Me, myself and I

This week we have again been exploring notions and experiences of identity through immersion within Second Life. I have spent more time ‘there’ this week: engaging in the treasure hunt, exploring learning spaces, having a ‘voice’ tutorial and dancing. The strong sense of presence I experienced in Week 7  has been consolidated and extended this week through further virtual adventuring and through more interactions in Holyrood Park. Although I don’t identify with the physicality of my avatar (I haven’t yet got round to altering ‘her’) I do have a strong sense of being present through her: for example, I visited Echo Beach to test my sound and, when a large, muscular, scantily-clad avatar also arrived, I quickly left, feeling a sense of threat and inappropriateness. Marshall/Pancha’s refrain ‘it’s only pixels’ rang in my virtual/metaphorical ears as I teleported out. I did enjoy dancing later that day though and truly felt a sense of ‘presence enacting itself as an embodied activity’ (Taylor, 2002, p.44), an embodiment powerfully linked to vision (M. White, 2006)’ (quoted in Boellstorff, 2008 p.134) and, in this instance, sound (George Benson…)

Silverback's new avatar
Silverback’s new avatar

We explored this sense of connectedness with our avatars further in Thursday night’s tutorial. Paul/Silverback appeared as a Gorilla: he had spent 600 lindens (£4) on this as he had such a strong reaction against the set of default avatars which Second Life offers. He mentioned that, when his avatar initially appeared, he felt like he was ‘lying’ and so was willing to invest real money to change his virtual self. He had invested in  his ‘projective’ identity, projecting his own ‘values and desires onto the virtual character’ (Gee, 2003, p.55) and seeing ‘the virtual character as (his) own project in the making’ (ibid, p.55). As Boellstorff notes, avatars are ‘the modality through which residents experienced virtual selfhood’ (2008, p.129); if I end up spending more time in Second life beyond this week, I too will invest more in developing my avatar and, probably, changing its sex.

Like all of our learning on the course so far, because we are engaged with the spaces we are reading about and exploring, loop input methodologies were at play this week. This was strongly felt when our tutor Rory/Algernon Twang.asked us to explore Gee’s concept of virtual spaces offering a more risk-free environment: a ‘psychosocial moratorium’ (p.67). In the discussion which followed, I highlighted that I felt that our interactions within this virtual world and in our other tutorials felt more risky that real-life more sustained interactions as they were irregular and therefore more imbued with a sense of import. This was, I felt, especially true where voice was concerned as this felt more like the ‘real’ me spilling into the carefully curated, virtual ‘me’. Cultivating a community of inquiry through ordered and controlled discussion forums is different to ‘exposing’ a facet of one’s identity through voice. I certainly feel more comfortable, as I have touched on before, with an identity constructed from text. As the virtual opiniontator showed, I wasn’t the only one to feel like this. The gorilla disagreed.

Voice tutorial_009

This is of real interest to me at the moment as I am currently devising and delivering a sequence of webinars for teachers at the schools I work with. They will be asked to interact with me and with each other via voice through Skype for Business and I will now be attuned to how unsettling this can potentially be. To have a facet of yourself, of your identity disembodied can be disconcerting, even if it is re-embodied within an avatar.

Boellstorff, T. (2008). Personhood. In Coming of Age in Second Life (pp. 118-150). Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Gee, J. P. (2003). Learning and Identity: What does it mean to be half-elf? In What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (pp. 51-71). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

My Forum of Failure

One of the projects which I have been attempting to breathe some life into/resuscitate is an online forum for nominated ‘Digital Leaders’ from a number of schools within a multi-academy trust. The forum was established to support these DLs in the roll-out of new technologies, software and curricula within their schools by providing them with the facility to share experiences, resources and ideas.

I met with them in Manchester in July and we spent two days together, discussing and plotting e-learning initiatives and developing and extending their plans for the delivery of the Computing curriculum. During those few days, I introduced the forum to them and we began to use it as a collaboration space: resources were shared, conversations were started and plans were hatched. All left enthused and promising to keep in touch via the forum. And then…well, very little. A few more posts dripped through and then there was silence. Partly this was due to the summer break but my attempts to reinvigorate this digital space since then have failed. And the reason is that we/I haven’t created an effective community and the reason for this is, primarily, a lack of teaching presence.

I took a ‘field of dreams’ approach to the development of the forum…’build it and they will come’. Unfortunately, creating a space does not encourage presence. As the facilitator, I provided no ‘rules of engagement’: participation was informal, voluntary and unstructured. I had not effectively designed, directed and informed the transaction:

‘One of the difficulties with early computer conferencing was sustaining participation and high levels of discourse (Gunawardena 1991; Hiltz and Turoff 1993). Low levels of interest and participation were rooted in a lack of structure and focus resulting from an excessively ‘democratic’ approach. While there must be full and open participation, for a purposeful educational experience there is an inherent need for an architect and facilitator to design, direct, and inform the transaction.’ (Garrison and Anderson, 2003, p.29*)

I have been reflecting on this forum failure and contrasting it with the success of our engagement with the various digital environments we have been using during these first weeks of the course. We have been part of the successful development of what Garrison and Anderson term a ‘community of inquiry’, ‘a learning community’ which is ‘a fusion of individual (subjective) and shared (objective) worlds.’ (ibid, p.23). The key to the success of this is that there is ‘the right balance and blend of collaborative and individual learning activities’ (ibid, p.24). Our blog has enabled us to develop ‘cognitive independence’ (ibid, p.23)and the forums, Skype and Twitter have developed our ‘social interdependence’ (ibid, p.23):

‘It is the juxtaposition of both aspects of this seemingly contradictory relationship that creates the spark that ignites a true educational experience that has personal value and socially redeeming outcomes.’ (ibid, p.23)


So, my Forum of Failure can be turned around. And the key is not to look at the space but at the structure of the community, at how I can, through effective teaching presence, foster social and cognitive presence to deliver a meaningful and purposeful experience.  I need to define and share a programme for engagement and develop a blend of activities for participants to engage in. I also need to incentivise their participation – to provide a reason to be present. Our presence on the course is goal-driven: we are working towards an MSc. The incentive I can use with the DLs is the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) programme. All of the DLs are, in November, to begin their engagement with this programme and this will provide the ideal framework through which we can inculcate a community of inquiry, to realise ‘personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes’ (Anderson et al, 2001 quoted in Garrison and Anderson, 2003, p.29)

*Garrison, D. and Anderson, T. (2003), E-Learning in the 21st Century.  Routledge-Falmer, London