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Does the Internet need professional curators?

The word “curator” has become diluted, applied to anyone who chooses anything. Nonetheless, we live in an era where people all over the world are producing art and information every day, with far wider distribution and greater output than ever imagined, thanks to the Internet, cellular and WiFi technology, and the proliferation of digital cameras. This bounty leads to several problems:

  • Selection: How can a variety of items related to a particular topic be found? How do we find quality among the quantity?
  • Trust: Is this quote correctly attributed? Was this image or video altered? Is the caption correct?
  • Context: Does the presentation impose a bias? How is this connected to other things?
  • Archiving: Will this material exist and be accessible in 5 years? 20? 100?

The extension of the title “curator” to include editors/writers on blogs and social media is usually based on only one or two of those issues, but all four are included in the job description of an institutional curator, who is generally tasked with the choice, interpretation, and preservation of relevant items. Coming from an anthropology background, I tend to associate curation with cultural artifacts, from Pacific Island tribal masks to original manuscript pages from Borges to paintings by Magritte, but curators can work in many places and deal with a vast variety of topics. Digital curation is a graduate school option — one of my friends recently finished a Masters degree in it — though it still seems to be closely tied to museums and institutions.

This is NOT curating.

This is NOT curating.

In the absence of a formal system of curators for the living, everyday Internet, how are we meeting some of the needs above? What problems are associated with that? Is there a place for professional curators?

My original title for this post was “Facebook is a shitty museum”, a statement which didn’t cover the breadth of material I wanted to discuss but alluded to the idea that we are all curators now. Let’s take my Facebook feed as an example. My Friends list might be more diverse than many, but it’s far smaller than average, with only 160 people. Perhaps 40 of them post on a regular basis. If I weed out the personal posts, I can start to see each person as a type of curator for particular topics. Michelle* shares things about women in technology. Carson shares comics, convention, and superhero things. Lanisha and Sha’nel both post about being black women in the entertainment industry. Scott posts about fibromyalgia, Lenore posts about autism. Ricky posts about cars. Ben posts about religion and conservative politics. Jimmy and Ron both post about guns and gun control, on opposite sides. Several people post about parenting. Lana posts about music. Brenda posts about workouts, Savannah and Paula post about yoga, Sven posts about competitive swimming, Mike posts about wrestling. Daniel posts about new technology. Tammy and Becka post quick and easy recipes.

Some of them are really interesting and give me insight into different worldviews, but are they curators? No, not by a long shot. Going back to the four items with which I began this post, my Facebook friends do provide selection of topics that interest them. Some of them try to verify things they share but others don’t, so they don’t all provide trust. They all add personal bias, so the context is skewed by the nature of sharing items on Facebook. None are involved with the archiving of those items. They’re enthusiasts, hobbyists, fans, collectors, and perhaps even subject matter experts, but not curators.

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Let’s look at those four items, starting with selection. If I want to find online items related to a certain topic, I will probably begin with a Google search. What I’m presented with is not the result of careful evaluation of quality, it’s a list of sites ranked by their use of search engine optimization techniques. However, those results will include sites that provide some degree of selection: niche websites, themed blogs, Pinterest boards, Twitter feeds, etc. Because many of these sources are trying to parse relevant items from the nonstop inflow of created content, it might be more accurate to think of them as filters, but some try to go deeper and pull from the vast Internet repository to select topical pieces. The results are incomplete, though. Many archives are not available on the open web and we’re all limited to some degree by language and imposed content restrictions.

When I discover a source that regularly shares items that interest me, I follow or bookmark it. Sometimes that is based on the topic, but often it is based on the preferences of the person or team that maintain the site. For example, I read GoodShit all the time (NSFW, lots of female nudity), not because of a particular topic that Fred covers, but because he regularly links to items I find interesting, challenging, and new. I don’t mind scrolling through topless and spread-legged naked models to get to those. In a way, I think of GoodShit as a museum I visit often, where I walk through some of the galleries to get to the displays where I really want to linger.

One weakness in this system is that it’s easy to build ourselves echo chambers, where we select sources based on quality but also — consciously or not — because they tell us what we want to hear. Someone else is selecting the content, but I’m selecting the selectors. I see a sign of this bias kick up on Facebook when a friend, usually from the far conservative side of the aisle, posts, “The media reported about X nonstop, but why aren’t they talking about Y?!?!”, yet I’ve seen an abundance of coverage of both topics. My friend may have isolated himself from news sources that provide equal coverage (or, he may be using indignant, victimized rage as an indirect way of expressing controversial opinions). He’s not the only one who might have an echo chamber, though. Because I tend to avoid mainstream news networks, I may be shielding myself from a true imbalance in coverage. This starts to bleed into the context issue and can make it difficult for us to understand the worldview of others who have been informed by different media.

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If we select selectors who don’t make trust a priority, things get even worse. We can’t believe everything we read, nor can we believe the content of photos or videos. How many times do you see something that’s clearly fake spread across the web like wildfire?  Especially with echo chambers of sources we consider credible, but that reflect our own political, social, and religious views, healthy skepticism tends to evaporate.

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Though there are some telltale signs that an item might not be true, sometimes it has truthiness and we need to look further. Many of us turn to Snopes.com for fact checking (though I’m getting database errors all over their site, so I guess everything is true today!). Scroll partway down the page of this reddit thread and you’ll find a list of other sites that are useful for debunking. The Antiviral sub-blog on Gawker regularly posts “Forward or Delete” pieces that investigate images widely shared that week, verifying or debunking them, and often sharing the source photos that were combined to create the fake. No, John Lennon was not riding a skateboard in the original version of the photo above.

There are many motivations for creating fake content. Sometimes it’s for humorous effect or to display technical ability, as in Worth 1000 contest entries. A desire for attention. Political persuasion. Advertising. Trolling. Slander. We get so used to seeing photoshopped images of celebrities that it can alter our perceptions of what looks natural; one of my acquaintances seems to think we won’t notice when her face — and only her face — is softly blurred, completely line-free, and luminous in all of her group photos. Poorly altered images appear even when they should have passed through levels of approval; take a few minutes to visit Photoshop Disasters for some laughs and groans.

Hunger for cheap and easy content makes a lot of websites untrustworthy, whether they are personal blogs or professional, journalistic sites. For many examples, read this piece by John Bohannon about all the places that ran with his unsubstantiated story about chocolate helping weight loss. He explains that well-done research — especially in diet science — is often contradictory and confusing. When junk gets distributed so widely, it adds to the noise. People feel overwhelmed, which I think plays a part in unscientific thinking among otherwise educated individuals. Clickbait headlines make scientific findings seem like absolutes, rather than things that must be challenged and explored, so refinements and corrections appear to be contradictions. Whether clinging to the notion that vaccines cause autism, climate change is entirely natural, or that juice cleanses are healthy, the echo chamber effect and proliferation of junk science articles allow people to reject other opinions and find support for their own.

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On to context. I first began musing on Internet curation a few years ago when I was taking an ethnographic film course. We were debating whether it was more valuable to have a filmmaker inside or outside the group being studied, and my professor cited a few instances of films made by insiders. I argued that there was more insider filmmaking being done than we acknowledge, in homemade videos shot with phones and old camcorders, sometimes uploaded to the web. What we lacked was curation. Nobody was collecting, sorting, clarifying, and saving those videos. The short video below shows part of a 2014 Vodoun festival in Benin. Note the different types of cameras being used and who is holding them. It isn’t just the white tourists and academics anymore.

If that video was your first introduction to a Zangbeto, though, do you have any understanding of what you saw?  There are many videos of Zangbeto on YouTube, but few of them have meaningful descriptions. The videos that are likely to survive for the future are those from institutional users — anthropologists, sociologists, historians, students of religion and dance — and not those taken by insiders, unless someone begins to collect them and add context, preserving them in a relevant way.

Context is what can change a selection into a meaningful experience. The Deutsches Museum in Munich, as a physical world example, has many areas with excellent collections but terrible context. (The website makes the place look lively and interactive. It’s not.) When we were there, we often had the impression that they felt the need to put ALL THE THINGS on display and hoped that stacking them in the same room would create a compelling story. They would have been better off to showcase some items and include others in the context around them. I think that the Gawker properties do a decent job of adding context to items they find, particularly io9, Gizmodo, and Jalopnik, though I get aggravated with how often they share posts across the Gawkerverse without changing the context to show how the item is on-topic for that blog.

Context is also another place to check bias. It is factual to say that on August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In the Internet explosion around that event, the context makes all the difference. To one extreme, he was an innocent black teenager murdered by a racist. On the other extreme, he was a criminal thug killed in self-defense. I could point to sites, memes, and videos that are entirely biased, ignoring or discrediting any facts that don’t fit the preferred narrative. I linked to a New York Times overview of the event as the most even-handed I could find, but I don’t believe that they, or other journalists, are unbiased. I think the key isn’t to avoid sources that have biased context, but to be aware of it and consider other viewpoints as well.

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That leaves archiving on my list of four issues, and it’s completely neglected in the diluted definition of curation, where the final step is to publish or share. The Library of Congress is archiving Twitter, but so far, this Politico article describing it as “a huge #FAIL” seems appropriate. And, most of what they have to archive so far is just text and images, not multimedia in a variety of obsolete formats!  This short video from Al Jazeera America (which I can’t seem to embed) gives an overview of the Internet Archive, which stores snapshots of as much of the web as possible. You can browse previous versions of websites via the Wayback Machine. What’s actually captured is useful but limited. Sometimes images don’t appear and often comments on articles are lost. Going back only as far as 2011, there were some weeks when the Wall Street Journal site was only crawled two or three times, and that’s a significant website among the estimated 48 billion webpages today. The New Yorker published a good piece about the Internet Archive a few months ago, too.

When I’ve had to purge items from my own digital archives because of lack of technical compatibility, I can’t even begin to think about the challenge of archiving the Internet; not just preserving it, but indexing it so that it can be used for research. I’ve been in the basement of the Field Museum in Chicago, looking though the amazing anthropology collection that is sorted, labeled, carefully preserved, but too vast to be on display to the public. I understand that sort of archive, but when we try to save all digital content — from research articles to ragequit screeds to breaking news to photos of a dinner burrito — the scale is mind-numbing.

Anthropology Collection Storage, Field Museum, Chicago

Anthropology Collection Storage, Field Museum, Chicago

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Is there a place for professional Internet curators? I think so, but I’m having difficulty envisioning where and how they might work.

When I discussed this with my husband, he suggested that in the future, it would be easier to research American daily life in 1915 than in 2015, because — I’m rephrasing — so many of our current cultural artifacts are digital. I think that’s partially true. It also made me consider horrible PhD dissertations of the future: “Facets of the Selfie: The Evolution of Duckface”, “What Americans Ate: Revelations from the Instagram Archive”, or “‘U Mad Bro?’ and the Rise of Flexible Spelling”. Part of the (future) problem is that it may not be easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. How will researchers grasp subtleties from the data that survives? Things that went viral, even briefly, may seem disproportionately important as they appear in higher concentration. Eeek.

I think we can be mindful about our selectors, push them to be trustworthy, and think critically about the context. We can hobble together those parts of curation now. Archiving, as it has been for physical artifacts, seems to be the domain of institutions.

So I’m sorry, but I won’t call you a curator if you have a topical Tumblr, are picky about your Pinterest board, or share nothing but awesome street art photos on Facebook. Be proud to be an enthusiast, editor, or collector!  On the other hand, we need to look at the sources that provide some elements of curation and hold them to a higher standard. That’s a lot to ask of people who are volunteers, but it shouldn’t be too much for professionals. I’d like to suggest that they:

  1. Dig deeper. Don’t just funnel the latest news. Be thinkers, not filters.
  2. Be more inclusive. Push beyond English and corporate source material.
  3. Verify. If you’re not sure of authenticity but it’s really interesting, include that caveat. Otherwise, act as if you must personally support the validity of what you post.
  4. Be wary of absolutes. We’re at a point where it’s important to think of continuums and gradients in many facets of life, and we need people to step up intellectually and understand that. It’s weak writing to couch everything in words like possibly, maybe, as of now, and so on, but it’s detrimental to declare each new discovery as THE answer, too.
  5. Add useful context. Sharing a link without context is for amateurs. (Amateurs, go for it! This is how we find so many interesting things.)
  6. Strive to avoid bias. Or, make it blatant and let your audience decide to stay or go.
  7. Support archiving. Make sure your material has useful and relevant metadata, not only for SEO but also for human access. Archive your own things. Donate to archiving institutions.

 

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*Names have been changed, of course.

 

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Posted by on September 2, 2015 in Culture, Learning, Research

 

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VWBPE conference, day 4 (part 2)

The final keynote was from Jay Jay Jegathesan (Jayjay Zifanwe), who spoke on “Building Global Communities Through Virtual Worlds”. He talked first about how he began in a virtual world, building an online version of the University of Western Australia. Winning a Google SketchUp Build Your Campus in 3D competition with his team helped them gain credibility and funding from campus sources.

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His initial plan in Second Life was simply to reproduce the UWA campus so that people could enjoy the space. However, the campus soon became a living and breathing university, with in-world classes, an architecture competition, visualization research, artistic exhibitions, and machinima challenges. You can see more about that in the short promotional video below.

Jay Jay discussed a building launch where audiences were in both SL and the physical world, with cameras on both so that they could see each other.  After that, they did a full launch of the UWA online campus and the online presence was actually selected as one of the 100 Treasures of the university upon its centenary. Also, they made a point of connecting with media outlets for coverage. Jay Jay mentioned how he’s actually been able to travel extensively in the physical world to talk about his work in the virtual world.

He went on to discuss many ways that they’ve crossed between worlds: running film competitions, making physical books of the art from virtual competitions, taking part in a virtual world working group, and leading joint classes with other universities. They also created SLeducate to help educators and students learn about the opportunity in virtual worlds.

Then, Jay Jay showed a picture of a pretty, pixie-like avatar that he introduced as his friend Dianne. He showed a photo of her in RL — a lovely woman with a warm smile and mid-length white hair. Then, a third photo of her in her wheelchair. That was part of his inspiration for the Freedom Project, for artists and filmmakers with disabilities or chronic illness (in partnership with other organizations). He shared some of their artworks and words with us. It was a powerful way of reminding everyone how important SL can be to people who have limitations in the physical world.

It was remarkable to see how much Jay Jay, UWA, and their partners are doing. Wow, just wow. He attributed their success to the community, spread across arts and teaching and other fields, so the campus is always dynamic, and collaborating with other organizations. Before he left, he shared the film that won their 7th challenge, MetaPhore, by Tutsy Navarathna:

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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VWBPE conference, day 4 (part 1)

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Shh. I’m still red-faced and attending the conference incognito.

Today is busy for me offline, so my plan is to see two sessions at beginning and end of the day. I’ll split those into separate posts to remain relatively timely.

The morning began with a talk by Susan Toth-Cohen (Zsuzsa Tomsen), “7 Years of Adaptation and Renewal in Second Life”. She has been using SL with her occupational therapy graduate students for that entire time. She began by talking about how she became involved here. She jumped in with both feet: quickly creating an avatar, joining the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), volunteering in-world, leasing a home base, and meeting others who were strong advocates for the possibilities of virtual worlds. She then began to talk about working with her students, mentioning the Diffusion of Innovation Theory and expressing surprise that the Millennials she taught were not so quick to embrace SL. (The Milennials I taught had never heard of SL until I did a presentation about it.)

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Susan decided that she didn’t want to be walled off on a private campus, so she got a small parcel on EduIsland, open to the rest of SL, and said that the traffic was stimulating to her students. She took hundreds of classes in building and creating, used the framework on how to create powerful interactive exhibits from the Tech Virtual Museum, and discovered interactive tools like Holodecks. Her graduate students worked as groups to create and present research-based material in areas such as the Adapted Playground and the Garden of Healthy Aging.

The next section of her talk was about scholarship and faculty development in virtual worlds, as well as grants/funding and the difficulty of publishing work done here. (She specifically mentioned an article about the Garden of Healthy Aging being rejected because it lacked “behavioral outcomes”, which makes me think it could have been a great fit for something like Medical Anthropology Quarterly or a journal of another field that would value a discussion of the lived experience of using the Garden.) Susan emphasized that documenting the work she does in-world in other formats, YouTube videos and a blog, was essential for establishing it as legitimate scholarship.

All in all, very interesting. It reminded me of the difficulties I had getting Second Life research approved by my university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Though the university maintains an island in SL and has staff partially dedicated to working there, it was as if I was asking about doing research in Narnia. Eventually I rewrote my proposal so it didn’t require approval and moved on from there.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2015 in Learning, Research, Uncategorized

 

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VWBPE conference, day 3 (part 2)

The afternoon session “Educators and the Second Life Viewer”, led by Oz Linden, wasn’t a topic that had direct impact on me, but I was curious.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one:

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Oz began with an overview of how the Lab does viewer development and release and then the questions came flooding in. Most of the concerns involved dealing with viewer updates in an institutional setting, where students sitting down to use machines lacked administrator rights and had to wait for someone else to install the software. At a busy school, the update schedule of the tech support staff can be terribly out of sync with SL releases.

Some worried about potentially losing inventory when testing new viewer candidates (you won’t; it’s stored on the server, not your client viewer). Others asked about screencasting or screen sharing tools. The discussion indicated that other tools do it better, which perhaps didn’t satisfy everyone’s needs. People asked about hair alphas and alpha conflicts in general, which Oz said were always on the LL bug list. A question came up about how to transfer settings from one computer to another (move the settings.xml file). There was a discussion around how to create a shared whiteboard in SL. HTML 5 support will be coming in a few months, which might make it easier to use media-on-a-prim to create a whiteboard, and one educator suggested using Twiddla for that implementation. In the discussion of media-on-a-prim, Oz mentioned Quicktime for Windows and Flash as being difficult to support in-world (personal opinion: they’re outdated and shouldn’t be supported, but we need a media option).  Someone asked about getting an MSI instead of an exe to make installation in labs easier.  I’m sure Oz was flooded with emails mentioning that an MSI can be generated directly from Visual Studio by choosing “Create an Installer Package” from the Project.

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People also asked about social media sharing, rendervolumeLODFactor settings, inventory management (!), an export feature (nope), and more. Oz also mentioned render costs and the setting being tested that won’t render avatars above a certain weight.  Not that I have a horse in that race. It was a very informative talk, with a couple of other Lindens jumping in to add details, and I hope it was useful for them as well. The session took place during dinner time, so my software engineer husband was listening with me and often yelling responses to questions across the room; I’m glad my microphone fiasco happened later in the evening.

Speaking of which…

Next, I attended the “Content Curation Through Virtual World Communities” session, where I was able to hear the first two panelists and a small amount of the third. My write-up of this session is limited as I committed an accidental faux pas (open mic in a voice-conducted panel) and lost my notes in the flurry of embarrassment afterward.

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Valerie Hill (Valibrarian Gregg) touched on library topics — as you might guess from her SL name — but also referenced Alvin Toffler and talked about users as prosumers: both consuming and creating content. She spoke about how important it is to vet our own content sources for credibility and to avoid placing ourselves in an echo chamber where we only hear our existing views reflected back at us.

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Renee Brock-Richmond (Zinnia Zauber) gave a presentation centered on creating an “authentic” avatar and reinforcing your personal branding. You might be able to tell from the slide above that she is all about color. She talked about different ways to use color in-world — not only for clothing — and about creating a consistent avatar, including profile, that is authentic to yourself. I found that very thought-provoking. I wanted to agree and argue, so it’s something I might pick up in a future post.

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Next up was Beth O’Connell (Beth Ghostraven). She talked about useful communication techniques and tools. She also shared a helpful notecard entitled “Professional Education and Library Resources in Virtual Worlds” that has links to SL and OpenSim areas, mailing lists and groups, and websites. Unfortunately, my gaffe happened during her session. I missed part of it while talking and after being removed from the sim.

I completely missed the presentation by Joyce Bettancourt (Rhiannon Chatnoir), which was disappointing because I had enjoyed the session by her Vesuvius Group colleague so much earlier in the day.

Not being one who can shake off things like that (despite the wise counsel of Dr. Taylor Swift), I didn’t attend the session “Real Democracy in a Virtual World” or the Quill & Quarrel performance later that evening. Today, I’ll be attending sessions from my desktop computer, which has no microphone whatsoever.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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VWBPE conference, day 3 (part 1)

I’m splitting today’s posts about the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference into two parts, to take advantage of my afternoon break and not overload either post.

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I arrived at the first session, “Creating Dinosaurs & Earning Badges”, in my finest pteranodon attire, but since it was as anachronous as my normal shape, I reverted to human to sit in the amphitheatre. Presenter Jeroen Frans is a founder of The Vesuvius Group.  He spoke first about a project they did for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which has a summer program in which middle school kids study cretaceous sea animals. The program only lasts two weeks, which doesn’t allow much time for teaching building or texturing skills, so they created a LEGO-like build kit so the kids could make animated models of the animals in a virtual world. In the photo below, you can see the build kit on the right as well as two types of avatar — a skate and an ammonite — that are used in the program.

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It got even cooler. The kids were instructed to think about how their creatures behaved, what they ate, where they lived, etc. This shaped how their creations acted in the virtual world.  Unfortunately, they hit technical limitations and had to reduce the numbers that were active at any time. Jeroen also explained how they set up an orientation area to teach the teachers, so that they could train students ahead of time and not have that cost time during the program. Everything about their implementation was awfully clever and I’m looking forward to playing with their build kit.

Later in his presentation, Jeroen talked about two other projects. One was for the World Bank Institute. The WBI wanted to gamify some of their courses, so Vesuvius created a game show and also an ATV race track, with questions to challenge the participants at checkpoints. The second was for the CATEA project (Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access) through Georgia Tech. They created an environment for mentors to meet with disabled STEM students, but soon found that the lecture-type spaces weren’t used.  So, they gamified the process by creating a HUD that allowed participants to earn badges by attending events and doing things online.

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The next session I attended was “Transcending Culture in Global Settings”, in which Steven R. Van Hook discussed his own work. His research question was, “How do we gather a group of culturally diverse people in an international setting, and try to get beyond our differences, reaching together towards a common purpose?”  He did this by using a study group of university students (with more than 24 countries of origin) in an advertising class, looking for positive transcultural themes in television commercials. You can find a paper published from his research here: Hope and Hazards of Transculturalism.

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I had to leave that session a little early, so I will have to read the paper to learn more about his conclusions.

I’ll post another update at the end of the night. Now, I’ve got to grab a quick lunch before two hours of social anxiety volunteering as a greeter, and then I’ve got a little break before more sessions.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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VWBPE conference, day 2

It’s the second day of the 2015 Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference! One thing that I can’t help noticing: my Kay avatar has existed in Second Life for five years, which is essentially “middle aged” for this world. At VWBPE sessions, it’s not unusual for more than half of the avatars to be older than her. The amount of combined in-world experience during some discussions is awfully impressive.

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Starting the day with a cappuccino near the main auditorium.

I’m still seeing anxiety around a couple of items from Ebbe’s keynote during many Q&A sessions and side conversations. Poor fellow; he can’t sneeze without us analyzing it to death and wondering what it will mean for meeeeeee (I do it too!). People are concerned about his explanation that the first build tool for the Next Generation Platform (NGP) will be Autodesk’s Maya, which is very expensive and quite difficult to use. Though he did quickly say that support will be provided for other tools, including the shareware products many of us use, I can understand why it bothered a lot of people. We want to be involved in the NGP from the beginning and that high barrier of entry has diminished the potential alpha pool to a tiny privileged and knowledgeable puddle.

The other concern I’ve heard expressed numerous times is the move from Linden Scripting Language (LSL) to C# as the coding language for NGP. Honestly, I think this is a terrific move and my software engineer husband nearly burst into spontaneous applause. C# is much more robust and learning it is a portable skill. If you learned LSL, I suspect you’ll be brilliant at C#. There are a variety of free resources to learn C# online, from this Coursera class in Beginning Game Programming with C# (started 2/23), to a Microsoft Virtual Academy Programming in C# Jump Start self-paced video course (to be retired at the end of April, so hurry!), to the full set of notes and slides from Jon Jagger’s 5-day C# programming course, and many more.

On a positive note, I’m seeing a lot of excitement around Ebbe’s mention of lowering land costs: decreasing “property taxes” and increasing “sales taxes”.  Yes please.

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The first session I attended today was “Reconstructing and Navigating the Crossroads of Community” by this morning’s featured speaker, Pamela Broviak. She talked about community creation through history, based on the human drive to fulfill the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She considered communities from prehistory to Egypt, the Iroquois Confederacy, and early land distribution methods in the United States (emphasizing the importance of land ownership and how the US method diverged from the European). From there, she explored Second Life history and the differences made by zoning over time.

Pam explained that as an engineer, she is usually occupied with the lower levels of the pyramid, but her time in Second Life has made her more aware of incorporating the higher levels into her work. In fact, she no longer sees the list of needs as a hierarchy, but as a circle where lessons and experiences flow.

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The second session I was able to attend was “Gaming and Machinima at the Crossroads of Gender and Culture”. This topic was less controversial among an audience of education-related people in SL than it would be, say, on a gaming subreddit. Jakob got back from his second chemotherapy session in the middle of this session, so my attention was split for a while, but afterward I filled in what I missed by reading the notes that Sonicity kindly provided along with all of her slides.

While touching on some recent controversies around women in gaming, Sonicity talked about the violent and sexual content in popular games and what research has shown about the difference between the play styles of boys and girls. She also mentioned how “authentic storytelling” can be a game-changer (literally) and that women and girls have agency: they are a huge factor in the gaming market and can use that power. The discussion that followed was mostly about the gaming experience for younger children.

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Next, I visited the panel discussion “Quill & Quarrel: REAL Theater in a VIRTUAL World”. Over the years I’ve seen live productions in Second Life by a couple of groups, the Avatar Repertory Theater and Basilique Performing Arts Company, but I haven’t attended a performance from the Quill & Quarrel Theater.  I stayed for a while. It was a bit like a Comic-Con panel for a show I didn’t know, where the performers reminisced among themselves about past seasons I hadn’t seen. I’d really like to see something by Q&Q someday; it looks like they have A Midsummer Night’s Dream coming this spring. The panel was not as informative or useful as I had hoped, however, so I took my dog for a walk during the second half.

Then it was time for a shift as a greeter, welcoming visitors to the VWBPE Exhibition area.  I chose a quieter area; I want to help, but I am not social. Still, I had a couple of nice little conversations during my shift. The Exhibition area is certainly worth a visit. The displays are far more interesting than your usual conference booths, as you can see from the photos below:

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I have one more hour as a greeter this evening, but otherwise I’ll be offline. Tomorrow is my busy day, with six sessions I want to attend and one more greeter shift. Can’t wait!

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2015 in Gaming, Learning, Research

 

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VWBPE conference, day 1

The 8th Annual Virtual World Best Practices in Education conference started earlier today. Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg kicked things off with the opening keynote. The amphitheatre started filling up more than an hour before the event.

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I should be jaded after almost ten years in Second Life, but it was still exciting to see five Lindens on the map. This year I wasn’t able to take notes (one of the many advantages of a virtual world conference is that I could attend while cooking dinner) and I don’t see a video of the keynote online yet, but there are excellent posts about it from Daniel Voyager and Ciaran Laval.

Update: here’s the video!

Unfortunately, I missed the discussion on gamification that I planned to attend after that, and I hope to find a summary.

In the evening, I attended two sessions from the tech-savvy educators at the University of Idaho. The first was a hands-on workshop entitled “The Importance of Space”.  We visited three different environments and played with blocks that had some odd physical qualities. I had the pleasure of trying to figure out the blocks with Gentle Heron of Virtual Ability; we both approached the challenge with a similar mindset, though I’m not sure she laughed as loudly as I did when we discovered that if you sat on a block, you would immediately faceplant on the floor. The discussion afterward addressed how we felt in each space, emotionally and physically, and then connected that to principles of design. It’s useful to remember that in a virtual world our meeting spaces can be anything we want them to be.

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After the workshop, we went over to the University of Idaho online campus in Idahonia for a research presentation entitled “Comparison of Teen Gamers and Non-Gamers in A Virtual Learning Simulation”. You can find that paper on page 29 of this issue of the Journal of Virtual Studies (it’s easiest to download the PDF and read it offline). The presentation itself was interesting but there was great value in the Q&A session afterwards, where people compared notes on some of the nuts and bolts of virtual teaching experiences: how to get buy-in from local schools when SL has a reputation as an adult space, funding and bandwidth issues, and the advantages of online simulations. I really enjoyed watching educators sharing ideas and links.

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Tomorrow I have three sessions that I’m hoping to attend, plus I have two volunteer shifts as a greeter. Friday’s schedule is packed with seven sessions I’d like to see. At physical world conferences I usually hit burn-out and people overload by the second or third day; it’s not so bad for an introvert when I can put down my headset and step away if I’m feeling crowded.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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