Son of a MOOC! (Or, what happens when you swallow the red pill.)

I located the MOOC Guide with an introduction written by Stephen Downes today. It is a very helpful potted history of MOOCs.

Screen shot of MOOC 2011 introduction
Screen shot of MOOC 2011 introduction
Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig's AI Course run from Stanford University
Section 13 of the MOOC Guide introduces the successful AI-Class run by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford University.

Below you can see a video of Sebastian Thrun describing his experience of co-teaching the AI class with Peter Norvig, over 100,000 people pre-registered for the course. Sebastian Thrun has received a lot of press for resigning his position at Stanford University following this spectacularly powerful teaching experience. He has turned away from the traditional teaching methods of academia so that he can concentrate on his new educational venture at where he states:

“We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low-cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.”

The talk in the YouTube video is about 24 minutes long but it is well worth listening to (especially if you are an educator). The talk gives a quick glimpse of the future of education and it makes you realize that education is going the way of the music and newspaper industries (to name just two fields irrevocably altered by the web). Here is a quote (somewhat paraphrased) from near the end of the talk by Sebastian:

“I feel like there is a red pill and a blue pill and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom of 20 students. But I have taken the red pill and I have seen Wonderland where we can change the world with education, if we can make education free for the world, accessible everywhere, we can help the developing world to become much better, much stronger… Along with using the digital medium I really want to stop empowering the professors, I want to empower the students.”

Steaming into Viewer 2

Sunset over the dreaming spires of Oxbridge Caledon
Sunset over the dreaming spires of The University of Caledon Oxbridge

If you feel the need to brush up on the finer points of the official Second Life viewer then perhaps it is time to take a stroll through the grand halls of the University of Caledon Oxbridge?  This Steampunk influenced location applies the theme of a Victorian museum crossed with a university, placing tutorials inside glass cabinets which are then organized into topic areas within ‘colleges’. Volunteers are available to help the true newbies who can be seen wandering wildly in circles bumping into walls and threatening to crack the glass of the display cases (possibly on the verge of abandoning Second Life forever). I observed a ‘Professor’ rescue one confused newbie (who was holding a shopping bag, the new newbie ‘give-away’) by offering guidance, plus words of encouragement, before dispatching them on their way across the campus.

Oxbridge orientation
The University of Caledon Oxbridge orientation starting point

Once you have landed at the university’s orientation starting point follow the arrows to each of the colleges listed below:

College of Avatar Motion
Walking, Running, Flying, Sitting Down, World Map, Using landmarks and Short Range Teleports.
College of Camera Control
Camera Controls, Keyboard and Mouse Controls, Screen Controls and Mouselook
College of Communication:
Chat, Instant Messaging, Friends, Groups, Voice Chat, Setting Up Voice Chat and Etiquette
College of Finding:
Finding Things, My Inventory, Find Window, Search All, Search Places and Classifieds and Search People
College of Avatar Customization:
Varities of Avatars, Shapes and Skins, Changing Clothing, Outfits, Attachments, Clothing Layers, Appearance Mode, Animation Override
College of Money and Commerce:
Linden Dollars, Using the Lindex, Buying Lindens, Buying Things, Free Stuff, Opening Boxes, Prims, Land

'Try Sitting' in the College of Avatar Motion
'Try Sitting' in the College of Avatar Motion
College of Camera Control
Preparing to focus attention in the College of Camera Control

At the end of the orientation you arrive at the Caledon Library of Oxbridge. This is the place to visit if you are remotely interested in researching Steampunk as it provides all manner of 19th Century book resources. You can seat your avatar in the library and read books online, simply click on the appropriate bookcases for web links links that will open your browser at Topic areas include 19th Century Art & Fashion, Children’s Books, Science Fiction and Proto Steampunk, Science & Technology, Fantasy & Fairytales to name a few. One bookcase is labeled as Steampunk Information and this takes you to Steampunk related blogs (beware a couple of these links are broken). Finally, avatars without premium accounts can find free digs on the university’s campus, other avatars with a little spending money can rent rather classy accommodations in the Oxbridge Mews.

Oxbridge Mews
Oxbridge Mews (note the penny farthing icon and number, a little homage to the mysterious show 'The Prisoner' with Patrick McGoohan.)


Desmond Shang – Founder of the University Caledon Oxbridge

University Caledon Oxbridge tutorial created by Carl Metropolitan.

Second Life – Why Would You Go There? #8 – To be a dancing banana

Bananas in Rubik Cubes dancing at Muddy's
Dancing banana avatars (wearing Rubik Cube skirts) enjoying a bop at Muddy’s Music Cafe

Q: Second Life – Why Would You Go There?

A: To be a dancing banana…wearing a Rubik cube skirt (of course).

These Dancing Banana avatar outfits were given to Friday night guests at Muddy’s Music Cafe. Music provided by DJ RayJay Baxton & Hostess Jaide Xue who was on hand with banana wearing wardrobe tips.

Now, what is so special about dancing banana avatars you may ask yourself? Well, I will give you a theory to ponder…I arrived at this theory following three days of attending the SharpBrains Virtual Summit titled ‘Technology for Cognitive Health and Performance’ held back in January (you can see the agenda and list of speakers over on the SharpBrains Summit site). One message we heard repeated at this conference was just how important it is for our brain health to experience both novelty and challenge as we age.  In recent years there has been considerable publicity for various brain games and a few fortunes have been made from the electronic versions of such games. The publicity has hinted that these games may prevent mental decline and keep our brains young etc. However, research does not prove that playing these games is quite the easy solution we would like to believe for avoiding diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The SharpBrains Summit suggested that we need to adopt a similar approach to brain fitness as we have towards cardiac fitness (both are related to each other). Brain fitness tends to reflect our lifestyles i.e. exercise, eating right, social relationships, getting enough sleep plus finding challenging and novel ways of stimulating our aging brains with new learning. I would like to add to this recipe the importance of a sense humor and playful imagination. Now (with a fanfare of virtual trumpets) this is where the banana avatars enter onto the cognitive stage.

Banana avatar (with Rubik cube skirt)
Banana avatar with Rubik Cube skirt (the skirt rotates through a range of color combinations).

As I have mentioned before, I teach Second Life to seniors with the average age of  72 though I often have older students including a sprightly 90 year old. (The 90 yr old told me that she loved to travel and Second Life gave her the opportunity ‘to go traveling’.) I believe Second Life has the capacity to provide layers of  ‘brain fitness’ experience. For a start, there is no doubt that it takes time to master the Second Life interface. I heard that IBM considers it takes 90 minutes of training to get its staff up to speed to enter the virtual world for a meeting. I am quite certain that it takes those same IBM staff days before they feel comfortable and confident enough to go gadding round Second Life without assistance. Linden Labs are endeavoring to make the whole user experience easier especially for newcomers. However, the fact that it is tricky to master presents a stimulating mental challenge, and it is the type of challenge that helps with brain fitness. Second Life (inadvertently) provides layers of ‘brain-gaming’ experience because once someone has mastered the basics they can then begin to explore the platform where they will inevitably encounter many puzzling challenges. These challenges are tied to running the technology (their own computers plus the platform) necessary to witness and participate in the vast array of visual sights. Students also find themselves laughing at both themselves and each other as they struggle their way through the surreal landscapes on their computer screens. After all, once a person has mastered how to wear a banana avatar, it is difficult to remain serious as you play this immersive 3D brain game. By the way, if you are reading this post and are unfamiliar with Second Life please be assured that you do not have to turn your avatar into fruits and vegetables to play! The banana avatar epitomizes the brain game perfectly as it provides both novelty and challenge.

Exploring Omega Point
Exploring Sweetlemon Jewell’s Omega Point in Second Life

Second Life is largely created by its users, and many of  these users are remarkably creative individuals who have collectively turned much of the platform into a vivid and highly imaginative space. However, if truth be told, many of these Second Life locations require us to use our problem-solving skills to witness the scenes in their full glory. For instance, when we visit a location such as the wonderful Macbeth Island we must solve various incidental puzzles to follow the play as it unfolds across the island’s moody landscape. Layers of thought are piled into the installation turning it into a cerebral Photoshop of Shakespearean ideas. Hidden triggers are embedded in objects to activate your entrances and exits from the various scenes, books loaded with notecards triggered by virtual touch lie scattered about, each scene draws us further and further into the depths of Macbeth’s disintegrating mind. (See ‘Second Life -Why would you go there?’#4 Foul Whisperings for more information about Macbeth Island. )

The Path of Temptation on Macbeth Island in Second Life
Virtual Macbeth – The Path of Temptation on Macbeth Island

As users of Second Life, we become fluent with its interactive pie charts, scripts, and animations, and we are not concerned by the fact that we must often experiment before we can interact with different objects within its 3D spaces. Perhaps there is even a little embarrassment that the world is so complicated to use? Blog post after Second Life blog post speculates upon the potential of the application (for education, training, meetings and socializing, etc.) while also mulling over its complex interface. Well, maybe we are looking at this from the wrong angle? Perhaps figuring out how to move about and participate in this virtual environment is an essential part of the whole experience? Sometimes when I am teaching my classes, I think if I could take an MRI of the room by scanning down from the ceiling, the MRI screen would show our brains lit up like a smoldering forest of little wildfires!

‘F’ shaped webinars!

Companies are switching over to the web to deliver many of their training programs. This is due to the current economic climate coupled with our growing concern for the environment. A training delivered online is cheaper,  and leaves a smaller carbon footprint than a face to face meeting with people driving (and sometimes flying) in to attend. It makes a great deal of sense to run meetings and trainings online, unfortunately the quality of such trainings often leaves a lot to be desired.
Talking to educators and trainers involved in such courses I get the impression that everyone accepts the fact that these trainings are as dull as dishwater. They, the trainers, know that many of the remotely based ‘attendees’ are continuing to work, surf the net, check their email and make phone calls etc, during the course of the training. The trainers are given limited resources (that are being pruned back more and more in many cases) yet they are expected to churn out training programs to hundreds of employees. Managements do not want to provide additional resources to help the trainers do their job, they just want to know the training has been delivered. A recipe for depressed trainers delivering mediocre and bland training programs to say the least!
Having sat in on a few web based seminars myself I have been wondering just why they are so difficult and dull? I began surfing the net (sometimes during webinars) to see what the real scoop on these particular training applications might be. I soon found plenty of glowing adverts for webinar platforms  scattered across the web,  but little is available that actually analyzes just how effective webinars are for delivering trainings.
A typical webinar screen window
A typical webinar screen window
I decided instead that it is possible to speculate on how we really look at a webinar site based on a study conducted by Jakob Nielsen PhD.  Nielsen, a former Sun Microsystems Engineer, has become world renowned as a (if not the) web usability expert and web user advocate. In 2006 he carried out a study where he observed the eye-tracking movements of 232 individuals when they were looking at websites. This eye-tracking study found that individuals tend to hover over particular areas of a web page regardless of the information on that particular page. He called these areas ‘hot spots’ and showed that we have a tendency to view web pages according to a specific pattern that shows an ‘F’ shape. (Nielsen, J. 2006).
Nielsen’s eye scanning study has been the focus of considerable attention from website designers. Naturally they aim to place the most important information at the point on the page where the viewer’s eye is likely to linger most frequently. (However, it appears that webinar site designers have not sat down and taken a look at how our eyes look at 2D web pages.)
Image above taken directly from Neilsen's 'Reading pattern eye tracking' study
Image above taken directly from Nielsen's 'Reading pattern eye tracking' study

The image above shows the eye tracking hotspots on three different web pages. Please see Jakob Nielsen’s website for more information.

I have taken my diagram of a typical webinar page and superimposed the Nielsen ‘F-shaped’ viewing hotspots to see where webinar viewers are most likely to be looking when participating in a webinar. (See below).

A typical webinar window with superimposed Jakob Neilsen eye scanning hotspots.
A typical webinar window with superimposed Jakob Nielsen eye scanning hotspots.

My conclusion is that people wander off to other activities because of the low degree of visual stimulation provided by a webinar site!

Nielsen, J. (2006, April 17). F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content:. Retrieved April 12, 2009, from Jakob Nielsen’s Web site:‌alertbox/‌reading_pattern.html