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.

Building Capacity for Learning: towards a Library 2.0

On August 27, I attended the Library & IT Services Innovation Lecture at Tilburg University.  The speaker was Stephen Abram, SirsiDynix’s Vice President of Innovation. His talk was titled “Building Capacity for Learning: Affordable Technology Preparedness“.  Stephen held a passionate plea for reform of university library practice, urging librarians to fully embrace rather than feel threatened by the Web 2.0-and-beyond world that students live in. Stephen raised many interesting points, a few of which I will mention here, as they are so relevant to collaborative and learning community capacity building in general.

The rate of library change is going to be orders of magnitude higher than before, we ain’t seen nothing yet. There is going to be a change of paradigm. To mention only a few of many fundamental changes that will need to be absorbed : e-books, the dawn of a “paragraph-level instead of an article based universe”, the role of libraries in distance education, and so on.

Context of use is all important. For example, there are hundreds of citation styles, but who (besides librarians!) uses which particular styles in which workflows? A fundamental issue is how to move content into context?  Facts out of context are useless. Rather than overloading students with facts, universities should be teaching them the processes that let them get the facts when they need them.  For instance, they should deeply understand the politicized knowledge processes like web search engine retrieval results manipulation. More in general, what are the information literacy pieces needed to contribute to the students’ success? Rather than working with isolated steps, we should work with an information ecology.  Professors, TAs, students and so on should all be trained at the community level.

Using Web 2.0 thinking will be essential to accomplish these goals. Basically, the meaning of Web 2.0 is “the things you can do times the people you know”. For librarians, this means that they are not anonymous, interchangeable staff, but accessible individuals with unique skills who interact intensively with their student community.  Social software like Facebook could play an important role supporting this process, e.g. through the wise use of pictures and descriptions.

In sum, the main question is: how do we prepare library staff to do things and know people? In the “Library 2.0”, the user is at the centre, not the librarian. Web 2.0 tools are affordable and easy to experiment with. We should not be afraid to try and make errors, such an experimental approach is the best way to learn how to empower students by building on their skills. The Special Libraries Association Innovation Library has a wealth of resources to discover and discuss emerging Web 2.0 software learning tools and see how they can be used in the library context of the future.

My first visit to SchomeBase

070515_schomebase1_004I am currently visiting my colleague and good friend Mark Gaved, who works at the Knowledge Media Institute in Milton Keynes. He is involved in an absolutely fascinating Second Life project, Schome. Basically, it’s an exploration of new learning systems for the 21st century. SchomeBase is a pilot of trying out some of the Schome ideas in Second Life. There is also a closed teenage space called SchomePark. It’s been operating with 150 students for three months and is extremely active. It’s amazing what these kids have been able to build, script and how they are developing very complex social norms and practices to govern themselves. One of the best examples of a thriving virtual world I have come across so far! To get a feel, have a look at the beautiful Japanese garden, where the students studied philosophy guided by “Socratic Shepherd”, a researcher from the University of Warwick up to a few weeks ago.