SNP lessons learnt

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A case study

  • Getting ready - a blow-by-blow account of setting up Schome Park, and allowing staff and students to access the island.
  • What happened ...

Emerging issues

Bandwidth issues

We did not anticipate that there would be bandwidth issues for staff working on the project. However, at least one organisation experiences a huge surge in network use at lunchtimes, making it almost impossible to access Teen Second Life. There have been similar problems when asking schools to ask pupils to complete on-line questionnaires (for example, as part of the ICT Testbed project). If large numbers of children at the same school try to access the internet at the same time, they often run into bandwidth problems (add ref to BroadBand and TestBed reports).

User names

  • Names too similar to email addresses or real names
  • Self-deprecating names (eg Brainless)
  • Playing the game (eg Admin Schomer)
  • All lower-case (students don't seem to mind??)

Problems getting into Second Life

Some students have had problems in gaining access to Teen Second Life. This has affected the use of Schome Park as a teaching environment. The main reasons have been:

  • Access to computers. Some students only have access at school. This access may be limited. Lunchtimes are difficult as students only have a limited amount of time and also need to eat and take a break.
  • Some school computers do not have the required minimum hardware needed to access Second Life.
  • School access may be hindered by school or regional firewalls. Hertfordshire RA has refused to open up its firewalls, so students there are unable to participate in the project. Lancashire RA has allegedly refused to allow Second Life software to be downloaded 'as it is a game' (reported by one of the student participants).

Problems with ongoing participation

  • Second Life is closed around once a week, sometimes for hours at a time, with little or no notice. This has led to scheduled in-world sessions being cancelled or postponed.
  • The Second Life software is updated every few weeks. The new downloads are large (over 10Mb) and take some time to download and install. An administrator's password is required to install new software on many computers, which may prevent students from being able to access Second Life for some time. Some of the updates cause problems: participants complained that one update prevented some of them from logging in. Others have reported poorer performance. This may be because more recent versions of the client software have higher performance requirements. Since the start of the pilot there have been (?3?) new versions of the client. Each has produced log-in problems for one or more students or staff.

Supporting students within a closed environment

In order to provide a trusted environment, the SchomePark island was set up as closed: only named avatars could enter and leave. However we did not achieve a perfectly hermetically sealed environment and this led to some problems.

  • to begin with, Linden Labs did not close the island as requested: this meant there were unwanted builds that had to be removed
  • students reported "ghosts" - avatars appearing fleetingly. We (the support staff) did not find examples of this, so we are not sure if this was over-eager student imagination or temporary problems in Second Life giving occasional access to other avatars
  • To give students a range of objects to explore and play with, simulating the shopping environment found elsewhere in Second Life, we created a free repository, called the 'Scho-Op' where students could freely gather objects that one of the staff members had collected from extensive trawling of the main grid. However a couple of unsuitable items found their way across and these had to be deleted and students warned.
  • The closed environment led to some complaining about feeling 'trapped' within the island and wanting to explore more widely.

Operating within the Second Life paradigm

Operating within a defined game environment

The Second Life web servers currently remained closed to participants. Education projects are therefore not free to customise the environment to their own specifications. This is comparable to the limitations of closed-source educational learning environments or of online games. Educators have limited control over the set-up and organisation of their spaces. One example from Schome Park is the student who found his avatar had been corrupted. Schome staff do not have access to the underlying databases, so were unable to re-animate the avatar. Instead they had to apply to Linden Labs, who deleted the avatar and issued another. Objects in world which belonged to the corrupted avatar could not be transferred to the resurrected character.

Money required for full participation

Second Life is a commercial venture and its functionalities reflect this fact. Participants can exchange $185 Linden dollars for $1 US (DATE? approx Spring 2007). To upload a file such as an image costs 10 in-world Linden Dollars. To form an interest group costs 100 Linden Dollars. Students therefore need access to currency in order to create signs, upload graphics and textures or form interest groups. It is not possible for the Schome-NAGTY pilot team to switch the cost of uploading files to zero within our defined educational space.

Students could be required to have access to and use of credit cards. Staff on the Schome-NAGTY pilot were not happy with this option, and decided to allocate in-world money to students. The issue of money stimulated some debate amongst students. The following options were considered:

  • A single, equal, payment to each participating student
  • Regular unprompted issues of money to all participating students ('weekly pocket money')
  • Unlimited issues of money in response to demand from individual students
  • Limited issues of money in response to demand from individual students.

The first two options would have allowed a budget to be fixed in advance; though even a small amount for each of the 147 students would be a sizable real-world sum. These options would have meant there was unused currency in world which could have been treated as a resource for negotiation between students. The third option had the potential to make in world currency valueless, by supplying more money than the students had use for. However, this could have cost a substantial amountof money, and there was the potential that students would hoard in-world currency in anticipation of Schome Park being opened to the rest of the Teen Grid.

Staff therefore chose to issue small, limited amounts of money in response to specific requests from students. Students were required to justify their request for money, which was issued in small amounts (typically 20 to 100 Linden dollars). These totals were noted on the publicly viewable wiki so that the amount of money requested and its purpose was visible to all participants in the pilot. Students could receive further pay-outs only after offering proof that they had sent the money as stated (for example, by demonstrating the images uploaded, the group formed or the clothing texture).

This method worked reasonably well, and students have been responsible and modest in their requests for money. At least one student started a commercial venture and began to sell items in Schome Park. This led to a debate on the online forum about the meaning and value of money on Schome Park. This probably resulted in the items being repriced as 'free' soon after. Several students may have other means of accessing currency (e.g. through family members' credit cards) but by reducing the value of money in Schome Park, giving away currency on request and providing a wide range of free items in Schome Park's shop, the Scho-Op, its importance in world may have been reduced.

Student identity carried between virtual spaces

Students participating in the Schome / NAGTY pilot were asked to conceal their identity. It is clear, however, that some of them communicate outside the Schome Park pilot, and that multi-channel communication is used in some cases. This is because:

  • Some participating students attend the same school.
  • Many of the students are members of pre-existing online forums run by NAGTY. In these they have a different online identity and different social networks. These identities are linked by some participants, as communications occur through different channels. Some of the Schome / NAGTY pilot convenors also manage topic boards in the NAGTY forums and, as a result of students enjoying Schome Park discussions, debates have been continued in the NAGTY forums.
  • Students use internet tools which are independent of the Schome-NAGTY project, for example MSN Messenger, in parallel with the Second Life software. This may be because students have existing social networks and friendships in these spaces, or it may be because these channels are seen as 'better' because they are easier to use or offer more privacy.

Student support in Second Life is as complex as in real life

Support staff in the Schome / NAGTY pilot have had to deal with a range of support and student management issues comparable to those a tutor/facilitator/teacher would encounter when dealing with students in a real-life teaching situation or when acting in loco parentis.

Criticial Mass within SL

Finding the right number of students and staff, and learning activities has been a research issue. 147 students were invited into the Schome-NAGTY Teen Second Life project. 102 students so far have accessed the site at least once. A core of perhaps 20 students use the site regularly. As a social environment, this may be too low a number, with little throughput of new ideas or faces. However at least one convenor noted that classes over 6 students were difficult to manage, so there is probably a different optimal number depending on whether the environment is used for social or learning purposes. The island can support a maximum of 40 avatars at once so there is a maximum limit. Like any other social environment, finding the optimal number between too few (so stultifying) or too many (and no sense of community) is difficult.

Web client now opened

Linden Labs has recently made the code for the web client freely available - this potentially allows educators to customise tools and functionalities in order to create an environment designed for learning and teaching. To modify the web client would be a major project requiring specialised programming skills. It was hoped that some well resourced educational project would take on this challenge, but this has not yet happened.

Development of custom software

As part of the pilot project, one staff member developed an in-world blogging tool, the SLog, which allows participants to write notes in world which are then posted directly to the web. This tool was launched while the project was in progress. So far take-up has been slow, although use is increasing.

This tool has inworld (SL) scripts which post http messages out to a database, written in Ruby on Rails, and are then accessible at an external web location. The software is maintained on an Open University server.

Development of custom scripts

Two members of staff have programmed scripts for project use, both to facilitate inworld activity (such as a 'presence board' which indicates when various members of staff are inworld) and also to aid in research reporting and data collection.

Sensor tool

Key to our research work has been the development of sensors which report on in-world participation. Data is relayed from Schome Park to a database and is displayed on a website. This identifies who has spent time where on the island. The external server has occasionally behaved erratically, and so in order to improve performance as well as assure backups and technical support in case of technical issues, the sensor system and its web interface will be transferred to an Open University server in the near future.

Providing support

Providing adequate and appropriate in-world support has been a learning experience. Staff time was scheduled and allocated to respond within Second Life, and also on the forum and wiki. As can be expected, this was an evolving, learning experience.

Staff support of students

Staff time was allocated- approximately 2 hours a day - when members of the team would be inworld and support any student enquiries. To begin with, more staff were on call for more hours than allocated: staff members were themselves exploring the world and building within the world and would be informally on hand to respond to any requests, beyond operating a formal 'helpdesk' service. As the pilot progressed staff time reduced to focus more on specific allocated hours, and, in response from requests from convenors, being on hand when teaching sessions were scheduled.

Convenors' requests for support varied: some preferred support staff to be around during their sessions (or at the beginning or end) while others asked if the support staff could keep their distances.

Requests for staff support were made by student at all hours, not just when staff were online. The requests came to an email account which was forwarded onto several staff members accounts, and as many staff members work online, staff might be drawn on occasion outside scheduled hours. These calls came from first thing in the morning (09.00) through to late evening (23.00). Several staff members might respond to the same call, and an informal system arose where a responding staff member would then email the rest of the team to acknowledge that they had taken on the call, so others would not have to log in. Staff were concerned about the range of hours in which the help button was being pressed, and this was later raised as an issue for students to discuss on the project forum.

Staff support of staff

Initially staff support was loosely defined; perhaps focussed on offering support on navigating in-world and helping with basic tasks. As the project developed a broader range of help calls were received, reflecting the kind of support a teacher might provide to a real world class of students. In some cases staff members felt they needed advice or support in dealing with particular support calls, and a means of staff members gaining peer support was felt to be required. This was solved informally by sharing telephone numbers and private email details, and discussions about how support requests should be elevated.

The Help Button, schome-sl-help, and the forum

A central 'Panic Button' was provided for students in world. Touching this sent a chat message to staff in world, and an email to a number of designated support staff who were not online at the time. This was intended for emergencies. Less urgent requests for help could be made by stsending an email to a staff group email or by posting a query on the online forum.

The 'panic button' has been used more frequently than expected, and over broader timescales, with calls from around 9am to around 11pm. Its use has not been confined to emergencies; it has been used for more basic requests for assistance. Students know that staff will attempt to answer the Help Button as soon as possible but it has never been clear whether this means staff being on call round the clock or only during certain hours. Nor is it clear how quickly staff will respond to a call. The button is a basic tool, which only provides the support team with the time and the name of the avatar pressing the button, so it is not possible to tell why the button has been pressed.

The email address has rarely been used by students to register a help request.

The forum is well used by students asking for help.

Operating within multiple media

Students operate in world in a complex manner; Teen Second Life is used as an ambient as well as an active media. Some students leave it running in the background and only attend to it when something interesting is happening. It is also run in conjunction with other tools such as MSN Messenger. This raises issues of students' 'gaming anonymity' - they give the appearance of remaining anonymous but are clearly communicating through other means. Students also use the Schome Forum and wiki and continue in-world discussions in the NAGTY forums, resulting in a blending of environments.

Staff Feedback

Section here for the final report

Hints and Tips

Hints and tips for other people thinking of setting up a similar project.

  • It all takes lots of time!
  • Setting up/transferring accounts is work in itself
  • Same issues that happen in real life happen in Second Life - more so as the communication channel is 'thinner'
  • Appropriation and unexpected usage will occur
  • Near 24 hour usage will occur
  • Closing the island gave us a more controlled environment but lead to some frustrations by the students
  • The inability to travel between the Adult and Teen Grids was occasionally problematic (we'd have liked to transfer items)
  • Student groups work better in smaller numbers
  • Other non-Second Life media are useful to support the environment, e.g. wiki and forum