Snapzilla, Blogging, RSS, and Second Life

Last month, I developed a Second Life Workshop and came across an interesting web 2.0 problem.

The workshop is comprised of many small layered activities that participants complete as they build up the knowledge and skills in using Second Life.  I wanted the participants to be able to document their exploits as they worked through the activities in a very simple, quick and convenient way.  The purpose of this was to allow some reflection on what they were learning, share their experiences with the other participants, and illustrate mastery of skills learnt. Second Life being a visual environment meant there was considerable value in participants being able to take screenshots of their activities in-world.  This added requirement complicates things considerably.

I began playing with the Postcard functionality of the Second Life client.  By clicking on the Snapshot button at the bottom of the window, you have the option of sending a postcard to an email address from within Second Life, the postcard being a snapshot of your screen.  The postcard is essentially an email message as illustrated below, including a subject line, and a message body to accompany the “postcard” image itself.

Sending a postcard from Second Life
Sending a postcard from Second Life

This I thought was the answer to my problem as it was simple, quick and convenient for the participants to use.  The limitation of course was that it is only possible to email the postcard.  They could email me their postcards as the facilitator, but that meant manually posting them online to share with the group, and that it would need to be done after the workshop, rather than during.  So I thought about writing a small web application that acts as a gateway between the postcard emails from Second Life, and a web page or RSS feed.  This however was not quite in the spirit of web 2.0.  Surely someone else out there has solved this problem before.  So I began searching, and I found quite a few different options.

The option I selected was the use of Snapzilla.  To use Snapzilla, all you need do is send your postcard to pics@slpics.com.  You do not need a Snapzilla account.  Your postcard will appear on the Snapzilla Home Page and in SnapZilla’s RSS Feed.  It took quite a deal of digging to find the RSS feed link as its not published on the home page.  This was moving closer to what I needed, except the feed shows all postcards.  I only wanted to see postcards from my participants.  Then I found a custom feed link, that filters content based on avatar name.  The format of the url is (mind any wrapping):

http://www.sluniverse.com/pics/PersonalRSS.aspx?Name=firstname+lastname

where you replace firstname and lastname with your avatar’s name (but leaving the plus sign in-between).  This enabled me to retrieve postcards from individual participants.  Then I created a Yahoo Pipe that aggregated feeds from all participants from Snapzilla into a single feed.  Hey-presto, an RSS feed of the participants postcards.  You can also view the feed, using the online RSS Reader FeedBucket.

The feed is also visible on the right of this page in the sidebar if you are interested.

Second Life for education – the minor divide

I have been asked to prepare a workshop for students enrolled in an E-Learning management course which provides an introduction to Second Life. The objective is to provide students with a basic level of competency in navigating SL such that they can explore and discover some of its educational possibilities.

This relates to a larger project I am working on at CQUniversity where we are investigating the benefits of 3D immersive environments for learning and teaching. One of the challenges that we have anticipated in using tools such as Second Life has been the age restriction on residents – 18+. This challenge is about to be realised. I’ll explain…

The university I work for is located in Australia. The ultimate age of adulthood (majority) in Australia is 18. From 18 onwards, people can vote, drink alcohol, participate in adult entertainment etc, and in the eyes of the law become responsible for themselves. The state of Queensland in which (Central Queensland) CQUniversity is based start children in year 1 of primary (elementary) school, the year they turn 6. This means when they are in year 12 and about to complete their final year of secondary schooling, they turn 17 years old and turn 18 the following year, when many commence their tertiary studies. For those students born in the latter part of the year, they will be a minor for the most part of their first year of study at university.

The E-Learning course is a first year course at CQUniversity, and is likely to have minors enrolled. So how can we accommodate those students who are not legally adults, and are ineligible to be residents in SL?

Before trying to answer that question, Iet’s look at the rationale for why SL is an 18+ virtual world. Its pretty straight forward really as expressed on the second life blog: “…we want to insure that minors do not inadvertently access Second Life or have access to adult content in- world.” Linden Labs appears to be taking a responsible stand on child protection from adult content, and potential predators, which is commendable. The above blog post demonstrates this – although at the time of this writing, I don’t believe it is being enforced as yet. So what are teens to do?

Linden Labs have provided an alternate virtual world for teenagers, known as Teen Second Life (TSL). The Teen Second Life Community Standards states:

Teen Second Life is for ages 13 to 17 only. There is a separate version of Second Life for Residents 18 and over. There is currently no version of Second Life for children ages 12 and under.

From time to time, authorized adults will be allowed to enter Teen Second Life to lead educational projects. We will always let you know who they are and what they are doing in Teen Second Life by posting their names and project information in the Announcements thread on the Second Life Teen Forums.

If you meet an unauthorized adult or an underage child in Teen Second Life you should report that person by immediately contacting an employee of Linden Lab who all have the last name Linden

So while Linden Labs have made provisions for authorised adults to conduct training/classes in TSL, it doesn’t solve the problem of the minor divide where some of your students are 18+, and some aren’t.

I have run out of time, and really don’t have any simple solutions to the problem. So I am keen to hear thoughts from others who may have some ideas to get around this.

So let me know what you think…

Taxonomy for application of social-networking applications to education

In my previous post, I discussed a project where I was asked to prepare a training workshop introducing educators to Second Life and provide them with skills to be able to navigate this virtual world. Skills they could then use to explore and learn more about how this technology can assist their teaching and students’ learning.

One of the tasks I assigned myself was to look at some literature around the application of virtual worlds to education in the hope of finding some classification or taxonomy. So I set out with google at hand searching when I came across a blog post by Intellagirl. Intellagirl writes:

I’m working on a book chapter entitled “’CVE, MUVE, MMOE, MMORPG…What’s the difference?’: Virtual Environments as Compositional Models.” In the chapter I attempt to delineate between different types of digital environments in which communication/composition can happen. In effect, what I’m doing is laying out the qualities that an instructor may be looking for in an online environment for a specific educational goal. Because the audience is largely readers who have never explored such environments, I’m hoping to lay out the most important differences to help light the way to informed pedagogical decisions.

So, of course, the first major task is to define what the differences really are…the differences that will matter to instructors choosing an environment to use for composition instruction, anyway. I’ve wrestled with the list for several weeks now and I’ve narrowed it down to nine important elements.

The focus as I understand it appears to relate to composition – using these tools to learn how to create something in a collaborative way. For example, using these technologies to help teach how to write a report, or create a company logo. I hope that I understand this correctly Intellagirl. 🙂

I am looking more broadly in terms of the context in which these tools are applied. As a different example, the use of online/social-networking applications assisting students to reflect on what they are learning, and sharing that reflection with others. What they create isn’t the learning objective, but a means to help them better understand what it is they are learning. A concrete example could be students learning System Administration and developing problem solving skills. Blogging the processes they have used in trying to solve problems would help them reflect on the approach they may have used and how appropriate it may have been after knowing the solution. The communication/social aspect would allow for advice and feedback in terms of where they may have gone wrong, or in identifying clever or innovative approaches they used in solving the problem.

I’m still thinking through Intellagirls comments and classification of attributes for various social-networking applications, to see how well this can inform an educator in selecting the appropriate application to suit the learning needs of their students. There are 9 elements that Intellagirl has identified, plus a couple others contributed to the article through comments. The 9 elements are:

  1. Number of users
  2. Dominant content form
  3. Network
  4. Persistence
  5. Stigmergic
  6. Object Ownership
  7. Public Access
  8. User’s relationship with other users
  9. User’s relationship with the environment

Other contributions include:

  1. Synchronous/Asynchronous communication
  2. Weapons/Non-Weapons
  3. Technology type – proprietary vs open source/standard

Aha, I have found subsequent work from Intellagirl on this topic with a more refined characteristic/attribute matrix. Didn’t notice this the first time I read the piece.

Well exceeded my post writing time, so need to wrap it up. Will think some more about this work and how it might inform educators from our context at CQUniversity in the use of this technology.

Second Life – Bringing it to the educators

Background

I am working on a research project where we are trying to work out how CQ University can make use of 3D immersive environments to improve learning experiences for students.

Second Life has emerged as a major player in the world of immersive 3D environments and has a considerable following in terms of application for education. It is well established and one of the better providers in terms of usability and maturity. Therefore, it makes a good starting point for
academics to get their hands dirty with these tools and to think about how they can leverage its benefits for their own students.

So I am going to be developing a seminar to this end for our teaching staff. A major objective is to have participants able to navigate their way around the immersive world and some basic skills in terms of how to interact with it and others. The hope is from there, they will be able to conduct further discoveries themselves and see how the technology may assist them and their students. This is in addition to examples provided in the seminar itself.

Following is an initial list of tasks for me to get started. I’ll be refining these as I go.

Tasks

Background & Literature

I need to take a look around and see what information there is regarding the application of Second Life to education. Hopefully there will be a taxonomy for this.

Target Groups

Take a look around SL and identify disciplines that are well represented in Second Life with examples, and would be good examples for teaching staff. Then target teachers in these disciplines as the initial participants for the seminars. The idea is it will be easier to illustrate to these groups the potential based on current activities of others.

After running one or two sessions, then maybe move onto less represented disciplines as these will be more challenging and the added experience of running previous sessions will help. May also be potential for some innovation in doing things that haven’t been done before.

Don’t re-invent the wheel

This is not a new problem to solve, and finding out what others have done, particularly in higher education will hopefully save time and effort, and result in some great ideas.

Examples, Examples, Examples

I love examples when I learn, even if its to seed further ideas. But moderation is the key to life and so I’ll keep this to a conservative amount (yet to be decided). Will see what I find and decide from there.

Activities, Activities, Activities

Need to come up with a list of activities for participants to complete to as to help them achieve the main objective of being able to navigate SL. Ideas thus far (unsequenced):

  • Have participants teleport to a given location, search for and purchase (free) certain articles of clothing, and then dress themselves.
  • Have participants interact with each other using the communication tools, and then hopefully with others in the environment. Help island and the initial training in SL will be good places for this.
  • Run through the commands for navigation such as walking, running, flying, touching, sitting and so on. So provide some objects for participants to use these skills.

Conclusions

I have a time-limit for posting to my blog, and I have just exceeded it. So this is it for now. After further reflection, I’ll add more later.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers…

A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Pipping – an audio engineer’s nightmare. What is it? When recording your voice, pronouncing some letters such as “p” cause you to expel air rapidly from your lips, passing over the microphone, thus creating this sound. The recordings I did for the first scene had pipping so I was informed by our video production team. How do I solve this problem I asked. Well, the answer was quite simple. It is the position of your microphone and ensuring your microphone has a filter. Let me explain…

I was using an Apple iPod to do the recording. Convenient, but certainly not the best quality. The microphone for the iPod I borrowed had a missing filter on the end. You know, the fluffy stuff – similar to what is on the ear pieces of your headphones. This breaks the draft of air flow and helps to prevent pipping. I also needed to hold the microphone a little further away. This was a bit tricky because my initial experiments showed that if too far, the recordings were too quiet.

Anyway, that is my lesson for today. So if you are wrestling with Peter Piper while recording into a microphone; remember the distance of the microphone from your lips and if you can, have a filter on the end.

Second Life as a cameraman

From the creative side, my involvement with the machinima project has mostly centred around the audio aspects, camera work, and some writing.

I spent some time working out how to use the camera views available in SL. When you are using your avatar, that is your avatar’s view, however by holding the Alt key down, and clicking on other objects, you can set those objects as your “focus”. Then everything you see is focused on that object. While holding down the Alt key and moving around, you can view the focal point from different angles. This works out very well because you can “park” your avatar somewhere out of the way, and simply change your focus depending on what you wish to film. Another trick I figured out, was if your avatar is sitting, it is not necessary to hold down the Alt key while you change your perspective on your focus. This was very helpful because I often forgot to hold down this key and would lose focus on the object being recorded. This was very frustrating.

The camera movements unfortunately are at a fixed speed, and so zooming in, out, up, down, and around can only been done at that speed. I experimented with repeatedly pressing the arrow keys to slow the movement, which works to a degree, but does make the movements very “jerky”. Not good enough. So then we decided we would look at using the video editing software to slow the film down where these camera movements took place. In the end though, we decided that the fast zooming in and out worked pretty well as an effect theme throughout the production and it looked pretty good. So we stuck with that approach. If in future we wish to have a more dramatic effect in slow movements, we will need to do some further research into how this can be done.

Before you start recording, you need to configure your SL client in such a way as to minimise any on-screen information which detracts from the picture. A typical view will include avatar names, toolbar buttons, maps, chat dialogs and so on as shown below.

Typical SL View

These must be disabled before filming. Things that cannot be disabled included the menubar at the top, and the audio buttons at the bottom. The screenshot below illustrates this.

Camera View

The top and bottom of the video will need to be cropped or letterboxed to remove the information.

From these screenshots, you may have noticed that one is from a Microsoft Windows machine, while the other is from a MacIntosh. My desktop computer is a Mac, but unfortunately the movie recording function of the SL client is broken in the Mac version. A visit to Linden Labs support site list this as a known bug, however it appears it is a low priority to be fixed. So all camera recording is limited to Windows clients at this point. Very disappointing, as we are using iMovie on the Mac to edit the video. This is for discussion in another post.

When you select the Record a Movie option from the File menu, you are asked where to save your video file. Then you are presented with a list of codecs to choose from for encoding your video. I experimented with a couple of different codecs, but found that Microsoft Video 1 seemed to provide good quality while keeping the file sizes to a reasonable level. iMovie was also capable of working with these files, so we continued with it. I set key frames every 50 frames, and set the compression levels to be 100% to keep the best quality as possible. In retrospect, if we do this again (which I hope we do), I will install Quicktime on the computer so we can use Quicktime format. This will certainly work in iMovie, or any of the Mac video editing suites and will give excellent quality.

More to come…

Second Life as a film studio

I have not been blogging as I go, and so the start of my blog posts are recollections and may be a little fuzzy.

Some time ago, we were discussing how we could leverage the reality aspects of SL for teaching materials. At the time we were working on a Financial Auditing course and looking at how to spice up some case studies, which were entirely of written medium – boring…

We thought about how SL could be used to allow students to interact with each other through the case study story line, providing a more authentic/realistic experience. However, on our initial evaluation of SL, it was decided that the technology would become a significant barrier to the learning process due to the learning curve involved in simple navigation amongst other things for students. I had the idea instead of acting out the case studies in SL, and video recording it. This was as a replacement to the more traditional approach of hiring real actors to act out case studies and film them. The more traditional approach is very time consuming, and can be costly where more specific props are required. It wasn’t until later that I learned that this concept was known as machinima.

More to come…