Ten to ask – How to predict the Web 2.0 winners

In the last few years, it seemed like there was an endless stream of new Web 2.0 applications. If you didn’t like one, twenty new ones would appear. Now that party is over. A while back I wrote a post about this, Web 2.0, the meltdown, and education.

But it’s not at all clear cut who will make it through the tough times. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that is great for classroom use. But we know that lots of these tools are made by companies that are simply going to pack up and go home in the near future. So how can educators figure out which of their favorite tools will remain standing?

Here are ten questions and thoughts to ponder.

1. Do they make money?
Here’s the big question. A company with no visible means of support is not living on love. Someone is taking home a paycheck. Someone is paying the server bill. These companies are either someone’s home brew project in mom’s basement, or they have investors. Investor money runs out eventually, and there isn’t going to be a lot of new investment anytime soon. If there is no revenue, they have less of a chance to survive.

Ad revenue is almost as shaky as no revenue, since in a recession, ad rates tend to fall like a rock. Who clicks on banner ads anyway? People stop kidding themselves about these things when the money runs out.

Some small, individual projects can be very useful, but if they are cursed with popularity, they will need more people, servers, and other stuff that costs money. Maybe the key is to keep your favorites to yourself. Stop sharing! (OK, probably not the best answer.)

2. Spend some time with your favorite search engine.
All US public companies have to file documents with the government that give details on their finances. These are available online. Plus, if they are large, analysts and the press write about them. Stock price is an indicator too, if it’s gone down (worse than most!) that’s an indication something is wrong. In cases like Yahoo, all the bad news about failed mergers, the CEO leaving, and things like this are an indication of a company in crisis. It’s not smart to depend on them.

A non-public company is harder to find out about. But in my book, the more self-aggrandizing publicity a company has gone after, the more likely they are in it just for a quick flip. So for me, I’ll take the company with less news about awards, big PR blitzes, and showing up at every social media event.

For example, look at Zoho, which makes productivity and collaboration web applications. They just continue to crank out good, solid products and services. Plus, they have a business model – they sell their premium services. And they make money. Check out this interview with Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu, about how he and his brother bootstrapped the company (meaning no outside investment) while his wife earned enough money to support the family. Smart, sensible, and pragmatic.

Are they a better long-term bet than Google Docs for web-based productivity tools? Who knows?

3. Do they have investors and how long will the money last?
Try searching on the company or tool name plus words like “invest”, “funding”, “owner”, “sell”, “layoff”, or “round”.

For example, if you are thinking about starting a local district professional development network using Ning as the basis, you might be very worried that they will just disappear. Google “Ning funding” and you find several sites that confirm that Ning received $44M in July 2007, and another $60M in April 2008. This article makes some guesses about how much money Ning makes – only $2M per year on subscriptions and ads, so they certainly need to figure out how to make money. However, $100M is a whole lotta money to skate on while you figure things out, so they may make it through to the other side.

A company that’s trying to go big but got a less than $5M investment more than a year ago might be having serious problems.

Another measure is how many employees they have. A completely rough estimate is that every employee costs $100,000 – $200,000 per year. The high side is companies that need vast server farms or other exceptional costs. As a rule of thumb, a company with 10-20 employees, a $2M investment, but no income can only last a year.

Linden Labs, the makers of Second Life, says they are doing great with 300 employees. They raised $11M in funding in 2006, and $8M a few years before that. Obviously they are making enough money from Second Life to sustain themselves or they would have gone out of business already. This blog from a venture capital firm estimates their revenue at $8M per month, or nearly $100M per year. This blog does the same calculation and guesses their expenses are about $30M for employees, plus another $10M for office space, servers, and other stuff. So, if these guys are right, Linden Labs is making at least $40M profit per year on Second Life.

The question is, if you are a school about to drop a lot of money and resources on a Second Life presence — will the economy, or some newer, sexier virtual world cause their subscriptions to drop and sales to slide? Most of their money is made on virtual land sales, not subscriptions, and if I had to guess, only new subscribers buy a lot of land. After a certain amount of time, people tend to “settle down.” But still, $40M a year is a nice cushion. It’s hard to be sure if all the speculation is true, since Second Life is not a public company. But my guess would be that Second Life will still be around for a few years. And better yet, will still have time to cultivate educators and cater to their special needs.

Yes, I know Second Life is not technically a Web 2.0 app, but neither is Google Earth or Twitterific or half a dozen others — everyone lumps these things together. Who am I to try to untangle the misunderstanding of what Web 2.0 is?

4. Layoffs?
Actually, this is a mixed bag. Layoffs can be the sign that a company is intelligently trimming its sails to ride through the storm. However, layoffs that cut to the bone are a sign that the company is about the crash and burn. How do you know which is which? That’s hard, especially with small, startup companies. There are sites like TechCrunch that watch the technology industry, but layoff news is often full of unsubstantiated rumors.

5. Gut check — does this make sense?
C’mon, who really thought a social network for people who love their sneakers was a good idea. Let’s get real, this was simply a couple of guys trying to cash in on the social media craze.

Not to keep picking on Yahoo, but there was a recent announcement that Yahoo for Teachers has been shut down. This was going to be a social networking site for teachers offering portfolios, networks, and other free goodies. Now the service has been cancelled by Yahoo, and the former URL (teachers.yahoo.com) redirects to the main Yahoo page. But a new site, called Edtuit, says it “… picks up where Yahoo! for Teachers left off.” But look around the site, there are no names, no explanation of who they are, or why a teacher should believe any of this. If Yahoo couldn’t make it work, how will they?

To me, this kind of announcement sends up a big red flag. Call me when they go live in “Fall 2008” — oops!

6. How big are they?
Strangely, the ends of the continuum will win. Big, big companies tend to have resources and deep pockets. Small companies can survive like cockroaches. People can work virtually, keep their day jobs, live in mom’s basement, or on a spouse’s paycheck. Some of these are student projects. Medium size companies have problems. Keeping 10-150 people employed is one of the toughest jobs ever.

Take Wordle, for example. Wordle is a web toy that makes pretty word clouds out of text. On the Wordle website, there is one person’s name listed with an email address. The blog says he’s an IBM engineer who wrote the code in his spare time. No investors, no PR and marketing budget, just a guy who likes words. My guess is that Wordle will survive.

Will little, one programmer projects like Wordle survive? Sure, until he or she loses interest (or graduates from high school.)

7. What’s your exit strategy?
If you are in love with ustream, Qik, Flickr (uh oh, owned by Yahoo!), or any free service for that matter, don’t assume that their business model will stay the same, and that your use won’t be affected. A few will just disappear without a word. But there is no doubt that all these companies will have to make money off these services to survive. Don’t expect them to send out a memo, these people are fighting for their lives. When you find Viagra ads embedded in your “free” videos in the middle of a class project, that’s when you’ll find out how they decided to monetize their service. You know you are supposed to back up your hard drive, now you have to back up your “cloud” too!

8. Is it great? Would you pay for it?
If this is something you already use, you know quite a bit. Does it just plain work or are there a few too many “we’ll be back soon” messages? Was it easy to learn and use? Do you honestly have good enough connectivity at school? Does it do a little more than you actually need? If you are going to be teaching it to others, they will probably have different needs than you. Will it stretch for them?

And if the company starts to charge for it, would you pay something, anything for the service? What would you do if the company went out of business or changed the service drastically in the middle of a class project? Is it simply a toy you would toss out and find a different way? If this is the case, maybe it’s too trivial to bother with for the long run.

9. What do your friends do? What do your friends know?
It’s not just about being trendy. Other teachers you know can be good sources of information. If you know someone using the tool you are interested in, ask them not just how it works, but how has it changed over time. Have they had any issues that required tech support and did they get an answer? Have things changed recently? Were there a lot of promised features that have not appeared yet? Are unexpected, unannounced changes occurring?

Check out places where teachers using Web 2.0 hang out –Twitter, Plurk, and Classroom 2.0 come to mind, but if you only have a Facebook account, ask your friends there!

And don’t forget to check if there is a company blog – a blog that hasn’t been updated is a bad sign. A blog with regular, informative updates and truth about service interruptions is good. A blog with special mentions of classroom use is better!

10. But education is so important! Teachers are special! They can’t do this to us!
Well yes, yes they can. Schools are a small niche market. We want free stuff. And not just free stuff, but ad free and adult content free. Free stuff with extra controls and settings that help teachers manage student accounts, work with tricky firewalls, and other extras that no one else demands.

The only way most of these Web 2.0 companies will survive is to get a lot of users and get bought by someone, quickly, before the money runs out. We all know the low penetration rate of new technology in schools. If you feel like the only one on your block using Web 2.0 technology, it’s because you are. So if a company has a choice of reaching, say, a million Twitter users vs. the tiny fraction of teachers using Web 2.0, which would you choose?

Really – Do I have to do all this work?
Nope – you can just keep using what you are using and stay nimble. Lots of this will be based on luck, not cold analysis. But if you are recommending these tools to others, spending money and time implementing them, planning lessons, or shifting your “business” to them, a little time invested now may make a big difference later. You may decide instead to use tools you can really own, like a do-it-yourself open source implementation, or tools from a company you can trust. They might cost a little more time or money up front, but give you peace of mind as bubbles burst all around us.

This too shall pass.


Virtual worlds interactive timeline

Anyone interested in Virtual Worlds will enjoy this interactive timeline. It covers over 200 years of immersive and simulated worlds in fiction, art, and technology, starting with the panorama picture “…invented by Robert Baker and patented in 1787 as “La Nature a coup d’Oeil”.

I can’t vouch for the veracity of every piece of information here, but I didn’t notice anything obviously missing or wrong. Pretty cool to stroll back through memory lane… anyone remember The Palace?


Community of interest or community of practice?

I’ve been seeing a lot of talk around the edu-blogs and at conference sessions about online learning communities, or building a personal learning network as part of a educator’s professional development. Often, these are referred to as “Communities of Practice” – a term coming into common use only a few years ago. Many educators were introduced to the term in grad school through the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who wrote Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives (Amazon link) in 1985.

Their book explored how natural learning that takes place in apprenticeship situations, and profiled several different Communities of Practice (CoPs) from around the world. The “practice” part of CoP is the work they do, and the learning takes place in context, or situated, in the common work. These groups of people learn to do their work not by lectures, but by everyone working together, from experts to newcomers, and most importantly, by talking about their work together.

The concept of “Legitimate Peripheral Participation” is key to the idea of communities of practice. This is when newcomers learn needed skills by doing work that is on the periphery of the community, and as they prove their competence, being invited into more important roles. The other part of legitimate peripheral participation is how newcomers move into the community through talk. The shared stories of the community, particularly war stories told by experts, are part of the experience. Newcomers learn to participate by learning the traditions and vocabulary of the group, first by listening, then by trying out their new verbal skills within the group, and if their words ring true, by moving from the periphery and becoming more central to the shared expertise of the group.

It’s obvious that this sounds similar to what happens to educators as they break down the walls of their classroom and use new technologies to find and participate in new communities.

I think, however, that we confuse different kinds of communities. Specifically, I think that educators who come together in online communities, or even temporary real life groups, are more often than not, communities of interest, not communities of practice.

I’m not just being picky about semantics here – the problem is that calling any community a “Community of Practice” presumes that it will have similar benefits and impact.

In Second Life, for example, a teacher may meet educators from around the world who are doing similar things in their classroom, have similar hopes about the future of ed tech, and share similar frustrations. They may find the interaction refreshing, educational, and maybe even inspiring. These professional collegial interactions are too often missing from teacher’s lives. And Second Life is just an example. This could be Twitter, or a social network, an online group created for a graduate school class, or even people you meet face to face at a conference.

However, just having similar work doesn’t mean that this is a community of practice. They really aren’t doing the same work. Once this interaction is over, they have to go back to their real place of practice, their classroom and school. The benefits of shared vocabulary, shared experiences, shared stories are all gone. Now these teachers have to sit in meetings where no one is on the same page, frustrated that everyone isn’t seeing the light.

In fact, these outside communities of interest may serve to pull teachers away from their local communities of practice, distancing them from the colleagues whose mindshare would be vital to real local change. It’s an all too convenient place to vent about everyone who “doesn’t get it.”

It’s hard for me to imagine any kind of educational change that doesn’t draw on the participants at the ground level, meaning the people in the school. That’s why I advocate for student participation in education technology initiatives. Changing a community means involving the stakeholders, all the stakeholders, in the process. Building a healthy community of practice in the place of the actual practice is a first step to change.


Second Life: K-20 Educators Exploring Virtual Worlds – Panel

So today (if I’ve gotten my world clock right) the different kind of conference session debuts.

Second Life: K-20 Educators Exploring Virtual Worlds – Panel (Live VoiceThread version)

Voicethread panel session

Second Life: K-20 Educators Exploring Virtual Worlds was a last minute brainstorm between me and Kevin Jarrett as the time limit for submitting sessions got close. We used Google docs to hammer out a session description, and sent it in with minutes to spare. The idea was that by using VoiceThread (an online slideshow that you can add multiple voices to) we could create a group experience that would both show the educational side of Second Life, and then have a platform where everyone could continue the conversation.

I posted a bit about it here when Kevin created a teaser for it using Animoto.

So I think it turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself! It’s informative already, and hopefully will generate some conversation which will make it all the better! I think it’s pretty hype-free, which is nice. I sort of had the role of “voice of reason” so I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m completely against Second Life. I’m not, and I put forward my thoughts a while back, Second Thoughts on Second Life.

So here it is, TA DA! Second Life: K-20 Educators Exploring Virtual Worlds – Panel (Live VoiceThread version)

There’s a non-live option here too: Second Life: K-20 Educators Exploring Virtual Worlds – Panel (recorded versions) (Bios and support links)

These are just a movie and audio file that were recorded a week ago, and are available to download, but that’s not the real thing. It’s just there to provide a permanent home for the files under the K12 online conference umbrella. The conference organizers said that from last year’s experience, many conference attendees wanted downloadable, podcast versions of the sessions.

But the REAL deal is here, on VoiceThread, where you can add your own comments in voice or text. Make your mark!

Second Life: K-20 Educators Exploring Virtual Worlds – Panel (Live VoiceThread version)


More Virtual News from Google (and others)

Two more developments in the virtual world since the announcement of Metaplace last week (here’s my take on the education potential).

  • Google seems to be testing a virtual world engine at Arizona State University.
  • Scenecaster is promoting itself as a way to “mainstream” virtual worlds, much like YouTube did to video

There is a nice write up of these two developments in Virtual World News.

Really, the hype around these worlds and engines has nothing to do with use, and especially not educational use. The hype is to create “buzz” for these companies that creates value by generating attention. Someone is going to “win” the attention war and make a bunch of money. The more hype and publicity a company generates, the more attention it can get from venture capitalists or bigger companies hoping to score a competitive advantage by buying a hot technology. Part of the reason that all these annoucements are coming now is that there are a couple of big conferences devoted to promoting new companies going on this month.

Of course, what does this mean to educators – today!

Today, the choices for educators exploring virtual worlds mean that you have to commit to one of number of proprietary worlds with some pretty serious limitations, some technical, some social. Second Life has certainly gotten a lot of publicity, but it’s not the only game in town. As with many Web 2.0 tools (and really, any technology) it’s going to shake out and leave a lot of companies on the sidelines. It’s not a question of if, but when. Educators using any tool should seriously think about what would happen if the company shut its doors suddenly, or if something much better comes along. That way, the lessons learned can be transferred to the next tool, technology, or platform.

It seems to me that anyone exploring the use of any technology tool with students should always be thinking about the “big picture” — what does this mean for students, how does this enhance learning, and what the lessons learned are for the future. Getting married to any technology tool doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best choice for your class, but keeping the big picture in mind means that your time invested will always pay off.


Second Thoughts on Second Life

When I joined the group of educators in Second Life called the CAVE (see previous post) I promised myself I would do two things: 1) approach Second Life with an open mind and 2) write about it along the way.

I have written about it to some extent (another previous post, My First Second Life Lesson), but it still feels like I have a long way to go. The last dozen times I’ve been there it’s been a very frustrating technical experience (freezes, crashes) and very little real time to do anything interesting. Even when it works, it still feels like a place that is looking for a use in education, or just reminds me of the dozens of other places I’ve hung out at in my long life online, like Tapped In or various text-based virtual worlds.

My thinking has somewhat crystallized around 3 topics:

  • Second Life as a place for professional development (vs. professional collegiality)
  • Second Life as a place for learning with K-12 students (have to save for next time!)
  • Second Life as a platform in general (another next time!)

I apologize in advance for the length of this post. It’s both too long and too short. Too long for a blog, too short for real insight. It’s a work in progress, and I only really got to one of my intended three topics. so please forgive me!

And finally, to gain any REAL insight and perspective, I needed to re-read more seminal works in this area. I’m still working my way through some and I’ve written about them at the end of this post. It’s easy to get carried away with small technological advances, and think about Second Life (or any currently available 3D virtual world) in a vacuum. But why not stand on the shoulders of giants? So if you want to skip my musings in this much too long blog post, jump down to the end and read some of the people who really count in this field!

Professional development vs. professional collegiality
It’s been fun having nice chats with educators in Second Life, some random, some planned. I can really see the need for educators, who are a traditionally isolated profession, to bond in new ways with other like-minded individuals. Like many conferences, I’ve found that simple conversations and random meetings with new people are more interesting than the formal events. This is more about collegiality than professional development. Also like many conferences, the format of formal events is even much more instructionist than in real life, simply because of the limits of the interface. Sitting in a virtual lecture hall is hardly revolutionary, even if you do it wearing wings or a cat costume.
Isolation of professional development from professional practice
Professional development, in my opinion, has to have a component that links back to your actual place of professional practice, and for most teachers, this is a classroom. Lectures alone cannot be professional development, even in real life. Professional development to me has to include professional practice, and unless you are learning to teach in Second Life, it seems like a distancing element, rather than one that enhances professional practice for a classroom teacher.

For K-12 educators especially, Second Life constrains any educator/student relationship because of the age regulations. The forced separation of teachers and students, except for isolated instances, creates an experience that is further distant from the teacher’s own classroom. For professional development to be ultimately successful, I think that it has to re-integrate at some point with the teacher’s actual professional environment, which is the classroom. Second Life offers a dead-end in that regard. (I’m planning to write more about the age separation issues later!)

Collegiality – it’s a good thing!
I think Second Life used as a professional collegial environment is terrific, but similar to other such environments such as Tapped In–in other words, not terrible, but hardly revolutionary. I know, I know, there are people who love it and have learned a lot. You can certainly learn through collegial interaction with other professionals, and really, there should be a lot more opportunities for teachers to do that. But counting on Second Life as a platform for more than just voluntary, informal collegial interaction seems premature at best.

Some people are going to be taken with the fun of flying around or visiting virtual museums, but many more are going to be put off by the “bleeding edge” aspect of constant freezes, crashes, high bandwidth demands, and the difficulty of simply moving your avatar around. At this point, I think the constraints of the platform overwhelm any advantage as a reliable professional development environment for educators.

In addition, what early adopters of any new technology often fail to realize is that the things that hook them about new technology are exactly the reasons the next wave of adopters will hate it. The high-risk, high learning curve, first-to-market excitement that is so attractive to early adopters is like a big red warning light to the next wave. Enthusiasm for the new new thing has a short shelf life, and most people are quite willing to wait for someone else to shake all the bugs out. So while Second Life as a professional development platform may be just the ticket to rev up the engines of early adopters, the rest of the educator population is going to look at every crash, every naked avatar that shows up in the middle of a meeting, and every interface quirk as confirmation that technology is not ready for real classrooms or worthy of their time.

The S-word
Second Life is primarily a platform for adults to explore their sexual identity. Ignoring the overtly sexual nature of Second Life is like going to a strip club and then wondering why there are naked people there. The owners of Second Life, Linden Labs, have expressed their support for education, and have discussed their intent to provide more educationally appropriate worlds. However, this is a business model that has to work for them and it’s not going to be driven by education no matter the best of intentions.

It’s perfectly fine to explore Second Life as a platform for different kinds of professional interaction, but getting married to specific features or its proprietary scripting language seems short-sighted, given that the platform will always be tuned to make more money from the primary function of the world, which is sexual in nature.

Epiphany as the ultimate educational goal
Finally, I can see that people who get deeply excited about Second Life have had a life-changing experience, a learning epiphany, that they want to evangelize. I have the feeling that it’s not a function of Second Life that they find transformative, it’s the experience of learning something that’s hard fun that clicks for them. I know that when I found programming, it did the same thing for me, and even after 30 years, I still have difficulty not yaking about programming as a transformative experience that everyone should be doing.

Learning ABOUT Second Life is different than learning IN Second Life, but the two get conflated. Learning to navigate in a new world and becoming an expert in something that very few people know about are heady experiences. The experience of learning Second Life also tends to confirm what many educators feel about learning, that learning by DOING is the way they learn and the right way to facilitate all learning, adults and children. Dusty research articles and ed-psych terms that were meaningless in grad school suddenly come to life. The excitement of learning, and of sharing that experience with others sparks ideas and interests in learning more, sharing more, and evangelizing.

Even now as I share my doubts about Second Life, I would NEVER begrudge someone else their epiphany. I hope educators who are having transformative experiences in Second Life continue to share them with others, but realize that it’s the epiphany that counts, not the vehicle. Providing multiple avenues for such learning epiphanies, for both educators and children, should be the ultimate goal, not to force others to re-experience your own personal transformative event.

Re-reading seminal works
Back when computers were first connected to each other, some of the earliest uses were text-based chats and virtual spaces where people could hang out. I’m even so old that I had access to ARPANET when I was an engineering student at UCLA. I think I’ve had the same conversation in Second Life as I did on ARPANET with teletypes chattering out one line at a time. (Where are you? What time is it there? What do you do? How’s the weather?) I think the only conversation I’ve had in SL that I’ve never had before typically starts out, “where did you get your shoes?” and I probably have enough of those in real life anyway!

People really aren’t that complicated, and it doesn’t matter if you can “see” an avatar or not. Imagination can fill in most blanks. Believe me, there were text based and 2D long-distance love affairs, people who were “addicted” to dial-up BBS worlds, spats, identity crises, crazy times, and serious discussions. There were people who could program fairy-tale lands full of unexpected surprises around every corner, using scripting languages that had no user manual and no relationship to any known programming language. It was just as fun as Second Life, really!

There were also serious researchers who took on the job of documenting this new culture like anthropologists, predicting where it would go, what impact it would have on human culture, and how it could be used for education. No serious consideration of Second Life would be complete without re-reading these works. Here are just a few I’ve been reading — I’m sure there are many more.

The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit by Sherry Turkle. I took this off my bookshelf a while back and re-read it. Written in 1984 (and she worked on it for 6 years before that), this book is about identity and self in the age of the computer and specifically talks about children and computers. Even the chapter titles are timely, “Adolescence and Identity: Finding Yourself in the Machine”, “Hackers: Loving the Machine for Itself”, “Video Games and Computer Holding Power”, for example. It’s tempting to try to explain the book in a few sentences or link to Dr. Turkle’s wikipedia entry (ok, here it is), but really, it’s a book you have to read for yourself. (If you buy a new copy, be sure to the the 20th anniversary reissue.)

Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet  Written 10 years later, this book continues her ethnographic exploration into computer culture and human identity. This book could be written about Second Life, and has some really interesting early insights into people using virtual worlds to try on different identities, genders, and personas. (Sherry Turkle website)

Tapped-In. A virtual world for teacher professional development since 1997. Research conducted in and on Tapped In is extremely relevant for Second Life educators.

MOOSE Crossing – PhD project of Amy Bruckman. (Dissertation) This virtual world was designed specifically for children and research into Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism within a virtual community. A terrific read!

“The central claim of this thesis is that community and construction activities are mutually reinforcing. Working within a community helps people to become better dancers/programmers/designers and better learners. Conversely, working on design and construction projects together helps to form a strong, supportive community.”


“In research about the Internet, too much attention is paid to its ability to provide access to information. This thesis argues that the Internet can be used not just as a conduit for information, but as a context for learning through community-supported collaborative construction. A “constructionist” approach to use of the Internet makes particularly good use of its educational potential. The Internet provides opportunities to move beyond the creation of constructionist tools and activities to the creation of “constructionist cultures.”

Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding TechnologyHoward Rheingold wrote this series of essays in 1985 about the pioneers of the computer age, from Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage to Alan Kay, Brenda Laurel, and many more. I have a newer edition published in 2000 that contains what Howard calls a “retrospective futurism” where he re-addresses his predictions in the light of what really happened. Before I went to see Alan Kay speak at Educomm in June (that post here), I pulled out Tools for Thought and read the chapter “The Birth of the Fantasy Amplifier”. The perspective gave me a different lens with which to view Alan Kay’s speech. Even though he was talking about the One Laptop per Child global initiative and the programming language Squeak, the seeds of the “Fantasy Amplifier” concept that fueled his many contributions to this field were evident.

Seymour Papert. Even though Dr. Papert didn’t specifically focus on virtual worlds, he’s the father of educational computing and constructionism, and is a key link between everything I’ve mentioned here. I think I’m going to have to save that discussion for later, since this has gotten WAY too long! But here’s a link to some of his articles and speeches that exist online. His three books, Mindstorms (for researchers), The Children’s Machine (for teachers), and The Connected Family (for parents), are also amazing and have changed the way many people view the computer as a “tool to think with.”

Serendipity, Second Life, and the importance of being nine

Serendipity – the act of finding something fortunate while looking for something else.

My Second Life guide, Kevin Jarrett, sent a link to his Second Life blog and I wound up on his real life home page. Kevin is the K-4 Computer Teacher/Technology Facilitator at Northfield Community School in New Jersey, and like me, a happy immigrant to education from the corporate world.

His site included this fascinating page: The Northfield Community School Grade 4 Computer Repair & Service Club

The Northfield Community School Grade 4 Computer Repair and Service Club is dedicated to refurbishing discarded computers and donating them to local families who don’t presently own one. This is our third year and it’s going to be our best! Our club is made possible by generous support from the Northfield Education Foundation. Teams of students attend meetings over two months and then present the refurbished computers to new owners on “Delivery Night.” It’s fun for everyone and a great service to the community too!

Refurbished computersDid everyone get this? GRADE 4 – yes, nine and ten year-olds. Did someone forget to tell these kids that fixing computers is hard? Did someone forget to tell Kevin that nine-year-olds actually need extensive computer literacy lessons so they can answer multiple choice questions about what CPU stands for? Opps! Too late – they are  doing real work, finding out for themselves that broken things can be fixed, and making a lasting contribution to their community. Hey, is that on the test?

There is no doubt that this experience will change lives, either by these students having a powerful experience of mastery, or by providing families with computers that connect them to 21st century opportunities.

We hear all the time that even high school students aren’t capable of fixing computers, that students can’t create projects that show technology literacy, that they are not responsible enough or trustworthy enough, or that they will “cause more trouble than it’s worth”–and it’s simply not true. A caring adult with a purposeful vision who lets kids shine beats “can’t do it” every time.

Go for it, kids!


PS If you are an educator interested in Second Life, Kevin has just announced SLolar Central (SLolar = Second Life Scholar), a facility providing free temporary office space (and other resources) for K-20 educators and school administrators exploring Second Life. It’s a great opportunity to learn the virtual SL ropes in a community with other like-minded educators and some terrific guides! For more details and signups, see Kevin’s blog.

My first Second Life lesson

I finally met up with KJ Hax (the Second Life name of Kevin Jarrett) for an office assignment and lesson about Second Life. Kevin is on a research sabatical to study Second Life, and has been working hard to form a group called CAVE (I blogged about that a few days ago). Kevin and I met at the appointed time and he showed me an office space I’ll share with Andy Carvin. Since I was there first I got to pick the nice corner with windows for my space and leave Andy with the windowless corner (sorry!)

Rotating the chair

Kevin gave me a desk, chair and a plant.

Then the lesson began. Moving objects consists of selecting them, clicking a “move” radio button, and then dragging them using arrows that form an x, y, z axis. To rotate objects, you select a “rotate” radio button and then a sphere appears and you can drag an object around. You can turn objects upside down and suspend them in mid-air, or move them up through the ceiling or push them through the floor. That’s not polite, I imagine.

Sitting on chairKevin showed me how to sit on my chair. Seriously, this sounds crazy, but that took a long time. You can sit on every object in Second Life, but depending on how complex the object is, you can sit on different parts of it. If you click on the back of the chair and select “Sit”, your avatar obligingly perches on the top of the back. If you are standing to one side, the avatar will sit across the arms. If the chair is too close to a wall or desk, you will get a warning that there is no room.

Couple of intial thoughts about this as a learning experience:

Growing the plant1. The system was training me. As I learned more about what the interface could and couldn’t do, I was internalizing the constraints of the system. The accuracy limitations, time lag, and clumsy way that the mouse and menu controls work are obviously a problem that people can learn to work around, but still are limitations. It’s like asking a student to do chemistry experiments with mittens on. Doable, and perhaps a noble challenge, but is it optimal? Of course not. Will this weed out people who can’t tolerate this learning curve, very likely. Will some people love the challenge — that’s obvious.

2. It’s a lot like programming in some ways (and I’m not even talking about scripting). The clumsiness of the interface makes you figure out what you can and can’t do. For a willing learner, being forced to work out the best way to do things is a great learning experience. However, I don’t believe that a clumsy interface is necessarily a valuable thing. A class would have to include time for students to play and share experiences to get past that interface. It had better be a REALLY exceptional learning activity to make it worth the time and effort.

Cone asks about blog

Back to building. I built a cone, turned it green and selected “glow”. Magical stars shoot out of your hand when you create things. Nice. There is a default script for every object, and I noticed that it said something when you touched it. So I changed the default to say, “Hello!” Pretty easy. I like my objects to be friendly.

Later, I ran into Doug Johnson again (Blue Skunk Blog) who commented on my hair (blue). He had a monitor in his office and David Warlick had given him a script that opens a web page when anyone clicks it. So I pasted that line of code in my default script and after two fixes to dumb typos, it worked!

I did notice that it was changing the colors of the script text as I made mistakes to alert me to errors, so that was nice.

Cone script

After that I played around a bit with the realistic physics options, but couldn’t figure it out. Everything I did just made the cone deflate into a puddle on the floor. I may have to read some instructions!

I wanted my cone to go on my desk, so I shrunk it a bit and moved it up there. After getting it positioned, it now sits there and links to this blog. So, a small mission accomplished.

Placing cone on desk

At this point, I’m still not quite sure what to do with a desk, or why I would sit at it! But I’d like to figure out what would be fun to make. I wonder if you could make a fortune teller machine. Something good for a party.

Final thought for the night  — learning about Second Life is different than learning in Second Life.

Looking in from the outside

Second Life

So everybody’s heard something about Second Life by now. Second Life is an online world that you can visit as an “avatar” – a 3D creature that you can design and control. Teen Second Life offers a similar experience for teens 13-17 years old. People purchase virtual land, build virtual homes, sell each other virtual clothes and services, companies have set up virtual shop (CNN – Real Cars Drive into Second Life), and probably every real transaction translated to the virtual world.

Virtual cars

So what’s the connection to K-12 education?

Educators are allowed in Teen Second Life under very limited conditions, so talking about the use of Second Life in K-12 education fall into two categories.

1. A meeting space for educators in the adult Second Life. ISTE and other educational groups have set up spaces to hold meetings, offer places for virtual collaboration, and experimentation. I’ve been invited to join a group called the Center for Advanced Virtual Education (CAVE) and am looking forward to the experience. Will Richardson, David Warlick, Kathy Schrock and others have been invited. I’m sharing an office with Andy Carvin, and hope to learn a lot. CAVE is a research project of Walden University researcher, Kevin Jarrett.

2. Islands in Teen Second Life created specifically for virtual educational experiences. The 3D building tools and interactive capabilities offer the ability to offer things like role playing exercises, building environments, scripting objects, virtual field trips and more. Suffern Middle School has done some interesting things.

I have to say I’m starting out from a position of skepticism for some of the benefits that people are talking about. I’m not here saying that I don’t see any value or that I don’t want to give it a shot. The truth is that I’ve been in all kinds of virtual worlds from Tapped In, to MUDs and MOOs, and a couple of the original 3D worlds, so long ago I can’t even remember their names. I remember hearing the same “this will change everything” talk back then too.

Things I get:

  • a collaboration space
  • meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet in real life
  • some fun building experiences
  • designing your own avatar and experimenting with the concept of self
  • student role playing, meeting spaces, programming, scripting, constructing and economic simulations

Things I’m suspicious about:

  • Unexamined optimism about the educational implications of Second Life. I’ve heard people say, “wouldn’t this be a great place to set up physics simulations.” I don’t see that yet. Besides –the history of educational technology is filled with great physics simulation applications that aren’t used. Why do we think they will be used in a virtual world? Just because you can let the kids have blue hair while they play with the simulations?
  • Yes, you can build things, but how easy is to create physical attributes like mass or density? You can set sizes of things, but can you measure them? Can you make a spring? How much math is possible? The scripting language is event-driven, meaning it’s best at reacting to user contact. Will this just mean that we move further away from the “computing” part of computers? I don’t know, that’s why I want to try things myself.
  • I fear our tendency to create canned educational experiences so that no one really has to learn the tools. What’s interesting is the ability for kids to make stuff. 3D click-and-explores are not.
  • People rushing to find reasons to use this technology in education just because it’s new.
  • Precious time wasted avoiding the hard work of teaching and learning in the real world.

I was just logged in and ran into Doug Johnson (Blue Skunk Blog) – he and I had a blog exchange the other day about “tinker toy” software, meaning tools that offer a “low floor and high ceiling”. Does Second Life meet this criteria? Not sure yet.

PS My “in world” name is Kay Idziak – say hi if you see me.