Second thoughts about Second Life

I was pleasantly surprised by a flurry of faculty interest in Second Life earlier this week. Normally, when faculty express interest in integrating technology into teaching and learning, I am thrilled. However, I have to admit, this time I was less excited, and here’s why.

I have been in and out of Second Life (SL) for several years. Each time I engaged SL it was to explore its potential for teaching and learning. Admittedly, there was much in SL which interested me. But, I came away each time feeling that the teaching I experienced in SL was “ho hum”, or worse. Nevertheless, I keep going back thinking that I would discover one more thing that will really make a difference in my opinion of SL as a teaching tool. My latest visit of SL in December 2009 was kind of fun. But, again I walked away scratching my head. This week I started digging on the Web to find experimental research evaluating SL’s effectiveness as a teaching tool. I have not found much useful research as yet, but I am just getting started. I will begin searching scholarly journal databases this week. At this time however, I am claiming my right as a bona fide geezer to take the “Harrumph!” position towards SL.

Can you think of one popular online tool or technology that hasn’t been touted as the newest way to engage students, and improve learning? I think we as educators are just too ready to adopt and promote the latest & greatest technology for teaching and learning without evaluating its true effectiveness. Don’t misunderstand me. I LOVE technology; I make my living with it. I simply feel that teaching using something new (even though SL is no longer “new), is not as important as teaching well.

As I move deeper into my research on SL, here are the thoughts running through my head:

  • In a learning context, how do I square what the research suggests about cognitive overlead with a rich, busy, complex environment like SL?
  • What topics/subjects/disciplines are most likely to benefit from learning interactions within SL?
  • How should teaching in SL differ from a classroom approach?
  • Who does SL include/exclude?
  • In a learning context, does the use of avatars actually make communication more authentic/personal?

If you know of experimental research on SL, please let me know. I’ll report my findings as I go along.


Silvia Tolisano’s recent post “Never was about technology – Time to focus on learning” raises the question of technology’s true contribution to the teaching/learning process. However, it was a quote from Conor Bolton that caught my attention and led me down a specific path of ideas:

Poor teaching + technology = Expensive poor teaching

I would have to agree with Mr. Bolton. Simply adding a specific technology to our instructional strategies does not automatically result in improved student learning outcomes. If anything, I am convinced we need to make improving our teaching skills a high priority. Just as we encourage our students to engage in methodical metacognitive habits, we should be engage in ongoing self-evaluation of our teaching, as well as researching and implementing sound pedagogical praxis. Perhaps the best teachers are also the best learners.

The specific path my thought followed after reading Ms. Tolisano’s post is probably somewhat afield of her intent, but it went something like this:

  • We tend to teach as we were taught
  • Outside schools of education, most academic disciplines do not teach one how to teach
  • Most colleges/universities require only advanced or terminal degrees in a discipline in order to teach. Good pedagogical skills are not.
  • Many faculty are not comfortable admitting they need to improve their teaching skills.
  • Many institutions keep faculty so busy with teaching loads, advising, committees, research, etc. that finding time to improve teaching skills is difficult.

What would happen if an institution adopted a 5 year plan in which all faculty were required to both successfully complete a program of professional development designed to make them master teachers, and implement their master teacher skills in the classroom or online?

Granted, such a 5 year program would need to cover a broad range of issues, and I am not sure what would be covered. But, I think a radical approach that puts the importance of teaching quality on par with being an expert in a given discipline would put feet on institutional claims of excellence.

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Moodle & Google – A promising match


Not that long ago Google announced the availability of a  new service connecting Google apps to specific Moodle courses. This enables faculty to integrate Google apps directly into their Moodle courses, and to require students to use the Google apps to produce course assignments.

The integration of Google apps into a Moodle course if fairly robust. Creating user accounts in Google apps automatically creates a Gmail account for each user. Further, each Google app displays the course  name, reminding users that they are connected to their online course.

Having direct access for my students to Google apps within my online courses is exciting since I love the Google apps for online collaboration. But more than that, I see this new partnership as another indicator the idea of the LMS is being redefined, or re-imagined. What might this mean for Blackboard?

iTunes U Follow-up

What a nice surprise. Three subsequent attempts to upload large video files to an iTunes U course site succeeded without a hitch. More surprising, 2 of the files were >400Mb! Huzzah!

This kind of reliability may enable some faculty to upload their own media files, which would potentially provide workload relief for our staff.

Ironically, after 2 years of Apple telling us the problem was not on their end, it appears their upgrade solved the problem. I guess it was on their end after all.

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iTunes U – An Encouraging Improvement

The Potential & Dissapointment of iTunes U“. My greatest disappointment was the fact we could not reliably upload any file with a size greater than 100Mb. Often it took 2, 3, 4, or more attempts to successfully upload a larger audio or video file. In one case it took us 3 weeks of trying to upload a large video.

Recently, Apple updated the iTunes U backend providing new functionality and flexibility. Yesterday I decided to test the “new & improved” version of iTunes U by uploading the video file that took us 3 weeks to load. Call me jaded. Call me skeptical. But, I did not expect it to work. No one was more surprised than I to find the file actually uploaded successfully on the first try. No “time out” errors, no error of any kind.

So after a year and a half of investing, configuring, tweaking, and a lot of hair pulling, perhaps we have turned a corner. Don’t remind me that Apple iTunes U forum experts assured us there was no problem on their end. Don’t remind me that we invested heavily in an end-to-end Apple solution to get reliable uploads to iTunes U. I will be doing additional tests to see if my first success was a statistical outlier. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Apple’s upgrade of iTunes U has finally addressed a critical reliability issue. I’ll let you know the results of further testing.

Building a Custom Pop Screen for Under $10

If you do more than a small amount of audio recording you will eventually run into the problem of the “popping p’s” and the hissing of sibilent s sounds. A pop screen is the perfect solution, but the expense of a pop screens may be hard to justify in a time of shrinking budgets.

Jake Ludington posted a brilliant little “how-to” article on building a custom pop screen for under $10 USD! It’s amazingly simple, and worth the read.

Audio Recording Basics

Tom Kuhlmann (Rapid eLearning Blog) provides some excellent basic pointers  for recording high quality audio.

It’s not surprising that paying attention to the “basics” of audio recording results in a good recording. However, it is surprising how few people know the “basics” of good audio recording. Fortunately, as Tom shows, they are simple and easy to do.

The Rising Wave of Collaboration – Google Wave

While wandering through blog sites I came across an article on Google Wave at Joho the Blog. My curiosity was piqued, so I watched the lengthy demo of Wave given at the Google IO 2009 developers conference. The Rassmuson brothers (software geniuses who gave us Google Maps) have developed a potentially transformative product called Wave.

Wave represents (IMHO) a paradigmatic change in thinking about online communication. Google plans to release Wave later this year. The fact that the engine will be released as open source may result in tsunami of fascinating web-based, in-browser apps that begin to redefine how we think about email, IM, Twitter, blogging, Wikis, etc.

Rather than trying to describe Wave, check out some of the features demonstrated in the Google presentation. Given the length of the video, you may want to scrub through some of the “talking” parts to quickly get to various feature demos.

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Engaging Students with Xtranormal

I stumbled across a link to in an Alan Levine presentation, and was intrigued with the concept of creating presentations with animated characters. Even more intriguing was the claim that all I needed to do is type the script. I couldn’t resist, so I took my previous post on “Post-LMS Era” and used it (with very minor modifications as the script for my xtranormal “movie”.

The movie took about 45-60 minutes to complete, including adding camera angles, actor gestures, etc. While my blog script does not make for riveting dialog, it may be a useful way to demonstrate the potential of xtranormal’s online tools. I can see the potential of this tool for creating fun, engaging learning objects.

Check out the xtranormal site, or view my movie below.

Life After the LMS or, The Post-LMS Era

The recent announcement of Blackboard’s absorption of their biggest LMS competitor -Angel, leads me to think we are moving toward a new era of delivery systems for online learning. As a user and admin of Web-CT, e-College, and Blackboard I appreciate their relative strengths and weaknesses. My brief exploration of Angel gave me a glimpse of really well thought out design. My boss, in fact, asked me the other day if our university should consider moving to Angel. Three years ago we upgraded our basic Blackboard installation to the Enterprise version, and integrated it with our business systems. The integration has been a huge step forward in terms of automation and scalability. However, the price tag is more than a little scary.

The cost of Blackboard has steadily increased, and represents a substantial portion of a tuition-driven operating budget. What is Blackboard’s incentive to moderate their pricing when their biggest competitor is now on their books as an asset? Yes, Blackboard has begun bundling new premium features into its system (e.g. Wimba Pronto Basic, Echo360, etc.) at no extra cost, but that does not change the bottom line cost to the university.

Some in the blogosphere are hinting that we are looking at the end of the LMS. Responders to Michael Feldstein’s open questions about the future of the LMS suggest the possibility of mashing up Web 2.0 tools as an LMS alternative. That might work for some individual courses, but from an enterprise standpoint it simply is not scalable.

I would love to see the Moodle community seriously tackle the re-design of the core Moodle engine, separating the LMS engine from the presentation layer. If Moodle allowed me to easily create course layouts and structures other than the frenetically busy 3-column layout, I would become the evangelist for moving to Moodle. As it is however, I simply cannot abide the cognitive overload inducing 3-column layout. Yes, I know I can create custom templates. But, that is neither simple or permanent. If I upgrade my Moodle install I will have to re-install my custom templates.

Moodle developers everywhere: This is your clarion call to re-work the core Moodle code, and by doing so providing breakthrough power and flexibility in an open source LMS. Moodle market share is growing strong. But, imagine the flood of adoption that could occur if Moodle was re-designed for instructional design flexibility.

What do you think about the merger?

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