Posts Tagged ‘virtual worlds’

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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.

Akron

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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Class 3: Teamwork and collaboration

February 22, 2017
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Open discussion about places students visited in SL since the last class.

Locks Aichi, formerly of the DIT Learning Teaching and Technology Centre and who has been teaching the module since it started, joined the class this week. She will be around to provide support and guidance from now on.

We began class by explaining the thinking behind our SL avatars names. Some people have chosen to model their avies (as they are known in SL) on their RL selves and consequently the name reflects this choice. Others have developed new ‘en ligne’ personalities that may reflect previous engagements or suggest future exploration, with correspondingly thoughtful names. John explained that when he started in SL in 2006 residents had to choose a surname from a existing list, which gave him Tae. Forenames could be freely invented so Accupa was impossible to resist. However, when SL changed its policy to allow any name to be allocated to an avie he reverted to John O’Connor. Maintaining two identities was too time consuming! So, if anyone is unhappy with their initial choice it can be changed but make sure to let everyone know.

The discussion moved onto a report on the locations everyone had been visiting since the last class. You have been very adventurous exploring pubs, museums, shopping malls, clubs and even some venues of dubious repute. Many have tried dancing, with varying degrees of success; chatting with other residents; flying; teleporting; and generally trying to get a feel for the environment. You are noticing the nuances of etiquette in this particular virtual space and, despite the occasional embarrassing moment, settling in very well.

The opportunity to observe your own responses to being in this strange new environment, one where you feel awkward and clumsy as you try to control your avie, and struggle to understand the conventions around acceptable behaviour, are not lost on you – everyone is reflecting on this. But, John reminded the class not to become too caught up in SL as an end in itself – the module merely uses SL to explore online behaviour in its broadest context, particularly for how teamwork and collaboration can be facilitated and supported. Keep that in mind while you inhabit the space.

We had hoped to look at Teamwork and Collaboration in more detail but time ran out. We did, however, present the teams you will break into for the main project, and in which you should continue your online exploration. Get used to working together online.

Group 1: shadidame; freddymcfreddy; ChipVanCorner.
Group 2: AlxMway; Burnsygirl; whatyamacallit.
Group 3: Saoise; jackmittons; amarcordcat.
Group 4: Deeuwan; Fayebubba; Inchydoney.
Group 5: Yashurdoshur; Agendasm; Yogitea.

John also said he would give each avatar L$300 for pocket money – instantly transforming from lecturer to Dad! Don’t get excited and spend it all at in the first shop – you will need some of it to upload images into SL for your project (at a cost of L$10 per image). By the way, your pocket money is the equivalent of about US$1. Your ‘bank balance’ appears in the menu bar at the right hand side.

THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE NEXT CLASS:

  1. Meet: at least two residents of SL and try to engage them in conversation.
  2. Write the third post: to your blog describing your encounters.
  3. Read: (if you haven’t done so already) the very short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Ursula K Le Guin. 1973.
  4. Prepare: one question about the text to propose to the group at the next class.
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