May 20, 2010

Online Support for Amputees

This is a short video about how the military is using Second Life to help manage the social and psychological needs of amputees --- including finding ways to let them be with their families virtually during recovery.

I really enjoyed seeing a soldier read to his daughter via Second Life. Reminded me of the days when I traveled a LOT for work and read to my daughter over the telephone ... using a book at each location.

So what does this mean for education? Perhaps that social workers and psychology majors should start getting used to tele-therapy options.

Not that I think they will replace all face-to-face interactions. (Why, whenever we talk about adding a virtual or computer-based tool, do people assume that we intend to use it to replace co-presence interactions??) But it may allow us to bridge distances in situations where being together is not practical. Think about specialized care consultations that could save on travel time - or even become possible where economies of scale would not allow a specialist to be consulted locally. Or where abusive spouses could talk to family members without any risk of physical harm. Or where families who are scattered due to military service or work requirements could be together.

Being virtually co-present is different than talking on the telephone. You can do things together in a game or a virtual world beyond just talking, providing the common experiences so necessary to maintain or (re)develop relationships. But unless tomorrow's leaders, teachers, and therapists have experience with these media, they won't have any idea of how to navigate the differences successfully.

We should be exposing our students to these developing tools now and working with them to help them succeed in whatever media is available to them as they live and work in a world of mixed interaction modalities.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:09 AM

March 18, 2010

Addiction or shift?

This morning, I'm sipping my coffee and reading the news, switching between print (the New York Times) and my trusty electronic feeds (via Google reader). Since I'm focused on the educational potential of online tools, I stopped to track down and read this article from Ars Technica on addiction to social media.

As is usual, I find myself mulling a difficult question or two. And I haven't even had my second cup of coffee (don't get me started on addictions ....)!

First off, as the article points out, defining behavioral addictions is problematic and open to debate. Many addiction specialists question the label "addiction" applied to compulsive behavior. And many Madison Avenue behavioral shapers simply enjoy the income. But that's not the question I am focused on today.

My question is: is this really new behavior? Or is it just shifted to a new medium? And how would we study this question?? I only ask because, as I reflect on my own use of social media and slick devices, I do not see substantial changes in behavior other than the fact that I can now do things once instead of twice.

Let me explain. Back in the old days, when I carried around a DayTimer instead of an iPhone, I'd spend a substantial amount of time --- at odd moments of the day --- making notes about what I needed to do when business hours started: who needed to be contacted, what memos needed to be written, what newspaper article I needed to clip and file, etc. And I do mean at all hours of the day. Being a multi-tasker and insomniac from my teens, it was not unusual for me to be up at 4 am writing out reports long-hand on a legal pad so that a secretary could type them up when normal people started working.

Now, I drink my coffee and read the paper as always, but I can file clips (in the form of URLs) immediately (in Endnote or star them in Google Reader). Instead of making myself a note to remind my students of a paper due next week, I can send it out now via Twitter or the Moodle news feed. I type up my own memos (more likely emails) and can send them out at 4 am, if that is when I'm thinking of it ... instead of making notes and hoping I'll remember what I was thinking about. Does this mean that I'm addicted to social media? Or was I addicted to (something .... work perhaps) before social media came along?

People frequently make a big deal about how we text or read electronic media in bed ... but how is that different from the prior sins of reading fiction or watching TV before falling asleep? I'd argue that a quiet game of Bejeweled is more relaxing than watching the nightly news, but I think I'll leave that question to those who feel like researching it (anyone want to get wired up in the sleep lab?).

Instead, I'll continue to wonder if we are all Rip Van Winkle, suddenly waking up and forgetting the progression of the past 50 years. We did not suddenly become a sedentary, media focused society with the invention of the smart phone. We've been sitting and amusing ourselves with cheap paperbacks, readily available newspapers, crossword puzzles and TV for decades. Is the shift to electronic media really increasing our consumption of media? Or do we just notice it now that we're not consuming the privileged print as much as we are the disruptive electronic forms?

Posted by bjohnson at 8:11 AM

September 23, 2008

Second Life: Distance Education and IT Fluency Among Girls

Shameless plug for my presentation at SLedCC '08 following ....

This was our team's report on the Tech Savvy Girls project's first year in Teen Second Life. The full paper should be published (eventually) in the conference proceedings. Meanwhile, interested parties can read it here or check out the slide show at Slideshare.

In short, the girls gained IT fluency throughout the year. Most encouraging was the way they learned and appreciated copyright protection on digital media because they, as creators, had to draw boundaries. Critical questions arose over how much material could be taken from others, recombined, and called one's own - which is especially difficult when collaborating with other team members.

The year was not without its challenges, but we made the most of those as learning opportunities. Two of the most successful girls had some of the greatest struggles with the technology itself. But they learned about bandwidth, RAM, FPS, etc. through those challenges and eventually became tech support for families and friends. No matter what they will eventually do in life, they know they can master technology in their lives.

Finally, while it may not be obvious in the paper, I have to point out that the people involved in this project were not physically co-located. The girls and one mentor were together much of the time, but not exclusively, while the other two mentors physically existed in different states. Outside of club meeting times (only two hours per week), all other work time was done virtually, at a distance, in Second Life.

Posted by bjohnson at 7:09 AM

April 24, 2007

Civic Engagement In Virtual Worlds, Digital Video Games, And Fan Fiction Sites

Black and Steinkuehler quote a common concern regarding the increased engagement with electronic media: that civic engagement is declining as a direct result (Black & Steinkuehler, forthcoming). It is beyond the scope of a short blog post (or even a long one!) to question the findings of this report, but I can offer examples of intensive civic activity centered on the running of some fan fiction sites.

No doubt it has been noted elsewhere that these fan sites, groups in virtual worlds, and guilds (or their equivalent) in multiplayer games are generally self-organizing. This may be a trivial task in the case of small fan movies created by one or two people, but it often becomes necessary to reflect upon the challenges of organization, control and authority as endeavors become large. Text-based fan fiction sites can become as large as the Gungan Council ("The Gungan Council," n.d.), which still boasts over 8,000 members. Such numbers spark a need and an interest in making some sort of explicit governance to maintain order, provide direction, set rules, and enforce them. Such a monumental task is often beyond the abilities of the founders (usually a core of 1 to 6 members), overwhelming them and causing some sort of decision to spread the administrative load. Such decisions often spark debate and reflection about the topics civics instructors only wish their students would take seriously. Questions such as how to organize the community and how to select leaders are often only the first round in grappling with the challenges of community governance. Questions of security and methodology in running elections arise, effective transfer of power is often not a simple matter, and coping with legacy rules and practices once a new set of leaders is in place vex even the most dedicated new leader.

And this call for a fair system in running a community does not always arise from within, prompted by an internal need to off-load responsibilities. It can come from outside the leadership circle of a reasonably popular site, which was the case with the Jedi Temple ("The Temple of the Jedi," n.d.). When the membership of this group approached 200, pressure from active members forced the ruling group of seven to eventually declare democratic elections. This lead to them to restructure the ruling Council, establish a transparent set of rules for admittance and advancement through the membership levels, and establish firm rules for acceptable behavior on the discussion board as well as rules for dealing with infractions of those rules. Over the course of nearly a year, the public debate on these topics was certainly engaged and often heated as members debated the best forms of government, the ideal qualities of leaders, how to grant sufficient power to leaders but restrict them from inappropriate use of such power and so forth. While the quality of these discussions varied greatly, some members showed exemplary rhetorical technique and ability to reason clearly on issues from the domains of philosophy, sociology and political science.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat dramatic example, but it is indicative of the level of group organization that occurs with any fan fiction site. What many people miss in looking at fan sites of all types is that, whenever people come together to achieve some goal, they must organize themselves in some fashion to achieve that goal. This is civic engagement at its most fundamental, grass-roots level. It is reminiscent of the agora of Plato in which every man present has a voice in running the community. Members of these fan sites take voicing their opinion very seriously and are often willing to be involved, over long periods, with an endeavor that is by no means fun but is otherwise rewarding.

Perhaps, if we believe that traditional civic engagement is faltering, we need to examine why voters are not interested in the ballot box but will spend hours structuring communities built around their hobbies, interests, and popular media.

Black, R. W., & Steinkuehler, C. (forthcoming). Literacy in Virtual Worlds. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer & P. Smagorinski (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Literacy. New York: Guilford.

The Gungan Council. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2007, from

The Temple of the Jedi. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2007, from

Posted by bjohnson at 12:17 PM