Evaluation SURFnet pilot Active Worlds

After a very intense period of finishing projects, I am now recharging my research batteries. As I am travelling and networking a lot, time for my blog is limited. However, I will try to give brief summaries of some of the events I have attended recently, but not written about yet.

SURFnet provides a high-quality network specifically intended for higher education and research in the Netherlands. It is a subsidiary of the SURF organisation, in which Dutch universities, universities for applied sciences and research centres collaborate nationally and internationally on innovative ICT facilities. One of its R&D topics is how to use virtual worlds in higher education.

On October 1, an inspiring evaluation meeting was organized to discuss the results of a pilot using the Active Worlds virtual world environment. Several pilot projects that had been using Active Worlds for educational purposes in the past year presented their results. Interesting was the wide variety of applications, even in only such a small number of pilot projects. Overall, the gist was that virtual worlds can be very useful in education, as the constructivist, collaborative way of working in virtual worlds immerses students to the subjects in a much deeper way than allowed for by traditional textbook learning. However, this immersion comes at a cost, as considerable preparatory and facilitation efforts are required by lecturers for such projects to succeed.

Clearly, more advanced didactic approaches are needed to more effectively and efficiently apply virtual world resources in learning. Developing such innovative ways of using virtual worlds will require testbeds and more trials and (errors) by lecturers and students jointly. Many questions will need to be answered, ranging from which worlds to use (Active Worlds, Second Life, open source based environments?), when to lead and when to let students take the initiative, how to link virtual worlds to other web based resources, which collaborative and communicative workflows to define and support, and so on.

For another impression of this day, see the post by Inge Ploum.

Pitching social enterprises at The Hub

Having finished my portal project, I am in Berlin now. As it’s been a very intense project, I really felt the need to “reset my brain” and decided to have a creative breather in Berlin. It’s a great city to visit for such a purpose, and to get inspiration for new R&D ideas. At the end of the week, I will be attending Barcamp Berlin 3.0, more about that later.

To warm up, I attended a nice event organized by Self Hub Berlin yesterday. Such hubs are increasingly being established in cities all over the world as creative places for social entrepreneurs. I already visited The Hub Rotterdam, and was curious to find out how things are done in their Berlin counterpart.

Yesterday’s event was dubbed “Pitching for Inspiration” and allowed a number of new social entrepreneurs to present their visions and solicit feedback from fellow entrepreneurs and other interested members of the audience. Afterwards, there was space and time for informal discussion. There was quite a variety of themes. To give you an idea, presentations included proposals for an institute for intergenerational learning, an academy for developing and realizing visions, a network of experienced entrepreneurs helping new ones, a theatre of young people performing for primary and high school kids showing them how to better deal with conflicts, an organization  that aims to apply “wisdom of the crowds” by allowing many persons to vote on competing project proposals after a bidding period in which the proposers develop and defend their project ideas using blogs, an initiative to use web mashups to show wheelchair-barrier free locations in first Berlin, then Germany, then the world. There was also a presentation of an already established annual contest in which students can develop communications campaigns for non-profit organizations.

Most proposals were still in quite a premature stage, but it was nice to see the variety and enthusiasm with which they were presented. These hubs are all about developing relations, connecting ideas, and releasing energy, and there was plenty of all that around.

It is interesting to see how these hubs are very much place, i.e. city-based, yet at the same time they are part of a growing worldwide network, a “meta Hub”, as one of the participants called it. They remind me very much of Saskia Sassen’s work on the global and the local being necessarily very much intertwined when trying to understand what globalization really means.  In particular, these hubs seem to be a key example of thinking communities, for which providing a good communications infrastructure and location, as well as resolving a wide range of social, professional, and financial constraints is essential for their success.

The Tilburg University student portal at a glance

Some information on the Tilburg University student portal, which was launched on September 30, 2008:

Students target group page

Students target group page

The Tilburg University web site has dedicated information pages for the various target groups, including students, lecturers, and prospective students. Through the students target group page, students can login to their personal portal. The portal has been implemented in Blackboard, and integrated with its existing Digital Learning Environment. Once logged in, the student sees three tabs: My Study, My University and My Stuff. The portlets (channels or views on applications or information resources) on the portal tabs are by default only, and can be (re)moved by students as they like.

My Study page - part 1

My Study tab - part 1

My Study page - part 2

My Study tab - part 2

My Study page - part 3

My Study tab - part 3

My Study contains study-related portlets. The default portlets on the My Study tab include My Courses, My Course Announcements, My Study Facilities, Webmail Notifier, My Week Schedule, My Schedule Changes, My Exam Schedule, and Language Tools.

My University page - part 1

My University tab - part 1

My University page - part 2

My University tab - part 2

My University tab - part 3

My University tab - part 3

My University-portlets are related to the organizational context in which students study. Depending on the faculty a student is studying at, different faculty-related portlets are presented. The default portlets on the My University tab include Course Catalog, Organization Catalog, a Faculty Hotlist, Faculty News, Tilburg University News, This Week at Tilburg University, Univers News (the university newspaper), University Address Book, My Library Facilities, Library Search, News from the Faculty student associations, Portal News, and My Portal Suggestions.

My Stuff tab

My Stuff tab

The My Stuff tab is empty and can be filled with portlets by students as they like.

Modify content

Modify content

Modify layout

Modify layout

Using standard Blackboard functionality, students can select portlets from an ever growing list and add them to their tabs. This way, they can also modify the layout of their portal environment and portlets.

Student portal launch movie

Student portal launch movie

Communication with stakeholders has always had a very high priority in the project. A suggestion form is available, and suggestions are publicly accessible, and a weblog is used to communicate about the progress of the portal development. To prepare students (and other stakeholders) for the consequences of the changes in functionality, a series of electronic newsletters was published. To draw attention to the student portal, a humorous “all throughout history, mankind struggled with technology” launch movie was produced, together with the Tilburg University theatre sports association Rataplan (click here for the “Making Of”).