Posts Tagged ‘virtual worlds’

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

March 20, 2020

At the class field trip to Virtual Ability Island, hosted by Gentle Heron, we met residents and guests who shared fascinating insights with us.

The class field trip to Virtual Ability Island, as guests of Gentle Heron, was a real success. Unfortunately – as it was the first meeting following the closing of Universities in Ireland in response to the Covid-19 pandemic – fewer students than usual were able to take part. Some clearly had difficulty with their broadband connections (two of the six students attending dropped out as class began) which we hope will be resolved for the next class. In any case, John will survey all participants to determine if we can continue properly in SL.

Gentle Heron, the founder of the Virtual Ability community welcomed us warmly and told us that Virtual Ability Island (VAI) hosts this module every semester to talk about ‘the glue that holds the community together’. She explained that she would be using text plus voice, the normal practice in VAI where people with diverse abilities are supported. Formerly an educational researcher before being medically retired due to multiple sclerosis (MS) she said she intended covering five topics.

Who is the Virtual Ability community?

Virtual Ability is an international cross-disability peer support community of over a thousand members. We’re international because the people in the community come from six continents. Cross-disability means our members who have disabilities may have a physical disability, a mental or emotional or developmental disability, or a sensory disability (deafness or blindness). Many of us have multiple disabilities. We offer peer-to-peer understanding, support, and education. Sometimes it’s important to communicate with people who are most likely to ‘get’ your concerns, your language, your point of view. That’s why most people with disabilities seek to relate with others like ourselves. But we don’t want to live in isolation from others who do not share our disabilities. We are not a virtual ‘leper colony’. About a quarter of our members do not (yet!) have disabilities. We call them 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. Our community has been in SL for almost thirteen years, so we have a good record of continuity. We won the first Linden Prize back in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world.’ We are one of the original Community Gateways into Second Life, authorised by Linden Lab. So we are recognised well beyond our own community. We are supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability, Inc. Our community assists people with all kinds of disabilities to enter and thrive in virtual worlds like SL. Virtual Ability offers various educational and entertainment activities daily. We also encourage members to explore all the fun things to do and beautiful places to explore throughout Second Life.

What is the relationship between real and virtual (online) communities?

What I want to express in terms of this question is that I have to reject 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 by realistic you mean a replica of the individual sitting at the computer operating it. But they are realistic in terms of the person who created them. Our avatars express our personal sense of self. But I have found that communities are quite similar in both venues. (more on that later)

Why is it important to consider the rules and etiquette of a virtual community?

This one is easy to answer. You should consider the rules and etiquette of any community you interact with. But a caveat, not all the rules and community standards are written down. That is why ethnographers understand that a casual observation of a community is inadequate to understand it. You must spend time immersed with the community before you will really know how it functions. If you disregard community rules and etiquette, even by ignorance of their existence, you risk having a less than optimal and limited understanding of that community.

How are online communities developed and maintained?

First, why do I consider Virtual Ability to be a community? Some definitions of ‘community’ are based on geographic proximity. That’s not us. Nor are we culturally similar. In fact, we embrace diversity! The population of persons with disabilities is the largest minority group in the world, and is the most varied. In our VAI group chats, we often hear ‘Oh, I didn’t know [people with that disability] had that [symptom] too.’ or ‘Wow, we have the same diagnosis, but your life is really different from mine.’ Our diversity is a constant for all our interactions, requiring a group value of respect and accommodation. So we aren’t ‘together’ physically, and we aren’t really very similar. However, we definitely exhibit other aspects of community:

  • Our members form both close and informal relationships.
  • We promote mutual support among members. We ask potential new members what the community can do for them, and what they can do for the community.
  • We share common values and beliefs. One important one is our emphasis on Ability, not disability.
  • We offer organized interactions and activities. Some of the most popular are campfire chats and dances.
  • Most members exhibit a strong sense of belonging to the community.

On our Healthinfo Island directly to our west, we are focusing not on disabilities and impairments, but rather on health and wellness. You will find educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities, and the Path of Support. The Path of Support lists information about the more than 120 disability peer support communities we have identified so far in SL. There is a list of the current month’s exhibits and displays on a notecard in the giver box in the centre of the cabana. Our community 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 on the public land; Cape Serenity hosts a library. In both the art gallery and the library, we offer only works that are created by persons with disabilities. That goes along with our emphasis on the abilities of people with disabilities. Another notecard in the giver box tells more about the SL islands our community maintains. You are welcome to visit our public areas any time. You can learn more about the VAI community at our website.

And how does our community develop? I would have to say it is organic, through biological-like processes of accretion and evolution. We have a niche on the larger SL ecosystem, and we specialise to fill that niche. We are maintained through the continued interest and volunteer time of so many wonderful community members. Let me introduce some of them to you now.

Q&A with VAI guests
iSkye, Suellen, James, Mook, Celene and Slatan are all going to introduce themselves to you. Then when they are all finished with introductions, you will be able to ask them questions about their experience in virtual worlds. You can address your question to one of them, or to any of them. Please type your questions.

iSkye Silverweb is completely deaf in RL. She has worn a hearing aid from the age of five, learned to speak, and became a highly literate, and voracious, reader. Reading books, she never had to worry about missing anything anyone said. She never had to ask ‘What did he say?’ as she did about TV shows, only to be told ‘Wait for a commercial’. iSkye lost all hearing about twenty years ago, and when that happened, she got tinnitus. Her doctors don’t know the cause; they guess it was due to cochlear otosclerosis. It seemed to iSkye that a switch was flipped. Bye bye hearing, hello tinnitus. Lipreading became an exercise in frustration. Over the years she has seen ICQ, IRC, AOL, Cybertown – she’s been there, done that. Until SL. Members of the VAI community will say ‘I am more me in SL than I am in the physical world’. It is difficult to imagine how valuable that is for a Person With a Disability (PWD). Her first friend in SL was a blue-haired girl named Mucaro India. ‘Hello. Can I help you?’ Those five friendly words in text made a all the difference. At that time the voice capability had just be added to SL, where communication was through text chat. It was generating much excitment among residents who were trying it out. Great for them: useless for iSkye. But, with Mucaro’s help she made more friends – a ‘Dead Ghost’, a dinosaur named Orange, a robot named Tin Man, and Gentle. All willingly used text to converse with iSkye, who felt like an Alice in Wonderland – just a little female avatar! She learned that all her new friends have different disabilities yet Virtual Ability brings them together as a community of support. They all get disability here. The name Virtual Ability is clearly not an accident. iSkye was given, and also found, ways to be useful and to help people and made many friends along the way. Being invited to do things in spite of protesting, ‘but I am deaf!’ and being told ‘we don’t care, join us’ was empowering. SL does not cure iSkye’s deafness or tinnitus but it does provide relief from the feeling of being closed off from the worked that she knows is filled with noised and voices. SL is such a visually rich environment, and the avatars she met and the friends she has made help her cope with that isolation. She can communicate with people, do things, and create art. Members of the community can express their real selves in this virtual setting, instead of their disabilities. That is essential for iSkye’s health.

Suellen Heartsong is a member of VAI and helps out with the estate managers, participates in conferences and events by voicing for those who need that help and generally helps where needed. She is also an Ambassador for See Yourself Heath, a project that works with people dealing with diabetes. Suellen is also editor or the VAI Facebook page. She participates in many of the group events and classes and particularly enjoys Campfire hour where chat and gossip combine in mutual support. Virtual worlds open up so many things that Suellen is unable to do in RL: dancing, being a DJ, meeting her now RL husband in SL and making friends all over the world. She met James and they became immediate friends in March 2012. They traveled back and forth by train for a year between Denver, Colorado and Oswego, Illinois getting to know each other in RL. In 2013 she moved to Colorado to be with him and has lived there happily ever since. They married in RL on Leap Day 2016 so celebrated their anniversary this year. Not every relationship in SL becomes RL, sometimes people are far apart and cannot meet. Suellen is fortunate that she was able to move across the US to be married to James in both worlds. They still enjoy their SL time dancing and listening to music that they are not able to do in RL. Suellen has diabetes, a heart condition and PTSD that she and James deal with together as a couple.

James Heartsong tells us that his name in SL it Peaceful James. He chose the name as part of his personal ‘rehab’ work when he came to SL to follow up on an article in the National MS Society’s Magazine. Prior to be disabled with MS he used to work 40 to 60 hours a week at HP, teach at a martial arts studio most night and weekends and once a month he would spend the weekend with his National Guard unit (a special forces A-Team). All of this was in addition to being a father and husband. It all went away when MS came to stay. He was not exactly a ‘peaceful’ man back then. He discovered that stress was aggravating his condition so now avoids it. His name in SL and his entire approach to life had to change. He did a lot of inner work to reduce the underlying stress levels and became more peaceful, loving and kind. Since he started these holistic changes his overall health improved a lot, although his remains disabled. Changing from the inside out made him a better man and eventually brought him to Suellen. One of the things he learned in Special Forces was to help people to learn how to free themselves. Now he is not teaching people how to free themselves from foreign oppressors but tries to teach them how to free themselves from their personal concerns. He has learned also to focus on his abilities rather than being depressed by what he can no longer do. He concluded by saying that ‘I may have MS but MS does NOT have me!’

Mook Wheeler was a university lecturer in the social sciences until early medical retirement over a decade ago. Her discovery of SL was a blessing, she says, because it provides a method of interacting with people that does not carry the extreme stress that face-to-face, eye-to-eye and voice-to-ear communications do. In the physical world, social interaction always exhaust and destroy her; in SL, it often invigorates and lifts her. Like iSkye, this virtual environment is essential for her health. She says she has only been able to ‘be myself’ in SL. Until discovering SL she had no idea that she had never ‘been myself’ in the physical world. She shared two notecards with us. Worlds Apart attempts to explain why SL makes Mook more ‘normal’ than RL. It is a detailed and very well written piece that gives great insight into her experience. Regrettably it is too long to share here. The other notecard Socialising in SL is shown below.

Mook Wheeler, who has Aspergers and is on the Autism Spectrum, shared this notecard with us.

 

Mermaid Celene told us that Virtual Ability is her virtual home; the community means a lot to her and VAI has helped her through difficult times. Being able to come here allows her take her mind off the flashbacks and terrible memories of her past. She loves volunteering in whatever capacity she is needed and sees it as part of her way of giving back to VAI. She suffers from retinopathy or prematurity, glaucoma and severe PTSD and it totally blind. She used to be partially sighted so has a deep love for bright colours which she expresses with a huge inventory of ball-gowns! Her love for bright colours keeps them alive in her head because she can remember what they look like by comparing them to objects she has seen. For example, she will ask her husband what shade of pink an item is and his response is flamingo pink of kindle pink. Kindle pink refers to the baby pink cover of her old reading device. The same goes for colours like sky blue, pool blue, apple red, fire engine and home depot bucket orange. She is also lead Radegast mentor. Radegast is a text-based viewer that allows the blind to access SL. When not working in VAI she loves to fish and explore SL. Sometimes she just sits in her apartment and listens to the sounds from her bubbling aquarium which she words, or finds a quiet place near the Canadian geese in the pond at Cape Heron, the residential community apartment sim. Celene has made lifelong friends here and for her, VAI is a lifesaver.

Slatan Drake is Italian and a veteran who suffers from PTSD. He considers SL the best therapy he has had in years. He is an SL old-timer, mentor, linguist, artist and photographer, is endlessly curious and eager to share what he learns. His mentoring career began about twelve years ago when the programme was officially managed by Linden Lab. He is now a Mentor and Tutor in several groups but a special mention goes to Virtual Ability Group with the specific purpose of simplifying SL for those residents with different abilities to whom he gives distinct classes. As an artist and photographer some of his works are permanently displayed in popular Art Galleries around the Grid. If you meet Slatan you can right-click his avatar for more information in his Profile. He concluded by recommending a viewing of Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me a full-length feature about SL residents, including James and Suellen Heartsong.

Chenming asked if the two couples who met in SL prefer online or offline. Suellen responded that she liked both, depending on what is going on offline. iSkye, Celene and Slatan agreed. John suggested that it can be difficult to differentiate between SL and ‘RL’ as they are both so real. James responded that he enjoys SL particularly when he is suffering higher fatigue levels… but he really enjoys RL even better because he can reach out any time and touch Suellen. He added that kissing in RL is much more fun than it is in SL! On the other hand iSkye and Slatan are only a couple in SL because they live in separate countries in the physical world. They are able to spend time together in SL.

Sitearm asked if any of the guests are ‘builders’ in SL. iSkye shared a link to a video of a build she made as part of the Liden Endowment for the Arts. James has a link to a video of one of his builds in his profile and Slatan shared a link to a video of Crumbs from my Nightmares, an art installation in SL. It takes time and practice to become proficient at building in SL but all the necessary tools are built into the environment.

The final piece of advice from Gentle and all the guests is to suspend your preconceptions about SL, and virtual environments in general, and especially do not think of SL as a game. It is a platform where you can play games but it is not a game in itself. There are colleges here offering classes just like this module, communities like VAI, towns, museums and much more. Slatan explained it wonderfully saying:

Second Life offers the great opportunity to free our essence, with an explosion of feelings, socialising, activities, colours and creativity beyond our imagination. I am what I am, but in Second Life I am what I wish!

James gave an insight into how SL can actually influence people’s abilities in the physical world which is explained by the concept of ‘mirror neurons‘ and Mook shared a link to a YouTube movie about the impact on a woman with Parkinson’s.

Gentle invited the students to explore VAI and subscribe to the Google calendar of upcoming events. This may become a more significant opportunity than we might have expected as we are all confined to our homes over the coming weeks.

John concluded by saying thank you to Suellen, James, Celene, Mook, Slatan, iSkye and Gentle. ‘We are really grateful to you for sharing your experiences and stories with us this evening. It has been a privilege for us. Hearing about your community has given us new insights into the possibilities offered by virtual communities. It is particularly interesting to be here at a time when the physical world has suddenly become an unknown place for many of us due to an invisible danger. You have given us much to think about. Thank you all very much. And special thanks to Gentle Heron: in my view you are the Queen of SL!’

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

November 14, 2019

Gentle Heron and the Virtual Ability Island community hosted our class this week.

Visiting an active community in Second Life is a privilege and always an interesting and informative experience. Gentle Heron, the founder of Virtual Ability Island, hosted us along with residents James Heartsong, Sullen Heartsong, Dorie Bernstein and Eme Capalini.

Gentle told us of the founding of the community and the necessity for such an organisation. She started by explaining that they usually communicate with voice and text because there are deaf and blind community members. Gentle was an educational researcher before retiring due to multiple sclerosis. Virtual Ability (VAI) is an international cross-disability peer support community of over 1,000 members. People in the community come from six continents and may have a physical, mental, emotional, development or sensory disability, with many having multiple disabilities. Because it is sometimes important to communicate with someone who understands and ‘gets’ your concerns, your language and point of view, the community offers peer-to-peer support and education. However, the community does not live in isolation – it is not a virtual ‘leper colony’ – and about a quarter of the members do not (yet) have disabilities. They are referred to as 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. The community has been in SL for over 11 years and won the first Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world’. It is also one of the original Community Gateways into SL authorised by Linden Lab. So, it is well recognised beyond its own community.

VAI is supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability Inc, to assist people with all kinds of disabilities enter and thrive in virtual worlds like SL. Virtual Ability offers educational and entertainment activities daily and encourages member to explore all that SL has to offer. Some of the most popular activities are campfire chats and dances. Healthinfo Island focuses not on disability and impairment but on health and wellness. There are educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities and the Path of Support which gives information about the more than 120 disability support communities that have been identified in SL so far. On Cape Able there is an art gallery and Cape Serenity hosts a library. Both gallery and library offers only works created by persons with disabilities.

Although a community, VAI is not based on geographical proximity nor cultural homogeneity. It embraces diversity and recognised that people with disabilities form the largest minority group in the world, while being the most varied. This requires a group value of respect and accommodation. Members form both close and informal relationships and the group promotes mutual support. Potential new members are asked what the community can do for them and what they can do for the community. The emphasis in on Ability rather than DISabilty.

Gentle referred to the nine elements and three principles of digital citizenship that are outlined in the reading material for this week’s class, suggesting that they apply to virtual community membership. VAI involves members in various projects and encourages them to stretch their capabilities. The community also enforces standards of virtual world etiquette while helping members understand their rights and live up to their responsibilities. This is not always simple. Sometimes the needs of community members conflict. For instance, some cannot type because they are paralysed, others cannot read due to dyslexia or blindness, and others are deaf and cannot hear. Therefore, communication often requires an intermediary, either technological or human.

The community educates beyond itself through two annual conferences. The beginning of the month saw the 8th Annual International Disability Rights Affirmation Conference.

Gentle asked the other members of VAI to introduce themselves and students to type their questions into local chat.

Suellen Heartsong helps the estate managers and supports conferences and events by voicing for those who need that help. She is also editor of the VAI Facebook page She is able to do things in SL like dancing and being a DJ that she could not do in RL and also met her now RL husband in SL.

James Heartsong is a US Army Veteran whose disabilities include MS and PTSD (from both military and civilian tragedies). He found SL after reading an article in an MS magazine suggesting that good peer support was available but was completely lost in the large world that is SL. Luckily, he met Gentle and was welcomed into the community. He also met his wife in SL and brought her to VAI. They eventually met in RL and have now been together almost seven years.

Dorie Bernstein’s avatar is a black wolf. She joined SL over 14 years ago looking for an early community of autistic individuals but never made it to their island instead finding a home at Dreams, a community started by The Sojourner. She was a speech/language pathologist who discovered that learning to use SL helped with her recovery from strokes. She was also raising an autistic son. Dorie now runs Dreams and is getting more involved with VAI. This gives her a safe place to socialise while creating and learning new skills. Her current leadership position pushes her outside her comfort zone on a near-daily basis but is as rewarding as it is challenging.

Eme Capalini has been in SL for 12 years and works for VAI creating virtual environments for the community and and for its real life clients. She finds virtual worlds a great way to connect with others socially and to engage in research.

The questions from the class came in rapidly! LouHug wondered about how safe it felt meeting somebody from SL in RL. Suellen responded that as a retired 911 supervisor she was able to do a good background check on James in advance. It is important to be as careful and responsible as possible when moving from SL to RL. Dorie added that her mom and stepdad met in a comquserve chartroom in 1995!

John told of a former participant in the module who met their partner during the final presentation of the group project and they have since become engaged. MsBenediction noted that she might not share that story with her boyfriend.

Kebab asked about finding suitable members for the community. Gentle replied that people now find VAI rather than the other way around. It is a closed group so people must apply to join. The community needs to be wary of devotees who prey on PWDs (People With Disabilities) or those who pretend to have a disability and want to role-play. So newcomers are invited to visit for a few months so that their suitability can be tested.

ChataMari wondered why VAI chose SL as a platform to connect with others. Gentle said as the largest and most active SL was the best choice.

John reluctantly drew the discussion to a close as James said he was just getting warmed up. Thanking Gentle and friends for their generosity and time he noted that students had been welcomed at VAI for many years now and TU Dublin is very appreciative of the continuing engagement.

John offered an invitation to everyone from the community to join next week’s class when guest speaker Glenn Loughran (aka Joseph Jacotot) will lead what promises to be a very interesting discussion on the 1973 short-story The One’s Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin.

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Class 1: Welcome to SL

September 26, 2019

We got off to an excellent start this semester. All of you found your way to the virtual classroom in SL on time and seemed well settled in by the time John arrived. In fact, it was John who had a little difficulty getting his mic working but before long everyone had settled down and making friends. In online virtual environments ‘making friends’ is a specific action rather than the vague relationship development it can often be in Real Life (RL). Whether you are active on Facebook, Snapchat or any other social media liking, following or otherwise hooking-up with others is an activity that requires an offer followed by acceptance or rejection. In spaces such as SL this gives you access to otherwise private conversations and locations. It also allows you to track each other’s location and communicate more easily.

John also gave you membership of the module group which confers additional privileges in the TU Dublin campus. More on this later in the module. We also shared real names so John can match your avatars with your student records. And after all that we had the class photo!

Class photo

Class photo – all eager to get started on our virtual journey …

 

The exercise of moving from the classroom to the balcony was useful as it provided practice in controlling your avatars, which is not as easy as it seems!

Following the photo John introduced the content of the module, explaining what to expect over the course of the semester. He emphasised the importance of independent learning in the module. We meet for only one hour a week but you need to put in the preparation to ensure maximum value can be extracted from that hour. Expect to devote an hour to preparing for class. You should also expect to put in at least another hour-and-a-half on the assignment for each class. This time will increase somewhat when you start working on the Team Project after the fifth week. If you put in a solid effort each week you won’t find yourself overwhelmed at the end of the semester.

The class meetings are intended to be discursive. In other words, we will be discussing the topic of the week, on which you have reading and viewing videos. Your input is what makes the class so be prepared to contribute.

The supporting material in Brightspace is essential to the module so make sure to use it regularly and wisely.

These class summaries are not intended as a replacement for class attendance. Experience indicates that if you attend regularly you can expect to do well in the module assessment. If you miss one or two classes this summary will help keep you up to date but any more regular absence will make it extremely difficult to understand what is required from the assignments.

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

March 28, 2019

Attendance was disappointing this week but we continued with our visit to Virtual Ability Island (VAI) nevertheless. We all teleported to the Cabana Classrooms where Gentle Heron, founder of the Virtual Ability community, introduced her colleagues Eme Capalini, Stepinwolf Darkstone and Carla Broek. Eme is Vice President of Development for Virtual Ability. SL gives her a creative work outlet and a place to make friends. She says that logging in is like coming home. Stepin has been in SL since 2007 and joined the group that eventually became Virtual Ability where he now manages a virtual apartment complex on a voluntary basis. Carla is from Belgium and just celebrated her 12th rez day (as SL birthdays are known). She was drawn to SL by the opportunity to explore creative work like photography and community. She has created her own world inspired by the English countryside where people can relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. Gentle explained that she had been an educational researcher before being medically retired by multiple sclerosis.

Student Rebekah Majesty with Eme Capalini, Gentle Heron, Stepinwolf Darkstone and Carla Broek at Virtual Ability.

Speaking and using text (as is the custom in VAI to support those who are deaf) she describes VAI as an international cross-disability peer support community with over 1,000 members. ‘Cross-disability’ means that members who have disabilities may have a physical, a mental or emotional or developmental disability, or a sensory disability. Many have multiple disabilities. The community offers peer-to-peer understanding, support and education because sometimes it is important to communicate with people who are most likely to understand the issues, concerns and point of view. But the community is not exclusively disabled. About one-quarter of the members do not (yet!) have disabilities. They are known as 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. The community has been in Second Life for over 11 years – and won the first Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that had a tangible impact on the real world. It is also one of the original Community Gateways into SL, authorised by Linden Lab, so is recognised well beyond its own community.

VAI is supported by Virtual Ability Inc, a US nonprofit corporation. The community assists people with all kinds of of disabilities to enter and thrive in virtual worlds like SL. It also offers various education and entertainment activities daily, encouraging members to explore all that virtual worlds have available. On this island the community provides educational exhibits and displays, health information, information on research opportunities and details of over 120 disability peer support communities identified in SL so far. The community also hosts the Cape Able Art Gallery and Cape Serenity Library.

The population with disabilities is the largest minority in the world and is the most varied. VAI members are neither geographically proximate nor culturally similar. In fact they embrace diversity. This requires a group value of respect and accommodation. The other important value is an emphasis on Ability and not DISability.

The students joined the discussion with some interesting questions. Hummish opened by asking about protecting oneself from cyber bullying, online theft and so on. Gentle replied that there is little help from SL itself but the community provides help as it can by banning griefers. Carla told us that there is a reporting tool provided by Linden Lab but it is not a direct support. John told of the retired Miami Dade police officer who headed up security in Virtual Dublin and kept the community safe and peaceful.

Coldteosies asked about anonymity and whether virtual friends met IRL. Gentle said that people may retain as much anonymity as they wish. For instance she had met all three colleagues IRL and they were exactly the same as the people she knew from SL! Stepin added that he was glad to find that Gentle was very much Gentle IRL. John added that he had many many friends in SL, some of whom he eventually met IRL and some not.

Aestheticant asked if people who are differently abled need extra digital protections, within the broader sense of digital citizenship. Gentle explained that while VAI did not have a constitution it has an informal set of principles that are enforced, along with the SL Terms of Service. Stepin added that on Cape Heron they have a covenant and a Rental Agreement which spell out a lot of expectations.

This led on to some interesting observations about how we might identify with our avatars (which also emerged during Class 6 last week) and how that can affect behaviour. Some of us have avatars that look like ourselves IRL but Rebakah said hers doesn’t look anything like her. Gentle suggested that the sense of embodiment takes a while to develop and explained the concept of mirror neurons – the same parts of your brain fire when you see an avatar doing something as if you were doing with your physical body. We also learned that some people on the autism spectrum find SL a comfortable place to meet others because they can retain control of their interactions. Some of them don’t use human avatars but use, furry animals, fruit, or even a simple metal sphere.

Eme shared some links to VAI’s projects:

Gentle offered explanatory notecards to us, giving more details about VAI and the community and invited everyone to visit again anytime we wished. John thanked Gentle, Eme, Stepin and Carla for hosting us and being so generous with their time, knowledge and experience.

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Class 2: Settling in

October 4, 2018

A few new participants joined the class today and settled in almost immediately.

Two participants sent links to their blogs to John during the week. Just before class started he noticed a bunch of emails arrive with links to many more which he will review after the class. He will post links to all the blogs here (see the link in page 9 in the column to the right) and encouraged you all to review the blogs and make comments on them.

John spoke about one of the key shortcomings in a virtual world such as SL: the lack of facial expression and body language. Because our avatars do not react or present non-verbal responses it can be difficult to establish rapport. Indeed, sometimes it can be difficult to know if the person behind the avatar is even there at all. Maybe she or he has gone away from the keyboard (AFK) to make a coffee or answer the phone! Therefore, feedback and response via text message or voice needs to be more frequent to reduce anxiety. You can text message ‘Acuppa Tae nods’ or ‘John smiles’ or even ‘y’ from time to time to reassure others that you remain engaged or agree with what they are saying.

We had a useful discussion on the different voices of the sample blogs given last week (Dolce Merde, Brain Pickings and Chris Brogan) and analysed when and why you might read them. We also tried to determine the purpose of the blogs. So, for example, Chris Brogan is essentially reinforcing his reputation as a thought leader in online marketing whereas Dolce Merde is playfully offering eye candy. The discussion incorporated a review of your own reading habits: where you go for topical news; how you verify the facts presented to you; your unconscious trust in some media sources compared with others etc. Many of you joined in the conversation and contributed well. John concluded by reminding everyone that you should be cautious around your consumption of information and practice analysing sources to develop discrimination.

John commented that the tone adopted in your blog posts last week was appropriate for the content. It was mostly informal and informative, using a chatty style. You will find that you need to vary this tone from week to week depending on the topic you are writing about. You should also remember the basic conventions of academic writing and apply them appropriately during the semester. Be aware of writing in a narrative, descriptive, reflective and critical voice. It is also important that you refer to your sources and cite them appropriately. There are many different styles that can be used for citations but the main thing to remember is the purpose: your readers needs to be able to check your source for themselves. The College favours the APA Style so it is usually best to use it. Here are some useful links on the subject.

We agreed to use a private Facebook page for communication outside the class. One of you (I didn’t catch who it was) agreed to set it up and John gave his Facebook address to be added. If you aren’t already on Facebook you should set up an account for the duration of the semester. You may do this in your avatar’s name if you wish but please note that while this is a common practice it is, strictly speaking, a breach of Facebook’s Terms of Service.

THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE NEXT CLASS:

  1. Make contact: with two or three residents of Second Life. Introduce yourself and try to engage them in conversation. Always remember: if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation for any reason QUIT Second Life immediately. You can log in again in a different location.
  2. Write the second post: on your blog describing your encounters.
  3. Read: 5 steps to build a productive and tight knit remote team by Diogo Costa in Tech Co, 5 February 2016.
  4. Read: 10 Rules of Professional Etiquette for the Digital Workplace by Aaron Orendorff in Lifehacker, 27 April 2016.

OPTIONAL ADDITIONAL READING ABOUT VIRTUAL WORLDS:

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Class 7: Akron Island

March 22, 2017

The class visited the University of Akron island in Second Life this week. We were hosted by Prof Dudley Turner (aka Dudley Dreamscape) who took the module some years ago and then co-taught it with DIT for a number of years. Many of you also met Dudley at the seminar for National Digital Week in the West Cork Arts Centre last November. Unfortunately the problems with voice in SL have persisted so the class was conducted in nearby chat text.

Dudley described the origin of the island. When it was planned the faculty wanted to make sure there were a variety of areas for small group gatherings. These are scattered around the island. Originally there weren’t any big classroom spaces but Dudley built the larger lecture hall type space for larger meetings as the requirement grew. The learning spaces include a tree house and a glen with its own waterfall. Glenn noted that the rural design was reminiscent of the hedge schools that sprang up around Ireland under the Penal Laws.

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Akron Island with the life-size pie chart maker in the foreground.

We moved to the life-sized pie chart maker for a discussion on virtual identity. As we were forced to chat through text this was a useful to device to encourage debate. The facilitator (me, in this case) asks a question. Participant avatars then move to the appropriate section: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree and a pic chart is built in the centre. We worked with the following questions:

  1. Do you think you share too much online?
  2. Do you know who is watching you online?
  3. I would be happier not to have social media apps
  4. I keep my business and personal stuff separate online.

The second question resulted in discussion around free apps and the ‘price’ we may unwittingly pay. Chip Van reminded us that if it is free we are the product. In response to John’s question if people feel in control of their online information Inchydoney suggested we tend to throw caution to the wind for the sake of convenience. However, there was an acknowledgement that different age groups are behaving in different ways online.

The discussion around social apps resulted in many comments about ‘addiction’ to the buzz from them. Yet everyone agreed they were useful for keeping in touch when physical distance is an issue. Once people have met in RL the online engagement can be more satisfactory.

The class meeting finished with thanks to Dudley for hosting us at Akron Island and an invitation for him to join us in Dublin anytime.

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Class 5: Virtual ability

March 8, 2017
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Gentle Heron introduced the class to Virtual Ability Island.

This week the class was hosted by Gentle Heron in Virtual Ability Island. Comprising three islands, the community (of over 1,000 people from six continents in RL, and growing all the time) supports and enables people with a wide range of physical and mental abilities to thrive in online virtual worlds. For many, SL has become integrated with their RL. Gentle introduced us to some members of the community who spoke of this experience, Mook Wheeler, camaro and Eme Capalini. Although disability may be less apparent in SL where, for example avatars can walk even though their human counterparts may need a wheelchair, those with visual or hearing impairment require particular consideration.

The principles of universal design and access for all underpin the development of the environment so that colour schemes, landscaping, materials and access all promote integration – there is no segregation between the able and the disabled. You won’t find any stairs here, only ramps, colour schemes are soothing to promote calm stress-free engagement and support those with visual disability, while speech is accompanied by text in local chat so those with hearing impairment are not disadvantaged. The Virtual Ability website is worth a visit if you would like to read about the history and development.

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There are many activities, supports and exhibitions in Virtual Ability Island.

Mook, a former academic with a doctorate in a social science field, has Aspergers and manages clinical depression and anxiety. Mook described ‘being an autistic social scientist as somewhat of a paradox: trying to understand the production/politics of subjectivity without being able to negotiate it in a personal or practical sense, for the most part.’

Eme and Mook told us that in SL they can leave the ‘difficult’ parts of their lives behind in RL. In fact, Mook’s avatar has evolved away from human form to become a sphere with various attachments and bubbles because ‘being human brought too much of RL’s physical difficulties and memories into SL.’ In fact, a lot of people in SL are not aware of Mook’s autism whereas they would be fully aware of it in RL.

We had a fascinating and enlightening discussion exploring and comparing experiences. Gentle commented that people with disabilities often experience a lack of respect in RL and asked if it also happened in SL. Burnsygirl told us of her experiences as a teacher with a disability organisation in RL and how people would pat her students on the head as if they were pets.

Acknowledging the theme of the module Mook said that ‘SL is perfect for me, as close to a social and communication utopia as any medium can be for me, because I can talk (in type) to people without having to deal with their physical presence or eye contact … I can adjust all of SL’s settings, avatars, environments, visuals and sounds to accommodate my sensory needs. SL is a space of pleasure, interaction and comfort to me which RL cannot duplicate.’

Mook also shared her insightful and searing analysis of Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas which is well worth reading! [Note: this has been updated with with additional comments on 30 November 2018]

We all appreciated the generosity of Gentle, Mook, Eme and camaro for taking the time to welcome us to their community and share their experiences. It really exemplified the possibilities and opportunities offered by this technology. Gentle said we were welcome back anytime – the islands are open to the public. Many of us remained after class to explore and chat.

THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE NEXT CLASS:

  1. View: The Politics of Utopia by Richard Noble, professor and lecturer in Fine Art at Goldsmiths. From Utopia Revisited conference at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, 2011.
  2. Write the fifth post: to your blog reflecting on our visit to Virtual Ability Island and the notion of a virtual Utopia.
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