An alternative to VW teaching?

This blog has been on a bit of a hiatus, as I have been going through quite a few changes, leaving my position at Ohio State, taking a long and well-deserved break, and starting out as a consultant in Virtual Worlds Education. In this post, I’ll try to get things up to date.

In my last year at Ohio State I decided, for many reasons, to give one last try at old-fashioned online teaching, based in a learning management system (OSU’s version of Desire 2 Learn). However, I just couldn’t go all the way and only use the learning management system, I find them all so distressingly regimented and controlling. I like automatic quizzes, I like automatic submission of written work, and I like posting grades there. That’s about it.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 5.24.57 PM I looked around for something that would complement my D2L site, just as I had used my Second Life classroom to provide an animated social space.  I wanted a program that encouraged exchanges between students, one they would find interesting and easy to use, and that would spark interest with a lot of colour and movement.  I did quite a lot of research, and the only thing I liked was VoiceThread.  So I plunked down my cash and gave it a try.

VoiceThread has been around for quite some time now. It’s a cloud application that requires no special software to access it, and it’s also available on tablets. I have found that fewer and fewer of my students have problems with the technical demands of Second Life, but there are always a couple, and I do spend a good deal of time at the beginning of term dealing with orientation. With VoiceThread, I had only a few problems, and one was resolved by my student submitting work using her telephone.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 5.12.32 PMThe program allows you to control a private website full of student presentations, and if you prefer, it’s pretty easy to embed them in the learning management system.  You can also make presentations public, which allows you to invite people into your classroom. Comments can be made on the presentation itself, either in text or in voice. You can set up pages with different privacy levels, allowing for group work. It’s all pretty intuitive, and it didn’t take me very long to get used to it.

I set up my VoiceThread class in much the same way as I had set up my Second Life classes. In addition to the usual quizzes and submissions in the learning management system, each student was assigned two very short presentations on a class topic (ten slides, ten minutes, no more than ten words on each slide, ending with a citation from the text that the class can discuss). As with my Second Life presentations, these strict rules made it easier for the students to assimilate the presentations, and this provoked better discussions. Discussions in VoiceThread were not as natural as in Second Life, but it didn’t take very long to get them participating.

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Clickable logos at the left of each slide make student responses easy to read/hear

The great difference between VoiceThread and VW teaching is that it is asynchronous. Students who are new to my SL classroom are often aghast at the idea they will have to participate twice a week, at the same time and on the same days. VoiceThread conforms much more to their preconceptions of online education. On the other hand, I have found that getting students to attend a twice weekly class session completely changes their attitude toward the class and strengthens their commitment to learning.

Another difference is the absence of the avatar in VoiceThread. Even though online students often don’t know each other, they are identified, and codes of behavior come into play. In my Second Life classroom, students use their own names if they wish, but they may also choose their identity, like the fondly remembered student who went through an entire semester as a giant pitcher of Kool Aid, because she wanted to have a non-gendered classroom experience.

After a semester of using VoiceThread, I would recommend it to anyone who is hesitant to use a virtual worlds classroom.  It’s easy to set up, intuitive, and the presentations my students created were colourful, interesting, and informative. It’s a flexible program that can be integrated into a LMS, and it requires very little effort for students to learn how to use it. It’s very good.  But I, however, have fallen deeply, madly in love with teaching in a virtual space. My semester with quasi-traditional technology hasn’t cured that.

Bread and Roses: reopening at LEA 13

bread truck_006The Bread and Roses exhibit began as an exploratory exercise for my Women’s Studies 1110 class, way back in the winter of 2013. At that time, I just wanted to combat the too-prevalent idea that history is “one story,” a story that can be wrapped up in a neat little package, and filed away until exam time. I wanted student to wander through a street scene, and be able to learn the different perspectives that played a role in the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike of 1912.

I also wanted to immerse my students in the historical period, so I gave them avatars in period clothing, and I tied their success in completing the exercise to their performance at “the mill,” where they simulated working on noisy and dangerous machines. It worked out to be a very immersive space where students could practice exploratory learning.

bread truck_003

The first class really liked the exercise, and so I kept building on it, until it got quite large. This spring I applied for a Linden Endowment for the Arts grant, so I could have the space to add in other issues that were current at the time–the growing temperance and suffrage movements, domestic violence issues, and troubling racial undercurrents. It’s proved to be a pretty overwhelming task, but it is now open to the public, and I really hope you’ll go see it, and let me know what you think.

The exhibit is set up for people who are new to Second Life. It begins with a long dark hallway with instructions on how to use the program. You’ll probably want to skip through that, but there’s also a mailbox that gives a notecard list of questions for students. You don’t need this to appreciate the exhibit, but some people might find it useful.


The best way to see the exhibit is to click on everything you see, particularly images, to gain an insight into the thinking of the people of that time period. The exhibit itself will change and grow over the coming months, as student projects are underway that will eventually be included.

If you’d like to go, here’s the link:

If you are new to Second Life, begin with the instructions on this page:

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee: Inventory-based teaching in SL

Last week I gave a workshop on inventory-based teaching in Second Life for participants in the SLMOOC 14, Teaching and Learning in Virtual Environments.  The basic point of the presentation was that educators are capable of creating many different learning activities using the very simplest of Second Life tools. Anyone can learn to do this, even those who have never rezzed a prim. For me, inventory-based teaching means using things you can quickly drag out of your inventory and erase when you’re done with them — sort of like a 3D blackboard.

We conducted the workshop in the sandbox platform on Minerva, and I also gave links for a tour of the island, which is chock-full of stuff right now, as we’ve just finished reviewing for finals. Before I take it all back into inventory, however, I thought I would leave it out for a while and get feedback from my fellow teachers.


If you’re interested in having a look around, go to the Minerva OSU landing point and click on the blue sign. That will give you the notecard I used for the workshop, and it has directions to the classroom, as well as links to skybox learning activities (these are fairly complex installations, and not what I would call “inventory-based teaching”). I’m going to leave all my stuff up for the month of May. If you do go, and you have feedback for me, I’d really appreciate it, either on this blog or by e-mail (elliebrewster-at-gmail).

If you’ve never used Second Life before, here are a few tips on getting started:



Water: a women’s issue

The recent Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Conference has made me think a lot about connections.  If you go back and look at the conference schedule, you’ll be struck by the number of presentations that were concerned with building a stronger and more connected educational community.  My own paper at VWBPE discussed how we can use each other’s work in our teaching; I talked about how much I owe to the work of others, and after a tour of my teaching space, I asked participants for ideas about how they might use what I have built for my classes.

Many of my field trip assignments are visits to sites that at first don’t seem to be related to women’s and gender studies. However, students soon learn to make the connections. I’ve just marked a paper that demonstrates this very clearly, and with my student’s permission, I would like to share it with you.

center f water studies_001After studying the question of whether water is a women’s issue, my student visited The Center for Water Studies on Better World Island. Her reaction to the site demonstrates the power of situated learning in an immersive space, and shows how a bright student can use spaces like this one to work through important issues. I love the connection she makes between violence against women and environmental destruction.


Field Trip to the Center for Water Studies, by Elaine Riley (SL)

I took a very interesting field trip today to the Center for Water Studies in Second Life. When I first got there I was on a beach. This climate was a warm water ocean environment. There were other environments on this little island including a red wood forest, a small duck pound with beavers. There was also a waterfall with a natural spring. It was very beautiful.

I also found a wheel chair on the beach and in my mind I was thinking ‘why would there be a wheel chair on the beach?’ I found out that there is a wheel chair on the beach to open people’s minds to new experiences and step outside their norms. People can explore the ocean and island in the wheel chair in order to experience the virtual world around them in a different way.

Well, I was ready to open up my mind and see and learn about everything this place was willing to teach and show me. I found that there was a charity at this center in Second Life called Charity: Water is matching donations made in second life. They believe that the water crisis can be solved. I found this charity’s purpose to be very moving.

As I kept exploring I flew up to this blue platform that was full of information about our oceans. I learned that when companies dump their toxic wasted into our oceans and rivers and lakes it causes some serious consequences. First the waste is toxic so it is poisonous to humans, animals and even plants. All of our rivers, lakes, and oceans are connected so the waste might only be dumped in some areas but it will eventually spread. When the water is evaporated it then goes into our atmosphere and then can be returned to the earth as precipitation. Now the water has made its full cycle and can be found in our soil. This means that the toxic chemicals and poison find their way into our food so we are ingesting them, breathing them, and drinking them. This is a very scary thought.

To me, water is the essence of life. We need it to live but it also gives us something more. It provides us with fun and adventure through water activities like swimming, boating, and fishing. Water is peaceful and beautiful. One of the most relaxing things is to sit by water and just listen to all of the sounds. The ocean usually makes me feel calm, happy, and curious. I have always found water and water life to be extremely interesting and I love to learn about the different species and plant life under the water. When I was exploring under water at first it was really cool to see all these things in a virtual world, Water is important to humans because it is the source of life, but it also provides us with entertainment and fun activities to do. There are definitely practical uses and fun uses of water, but it is more than that as well. Water and the places like the ocean definitely make a person feel that there is so much more out there. It puts things into perspective that the ocean is so vast and the world so large.

All of these thoughts were flooding my mind when I was exploring, but then I came across the pollution. This started to make me feel sad and anxious. I started to read about all of the pollution and I was looking at all of the terrible pictures of the pollution and the wildlife that were being hurt or even killed by the waste. I found information about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the central North Pacific Ocean. It is hard to determine exactly how large the garbage patch is because most of the debris is right at or right below the surface of the water, which makes it hard to detect. Some estimates of its size are 700,000 square kilometers to more than 15,000,000 square kilometers. The sources of toxic waste in the oceans include human activities, company’s waste, sewage, and run-off pollution from pesticides, just to name a few. After I was done exploring and learning I thought about Suzanne Pharr’s article, which a portion is listed below.

Suzanne Pharr’s article, “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism:”

“On the day that I stopped reacting to attacks and gave my time Instead to visioning, this simple germinal question came forth for the Workshops: “What will the world be like without homophobia in it—for everyone, female and male, whatever sexual identity?” Simple though the question is, it was at first shocking because those of us who work in the anti-violence movement spend most of our time working with the damaging, negative results of violence and havelittle time to vision. It is sometimes difficult to create a vision of a world we have never experienced, but without such a vision, we cannot know clearly what we are working toward in our social change work.”

This passage makes me think that if the world were able to move past all of these negative thoughts and if social change really did happen then we would be able to focus on things like environmental change. If we all just cared and loved for one another then that love would also continue to our planet including all of our oceans, and wildlife. Water is a women’s issue because just like women are disregarded and oppressed so is our environment.



Virtual Harlem Rises Again

Dr. Bryan Carter of the University of Arizona spoke last night at San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Sciences in Second Life.  Bryan is a  specialist in African American literature of the 20th century, and he has a particular interest in the Harlem Renaissance. He’s worked on various incarnations of The Virtual Harlem Project for over fifteen years, and began building in Second Life in 2006. Not much later, I began bringing gaggles of Women’s Studies students on field trips, and sometimes we were lucky enough to have our trips coincide with a cultural event, a jazz concert or art exhibit that really gave depth to our work for the night.

I particularly remember our visit to Le Cactus, an art installation by Maya Paris, where students could put on costumes and animate their avatars to the music of Josephine Baker. Music and movement add so much to the learning experience, as Laurie Landry’s machinima demonstrates:

Unfortunately, as with many of the great sims, Virtual Harlem and its companion site, Virtual Montmartre, are no longer in Second Life. But Bryan hasn’t slowed down at all.  He’s moved Virtual Harlem and Virtual Montmartre to Open Sim, and he’s also started work on a much more detailed and realistic version in Unity3D.

It’s always encouraging to talk with Bryan, he is so enthusiastic, yet so level-headed. He reminded us all of the many advances that are going on right now in our field, and talked about possibilities outside of Second Life. I was particularly interested in his work with Arizona State students in  The Virtual WorldWide Web project. This project is in the alpha stage right now, but should open in beta in a couple of months; screenshots in the video below demonstrate the stunning quality of this work. Virtual WorldWide Web is also developing Curio, a 3D web browser that will make access to sites much easier.

ONE BILLION RISING: 24-hour event on Friday

All-day event on February 14,2014

One Billion Rising is a campaign to focus attention on the violence suffered by women all over the world.  In Second Life, there will be music, poetry, informational displays and artwork by well-known SL artists. It’s a very uplifting experience; I’ll be spending as much time as I can there on Friday. I like to meet and talk with people, and the exhibits can be very powerful.

If you haven’t ventured into Second Life before, there are some useful tips on getting started here:

Learn more about the campaign here:

The SL campaign is here:

To Build or Not To Build

We’re finishing up with the Distributed Open Collaborative Course on Women and Technology, and one of the last things I’ve done in this course is show visiting students how to build. I have to admit, it was a hoot, and I hope they had as good a time as I did. There are times when I wonder why I get paid for doing what I do.

Sandbox buildingStudents were working with ideas of labour and value, in connection with the excellent dialogue on Systems, one of my favorites from the course.  They had been assigned the task of making something and assessing its exchange value.  It seemed natural to bring them into Second Life and have them work there.

The students had done an orientation tour of Second Life, and had also participated in one of my Introduction to Women’s Studies classes, so they didn’t need to be shown how to orient themselves in the space. We did spend some time on finding the sandbox and getting students into the group that allowed them to build, but after that it was basically a case of me demonstrating something, and the students following along. Before long, we had an army of snowmen, a couple of dancing rabbits, and some very odd mushroom sculptures.

When the students had had time to explore the possibilities of building, I introduced an idea with an object, a musical candle that I made some years ago as a Second Life “seasons greeting” card. When clicked, the candle speaks a greeting and plays a tune. We had a fairly good discussion on the value of the candle within the economics of Second Life, while at the same time animating snowmen to send out jolly greetings.

Working with the students made me think of one of my earlier blog posts on the potential of “doodling” in Second Life. There is something about playing with concrete representations while working out abstract problems that is immensely satisfying to many of us. Somehow, the “play” of making things can make the ideas much more intense. I also think that the objects created within a “doodling” lesson would be powerful memory tools.


This experience has made me rethink the use of building in my classes. I used to have students finish the course with an “open house,” where they presented their powerpoint slides, and I encouraged them to decorate their presentations with appropriate objects. My favourite was a presentation on environmental racism, which was surrounded in smoke and oozed sludge and slime. However, with some really splendid exceptions, most of my class found the open house to be extra work at the end of an already crowded term, so I dropped it.

Perhaps I gave up on building too soon. There are ways to connect building to class discussion in a way that is not demanding, and in a classroom situation it is less important if the student doesn’t get it right the first time. It would be a good way to assess student involvement during class discussion, and it would be less difficult for the student if building were picked up as incidental learning during short lessons over the whole term, rather than facing the more stressful task of making something for guests at the end of term.

I’m going to give this a try.