I saw that they were having fun while almost unknowingly learning some valuable skills.

The second half of that class was dedicated to a trip to a sandbox (practice area) where an advanced student led the class in a demonstration of his building/scripting skills. It was a wonderful time with others chiming in on what they had learned and sharing objects with each other. Many students stayed well after the class was over. I saw the benefit of having students lead and of allowing students to share more of their own learning. The wiki had been used as a place for sharing the learning that was taking place by each participant. I realized during that class that I was missing an opportunity to more fully utilize the SL environment for student learning as well. I'm looking forward to this change during our next course.

3) For the next course there will be more required participation in live SL events during the one hour weekly assignment students complete on their own time. Students were somewhat reluctant to really become involved in this way and I'm still assessing why. I want educators to understand the value of connecting with others and with the many professional organizations in SL. Informal adult learning of this nature is one of the greatest values afforded by virtual world environments. This is something that may have to be experienced to be appreciated.

And one last important comment- This past semester, I realized the importance of the avatar (and continue to reflect and attempt to understand this phenomena). There will be more to come on this topic.

How specifically might you implement these adjustments?

1) For the orientation assessment piece I plan to do the following - All those who register for the course will be sent a resource link with instructions on getting started in SL, which will include the mandatory orientation. I will ask each student and faculty member to notify me once they have completed that to arrange a one hour time slot to meet me one-on-one inworld. In that hour I will work with each individual on a couple of areas that are usually problematic or take practice. An example is camera controls. Without a good understanding and some practice using camera controls in SL one can't really experience all the environment has to offer. I have additional information on our skydeck to address challenges of this sort along with opportunities to practice some of those basic skills.

2) I plan to schedule only half the number of full tours next course. At least half of every other class will involve an activity of some kind with students working together to complete a task. This should allow for more interaction and more opportunities for students to take the lead. I also think this will motivate students in further developing SL skills beyond the basic level.

3) I'll spend more time explaining and showing the importance of joining and participating in groups and attending live SL events. I'll also tie more of the weekly assignments to this so it's not optional. Participants will share what they have learned from others while attending events and in doing so, I'm hopeful the value will become apparent.

Now that you have done this a couple of times:
What would you state as important factors in helping educators become proficient in SL?

Second Life is constantly evolving and it's important for educators to continue to spend time interacting and learning in the environment. I believe the most interesting and effective way to do that is to become involved. I recommend that educators join groups inworld like ISTE and others that provide a way to meet, learn and participate with other educators. As relationships build and evolve there will be opportunities for collaboration and/or research. This is a win/win way to continue to grow in proficiency and to grow in understanding the value of using various technologies for teaching & learning.

What are you hoping for as a desired outcome in this work?

My desired outcome for this specific work is that educators will complete the course with a better understanding of how virtual worlds can be used for educational purposes. I also want educators to feel inspired.

As a student growing up in a traditional education system, I didn't have many positive learning experiences. I believe our education system must change and that learning can and should be immersive and engaging. There are global problems to be solved and in virtual worlds we can connect and collaborate with others from around the globe. There are so many possibilities with these platforms that I think it's easier for a person to find their passion. Once that happens, we are much more motivated to learn. And those who might fail under traditional learning models can thrive when engaged and motivated to learn, at least that's been my experience.

Below is a slideshow of snapshots taken during the course. This may also be viewed on flickr (click "Show Info" for additional information).