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Class 8: Walking away…?

November 26, 2020
Map of the island, Utopia.

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia.

Talking about Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The One’s Who Walk Away From Omelas always brings some surprises and new ways of looking at the world and ourselves. We began, as usual, by considering the context and the time in which the story was written, the US in the early 1970s: The Vietnam war is in full flight; the Civil Rights movement remains active with demonstrations and race riots; the Watergate Crisis leads to Nixon’s resignation; terrorist activity in pursuit of political goals emerges around the world; the cold war between the US and Soviet Union is raging quietly; the oil crisis leads to severe shortages of petrol in the West; flower power and the hippie lifestyle were presented as idealistic anti-violence alternatives to post-war society norms. In sum, the apparently idyllic sixties were over and a new realisation around the challenges of global society was about to dawn on the Western world.

The opening of Le Guin’s story is clearly drawn from the hippie movement and festivals such as Woodstock in 1969. The Eden-like city of Omelas and its surrounding hinterland is presented as a form of Utopia. However, our contemporary familiarity with perfect places in fiction (since Thomas More’s publication of Utopia in 1516) has led to it becoming a trope – we are immediately suspicious: alert to the revelation of a flaw in this seeming idyll.

The form of the story is also interesting to explore more deeply. While clearly allegorical the narrative is open to many interpretations. Is it describing contemporary society? Perhaps it is a retelling of the Adam and Eve mythology? Maybe the fundamental paradox of the human condition is at the heart of the story? Le Guin shifts the perspective of the narrative from third person to first person throughout. She also ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by addressing the reader directly on several occasions; disrupting the illusion by suggesting that the story might become more believable through the introduction of the dark twist:

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

The story also has some bold philosophical propositions weaved into the text. It is never clear if they are held by Le Guin herself, or merely the narrator… just as it is never clear what the relationship between author and narrator might be. Is Le Guin proposing fundamental truths about human nature and society?

Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

Her fiction was influenced by cultural anthology, feminism and Eastern spiritual philosophy and explored gender and sexuality (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969), political systems (The Dispossessed, 1974) and moral development. The final twist in this story presents a stark moral dilemma which Le Guin characterises in the decision of some citizens to walk away from the land of plenty.

We wondered if we were presented with the choice would be stay or go. Would our complacency and moral ambiguity lead us to accept the justifications for keeping the child in the cellar or would we have the courage to walk away? It is interesting to note that the option of remaining in Omelas and seeking change seems to be ruled out in the story but, does that mean it is ruled out for us in our lives?

Ultimately, it may be that the purpose of the story is to have us consider our own personal responsibilities as members of the human race.

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

November 19, 2020
Class field trip to Virtual Ability Island

Mook Wheeler (second from left) introduces Virtual Ability Island to us. Sitearm Madonna is on the extreme left and Gentle Heron on the extreme right with the two Marias beside her.

 

John began the class by talking about the feedback for the assessment of the Website Blog, part 1, which was circulated earlier. He spoke about the importance of beginning now to write more reflectively on your experiences in SL and on your teams. Think about what you are learning and how your perception of working online is developing. You should also refer to the reading and viewing material given to the class when writing your posts. Consider how your experiences either support or contradict what others are saying. Your view is valuable once you are developing it in that context so, your posts may become a little more like short academic papers from here on.

John also emphasised the importance of reviewing the assessment criteria for the Website Blog, part 2. Take careful note of the descriptors in the assessment grid so that you know what to aim for. This is also important for the Team Project. Remember, the brief is to stimulate hard-nosed executives. You need to be creative to attract and maintain their attention.

Then we teleported to Virtual Ability Island (VAI) to meet the community led by Gentle Heron. Unfortunately, Gentle’s internet connection was playing up so she was not fully with us at the start. However, Mook Wheeler, a long-standing friend of this module, was on hand to do the introduction. She explained that VAI is an international cross-disability peer support community of over one thousand members, who may have physical, mental, emotional, developmental sensory (deafness or blindness) or multiple disabilities. About a quarter of the membership does not (yet!) have a disability and they are referred to as Temporarily Able Bodied (TAB). They may be a parent, spouse, child, friend or care-giver.

For a more detailed report on the presentation see the post from the visit to VAI earlier this year.

Mook then introduced herself saying she has Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is a former academic who first discovered SL in 2006 at the peak of its media exposure. She continued:

This discovery was a blessing for me, because SL provides methods of interacting with people that do not carry the high stress that face-to-face, eye-to-eye and voice-to-ear interactions do. In the physical world, ‘socialisation’ exhausts and stresses me. In SL, it can invigorate and lift me. I consider SL essential for my mental and emotional health. Because interaction in SL does not carry the stress it does in ‘RL’ (‘Real Life’, or the physical world), I discovered that the ‘SL me’ is very different to the ‘RL me’! The ‘SL me’ is calmer, steadier, more rational. The ‘RL me’ is much more of a reactive creature, buffeted by sensory input and constantly set back by ‘incorrect’ social input and output. Offending and getting offended is an unfortunate constant of my ‘real-life’. When around people, the ‘RL me’ is hardly able to think. When around avatars, the ‘SL me’ does not have this problem.

She shared notecards which give more details about online communities and Virtual Ability; how SL’s communication methods support her needs; and digital citizenship.

Maria Wirsing has very low vision so she uses two avatars and two SL viewers. One supports the visual and the other converts text to speech using optical character recognition (OCR). She has many friends in SL and interacts with people from all over the world.

We then opened the discussion to questions from the students. HannahSimoneNathalie started be asking if SL had impacted in unexpected ways? Gentle explained that she had not anticipated how intertwined SL and RL would become and she now doesn’t see a separation between them. xtrashot wondered how everyone had heard of SL? Gentle first heard of the world from an online chat room and was immediately attracted by the immersive nature of the virtual world whereas Mook discovered it through her research activity and Maria was introduced by an online group that was developing a presence here. Once she arrived she didn’t leave. John wondered how much time community members spend in SL every day and the answer is anything from two to eight hours normally but maybe as long as fifteen hours when involved in conferences.

ianjkelly noted that the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an increase of online activity and asked if this was also the case for VAI? It seems not, for the most part, although Gentle commented that she is noticing it in the less disabled folks. For the members who are used to social isolation prior to COVIDS-19 there has been little change. pastelmoon19 asked if it took a long time for them to enjoy SL or was it something they loved from the beginning. Gentle remembered that she spent her first few weeks sliding on every waterslide she could find! She loved it. For Mook the first day was full of shocks of all kinds but, after the first week the risk was becoming addicted. John said he spent long hours immersed in SL when he discovered it in 2007, only emerging for food and sleep! Sitearm admitted that he got over it after the first five years! For Maria it took three minutes to ‘fall in love’ with SL, and she hasn’t looked back.

Gentle invited the class to remain on at VAI, or return later, to explore the range of activities and sights. She thanked the students for their attention and their interesting questions. John concluded by thanking Mook for stepping into the breach unexpectedly and so capably. He also thanked Maria for sharing her insights this evening. Gentle Heron has been involved with the module since it commenced over eleven years ago and has always been extraordinarily generous with her time and sharing her not inconsiderable experience. John thanked her for her continuing support. He also thanked Sitearm Madonna, who has also been involved since the beginning, for making the arrangements for this field trip. The students echoed their thanks saying they enjoyed the session finding it really insightful and interesting.

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Class 6: My Avatar and Me – virtual identities

November 12, 2020
Real face merging with avatar

My avatar and me.

 

To establish some common ground for this complex subject John asked you all to think about how you would answer the question ‘who are you?’ in the context of the propositions put forward by Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers in the videos set for viewing in advance of the class. ‘How do you describe yourself?’ After you had given some thought to this we considered further questions: ‘Are your descriptions real?’ ‘Is it an illusion?’ ‘What makes yourself real?’ as we attempted to co-create an understanding as a group.

We acknowledged that how we present ourselves depends on the circumstances or the environment. So, the person we are at home is somewhat different from the person who goes into work or college, or who socialises with friends. Does this mean we have multiple personalities? This led to thinking about the difference between our ‘self’ and our ‘identity’ and the importance of establishing your ‘self’. The deep philosophical nature off this question is at the heart of what it means to exist, to be alive in the world, to be human.

It is also important on a more prosaic level. How we might wish to present ourselves professionally is important for our career development. It starts with coming to an understanding about the kind of image we decide to promote and then consciously projecting that through not only our work but also our professional engagements of all sorts. Social media is a key tool in this context – something we are all acutely aware of in the current situation where we are almost totally dependent on it.

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Class 5: From Hammer to Pixel

November 5, 2020

The class discussed the reading material about Marshall McLuhan’s mid 20th Century book The Medium is the Massage and the ideas springing from it. Beginning with the title (and the peculiar substitution of Massage for Message) there was a lively exploration of what McLuhan was getting at which threw up many questions. What did he mean by medium? How could the medium be more important than the information being communicated? How has media developed since McLuhan wrote the book? Does his thesis have any relevance today? Did he really anticipate the internet? This led to a brief look at some of the media that produced step-changes in human society through the ages, from the development of writing, printing, radio, television and the worldwide web.

John reminded us of McLuhan’s student who remarked that ‘we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us’. When we look at tools as an extension of the body and our way of interfacing with the environment is seemed easier to understand the symbiotic relationship.

It is more challenging to think about putting this knowledge to use. While it is clear to us in hindsight how new technology led to the development of human society it is not so easy to see the outcome of contemporary developments. What we can do is maintain a critical awareness and vigilance while taking nothing for granted.

Selection of newspapers

Is the medium the message or the massage?

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Class 3: Teamwork and Collaboration

October 29, 2020

This class is normally given by Sitearm Madonna but, regrettably, John was unable to make the arrangements in time this semester. So, he reviewed the key points in the hope that it might be possible to have the full presentation from Sitearm at a later date, perhaps with some students from other universities teaching in SL.

Poster showing theory of teamwork

Sitearm placed convenient posters around the classroom (check the roof also).

Sitearm had placed some very useful posters around the room which helped illustrate the dynamics of teamwork which, he suggests, is like breathing: more of a process than a one-time event. There are four aspects to understanding how teams function. Firstly, teams have effective members. Each of us brings some commitment and some level of competence. You can compensate for the lack of either in team mates to ensure a positive outcome. Secondly, effective teams develop in stages. Starting with the forming stage where members are getting to know each other and find their place before moving onto what can be the most difficult stage known as storming. This is where everyone is pitching ideas and working out how to proceed. Then teams usually move on the norming stage when the members are beginning to work together comfortably and settle down to performing and getting the project done.

Thirdly, effective teams use best practices. For example, using brainstorming to generate ideas and then agreeing a protocol for deciding how to progress: majority vote, consensus or some other way. You will find that you move back and forth between brainstorming and deciding until the project begins to take shape. When you meet in your teams get into the habit of briefing yourselves. Ask questions like: what are we going to do in this meeting? Then do it. At the end of the meeting leave some time for debriefing: record any decisions made or what happened. Also ask each to member to say what they liked about the meeting and what they wished had happened. This helps your team meetings to become more efficient, effective and enjoyable.

Finally, effective teams share roles: research shows that there are nine key roles for highest performance and success in teamwork. As many teams don’t have nine members it is often necessary for people to take on more than one role. Each of us has a natural affinity to some roles but you can practice taking on new roles also. The disadvantage of this is the discomfort as you move into unfamiliar territory and the extra work involved but the advantage is seen in performance and success on both the personal and team levels.

Collaboration is a technology – proven and time tested with a vast number of academic papers describing the process. Think of it like that and you will find it less daunting.

John reminded the class that it is very important to practice your presentation before the final delivery. You need this dry-run to iron out any difficulties that may arise in moving from a plan or script to the real presentation. Working with technology is not always reliable so it is a good idea to expect catastrophe and have at least one back-up plan, if not two: don’t get caught out! Prepare fully and you will be successful no matter what happens.

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Classes 2 and 4: Blogging and Project

October 22, 2020
Student teams for the project

Student teams for the project Fresh World

In accordance with John’s decision to bring the Team Project briefing forward we covered the content for Class 2: Blogging to the World and also Class 4: Team Project this week.

Three of you have started your blogs and there are links to them in the column on the right, page 9 Student blogs. For those who have not yet sent a link to your blog to John please do so now. Don’t forget that the first assessment of this work will be taking place the week after next. It is also useful to ensure that comments can be made to your blog to encourage the conversation. The three blogs that have been submitted are off to a great start with good reports on your exploration of SL and copiously illustrated with photos.

You all confirmed that you had read the Team Project brief – Fresh World and we discussed the detail of the project. John identified the team members as given above. We also discussed the importance of knowing the assessment criteria and keeping them to the fore while working on the project. Ensure your work is on point and relevant so that it contributes to your final mark.

Finally, John asked you to familiarise yourselves with the module in Brightspace. Your assignments each week are given there, along with reading lists, summaries and full details of the assessments.

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Team Project – Fresh World

October 19, 2020

Photo of waves lapping on the sand.

Does the current pandemic provide an opportunity to re-evaluate how we spend our time?

 

As you prepare to leave college with your degree the prospect of seeking a fulfilling career will become increasingly important. Much is being written now about the changing nature of work. As long ago as 2012 Forbes suggested that Job Hopping is the New Normal for Millennials. opens in new window But, the Guardian newspaper reported that the trade unions in Britain are concerned about the abuses of the gig economy suggesting it results in lower wages. An article in The Guardian, TUC wants clampdown on ‘poverty pay’ in gig economy jobs opens in new window, revealed that almost half of adults aged 25 or over were earning less than the minimum wage.

The World Economic Forum report on The Future of Jobs 2018 opens in new window provides a comprehensive analysis of trends on an industry-specific and country-specific basis. In the section on Strategic Drivers of New Business Models opens in new window it concludes that the unfolding of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is resulting in a variety of new and emerging jobs while the more traditional job roles are declining. But, there is some good news for you as the Economist reported in 2016 that people working in creative fields are less susceptible to automation in Automation and Anxiety. opens in new window

Taking a more holistic perspective raises deeper concerns for the future of not just work, but the entire ecosystem of society. French philosopher Bernard Stiegler suggests that the world is heading rapidly towards a dead end thanks to the consumerist model. Speaking in London opens in new window in 2018 he argued that a radically new approach to shaping our society is required. Rather than allowing capital and technology to dictate we need to bring epistemological, technological, artistic, judicial, social and economic questions together in order to shape the future.

In 1992 the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a Warning to Humanity suggesting that vast human misery would ensue if we did not change how we are impacting the planet. They ‘feared that humanity was pushing Earth’s ecosystems beyond their capacities to support the web of life.’ Last year the warning was updated when 15,000 scientists from around the world published World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice opens in new window.

As if all that was not enough, we are now living through a global pandemic that seems likely to impact all our futures in ways we cannot predict. Working from home has already become a commonplace experience that is unlikely to change even when the pandemic eases. Online activity is becoming increasingly acceptable and people have adapted quickly out of necessity but more thought needs to be given to the principles of working between home and an office. Organisations like McKinsey & Company are already giving advice like that in the article Reimagining the office and work life after COVID-19 opens in new window from June of this year.

This is a real challenge to you, individually and collectively, as you consider your emergence into society from college. For this project you are asked to consider how you might address the problems facing society while earning a living and living your lives. Do you accept the premise of the World Scientists? Can you see ways in which it is possible to work for a more sustainable engagement with our planet? Do you think the current situation might offer society an opportunity to re-think what we do and how we do it?

The Brief

Your team has been commissioned by a global firm in the communications sector to convince senior leaders that the time has come for change. The Board of the organisation recognises the challenges heralded by the pandemic and has acknowledged the imminent destruction of our planet if something is not done to address sustainability. It has decided that the company needs to lead the world to a new way of working. You have been briefed personally by the Chairman of the Board and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who have arranged a day-long online workshop in mid-January to which all senior executives have been instructed to attend. It is intended that the outcome will be a completely new direction for the organisation that is fully sustainable, flexible and indeed, will lead the way in rejuvenating the planet and our relationship with our home.

Your task is to kickstart the session with a dynamic, exciting and informative presentation. You must inspire a group of hard-nosed executives who have been ruthlessly successful in exploiting the planet’s resources (including their employees and customers) for the company’s benefit, without any consideration for the consequences, to review their behaviour and plan a new future.

You will work on this project in your groups to make your presentation in an entertaining, informative and lively manner using whatever medium and format you wish as long as it can be stored for later review (e.g. a talk, short film, dramatic presentation, narration+visuals). Each team will present live in Second Life. The presentation should be no shorter than five minutes and no longer than ten minutes. You are encouraged to use visual, audio or any other aids to support the presentation during which each member of the team must take part.

Each participant must also describe the progress of the project in a weekly blog post with particular emphasis on your own contribution to the project. (What are you bringing to the group and how does it fit into the team’s work?) Discuss the details of the project and also the issues that arise in working collaboratively online. How easy is it meet up virtually and plan the project? What difficulties arise in development? How easy or difficult is communication? What particular problems arise and how do you deal with them? Focus on the experience rather than writing a ‘correct’ post or having an answer for every difficulty.

Important note: If you use images or sound be mindful of copyright, particularly as presentations will be posted to the module blog.

Presentations should be no less than 5 minutes and no more than 10 minutes in duration.

Your presentation can be made in the TU Dublin campus or any appropriate venue in Second Life selected by the group. Presentations will be delivered in the last class at the end of the semester.

For full details on the Team Project specifications and the assessment criteria see the Assessment Unit.
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Class 1: Welcome to Second Life

October 14, 2020
Class photo

Hannah impresses the class not only by arriving on horseback but also riding side-saddle.

The electives all started a week or so later than usual this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The fact that all students are participating largely online for most classes already has also eliminated the unique aspect of this module: totally online classes. Nevertheless, let’s hope that the novelty of Second Life (SL) as a learning environment will maintain everybody’s engagement and attention. It will also be interesting to engage with class through an avatar rather than the usual way of using Bongo, Zoom or Teams.

The class this semester is much smaller than usual with ten signed up but only six making an appearance for the first class. John suggested that it would be useful to review the content of the module in light of our current situation. Some of the classes will be combined so that we don’t overrun the semester and the focus will be on independent engagement between classes. John will present the team project in the next class to allow you all more time for collaboration – working together from the get-go should support a more engaged experience.

As we settled into class John asked that everyone friend each other and all were invited to join the module group, which will facilitate remote and private chatting. Some participants had difficulty getting voice activated but with innovative use of other apps we all managed to tune into the discussion. John told the class that a link to Brightspace will be circulated after class. This contains summaries of all classes and the reading/viewing list. It is important to put in the 30 to 40 minutes of preparation before class so that our discussions can be well-informed and relevant rather than a simple sharing of uninformed opinions. If the prep is not done we can assign the first half hour of class to doing it and push the finish time out to 9.30 pm.

The assignment for next week is outlined in detail in Brightspace. You are to explore SL and visit at least three different locations. Be careful doing so and approach the task as if you were visiting a new city. Remember, SL is just like Real Life (RL) and you will meet pleasant, friendly people but, also perhaps, some unpleasant individuals. If you feel unsure or uneasy just Quit SL immediately. Don’t worry about being rude!

You should also set up a new wordpress blog in the name and character of your avatar. You will be expected to write a post to this blog every week. The combined posts will be the equivalent of an academic paper for the purposes of assessment at the end of the semester. The first post will be a description of your SL explorations.

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Autumn semester 2020

October 12, 2020

The elective sessions were a little late in starting this semester due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The first class will take place on Thursday 15 October 2020.

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Class 12: Team Project presentations

May 7, 2020

Twelve weeks after we began the module it is now time to see your Team Project presentations. Sitearm Madonna joined us to record the presentations, along with Locks Aichi and Wisdomseeker who came to support you. The brief for the project Future Direction was explored in Class 4. Assessment criteria can be found on page 6. Each team presented their project which was followed by some comments from the floor. First to go was the Green Team.

 

Next up was the Red Team.

 

And finally, the Yellow Team.

 

And a few closing remarks from John (aka Acuppa Tae).

Each of the three teams made excellent presentations which were complimented by John, Sitearm, Locks and Wisdomseeker. Wrapping up the final class of the semester, John reminded you to ensure you made the final post to your blogs. He wished you well in all your assessments and thanked you for your attendance during what turned out to be a difficult semester. When it started nobody expected to be locked in their homes before it concluded. John also thanked all the guest speakers and hosts for field trips over the last few months.

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