Saturday, October 31, 2009

Personal Learning Environment/Network

As somewhat of a lurker in the Connectivism 2009 class facilitated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens I have been squeezing in viewing the Elluminate archived sessions when I can. I have to say I am grateful to George and Stephen for their work on this course, it has been fascinating. I am also grateful for the opportunity to be introduced to and begin to define my personal learning network/environment (PLN) and ponder the resources I have in my PLN.

Before I launch into all the different nodes on my Personal Learning Network or Environment (PLN/E) it seems to me that defining what these terms mean is in order. According to my current favorite resource, Wikipedia, a personal learning environment is a system that helps learners take control of and manage their own learning. This includes providing support for learners set their own learning goals, manage their learning; managing both content and process and communicate with others in the process of learning and thereby achieve learning goals. A PLE may be composed of one or more subsystems: As such it may be a desktop application, or composed of one or more web-based services."

At the foundation of my PLE/N are the Google Alerts I have set. Google Alerts basically harvest new stories, blogs, and other resources on the web for information on topics that I have set. I receive this information back, on a daily basis, in an email. There are directly links to the website, however more importantly each item is listed with a line or two of text the is just enough for me to determine if I want to continue reading the article or not. I usually read these on a daily basis..if I let too much time elapse I can too far behind. These alerts go in to my Gmail account where they are automatically sorted in to folders for me to review. I also use Google Reader, however I continue to see as kind of "clunky," perhaps with time and use I will change my perception, but for now it is something I look at about once a week. The essential benefit of Google reader to me is to be able to set feeds for blogs, websites and individuals I like to follow online.

Another primary tool of my PLN/E Twitter. I use Twitter for many things, to identify people to follow who will provide me with those specific resources that are related to my particular interests. In addition to that I also use Twitter to present my own blogs, those of others and articles related to my area of interest for feedback and comments from the followers I have attracted over the last several months. Someone once mentioned it is not so much about who is following you but who you are following..and I truly agree with that, there are certain people I either search for to see what they are tweeting or those I quickly identify in the tweet stream, who consistently have good links. I also look for Delicious, which are automated tweets based upon bookmarks put into the social bookmarking system and I get alerts from Tweet me news.

I also use Evernote. Evernote captures all those Tweets I want to use as future resources when I put @myen at the end of my tweet. Evernote captures websites, images, and documents or reports that I want to use for future referral. I can tag and sort all of this by projects. The real bonus of all of this for me is that I can access these resources from any PC.

I also have Livescribe Pen. I have found it essential that I take handwritten notes on somethings as I plan out what I am going to write, sometimes to even get motivated on what I am going to write for a blog, for work or just as reminders. On occasion I find that these handwritten notes are just what I need to overcome writer's block. I have never been a journal keeper but the use of the Livescribe Pulse Pen has given me the means to do that. What I like about the pen and notebooks is that my notes are up-loadable to the web and search-able. The only drawback I have found is that my handwriting is bad enough that the translation of the written notes to word processing has not been particularly successful. I also blog and love to blog..obviously. I maintain two other blog sites in addition to this one, and Steve Hargadon noted that he uses Google Docs as part of his PLN in a discussion with HOward Rheingold and I now use Google Docs almost exclusively having purchased a new PC and not following my usual pattern of purchase MS Office for this computer.

I have also used Twine, since starting to look at and use Evernote I have kind of drifted away from Twine, but I hope to take another look at it again. I think this is kind of an example of the problem with their being too many tools...sometimes you can lose focus on a certain Web 2.0 tool before fully evaluating it. I do think Twine is wonderful and has great potential. I understand that revisions are being made to Twine and an upgrade will be made available around the first part of 2010 if not earlier.

I am also in Second Life®, I have benefited a great deal from a variety of professional development activities in Second Life.® These range Metanomics, to Gronstedt's Train for Success, Pathfinder LInden's office hours, and events held by VIO Business,to evening events. I also have spent a great deal of time touring Second Life's® education sites, and chatting with others who share my interests. There are many things which illustrate the potential of Second Life for professional development to tour, historic sites such as Caledon, events like Burning Life, educational conferences and events as well. I am also a member of the Second Life Educators list serve and it seems that there is a continuous stream of thoughts, questions and observations on education in Second Life® from that list serve.

Two WEB 2.0 tools I think I have neglected are Facebook and Linked In. I need to work these sites that I have established to present a more "polished" image to those who view these pages. I view my Facebook page as more personal, for family and friends, however the groups that available for professional development via Facebook seem to be overshadowing that use of Facebook and I am seeing that there is a great deal of overlap. The connections that i have made via Second Life over lap a great deal, not just on Twitter but Linked In as well. Many of my Second Life connections are also my Linked In connections.

I have several connections beyond the virtual in my real life. These extend beyond conferences that I attend in person! I am a member of several national organizations and serve them in one capacity or another as well. These include Merlot and WCET. I find that I can access the people from these organizations with questions regarding the work that I do as it relates to their organizations.

When I remember I try to catch Steve Hargadon's Elluminate sessions through, these are in the evenings and if I don't catch them "live" I can listen to the podcast later. I subscribe to a variety of podcasts. It's not possible to catch them all but I do what I can!

Last but not least, I have blogged about this before, is my participation in John Jamison's Imagilearning SLemester class. I have enjoyed this opportunity very much and looked forward to an ongoing relationship as an alum of the program which focuses on virtual worlds for education and training. John always has a recommendation for another good book to read!

There is also the interesting work of Micheal Trout and the connections that I have made by working with him on eSingularity.

Other resources (and these are sporadic) include Ted Talks, Fora TV and You Tube, I have to confess I am not a huge user of these, my use of these define as sporadic at best. For the last several months I have spent a great deal of time exploring Second Life® almost exclusively.

There are some tools I have "on the back burner" so to speak that I intend to pick up and use more diligently. These include Zotero, Mixbook, Ning, and FolkSemantic.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Second LIfe "Mash - Up" of research and observations

The following is a synthesis of observations of three resources on virtual worlds, specifically Second Life, and how this medium can be applied to education, training, and learning. This is my initial presentation using these resources, it is a "mash-up" if you will, to determine if these is a common theme or thread that can be identified and defined as a best practice(s) in using Second Life for education. The three sources I have identified for this initial paper are: Commentary: Virtual Planning and the Online Studio by Justan B. Hollander, David Thomas from the Journal of Planning Education and Research 2009, Avatars, People and Virtual Worlds, Foundations for Research in the Metaverse, Alanah Davis, John Murphy, Dawn Owens, Depepak Khazanchi and Ilze Zigurs, in the February 2009 Journal of Virtual Worlds Research and finally Thomas Malaby's book Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life.

A review of the Malaby's book is helpful. Malaby does a fine job of exposing the inner workings of Linden Labs, the history and the culture of the business. It is in this context the mission, the vision and the overall philosophy of Linden Labs that one can begin to design a strategy for applying the use of Second Life as a learning environment. In determining the appropriate use of Linden Labs in education presenting the mission of Second Life/Linden Labs seems key: "It is our mission to connect us all to an online world that advance the human condition." Another, what I term "philosophical statement' identified by Malaby is "The eye observes the world, the hand shapes it. For this reason many cultures embrace the eye-in-hand as a symbol of creation that springs from knowledge as do we. Take it as your invitation to create a Second Life that inspires ever more wonder, ever more imagination." In the context of two statements it is little wonder that Second Life is finding itself as the virtual world of choice for educators. After all what is the purpose of education but to inspire wonder and create motivation for individuals to seek more knowledge and create more knowledge?

Holland and Thomas sought to pursue answers to the following concerns:

"For planning educators, do these new 3-D environments offer a chance to dramatically improve the curriculum or simply sit as one more technological distraction to the important work of training planners?" In order to address the researchers looked deeper asking,(1) How does physical planning pedagogy benefit from using a tool such as Second Life? or What are the benefits of using a tool such as Second Life for physical planning pedagogy? and (2) What are some of the implications of moving education off the drafting table and pin-up wall and into an active, simulated computer–based world?"

Furthermore the question may be asked in this context: Can learning be designed in virtual worlds to provide a sense of engagement and presence that maybe lacking in a "traditional learning management system?"

The methodology of this research required that students keep journals, observations, end of semester course evaluations, with both closed and open ended questions. The students were also asked to wrote a final essay evaluating their learning experiences using Second Life. Finally the 71 students involved in the program were required to address a last essay question detailing their experiences in Second Life. The findings of this research were based upon the following:

(1) integration of skills and knowledge in a field example, (2) development of teamwork skills, (3) improvement of problem-finding and problem-solving skills, and (4) exposure to a professional social experience (Hollander and Thomas 2009, Greene 1988; Dutton 1987; Schon 1984; Heumann and Wetmore 1984).

This study sought to address the benefits of using Second Life in these specific areas:

Field experience, teamwork skills, problem-finding and problem-solving skills and professional socializing experience. Benefits were found in the areas of field experience and teamwork skills, with little or no benefit noted in the areas of problem finding and problem solving skills and professional socializing experiences. The authors noted that students spent a great deal of time together to work on projects but chose to not activate social networking tools and that "...students were able to successfully improve their problem-finding and problem-solving skills, but only marginally better than in a traditional studio." It seems that on these two points there is a parallel result between the application of virtual worlds and traditional learning environments, the use of Second Life did not prove to motivate or enhance either points. However it is not noted how the teams were established either in traditional working environment or what sort of problem solving projects the students were given and how the parallel each other in scope.

Ultimately the researchers noted that the "biggest strength of Second Life is also its biggest weakness," this being the unstructured environment this world provides. This lack of structure which may prove to be a barrier to some also proves to provide an environment that facilitates invention and creativity. In providing a 3D environment for learning what sort of advantages does Second Life offer beyond programs such as Sketchup and AutoCad? The authors noted that .."Such programs pale in that regard in comparison with what Second Life offers: it creates a forum for exploring planning and design as social interactions and processes, rather than as simply knowledge and technique. Second Life goes beyond
visualization to a unique quality: virtualization, introducing the user to a real-time virtual 3-D environment that can be a powerful learning tool."

In the Davis, et. al., article the researchers sought to identify the following:

"The potential for contribution to knowledge lies in several areas. First, the study of virtual teams in a metaverse environment can contribute to a deeper understanding of virtual collaboration and teamwork in traditional contexts. Second, a theoretically-defined set of technology capabilities can show how metaverses are different from other kinds of environments and how their uniqueness might enhance the functioning of virtual teams. Third, a clear insight into metaverse capabilities and use can lead to recommendations for the continuing design of advanced technologies for virtual team collaboration. Our overall goal is to enhance research and practice for virtual teams working in a metaverse environment. We present a conceptual model for understanding metaverses and develop a set of recommendations for research in this new area. Our proposed model is different from earlier models of group support and collaboration technologies because it accounts for the unique technology capabilities of and behaviors in metaverse environments. Organizations and academic institutions that are exploring the use of metaverses can benefit by seeing how team interaction might be enhanced. Virtual team managers can benefit by being aware of the basic characteristics of this new environment and how its technological capabilities have potential to provide a richer form of interaction for virtual teams. Researchers can benefit from the foundation for future research in terms of constructs, propositions, and research challenges."

This article meshes well with the Holland and Thomas article because to seeks to identify strategies that facilitate team collaboration and work in the metaverse, furthermore their research seeks to identify those technical challenges that may impede the progress in these areas. The researchers identified several dimensions which are critical to facilitating teamwork in the virtual environment these are: presence, communication, technology, rendering, interaction, and team process. Each of these are defined as:

The term “presence” is related to a wide field of research. Lombard and Ditton identified six different explications of presence that have been used in the literature: presence as • social richness, the extent to which the medium is perceived as sociable, warm, sensitive, or personal when it is used to interact with other people; • realism, the extent to which a medium can seem perceptual and/or socially realistic; • transportation , the sensations of “you are there,” “it is here,” and/or “we are together”; • immersion, the extent to which the senses are engaged by the mediated environment; • social actor within medium, the extent to which the user responds socially to a representation of a person through a medium; and • medium as social actor, the extent to which the medium itself is perceived as a social actor (e.g., treating computers as social entities2
(retrieved from, 10/09/09)

Communication: having the tools to effectively collaborate and communicate in and out of Second Life is critical. Second Life has group features which allow for group text chat and voice chat as well as voice and text chat in "local" venues and one on one private voice/text chat.

Technology: The researchers also addressed the issue of technology. Technology does impact the ability of teams to form and work together. While a platform may have excellent technology on the sending end of things it is only as good as the technology on the user end. Because of this one must the technology of Second Life and other virtual worlds too sophisticated, does it impede the use of virtual worlds in learning, can it be ubiquitous?

Rendering: Rendering is defined as the ability to create life like images on the screen and it is supported by the capabilities of personalization of an avatar appearance; they can also have a personal focus through direct contact with other avatars. One may find communication, immersion and presence enhanced by the ability to demonstrate non verbal speaking animations in world.

Interaction: While this is noted by the researchers I believe it relates back to communication and is the underlying theme of team processes.

Team Processes: The researchers note that effective tools and strategies are not completely in place to facilitate collaboration in virtual worlds.

In review it is evident that it was not the mission of Linden Labs/Second Life to provide the design or game design to users to address and solve problems. Instead Linden Labs provides the means to allow user to be creative in designing their own space, groups, communicating, and games. The user has to stratgize how to implement these. It goes without saying that in achieving this aim users are challenged, the platform is sometimes not malleable in meeting these demands, however there is evidence of success. Recognition goes to those users who are savvy enough to use the tools available to them to be creative, to be innovative and develop a learning environment that meets the needs of their students. In reflection I now recognize that Second Life will not give you a "cookie cutter" approach to addressing the needs for presence, communication, technology, how to develop teams and team processes..but will provide you with the tools and the expectation that you, as user, will design those aspects to best meet your needs.