Archive for the ‘2021 Class summaries’ Category


Class 6: My Avatar and Me – Virtual Identities

March 18, 2021

Due to the re-scheduling of last week’s class we met for class six this week. John began this discussion by asking if everyone had viewed the TED presentation by David Chalmers and the interview with Daniel Dennett. The topics were complex and required several viewings for some of you. It was agreed that consciousness is not easy to define. In fact, it was not so much defined in the material as spoken about. The manifestations of consciousness were considered in different contexts. Everyone recognised Chalmers’ description of a movie playing inside our heads: the narrator in our lives. You also suggested that the use of multiple personas is common. We behave according to the company we are in; family, friends, strangers and so on, but it is not clear whether this means we have one personality with different sides and layers to it or multiple personalities.

This led to us considering the nature of our avatars here in SL. Do we present ourselves in virtual worlds as we are in RL? For instance, last week many of the residents of VAI referred to the refreshing nature of SL where they are not subject to being identified with their disability. You may be confined to a wheelchair in RL but your avatar can walk, run and dance in SL. Is identifying with our avatar in SL very different from identifying with our physical body in RL?

John told the story of the the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus about a lesbian living in Syria during the 2011 uprising that arose from the Arab Spring. The blogger, Amina Arraf, came to worldwide attention after apparently being abducted by authorities. She wrote about the dangers of being gay in the Middle East and developed a large following ranging from those interested in her demand for sexual freedom to the supporters of the political cause espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood. The demands for her release eventually led to the revelation that Amina was actually Tom MacMaster, a US postgraduate student in Edinburgh. For the purposes of our discussion the interesting thing is that Amina formed several close relationships while presenting as a gay girl. She was utterly convincing for over a year.

Free Amina Arraf.
When Amina Arraf was supposedly abducted there was an international effort to secure her release before it emerged that the blogger was in fact Tom MacMaster and the photo of Amina was really a Croatian woman.

This raises the notion of ‘truth’, or at the very least, our expectation that others do not attempt to deceive us. But what happens if one of our individual personas does not match the expectation of somebody else? At what point might we be considered to have moved from a genuine attempt to present ourselves honestly as possible to becoming deceivers and liars?

Your generation has grown up with social media and you are familiar with how we present ourselves in that virtual space. You have become adept at deciphering profiles and cautious about revealing too much. It is unlikely that Amina’s blog would convince people today… or is it?


Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

March 11, 2021

Even though this is only week six it was necessary to cover the content for Class 7 due to scheduling issues. So, we visited Gentle Heron and her team at Virtual Ability Island, with Sitearm Madonna in support.

Class at VAI
Gentle Heron welcomed the class to Virtual Ability Island.

With over twenty participants it took a little time to arrange handing out Landmarks (LM) to everyone and ensuring you all knew how to Teleport (TP) to the location. But, eventually we all gathered in the Yellow Hibiscus Cabana and were being warmly welcomed by Gentle who gave a brief outline of the history and development of Virtual Ability Island. She noted that in addition to speaking to us her talk is given in text chat also so that those who are deaf can participate. She asked us to use chat in addition to voice also, adding that the community tries to be inclusive at all times. The role of Virtual Ability (both the community and the island) is to provide a place where people with disabilities can find others like themselves with whom to relate. But, they don’t want to live in isolation from others who do not share their disabilities: they are not a virtual ‘leper colony’. About a quarter of the members do not (yet!) have disabilities and they are called TABs, (Temporarily Able Bodied). They may be a parent, spouse, child, or friend of a person with a disability; a professional or non-professional caregiver; an academic researcher, medical professional or an educator. They have been in SL for over thirteen years and is widely recognised for its service to the community, winning the inaugural Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world’.

The community is supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability Inc. and is probably the first SL entity to be given legal real life (RL) nonprofit designation. However, Gentle rejects the term RL for ‘real life’ when it is used to distinguish the physical world from the virtual world. Some avatars may not be realistic if one means they are a replica of the individual sitting at the computer operating it but, they are realistic in terms of the person who created them. Their avatars express their personal sense of self.

The community embraces diversity. In fact, the population of people with disabilities is the largest minority group in the world and is the most varied. It is common to hear that even people with the same diagnosis have very different life experiences and symptoms. The diversity is a constant for all interactions, requiring a group value of respect and accommodation. Just as in other communities the members form both close and informal relationships and promote mutual support among members. Potential new members are asked what the community can do for them and what they can do for the community. The emphasis is on Ability not DISability.

The development of the community has been organic and it is now recognised within the larger SL ecosystem. It is maintained by the continued interest of members who volunteer their time to support initiatives like the HeathInfo Island where the focus is on health and wellness rather than disabilities and impairments. There are also many educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities and the Path of Support which gives information about more than 120 disability peer support communities so far identified in SL.

The community also has three residential islands, with private properties around the edges and public land in the central area. On Cape Able there is an art gallery where the current exhibitor, Tucker Stilley, controls the computer with his eyes. Cape Serenity hosts a library with works by VAI authors and other well known writers who you may not have realised have a disability. The art gallery and library offer only work created by people with disabilities.

Gentle then divided the class into two smaller groups, one remained with Gentle and John at Yellow Hibiscus and the other departed for the nearby Blue Pavilion with Sitearm. Gentle introduces Suellen and James Heartsong. Suellen has diabetes with related neuropathy issues in her feet. After a career as a 911 dispatcher serving over thirty years and being used to a microphone she has naturally become a DJ here. She and James are married in both SL and RL. She is editor of Virtual Abilities Facebook and also backup estate manager for the VAI residential islands. Suellen also acts as a Virtual Ability Ambassador with a group doing diabetic support. She said that the campfire sessions, dance parties and just chatting to others are her favourite things to do here.

James has Multiple Sclerosis and arrived in SL after reading about the virtual world in an MS magazine. But, he found it too complicated and didn’t hang about. A few years later he tried again and discovered Virtual Ability. The welcome he received and the support for PWDs (Persons With Disabilities) led him to join the community where he was completely accepted for who he is. He believes the community helps people with disabilities regain a sense of self worth and seek out better ways to improve their lives. James concluded ‘I may have MS, but MS does NOT have me! Here is where I belong.’

Gentle opened the discussion for Q&A by reminding us to type our questions into chat in addition to speaking them. Kevin asked if it was difficult to trust people in the environment when first joining? Suellen answered that it wasn’t difficult for her because she figured they couldn’t hurt her here but, she didn’t reveal any personal details. Gentle told us she originally came here with people she already knew and they stuck together so that helped. Fiach said that although he was aware of MS he is not sure what it entails? Gentle explained that it is a neurological disease that causes brain cells to die and scar. Different symptoms arise depending on which cells die: they can include physical, mental, emotional or sensory symptoms. This can lead to diverse problems from balance to swallowing. Hazzible wondered about a treatment he had heard about called Neuralink which is considered to resolve important brain and spine functions? Gentle said that since it is unknown what causes the disease it is not possible to cure it; only the symptoms can be treated. Neuralink is a brian-computer interface which is cool if your brain is normal but, as MS causes brain damage, she is doubtful about its potential to help with MS. James added that as a former martial arts instructor he also found that Chinese medicine arts were helpful where western medical options don’t exist.

John asked Suellen and James if they were married first in SL or in RL? Suellen replied that they first married in SL before she made the physical journey of over one thousand miles to live with James in RL. John also wondered how much time community members spend in SL? It can vary from an hour to twelve hours a day for Gentle but not all that time would be spent in Virtual Ability Island. Suellen spends a lot of her time at Health Info Island or at the residential sims. Hazzible asked what other activities are possible for fun? Suellen has taken up photography lately and she loves to go dancing in SL. She enjoys shopping for shoes that don’t hurt in SL, as they might do in RL due to her condition. James adds that there a lots of live performers in SL. Gentle takes classes as she loves to learn new things and VAI puts on two professional conferences annually that take a considerable amount of time to prepare for and organise. James says that they can also attend church safely in SL as there are no COVID-19 related restrictions! While they can log into their RL church via Zoom the SL church gives a greater feeling of community. As Gentle says: you can meet people from lots of different cultures in SL and, as long as you are respectful, it is a great way to broaden your perspectives. James reminds us that if you are rude you can be booted out! The conversation concluded with a reminder that although people cannot be physically hurt in SL and can always return home with a single click, people can be hurt emotionally because there is always a real individual person behind every avatar.

The other group then rejoined us and John thanked Gentle, Suellen, James, Slatan Dryke, iSkye Silverweb, Stepinwolf and Sitearm for their generosity and sharing their experiences and knowledge with us. Gentle invited the students to remain here and explore or feel free to return any time and said they enjoyed chatting with the students, who joined in with thanks and clapping.

Then we were treated to a unique performance of Riverdance by Slatan and iSkye who have small avatars known as Tinys. This dance defies description and needs to be seen to be believed!

Hazzible'e new slippers.
Hazzible acquired some new and distinctive footwear.


Class 5: From hammer to pixel

March 4, 2021

John opened the class with a request for contributions to a discussion of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas informed by your interpretation of the reading and viewing material prepared for the class. He suggested basing the discussion around the three questions posed in the introduction to the reading:

  1. What impact did McLuhan believe mass media was having on 20th Century Western society?
  2. Why are his theories relevant to our online digital environment today?
  3. How do you respond to McLuhan’s ideas and how might they influence your behaviour, if at all?

You noted that McLuhan suggested that the infrastructure of a medium had a greater impact on us than the content of any message that might be conveyed. For instance, the effect of television on families and society led to a change in family dynamics – the tv set came to dominate the house and captivate attention in a way that hadn’t happened before. However, as there would have been only a single set in a household it also brought families together – gathered around it as they might have previously gathered around the fire in the hearth. We spoke about the difference between a largely oral culture that existed before the development of the written word and the gradual shift that took place following the development of printing: reading became a solitary exercise and led to the emergence of the individual. We became a society of individuals rather than social groupings. Electric media, as McLuhan called tv, was closer to oral culture than written and as such harkened back to the time of villagers gathering to tell stories and listen to fables. Hence McLuhan’s reference to the Global Village.

The emergence of the internet, as predicted by David Bowie during an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 1999, has led to even more change:

The potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we are actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying

This ‘alien life form’ has facilitated the emergence of the phone as we know it today: a totally different beast from Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. You noted that the ‘always on’ feature of instant communication with anyone, anywhere has now become a feature of physical social engagement – you can sit in company comfortably not talking to one another, just using your phones.

Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Fountain, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.


Bowie also spoke of the importance of the public in the creative process, referring to the prescience of visual artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, in the early part of the 20th Century he said that:

the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st Century is going to be about.

We tried to envisage how the impact of the internet as a ‘medium’ might continue to impact society. You spoke of issues around the changing understanding of privacy, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), the changing nature of work and jobs. This reminded you of McLuhan’s suggestion that we create our tools and thereafter they shape us. The approach to understanding tools as an extension of our selves, a mechanism for interpreting and negotiating our environment, where everything from language to the computer chip is seen in the context of human nature, provides a different lens through which to see possible futures. With the numerous threats to the future of our planet as a result of our developing technologies it is important to try and be more aware of the possible outcomes from our inventions.


Class 4: Team Project – Tomorrow’s Office

February 25, 2021

Class photo Spring 2021

We finally managed to get almost everyone together for a class photo.

We started class this week by having close look at the module details in Brightspace, particularly the Assessment unit and the Team Project. John guided you through these sections and emphasised the importance of reading carefully the project details, the brief, the assessment criteria and the submission details. There is specific information on the Website Blog and the Team Project with which you should familiarise yourselves to ensure your independent work is accurate and contributes towards your mark and final grade. (These details are not contained in this website as they are relevant only to you.) There is no point in working hard if you are not doing what is required for the assignments, so work smart!

John referred to the assessment for the Team Project and explained the difference between the group mark and the individual mark. Remember that the aim of the project is to give you the opportunity to experience working on a collaborative project in an online environment. Whether the end result, or your presentation, is a success or a failure doesn’t matter. It is your experience and learning that is being assessed. You demonstrate this through your reflective and critical writing in your blogs.

Refer back to the assessment criteria regularly throughout the semester to ensure you don’t wander off course.


Class 3: Teamwork and Collaboration

February 18, 2021

Settling in for Sitearm Madonna’s presentation.

John welcomed Sitearm Madonna to the class introducing him as a graduate of the module and subsequent guest speaker since then. Sitearm, a retired engineer and currently a consultant in online applied collaboration, has vast experience of team working and has developed a theoretical framework to support online teamwork. He has been refining the presentation each semester and delivered this class in voice with a subtitles. There was also space for input from the class and participants with a live demonstration of briefing, brainstorming, and debriefing. You were very cooperative and engaged enthusiastically, making the content far more meaningful while practicing the application of the theory.

To review the basic content of the presentation see the class summary posted posted in February 2020. You can also review Sitearm’s slides and notes which he has generously made available on his website.

Class 3 in discussion

Engaging with Sitearm in demonstrating teamwork in action.

Sitearm accompanied his talk with comprehensive explanatory slides.

John finished the class by thanking Sitearm for a most engaging class. You will be putting the theory into practice immediately as the Team Project will be introduced next week. In advance, please review the brief in Brightspace and have your first team meetings before next week’s class. Here are your assigned teams:

Team assignments for the Team Project – Tomorrow’s Office


Week 2: Blogging to the World

February 11, 2021

Much to our relief when we logged in to SL for class today everybody found that ‘voice’ was working. This ensured our second class was much more accessible and far easier to engage with than was our first class last week. A few more participants joined the group and once they were settled John thanked those who had sent links to their blogs and reminded everybody else to do so as soon as possible (send your link by email). He will post the links on the student blogs page here and asked you all to check out your classmates blogs, read their posts and leave comments.

You were reminded to include an ‘About me’ page in your blog (see page 1 here for an example). From the discussion is seems that many of you had read Griffin’s article ‘How to Write a Killer About Me page for your Blog‘ and understood the importance of giving your potential readers a context for your opinions. John reminded you that although your blogs are public and available to anyone to read it is unlikely that they will gain a following without promotion and advertising; nevertheless, you may use your avatar’s persona for the blog if you are uncomfortable using your Real Life (RL) identity. Simply write your bio from the perspective of your avatar as a participant on the module.

We discussed the continuing relevance of blogs on the web and many of you confirmed that you are more likely to view videos or listen to podcasts than read blogs. Indeed, there appeared to be a feeling that blogs are a somewhat dated form of publication. John suggest that it might be that the online-diary nature of blogs has changed and the level of presentation has evolved so the what was once seen as a blog is now an online magazine publication. Once a distinct format in its own right blogs have now become an integral element of many websites.

You asked about the most appropriate style of writing for a blog and whether it should be casual and informal or more academic. This module, as part of its learning methodology, uses writing as a mechanism for learning. The intention is that by the end of the semester you are confident in your own writing ability and familiar with the conventions around accountability. You will use four main forms of writing for your blogs: descriptive, narrative, reflective and critical. This can be achieved while writing in an informal tone of voice – a dry academic style is not suitable for blogging. However, you do need  to be accurate and write to the topic. It is also important to ensure your opinions are validated by referencing to your sources. In the first instance those sources will be the reading and viewing material for the module but, as you go on it is important to read around the topics and discover your own sources. Remember, it is essential that you reference the sources correctly. John referred to the links provided in the reading list to support your writing and referencing.

The practicalities of working online were discussed and you noted the difference between SL and video platforms such as Zoom, Bongo and Team. Online virtual worlds seem to be more immersive and less tiring than video meetings, despite the somewhat dated look and feel. SL can also be seen as less intrusive as you aren’t required to share video of your personal space in RL. In all online engagements, however, the lack of body language and the ‘distance’ allow for misunderstanding to arise more easily than it might in RL. Humour, particularly the more subtle form, can be lost and efforts to convey irony can come off badly. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the conventions and etiquette that are appropriate to any online group in which you are working and to provide feedback and cues that support your communication. Positive engagement is not guaranteed so be aware of the need to confirm your points of view are understood.

Finally, John introduced the assignment for next week. You are to try and meet at least three individuals in SL and engage them in conversation. He explained that this exercise is becoming increasingly difficult as residents of the virtual world are less accessible than they used to be. SL, and other virtual worlds, used to have a tradition of welcoming to the ‘newbie’ but, this seems to be less true these days. As people become more specific in their use of virtual worlds they tend to have less time for casual engagement, and may ignore you, or even be rude. John recommended that if you feel uncomfortable during any of your engagements don’t hesitate to quit SL immediately. Don’t worry about how you may be perceived – just get out if things don’t feel right. While you cannot come to any physical harm in a virtual place don’t allow yourself to be exposed to any form of aggressive or inappropriate behaviour either. Whether or not you are able to find any avatars to engage with write about your attempts and experiences in your blog post this week.


Class 1: Welcome to SL

February 4, 2021

Welcome to Second Life (SL) the new semester and a large class of over twenty participants. We are joined by students of Visual Communications, Interior Design, Architecture, Contemporary Visual Culture and Fine Art. While almost all of you found your way into Second Life there was a major issue with getting voice activated. Only four of you were able to do so successfully. In fact, John also had an issue when he logged in half an hour before class started. He found some suggestions on the SL wiki and eventually resolved it be clearing the cache. So, if you are still having trouble with your voice check out that link and see if you can resolve it. John also suggested you visit SL during the week in pairs, or larger groups, and try to get your voice working together. If the students who were successful with voice can help the others it would be great. It is important that you get voice activated because you cannot hear other avatars speaking unless yours is working.

picture of the class

We have a larger class than usual this semester with over twenty participants.


The glitch resulted in a slightly more chaotic and slower introduction than is usually the case as we were restricted to communication via text chat. However, everyone persevered and John got through most of the topics scheduled for the first class.

Firstly, everyone ‘friended’ each other. You will see from the pic above that this turns your avatars name tag from white to green and it means that you know when your classmates are online and you can communicate more easily, particularly if you end up in different locations in SL. You can offer to teleport a friend directly to your location also. Play around with it and see what else you discover.

John went on to explain that the format of the module is interactive discussion, based on the weekly reading material given in the corresponding class unit in Brightspace. It is important that you read (and view video material) before we meet in class so that you contributions are informed and relevant. If this is not done we will need to do the reading in class, which will result in the later finishing time of 9.30 pm! You will find a short quiz each week in Brightspace which will let you know if you have engaged with the topic and understood it. Your answers do not count for assessment.

You will also need to visit SL between classes to carry out the tasks set in the Assignment part of each weekly unit in Brightspace. Initially these tasks are described for you in some detail. For instance, this week you should explore at least three different locations in SL. As the semester progresses you will be assigned to a team and will begin work on a project to be presented in the final week and your blog posts will reflect on that.

This week you must also start a blog using wordpress and write your first post describing the locations in SL that you have visited. Throughout the semester you will post to the blog on a weekly basis so that by the end of the semester you will have produced the equivalent of a semester paper.

Finally, John asked you to read the Assessment unit in Brightspace very carefully so that you understand it fully. The blog will count for fifty percent of your final mark, with the Team Project making up the balance. Note that the first assessment point is in four weeks so don’t leave things to the end!

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