A Seacoast in Bohemia

First Class
August 30, 2007, 1:38 am
Filed under: Class Notes

Today my genetics class visited Second Life for the first time.  It was a landmark event for me, and especially since it was originally supposed to have happened last week.  However, the laboratory is scheduled on Wednesday, and we all know what Weird Wednesdays can bring.  Rescheduling this lab would lead to unfortunate domino effects in the biology, chemistry, math and physics schedules, so we’ll be playing Wednesday Roulette from time to time. 

But never mind about that.  It was the first time since last spring that my own students have been able to visit Genome Island, and the first time ever that they’ve been able to get in at the beginning of the term instead of at the very end.  I know that they will be teaching me a lot about how operations on the Island should be organized.  In a sense, even though Genome Island has been under development for over two years, it is still an untested hypothesis about how students learn in the immersive and interactive environment of Second Life. 

cv_tshirt.jpgWe had quite a rough orientation experience.  I dutifully went through the orientation process with a newly created avatar a few weeks ago so that I could anticipate what the students would be facing.  It was quick, smooth and uneventful.  Full of false confidence, I wrote up the lab handout, describing what they would encounter.  In addition to that, I had the well- organized newly created SciLands Orientation Walkway to help solidify the basic training of the Orientation Island.  I was READY!

Then Reality Struck!  We all found ourselves not only in different Orientation centers, but different from the one I have visited earlier and different from one another.  One student was unceremoniously dumped from her Orientation Island and moved to a watery nowhere.  I found the new places unsatisfactory, indeed nearly incomprehensible, and decided then to teleport the students to the SciLands Orientation Walkway.   We were all unable to teleport.  So finally I brought the students directly to Genome, thinking we could just fly over the short distance to the SciLands Orientation.  It was, alas, impenetrable, having been closed down for a tour of visitors.  

So I finally did what I probably should have done to begin with:  seated them all at the conference table in the Abbey and then went through a basic course of navigation, inventory management, avatar and costume adjustments and communications.  They had, in fact, also picked up a few skills in the course of our earlier bumbling, and were soon ready for the Great Genome Island Scavenger Hunt. 

The Scavenger Hunt is a method that other Second Life educators have found valuable for getting a class up and running quickly.  The students were given the “Guide to Genome” available at a click from the “What’s Here” sign associated with the teleport panels scattered around the island.  Then they were given a task list of snapshots, notecards, information and objects to collect from various places around the Island.  When a couple of the tasks proved confusing,  I checked the directions, set them on the right path and promptly rewrote the directions for next time. 

jr_dts-with-mixollama-herd.jpgWatching the students work confirmed earlier impressions about how this environment works best.  The students went through their task list in different orders, and were soon scattered all over the Island.  As they solved various bits of the puzzle, each of them became instant “experts” on the area they had visited and could pass their experience to others in the group.  I had seated them in pairs at the lab computers so that they could confer and help each other, but new groupings arose as they moved from task to task. 

In addition, Elizabeth Gloucester, who wrote the notecards for the Garden of Prokaryote Genomes, dropped in and met one of the students.  Since Elizabeth teaches at a medical school, and the student has her sights set on medical school, they were soon in a lively conversation, wonderfully illustrating the opportunities for connecting with the numerous interesting people who hang out in Second Life. 

It was a good day.  My plan had been to begin the orientation process with the morning class and then return in the early afternoon for the scavenger hunt.  I thought that the frustrations of the introduction might have left them all too ready for the noon break.  However several of the students decided just to stay in world and worked right through lunch.  Others took a short break and then returned to their computers to press on.  They showed incredible flexibility in the face of the glitches that can plague Second Life — closed regions, periods of lag, crashing computers, and all the rest of it.  I was very proud of them and also of the opportunity they have to learn in this new environment. 

As we continue through this year, I’ll be recording our First Class experiences, and will invite their comments as well.