Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

Start with clarity of intent.

Now build it out with an evocative vision. Improvise progress by tinkering: with lots of trial and lots of error. The not knowing is the best bit: the mysteries the surprises, and from time to time the windfalls! 

Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

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What if a school subject was 3D?

Read on to see how Tim Barrett is creating a school subject in 3D virtual form, so that students literally walk through the course in a virtual world.

You may be aware we established a new 3D virtual island using free software called "Open Sim". This is open source software, meaning it was created by volunteers who allow anyone to use it without paying. Admittedly, we do then have to pay a company, "Reaction Grid", to run the software for us. This is as cheap s $75 a month, and they take much of the hassle out of actually getting your virtual world to work. This is much less expensive than Linden Lab's Second Life, where we run our original island.

This new Open Sim island is 8 times as large as our original, and we have a great deal more control over it, including the ability to allow our young primary students to access the world.

I've been spending some time preparing the island for a huge influx of students. I've already granted some students access, and also created an account for every member of staff at our school (they've been wandering in out of curiosity and having a walk around!)

The next step is for me to recruit student leaders from every grade and train them up rigorously to be 'moderators' of the new virtual world. They will protect the space against misbehaviour, cyber-bullying, or vandalism. They will set the tone and culture of the virtual world.

I've been busy 'terra-forming' our virtual world, adding trees, streams, and a huge mountain, so students have something to explore when they first log in. I've disabled flying so they have to walk around, unless they program for themselves a car or plane.

When they first log in, this is what they will see:

They have an invitation to follow a forest path through to a 'sandbox', which is an area of the virtual world where any student can start building.

They also see another arrow:

You see, I don't want students to feel forced into doing the training immediately. They can walk through the forest for a bit, if they want, but they'll be told they have to do the training before they wander far!

So, the student follows the arrow towards training, and sees:

There are some simple posters telling the student to approach the booth and click on it. What happens next is quite magical: the Open Sim software sends a signal to our 'Moodle' course management software and links the students virtual world account to their general school learning account. Many thanks to my colleague Grant Harbor for his input and assistance in getting this to work!

From this point onwards, a whole variety of 3D objects will recognise them. These 3D objects are virtual manifestations of learning materials that would have otherwise just been listed on a Moodle subject web page in our school poral.

Let me give you an example. I've not yet created the rest of the training course, I've just put in a proof-of-concept test object. Let's look at it:

In Moodle, I created a student survey question – do they prefer cats or dogs? Then, in our 3D world I made that survey question appear in 3D form. This means the student can answer the question in the virtual world, rather than in the text-based environment of a Moodle page. The student clicks on the coloured bar indicating their vote. Over time the two bars, red and green, will grow to show the proportion of students voting for each.

Contrast this 3D virtual world learning format to a bog-standard Moodle page, which looks like this:

And, of course, Moodle by itself, even though very text-based, is powerful and at our school has thoroughly disrupted the role of teacher-as-distributor-of-information and even teacher-as-director-of-students and recast their role as a mentor or coach. With learning resources at their fingertips, students are free to work at their own pace and in their own way, and we've seen them really thrive because of this.

However, as great as Moodle is, do you see the possibilities of a virtual-world manifestation of Moodle course activities?

Rather than working down a text web page, students could literally walk through a course. The subject could be set out like a village. Lessons could be cast as buildings in specific genres: shops, museums, banks… meeting halls, fiery lakes with a rickety bridge, mountains defended by dragons (defeat the dragon with learning!), and so forth.

The student might start with a map, and find their own path through the course. The starting point could be a crossroads with four signs. Students follow the path they choose. The road could fork. Students could be required to collect 'tokens' indicating mastery of each subject module. It's study, Burke and Wills style!

For Maths and Science students could undertake their own construction projects, creating 3D objects and simulations.

In History, great moments and turning points could be re-enacted by avatars, or even rewritten speculatively, with the enactment recorded as a video for online publication and teacher feedback and assessment. An assessment might be for a full three-week role play, where students are assigned social roles, (peasant, merchant, king, priest) and a context and must interact authentically for the historical context. This would also be a great spur for reflective writing.

In English, the 3D space would become a role-play space, a performance space, a publication space, an inspiration space. Chapters of texts could be recreated by students, so the book becomes alive with living landscape and personalities. Watch now as a Year 11 student meets Pip or plays the role of Miss Havisham. So too might King Lear rage at the storm. (Cue 3D storm now! And… action!).

And don't get me started about Visual Arts! What a match!

Don't get me wrong on one point: our new island will NOT be content-driven. As with our original Second Life space, students will be the major 'owners' of the space, literally building the world & the online culture over the coming months.

But they won't be the only builders!

Our first steps into true virtual 3D courses are beginning immediately with my dear colleague Mr Tim Barrett: http://twitter.com/tim__barrett

Tim is our school chaplain and has been teaching 'Studies of Religion' for a few years now in an entirely online mode, and in a face to face mode.

He will be our pioneer at taking everything we've learnt about student learning in Moodle, and recreating the learning in a 3D space.

It might blow up in his face! Maybe it won't work! This is an experiment – our first steps!

But imagine, students walking through mosques, cathedrals, churches, temples, monasteries, or recreating scenes or situations at Medina, Galilee, Bodh Gaya. Consider: the imagination gives us the power to connect with 'otherness', putting ourselves in others' shoes and gaining insight into the universal human condition. In Tim's course, students will literally walk in the shoes of others. Not a bad thing, since many of our students are from the culturally monolithic northern beaches of Sydney.

I'll keep you posted (and I am sure Tim will too, over at http://www.chaplaincymatters.org/). To hear what happens next, subscribe to my blog – look for the button in the right hand column of this page.

As always I welcome and will be delighted by your comments!

I'll finish with some more images of our work-in-progress virtual island: