Archive for the 'society online' Category


Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Following on from my ‘That Was an Interesting Experience’ post I got to thinking about how to define what makes MUVEs distinct from other online spaces. The diagram below is my attempted answer, a diagram which I ‘trailed’ in my presentation at the Eduserv+JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event last Friday. (slidecast of the presentation at the end of this post)

Eventedness and Co-presence

During the JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project we piloted Second Life with art & design undergrads and with lifelong distance learners studying philosophy. The axes of the diagram represent two of the major effects we saw across the pilots that are central to what an MUVE provides.

Eventedness: This goes beyond a shared experience which could be aimless in activity terms and assumes that everyone involved is heading towards a particular goal even if this goal does not involve close collaboration. For example, a themed philosophical discussion which, if it goes well, should have a shared direction as the learning moves forwards.

Co-presence: As well as the Co-presence that comes from being embodied as avatars this definition includes what is experienced when an individual is certain that their contribution (usually in text form) will be read and responded to by others. For example it is possible to get a strong sense of the presence of others when microblogging because the exchanges are often frequent, they often reference each other and the response time can be a matter of seconds. Messages are linked to the particular point in time and their value erodes over time. There is a relationship between the speed in which the value of nodes of communication erode within a technology and the potential for Co-presence. In addition the individuals’ level of trust that their contribution will be understood and responded to within a particular technology has a large bearing on both Co-presence and Eventedness. It is of note that there is very little latent social presence in MUVEs. When you log-off your presence all but evaporates leaving almost no trace of your identity or that fact that you were in the MUVE. This is in contrast to social networking sites which are designed to extend your presence after you log-off. (See my ‘Visitors – Residents‘ post which discusses why this form of latent social presence is an important issue)

So, the green areas are not a quantative mapping of a range of functionalities but the qualitative potential of a technologies ability to provide a certain type of experience. The greater the chance of Co-presence the greater the chance of Eventedness and vice versa which is why the green areas have diagonal tops.

I should point out that the relative mapping of the technologies in the diagram could be debated until the cows come home because the axes are dealing with subjective terms. Individuals encounters with these technologies will vary greatly in the context of these terms hence the use of ‘potential’ which allows for a latitude in experiences.

A key point here is that the MUVE has the potential to support a huge range of experiences. This is partiality because of the effect of avatars but also because an MUVE is not a single technology but a cluster of tools gathered around a 3D environment. To tie this down a bit I will run through the types of experience that I think take place at points ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ on the diagram.

‘a’: At this point an individual feels isolated from others and alienated by the environment. They are directionless and have not discovered the ‘point’ of the environment for themselves. This sense of isolation and alienation is amplified by the knowledge that there are others in the MUVE who are enjoying being part of a social group that they are excluded from (either socially or because of a lack of technical skills). It is also amplified because they can see other avatars who appear to be much better looking, better dressed and with more elaborate hairstyles. They begin to fell anonymous, unskilled and lacking in a definable persona (they are part of the homogenous ‘n00b’ category). All of this is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to ‘lurk’ in an MUVE. There a few opportunities to learn the in world culture(s) and mode(s) of communication that don’t involve social engagement. This is in contrast to other successful online social platforms have functionality such as an open chat channels (World of Warcraft) or the ability to see the flow of communication (Twitter) giving new users the opportunity to absorb the culture of that space before making their voice heard.

‘b’: At this point the individual feels like they are contributing to a shared endeavour, that they are part of a relevant activity. They have come to know and trust the other participants in their group and enjoy both the learning and the social aspects of the experience. This is only likely to take place if a member of that community has organised an activity. Or, to put it another way, the tutor has planned a relevant session. (The implication here being that the tutor needs to be part of a community of learners not above it in the MUVE space)

‘c’: At this point the individual is probably spending time with people they know and trust. They are socialising within the MUVE but are not attempting to achieve anything beyond simply being together. They are likely to feel part of a community but not that they are communally working towards a goal.

In terms of teaching and learning this huge breath of potential experience is what makes using MUVEs a high risk option. The better designed a session and the more responsive the tutor the higher it will map against Eventedness but a strong sense of Co-presence will only grow over time. Initially this happens as people get to grips with the technology then increasingly as they form relationships and trust grows. This breath of potential is in my opinion why a bad session in an MUVE leads to the suspicion that it would have been more satisfying and more effective to have simply used a straight text chat format or in some cases a traditional forum. This is compounded by the fact that MUVEs really lock you in and if a session breaks down it is complex and disruptive to sidestep to another format. Nevertheless, some of the most engaging and exciting online teaching and learning I have experienced has taken place in an MUVE.

As the diagram makes clear MUVEs do have the potential to outstrip many other technologies in their ability to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. However, if you don’t feel that words such as ‘belonging’, ‘communal’ or ‘experience’ are relevant to your practice then MUVE are probably not for you. Even for those of us that do think these aspects of learning are important MUVEs are a high risk option which require teaching sessions that are both well organised and highly reactive. We hope that the guidance and advice that comes from our experiences in the ‘Open Habitat’ project (to be published in March) will reduce this risk but it is like so many things in life MUVEs will remain a challenging option with the potential of great rewards.

Below is a slidecast of the my presentation at the Eduserv + JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event on 16/01/09 in Glasgow. Thanks to Rowin Young for providing the slidecast.

License awareness, for perfectly informed consumers…

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

These days it’s very easy to acquire digital copies of stories, pictures, music, video, fonts, code – any sort of media you care to mention. Sometimes this is legal, notably through open source/free software, creative commons licenses, and Bittorrent. Sometimes it’s illegal – through Bittorrent*, copying files from websites, lending CDs/DVDs, etc.

Obviously, this is in clear conflict with established media industries, often represented by acronyms groups like the BSA, RIAA, and MPAA, who want to maintain their historical place in the distribution channels. Many others around the web have commented on how these businesses need to realize that they don’t have a right to a profit in their particular part of the market, and I concur, but won’t rehash that here.

Instead, the whole reason for this post is to point to what I hope is the way forwards: License transparency at the client level – nicely demonstrated with the display of licensing information in recent work on the Banshee media player.

I don’t think this feature has filtered out to a release yet, but a suitably enabled Banshee will display the license information for songs, along with the track name, duration, etc.

This may not seem like the sort of thing that would be useful to 99% of the population, but it is relevant to 100% of the population, as many people may not realize that, in many cases, ripping the CD they borrowed from cousin Kev is illegal. For the cases where it’s the artist’s intent that copies should be made, I think it should be advertised and encouraged.

As a both a musician and an open-source enthusiast, licensing rights can be an important tool to help me ensure the quality and longevity of my work in both those areas. I haven’t a solid plan for this, but suspect that outright, no-strings, free-for-all copying won’t help me develop my rock-star career. (Any advice on developing the rock-star career is welcome 🙂

I believe that most people don’t currently consider the licensing of the media they use, and just copy it if they feel like it. Rather than taking the futile DRM approach, I think it’d be better to share media quite liberally, and for software to inform people what’s going on, enabling appreciative users to support it – with financial (particularly for music), and direct (more relevant with software) contributions.

If we’re in a market-driven economy, let’s try and work towards perfectly informing the consumers…

Merry Christmas!
Dave B.

* Note the dual use (legal/illegal) potential of some technologies.
† Ok, I’m a drummer – it’s close enough 😉

That Was an Interesting Experience

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

As the piloting activity of the Open Habitat project draws to a close it’s time to gather out data and our thoughts and consider what it all might mean. We have plenty of evidence that MUVEs are a useful for teaching and learning and much guidance and direction to give to teaching practitioners considering taking the plunge. We also have, I think, an overarching message from the project:

“Teaching and learning in virtual worlds is an experience.”

I’m not trying to be facetious or flippant I mean it in the true sense of the term. Taking part of a teaching session in an MUVE is more than simply using a tool or achieving a task, it feels like an event, a particular moment in time when you have the chance to interact with others at a level of intensity which is rarely felt in other online spaces. A teaching session in an MUVE can become a focal event for a significant slice of teaching. A learning design can be created which leads up to and then away from an MUVE session. Much like a traditional field-trip, the teaching can frame the time that students spend out in the field or in this case the MUVE and work generated during that time can be considered upon their return. The ‘otherness’ of the alternative environment can act as a mirror for the students, helping then to reflect on their practice as they see how it is influenced by the virtual world.

Like any immersive experience it is at times challenging for an individual to assess what they have learnt during the experience itself but over time the benefits of being taken out of the comfort of their day-to-day environment starts to become apparent. If you believe that MUVEs are capable of supporting an online culture or beyond that an online society then maybe a session in one is akin to visiting another country. We are socially and psychologically transposed into this new land and whilst not physically transported we are visually represented. Like any exploration into new territories it can be chaotic, alienating, exhausting, and frustrating. There are new forms of communication to learn and new cultural norms to adjust to. It can be intriguing, surprising and occasionally exhilarating, offering inspiration and new perspectives on ideas which may have become stagnant. These experiences with others in these virtual worlds is a form of travel and they do say that travel broadens the mind.

Open source textbooks

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

The Commonwealth of Virginia is getting into open textbooks (with a Creative Commons license).

Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

As part of the JISC funded Isthmus project we have been taking a close look not at whattechnologies our students use but at how our they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants. I.e. This distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on if they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have an persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc  The Resident will of course interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study and for recreation. In fact the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

The ‘Visitor’

The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day. They always have an appropriate and focused need to use the web but don’t ‘reside’ there. They are sceptical of services that offer them the ability to put their identity online as don’t feel the need to express themselves by participating in online culture in the same manner as a Resident.

In effect the Resident has a presence online which they are constantly developing while the Visitor logs on, performs a specific task and then logs off.

This is of course not a polar distinction. There is a spectrum of which the Resident and the Visitor represent two extremes (Watch this space for a couple of possible sub-categories). It is a useful distinction because it is not based on gender or age. While our data would indicate that the portion of the population over 55 is predominantly made up of Visitors there are examples of Residents in this section of the demographic. Similarly it is the case that not everyone younger than 25 is a Resident.

It is not always easy to spot who is in each category as the level of sophistication with which a Visitor might use any single service might well be greater than that of a Resident. Again, this is not a skill based distinction. In fact I know of at least one ed-tech researcher who considers himself to be a Visitor out of choice.

The Resident is likely to have arranged some sort of system to manage the relationship between services and the flow of information through their browser but this does not mean that they will be any more effective at researching a specific topic than a Visitor. This is why data from a survey that simply asks what online services a group of students use is next to useless.

This Visitor, Resident distinction is useful when considering which technologies to provide for online learners. For example if your learners are mainly Visitors they are unlikely to take advantage of any feed based system for aggregated information you may put in place. They are also unlikely to blog or comment as part of a course. The Resident will expect to have the opportunity to offer opinions on topics and to socialise around a programme of study. In fact they are likely to find ways of doing this even if they are not ‘officially’ provided. We offered membership of a facebook group to our students as they left their online courses. The majority signed-up without question as they wanted to stay in touch with fellow students and continue discussions. The remainder saw the group as pointless and a possible invasion of privacy. Both sides of this argument are correct… It’s a question of approach and motivation, hence Visitors and Residents.

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011

Making the transition from the practical to the social.

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

There were two significant transition points for the Art & Design students involved in the first 2 days of Open Habitat’s first pilot. Take a look at Ian’s post for a description of what happened from a teaching practitioner’s point of view.

Here is my perspective on events with my researcher hat on:

This sequence of events slowly expanded the amount of technical and social options available to the students. They started in a safe, private, stand alone OpenSim environment in which they could learn building skills without getting tangled up with issues of identity and communication. The first transition point came when we paired the students onto OpenSim islands (i.e. each student was on an island with one other student). There was a distinct shift in atmosphere as they experienced the effect of being co-present in world and the real life room suddenly had a buzz in it as the students ‘met’ each other in the virtual world. This was amplified when a game of hide and seek was suggested and avatars started to dash around the screens in XY and Z dimensions (an excellent ‘quest’). The students flicked between real world and in world chat as the games progressed. One pair discovered that they could throw objects around in world and appeared to be attempting to trap each other inside large spheres in what looked like a surrealist version of a fight between two super heroes. This was transition point one, when the activity shifted from simply learning a piece of software to co-habiting the same virtual space with all the attendant social effects.

The second, less satisfying transition came when the students moved into Second Life. The ‘gateway’ of orientation island jarred the movement through the planned activities. The pilots suddenly became more about Linden Labs Second Life platform and a lot less about Art & Design. This is not to say that the students floundered, in Second Life terms their OpenSim experience had pushed them past the ‘Second Life pain barrier’. In fact one of the students started to give a new Second Lifer advice after being in world for about 2 minutes! The problem was that the Art & Design focus had lost its flow. Later on in day 2 of the pilot, once all of the students had been grouped and found their way to LeedsMet island, the Art & Design angle re-emerged. The students took-up plots of land and started to build. 

So the pilot had created a smooth expansion of possibilities by initially separating the creative aspects of the MUVE from the social aspects. We do of course hope that these two areas will become intertwined as the pilot progresses but like most siblings it would seem that it can be healthy to separate them at times. The question that is hanging in the air after the first 2 days of the pilot is: once OpenSim has reached version 1.0 (currently 0.6) why use Second Life? Or in more constructive terms: maybe the educational institution should use OpenSim to control the flow of options to the students and provide a jumping off point which they can use to go into Second Life if they choose to?

Clearly there are advantages to being part of the wider community of Second Life but we need to develop methods of making the transition to the big complex world of a public MUVE smoother. At the top of the list of possible solutions is finding ways of getting into Second Life without going via orientation island.

TV is too passive.

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Nice article by Clay Shirky: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus discussing the similar social roles of gin and TV, and how we’re at the start of a big social change from passive to active:

In this same conversation with the TV producer I was talking about World of Warcraft guilds, and as I was talking, I could sort of see what she was thinking: “Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves.”

At least they’re doing something.

The Beauty of Ad hoc Project Meetings

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

On Tuesday evening the Habitat project had one of its most dynamic project meetings. It was ad hoc and spontaneous but what was said was very useful. It reminded me of those happy students days when I’d find myself in the pub with all my friends talking about ‘interesting things’ almost by accident. These days I need to plan 3 weeks ahead to get in to the pub with people I actually like who all have families and jobs (what can you do?).

Anyway, 5 of us happened to be in Second Life (yes, I left this fact late in the post deliberately) at the same time and a discussion took off. In fact it took off so well that I’m still having trouble (with my project managers’ hat on) working out what it all meant. In this way it is very like those student pub sessions 🙂

The Habitat team is based in  Leeds, Canada, London, Oxford, Essex and Brussels so we have more chance to get together online than face-to-face. The Second Life platform was great for us because we shared some visual designs during our discussion which were projected onto blocks that we could all stand around and muse over. Plus, we did all feel ‘together’ which is important for any team. When I logged out I personally felt like I had spent time with a bunch of people rather than a stream of text.

So, what of those in the team who didn’t happen to be in Second Life? Well I suppose I can mail round the transcript of our discussion. Also, how do I get the best value from this’ happening’ for the Habitat team and for JISC? Plus, let’s not forget the question: ‘What is the relevance for our users/students?”.

U.S. to hunt terrorists in WoW (maybe)

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Via Schneier: The terrorism-obsessed U.S. is running project Reynarda study of massive multiplayer online games looking for “baseline normative behaviors” with the intent to “determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world”.

Terrorism aside, the research is unclassified – so it might be possible to see their results eventually.

Take study groups online and they become cheating, apparently…

Friday, March 7th, 2008 reports on a student facing disciplinary action for running a Facebook study group. Sounds like the institution took a dislike to normal study behavior just because it was happening online.