Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Interview: Harvard's Rebecca Nesson discusses teaching in Second Life

Rebecca Nesson's avatar, sourced from Friday, as part of my guest author activities for Terra Nova, I interviewed Harvard Extension School instructor Rebecca Nesson. Last year, Nesson was one of the instructors for CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion, a joint Harvard Law School/Harvard Extension School course that was mostly held (for Extension School students, at least) in an Internet-connected 3D world called Second Life. This Fall, she will be leading a new Extension School course, Virtual Worlds. In the interview, she talked about her experiences using Second Life as a platform for distance education, and also described how students used the virtual world to interact with the CyberOne instructors and each other.

Following is the complete, unedited transcript of the May 11, 2007 telephone interview with Nesson (excerpts will be published on Terra Nova). The full transcript is quite long -- more than 3,500 words -- but it will hopefully provide some useful insights to educators and students who are considering classwork in virtual reality environments. Such activities should not be seen as fringe educational experiments -- other users on Terra Nova (a blog network devoted to the discussion of virtual worlds) have pointed me to a long list of colleges and universities that use Second Life for instruction. As we shall see in the transcript, there are some advantages to using virtual worlds as educational platforms, and virtual world-based instruction may soon begin to outpace traditional distance education offerings using Internet video streams, static websites, and text-based discussion forums.

Without further ado, here is the full transcript of the interview with Nesson.

Ian Lamont: At the beginning of the [CyberOne] class, there were 40 people registered. Does that include everybody, including [students from] the Harvard Law School, or just the Harvard Extension School students who were taking it online?
Rebecca Nesson: That's just the Extension School students. We had a little bit of attrition, mostly right at the beginning — for people who didn't really realize how demanding the program was going to be on their computers, so we probably ended up with about 30 people.
Lamont: When you say the program was demanding on their computers, were they using systems that weren't up for it in terms of processing power, or were there network constraints?
Nesson: I don't know. For some of them, there may have been firewalls and they were trying to do it from work, or Internet connection issues. It was a little unclear what was the problem people were having. It was not very widespread, actually. As is sort of typical wit h the Extension School classes, there were a few people who signed up, but weren't able to make the time commitment that the course [required] so for them I wasn't sure whether it was a technical issue or not.
Lamont: Aside from these issues, what was the feedback [you heard] from people about the Second Life interface?
Nesson: Overall it was very positive. I would say that there was a definite arc to it. At the beginning, there was a certain amount of Second Life culture shock, where people try to get acclimated about how to use the interface. The first impression that a lot of people had about it was that it was a very chaotic environment in which to have a class discussion because everyone talks at once and there's no threading in the discussions. When you read the transcripts of the discussions, they can seem fairly disjointed and that felt a little disorienting to people right at the beginning.

We all got used to it over the course of the semester, and also got much better at it. One of the things that we brought to the class with us are years of built-up experience of how one is supposed to act in a class as a student and an instructor. And a lot of those norms — like, raising your hand and waiting for someone to stop speaking before you begin speaking — they just dont make sense in the Second Life environment because it would just take way too long to have a discussion.

And as a result we were basically faced with the challenge of having to develop a whole new set of classroom norms that worked in this environment. Once we got that going, everyone got much more comfortable with the environment. By the end of the semester, people were really enjoying it.

There were some people who had a much easier time expressing themselves in the Second Life environment, than in the more formal writing [assignments] and turning it in on our courseware website. So for those people, it really opened up the distance education experience to have this other method of being able to express themselves and interact with the instructor and other students.

And there were some students on the other side of things who were very comfortable writing traditional response papers and had a harder time in the spontaneous, more interactive discussions that we were having in the classroom environment in Second Life. So all in all, that's a major improvement. I would prefer for my classes to be available to a wider range of learning and styles of expression.
Lamont: You just said that some people found it easier to interact in Second Life. Why do you suppose that is? Does it relate to their personalities, or the fact that they're used to typing IMs?
Nesson: Let me be clear. I don't necessarily mean it would be easier for them than acting in real life. This is just opposed to them acting in their normal way in a distance education class, interacting mainly through a website and through email with their instructors.

I think that the Second Life had quite a lot of advantages for people. One of the main things is that Second Life really allowed us to create a sense of class community — something that develops fairly naturally in a face-to-face class. So students appeared at class and had that chance to meet each other, something that rarely, if ever, happens in distance education classes [using] previous technologies. And that helped keep students engaged in the class.

And having a physical representation of their "selves" through their avatars, whether it looked like them or looked like something completely different, was quite important in having them establish relationships with each other. Because it gave people a way to express something of their personality that wasn't necessarily directly related to what we were doing in the class. And it just was the icebreaker for people beginning to relate to each other and make comments about somebody's cool dress or something like that and get a little conversation going.

So having the class have a sense of a community, and being a little bit social for most students really adds to the experience. It certainly added to the experience for me. I think that probably helped to draw in some students.

Also, we tend to think of Second Life as a less expressive environment than face-to-face environments because at the moment we don't have the ability to easily do gestures and facial expressions or even to really direct our gaze really well.

It does in other senses offer people a wider range of ways that they can express themselves, and that was something I was excited about. Early on, when I was writing on the blog, just finding that some students just really seemed to take to the creative aspects of the environment and really try to use the unrestrained environment and really try to violate the laws of physics as part of their way of existing in the world, and it just gave them a range of expression that doesn't really exist when you are typing out a response paper and turning it in.
Lamont: What surprised you in terms of the creative aspects and the things that they did in the classroom sessions?
Nesson: I guess what surprised me was that I had sort of a typical narrow view of what Second Life was going to be like. I was thinking of it as a big improvement over a chatroom but I hadn't really considered as something that had potentials that really went beyond what I had experienced with other technologies. I think that it's not until you spend some time in there that you start to get a sense of the way in which it's different, because it's kind of hard to pinpoint, to put into words, what exactly is making the difference.

So I would say the biggest surprise for me wasn't the way that some people were expressing themselves, but the experience of all of us running our classes in a text-based environment. I expected that to be only a hindrance, and at the beginning it did seem like a hindrance, it seemed a little chaotic, and it was something that we had to get used to. But as we progressed in the class, it became clear that running the class in a text-based environment has a whole lot of advantages over the face-to-face environment that I just hadn't anticipated.

The first one that was really striking, was that in all my years of teaching classes, there are always some students in the class who are very hard to get to speak up. You can ask them a direct question, but basically, unless they are put on the spot, these students will not volunteer their own opinions in class, and I think that there are various reasons why people are reticent and don't want to do that. Sometimes I think people are shy and don't want to be put on the spot — all the conversation stops, and everyone turns to look at them. In some cases, students for whom English is not their first language, it really can be an intimidating thing to have to extemporaneously put together English sentences like that in a classroom environment.

In Second Life, that problem of students not participating in class discussions just totally disappeared. And when I thought about it, these reasons, these challenges of speaking up in a regular class went away in this environment. In Second Life, when you want to contribute something to the class discussion, you just go ahead and start typing it in your chat box, and nobody turns to look at you, even if they do notice that your avatar is doing the typing motions, they are not actually looking at you, it's just your avatar, and your avatar is not doing anything embarrassing. When you are ready to enter your comment into the conversation, you just hit enter. And it doesn't have that moment where everybody stops and looks at you. Your comment just goes right into the conversation, along with everybody else's. So i think a lot of the anxiety that goes along with the public-speaking aspect of participating in class discussions, is just removed in this environment.

On the flip side, we didn't have any trouble with students who dominate the discussion. There's always been the phenomenon of the student who ends every sentence with a conjunction in order to not stop their comment, and you can do that as much as you like in Second Life, and it doesn't stop anybody else from participating in the discussions. What's nice about that is very frequently people who usually speak a lot in class have a lot of very good things to contribute, and it's hard as a teacher to shut somebody down in order to make space for other students, especially if you do feel that you want to be encouraging of their interest and enthusiasm. And this just takes away that problem as well.

So for me the idea that I would actually end up almost preferring to run a class in a text-based environment to a voice-based environment, that was a huge surprise.
Lamont: In Second Life, or a virtual world, or any chat environment, don't you have students who are really stepping over each other, and it's impossible to sort out all the questions that really need to be answered?
Nesson: Well, it turns out that that was not a problem, and I think there are a few reasons for this. First of all, over the course of the semester, I developed some skill at moderating this type of group discussion in this type of environment. Basically, what happens is you have a few different threads of discussion that start, and the job of a teacher or discussion moderator becomes continually trying to weave the threads together, so that you don't end up with a discussion that's too fragmented. Because if it's too fragmented, it's as you described — it's just a bunch of disconnected things going on.

But you also have some help as a moderator, from just the natural effect of trying to participate in one of these discussions. If there's a lot going on, you have to put a fair amount of energy into reading the discussions and sorting out what's happening. So even if there are a lot of people, it's not that easy for everyone to be adding some totally different thing all at once. People sort of tend to stay on one topic or another, especially if the moderator is doing her job well.

But that said, we definitely did break the class up into smaller groups for discussions fairly frequently for exactly this reason — just like with any discussion, it's just much more effective if you have it with smaller groups.

Now that Linden Lab has open sourced the viewer for Second Life, there are quite a few possibilities open to make this management task easier. Right now when you chat in Second Life, everything just goes into an undifferentiated chat history. But it would be possible to add some simple threading technology to help identify different threads in the discussion and make it easier to follow. Perhaps even some moderation tools that would let the moderator modify what was going on in the discussion in some reasonable way. I am not exactly sure what that would look like.
Lamont: What's going to happen when voice chat is added to virtual worlds like Second Life? Will that kind of lead to the problems that you've had in the real world educating and getting people to speak up?
Nesson: I am not sure I am able to predict what's going to happen. I do think that there are some potential serious problems because it's going to be harder for people to access it and participate and get good sound quality at first. It will be difficult, because there are some people who don't have the ability to listen to sound when they come into a discussion that's mostly happening in voice. That could be problematic.

But assuming that everything works just fine technically, then I think the biggest challenge will be seeing if everyone can integrate text and voice. If everyone can speak and type at the same time, will anybody bother typing anymore? And I'm not sure. I just don't know whether people will do that. What I imagine is that Linden Lab is going to make it possible to have areas in which voice is not permitted and areas in which voice is permitted.

We're at the moment considering building a campus for the Extension School in Second Life, and one part of our design is to have some classrooms that are text based classrooms, and some that are voice-based classrooms.

I do think the voice is going to be very, very tempting for people, and it's also going to be very useful in some situations and for some purposes. And I certainly wouldn't want to say, “no it shouldn't be used.” I do think that as soon as you have voice, you get back to these regular problems of having to wait, and speak one at a time, and people can monopolize the mike and that kind of thing.
Lamont: In virtual reality classroom environments, what's your perspective on grading and evaluating students?
Nesson: It's really no different than in a regular face-to-face class. For CyberOne, we obviously had to know the real-life identities of the students who were in our class, in order to grade them. For some people, who wanted to keep their other avatars anoymous, they created a new avatar to take our class. From my perspective, I expect that it is the actual student who is operating their own avatar, and I grade them just as I would in another environment.
Lamont: What types of tools would help you be a better educator? If you could magically create or program some tools or objects or something in Second Life that would help you teach, what would they be?
Nesson: I'll tell you what we used that were really great. We had a video screen which was wonderful and also streaming audio, which was great. If you want to use any lecture-type material in Second Life, those are total must-haves.

Then we aslso used a basic slide projector, which is similar to having PowerPoint, and that obviously can be useful. I didn't use it all that much.

One thing were using right now in the Internet and Society course which I am not teaching, but other people at the Berkman Center are teaching, is something called the Question Tool, which is a great tool that the Berkman Center has developed. How their class works is that it's webcast live into our classroom in Second Life. So students who are taking the class from a distance can attend the class in real time and watch it and they can sit with the other students in Second Life.

And the way that they can participate in the class is through the Question Tool. How it works is that anybody who wants to can post a question on the Question Tool, or they can vote on somebody else's question. And the Question Tool organizes the questions from the top of the page to the bottom of the page, in order of popularity [depending on] how many votes they've gotten, so the professor then has access to this list of questions or comments coming from the student audience that's sorted in a way that's actually meaningful in terms of their level of relevance and interest to the students in the class.

One of the things that's really cool about it for the Internet and Society class is that students who are physically in the classroom at Harvard Law School and the students who are in Second Life are using the same instances of the Question Tool so that they're interacting directly with each other through that. So that is one great tool, and it's not actually in Second Life, in the sense that you do everyithing in Second Life. Right now, we just have it set up so that there's an object you click in Second Life and it takes you to the Web page, which is the interface for the Question Tool.

The main thing that doesn't exist in Second Life and I can't for the life of me figure out how one could program, is something that's more like a blackboard. A free-form writing tool is something that I would really love to have. As a person who studies Computer Science, I am frequently wanting to draw all kinds of diagrams on a board if I am teaching students about Computer Science, and there's really no way to do that in Second Life. So you have to simulate doing everything you want to do like that, using slides, and the problem with that is when a question comes up, and you need to give an example that isn't already on your slides, there's not really any good way to do that in Second Life right now.
Lamont: Based on your experience with CyberOne, and your observation with the ongoing Internet and Society class, and the upcoming Virtual Worlds class, do you think that virtual world activities and classes are here to stay at Harvard, or it's still in the experimental stage, and you don't really know how it's going to end up?
Nesson: I think it's still in the experimental stage definitely, but I also think that it's here to stay. I am not sure that Second Life is the thing that's going to stay, but virtual worlds technology in general is just a giant leap forward ahead of any of the previous education technologies that we were using for distance education. And at least in distance education, I can't see moving backwards from that, especially once we get better abilities to represent people using gestures, facial expressions, voice maybe, various different things that actually make the experience even richer than it is now.

It's a real challenge to figure out how to best use technology like this in conjunction with face-to-face classes. What we did in the fall that was I think pretty exciting and definitely an innovating thing to do was to incorporate Second Life as a way to invite people that were part of the public at large to participate in the class, and actually provide something of use to the students who were enrolled in the class in exchange for having free access to the materials. So for them, we held some office hours in Second Life where they could come and they could discuss the lectures and issues that were going on in class. They had full access to all the lecture videos and the materials for the class.

And as the semester progressed we started to realize that it was important for that group of people to contribute something back to the students in the class, so the students in the class wouldn't feel that they were having the experience that they had paid for diluted by sharing it for free with other people.

I think that there are just so many ways that this could be done. This is just one tiny example and only really the tip of the iceberg, as far as this is concerned. We came up with the idea of having a "trial" in which the [Harvard Law School] students could practice their lawyering skills and actually go through the whole experience of a trial, and we were able to recruit people from our at-large participant group to participate as jurors in the trial. So they sat and listened to all the arguments and deliberated, and returned a verdict.

This was a pretty good use of Second Life because it was a great way for us to bring together a group of volunteers. it would have been extremely difficult to recruit and get them together at the Law School for a real mock trial. And also because for Law School students, who are trying to learn how to actually raise the appropriate objection at the appropriate time in a trial, in a real-life mock trial, often those moments go by too fast, and it's just extremely difficult to practice it. So in Second Life, in the text-based environment, things go a little bit more slowly, and additionally you can have a whole team of Law students operating a single avatar. So you can have a bunch of minds working together and discussing together — without actually talking out loud in the courtroom — and helping to direct their avatars to do the right thing. So that turned out to be a great experiment.

We've now done two trials in Second Life, and they haven't been perfect, but they've certainly been big successes and very interesting.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Nesson is the instructor for Virtual Worlds, scheduled for the Fall 2007 semester at the Harvard Extension School. She is currently a candidate for a Ph.D. in Computer Science at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where she studies computational linguistics and conducts research in the area of synchronous grammar formalisms and applications to computational semantics and machine translation. Nesson is also a 2001 graduate of the Harvard Law School and an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.


Tal said...

I don't know much about second life though it does sound interesting especially for distant leaners, but I have found a site called Trailfire: I can see how this social website can be used for online education by both teachers and students, as it allows for web annotation, researching and distant group collaboration. I am all for using technology in education and moving forward in the classroom but no virtual world can replace face to face social interaction. Though I guess when working in correspondence this would be the ideal tool to use.

I Lamont said...

Thanks for the comment, Tal. I prefer face-to-face interaction with fellow students and instructors, but as Rebecca pointed out, virtual reality can help some students who feel intimidated in traditional classrooms, and can be used to bring together students who are geographically dispersed. Also, virtual classrooms can help fill in some of the community and discussion gaps that have plagued Internet-based distance education initiatives based on streaming video and static text websites (anyone remember Fathom?).