MMP7: Avatars, Embodiment and Community at a Distance

Monica Martinez-Gallagher, Multimedia Technologist, Portland Community College

The audio for this podcast can be downloaded at

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Announcer: You’re listening to one in a series of presentations from the 2008 HighEdWeb Conference in Springfield, Missouri.

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: So as he said it’s a 45 minute presentation. I’ll to try to leave a little bit of time at the end. I’ll try to get a little short so I might even actually have a little more time than that and yes the coffee candy on the tables is a late biological pondering to wake you up but I guess you guys probably already had coffee this morning. I thought you’re going to stock with me yesterday afternoon at 4:00 that would have been way more poignant then.

Thank you guys all for coming this morning and I wanted to say a little quick thank you to Paula the woman who switch with me as well because that was really flexible and awesome of her to do. I had a very late flight that got me in five minutes before my presentation yesterday so that wouldn’t work. And a really quick thank you HighEdWeb so that I can get on all the way and I won’t forget it at the end like a room child. So I’m going to start with why I’m interested in this space and what got me towards researching avatars and virtual environments in the first place.

I spent a year away from my husband at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We actually live in Portland Oregon but they’re really weren’t any opportunities to start looking into this from the Portland area. So I went off to Wisconsin-Madison and a couple of months before that we had started playing this game called “Star Wars Galaxies”. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with it? No?

One, so it’s a massively multiplayer online game a lot like ‘World of Warcraft’ only it’s focused around the meadows of the Star Wars World basically so everything’s kind of generated around that space. And so it was also the first experienced I had with the place where I could go in the virtual environment and create a persistent reality for myself and my husband even if we were at a distance. So we had a house in a little place called “Mos Vegas” which was a town on this planet called “Tattooine”. This is all about the Star Wars tales if you know anything about that and we met here basically after work in the evenings and had this virtual reality with each other.

And this is a place where I could also be persistent communication for others as could he so that we could all kind of just exist together as a virtual community and this were my friends from Portland that I spent most of my time with. So he as a character was an armor creator and so in this environment you were able to express your identity in ways like what you would look like. And what your profession might be and even when you chose a profession it was down to what materials you would choose to craft your items out of for for better or worst attributes depending on what you’re trying to get at. And so he would create me gifts like these pink armor that I am wearing and find this random things in the world and made them in our virtual space for me which really gave me a sense

In the evenings I felt like I was going to the space to live with him virtually and we even had a pet bantam named Olli who was actually really kind of rude and had stinky breath but he added something to the house and the feeling like we’re actually did have a virtual life there together in some way. So when I got together with him there it felt more rich in experience than I’d ever had with him chatting in and instant messaging client or even talking on the phone in some ways isn’t the same as if you can actually see a representation of someone and you know that they’re the person running the avatar behind that experience. And that really is the difference here in this environment is that we get to use avatars to express lots of things about our identity that text just can’t. So if you don’t know what an avatar is, I don’t know whether how many of you folks have heard the term?

Oh good, so not specific games but you know mostly how they work probably. It says up here, “Avatars are a graphical representation of ourselves in all of this virtual environments no matter what virtual environment you get into.” If you have a representation of yourself it’s referred to as an avatar and the term comes from Hindu which is about a deity coming down and taking control of a human form which actually describes the idea of driving an avatar from a virtual space pretty effectively because you do have almost Godlike control in a lot of ways of this little things experience. And these are all portraits of Second Life avatars which is the system that I currently do research in for Oregon Community Colleges Distance Learning Association. So secondly, there’s actually only one instance of a place called “The Metaverse” which is this group of virtual spaces that’s sprouting up probably faster than we can talk about. And this is really a tiny sliver of what’s going on and these are pretty popular spaces. Some of them very game oriented like ‘World of Warcraft’ and ‘The Sims Online’ but some of them very more social oriented like ‘The Palace’ or ‘HipiHi’ which is actually like a Chinese version of Second Life. And so there is no real game mechanics in the environment until somebody comes in and writes them for the space.  So what the spaces offer even though they are all a little bit different in flavor is that they give us a place to give virtual expressions of self. So if you came across this person in a virtual environment you probably wouldn’t guess that he’s a chemistry professor with a PhD and very lovely garden on his campus but he also is very much appreciated by his students right now for having this basically his courage to step outside the norms and share an environment like this with them that’s a little more flexible than a classroom can be which brings me around to sort of a talk about avatars and identity. And this is Dr. Stephen Hawking, if you don’t know, but and if you didn’t know and you met him, you wouldn’t necessarily understand that his one of the greatest theoretical physicist that’s alive at the moment and wrote this book of brief history of time. So if you have that information you would of course interact with him in a very different way. But if you didn’t have that information you instead were given the opportunity to be exposed to his ideas from inside the virtual space with an avatar that was designed to promote the idea that what he is expressing is about Science and Technology and history, you might come at his information a little differently. And as a matter of fact from this you probably wouldn’t be likely to guess if you were given flashcards that Dr. Hawking was the one that was presenting that information and I mean he could be anybody. He could be somebody who was wearing wings, or he could even probably more likely be someone pretending to be a girl so that’s a pretty popular activity in virtual environment is a gender exploration as a part of identity finding. So how this ties back to education is that identity exploration is actually we’re finding out incredibly good for learning and that’s Dr. G. who I worked with at the Co-lab wrote this book about what video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. And basically one of his premises is that the reason why these virtual spaces are so good for learning is because they allow for learners to jump in and adopt a new identity and learn what the epistemological framework is of that the identity. And all that means is its just a theory of how we build knowledge around certain knowledge sets is a big word for that. And in Math we embody the ideas of what it is to be something through our understanding of its framework and for that I turned to describe embodiment to a research her name Gibbs whose got a couple of things to say about embodiment that I think are pretty poignant here.


I hate readings slides to you guys so basically what this says is that, “When we think about the action of doing something, it might actually share the same neurophysiological substrate as if we were actually doing the action. And really all that takes is a physical exploration of our bodies in a space.” So we can watch something all day long but once we do that thing we’ve kind of embody the knowledge of what the action is and we take that along with us to the next time that we experience something with the similar stimulus. So this is the best way for me to explain embodiment to you. This is a first person perspective video inside of it is your little elf. It’s designed to make you feel like you’re on a rollercoaster and riding. You’ll probably noticed that as you’re watching, your bodies wanted to move a little bit with the video because its really making you feel hopefully even at its low resolution scale that you’re actually on that rollercoaster and going for a little bit of a ride. And I have two videos of this and I chose to show a low resolution because I wanted you to see that even at this very excellent level of experience you could still get the idea of embodiment which is actually relatively poignant to the Second Life experience right now. Because if you look at it, it looks very cartoon and pretty low res in comparison to obviously a real world but its still pretty effective to make you feel like your on that rollercoaster and I’ll stop it now. So no one has to get off so that’s brings me to how we are looking at how this spaces affect us physically in the first place and this actually started with Pia Je in the 50’s looking at his own children and recognizing that there was a relative steady pattern from child to child of how his kids would develop based upon some sensory motor feedback.And he was still coming from the place as a fair number of researchers actually are still a bit, our mind and our body are disconnected and there’s this Western statement of mind over body that kind of exemplifies that that we don’t necessarily recognized or understand our holistic connections to how our bodies are really a part of what we feel and know.  And we would know things differently if we weren’t able to understand our environment through embodiment. Currently or rather recently anyway some research was done with babies to try and understand how embodiment works and that they would be shown while falling the edge of the cliff and had they never experienced a cliff before there was a flexi glass plate over the edge of the cliff. They would just continue to walk like there was nothing going on across.

But once they have fallen off of something and understood what that was, they all of a sudden became very weary of that gap. But the minute you ask them to walk across that gap, they then have to relearn the idea that it was dangerous to step across that gap. They didn’t pull the understanding of crawling across the hole and make them fall even though they had experienced that before because crawling is a different stage of sensory motor awareness than walking so we theoretically believe at this point. So I’ll let you guys watch and talk about it right after.

Video Speaker: Examples of Science and opportunities in Second Life. In assessing on the Science school you see interactive real time data visualization compiling real time web data when you go down this way

It often shows what’s going on science school nature have created a second nature even the same interaction with cross-chart molecules, molecules which is then nourished for closer healing. Most of it lies in generally is a rich resource educational information on genetics, the history of genetics and genomics. You can even go through giant cell and go through output the intracellular structures you have to find a specific vesicle to exit the cell. At the Elk Research Center, Ali Kruger is creating a chemical models which we can use Second Life software imprints. These models have a variety of size scales from life-size to across hundreds of yards. You can even animate small portions of it and have a combination of working with 3D Spaces and you could go through time with animated body products.Such as this feeling high. The International Society for Technology and Education illustrates the use of traditional learning environments and physical training in Second Life. What you see here is a unique kind of content with participation in the internet from different persons around the globe Michigan to Oregon and Australia, all in the same moment at the same time at a conversations on how to common interests. The kind of reception of Mat Genwile's General Island was the last seed for science learning environment particularly experiential learning environment in Second Life. These students can interact with web across the kinetic experience. And people gather the data, pick up instructions and take equate, equates and turn them into a fact they can remember then we’re following to the next level of content and provide a truly interactive connection with the content. A new media consortium has sponsored research park where you can see the potentials of creating clinical simulation modules in a Second Life Training Space. You can they stay as a patient, have a clinic interactions, demonstrate clinical levels and accept tutorials. Notice the use of humor and potential for treasure hunts in the space to encourage engagement with content. We hope this tour has helped you see for science learning and research in Second Life and here.

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: That was done by Regions University of Michigan and there’s tons of material up on YouTube about Second Life and some of the things that are happening there. If you’re interested I encourage you folks to go and dig around up there just search Second Life. So pouring all of these together, the reason why it’s poignant at this point to look at Avatars and Embodiment and what they can do for us at a distance is really that it’s a two pronged action.

Number one, we don’t necessarily have space or place to put facilities and it takes resources to get people back and forth places like it took me an extra day and half to fly here and friends of mine have to drive 12 hours from Colorado to get here but not that I ever want to give up conferences completely but it would be more effective maybe in some ways if we could attach ourselves meaningfully at a distance. And the other thing is that in distance learning courses which being web professionals you probably do a little bit a fair amount.

Drop out rates are 10% to 20% higher than traditional learning courses and one of the common complaints that we hear is that there is a huge sense of disconnectivity for distance learners and it’s very difficult for them to socially bridge this gap because many of them are also full-time workers or parents. And they don’t necessarily have time or energy or resources to get to a traditional campus space. So while this may not be the answer for everybody, it maybe the answers for some people to have a feeling of a sense of more of a traditional or connected community like experience when they go through higher education because ultimately we’re not just teaching people facts here. We really are hopefully encouraging people to become better citizens in society and the only way that you do that is to interact with others overtime to face conflict and learn how to deal it for yourself. So what Oregon is doing to try and explore this is we sponsored through the Oregon Community Colleges Distance Learning Association which is all 17 of our community colleges in a professional organization.

A place called ‘Oregon Community Colleges Island and Second Life’ and it is currently theoretically funded for at least the next year. To spend some time to see what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong. All the other institutions and there is just a plethora of Higher Ed institutions. Do any of yours have places in Second Life?

I’ve got three here, four, five, anybody thinking about it? Six, seven, okay so I think it’s going to become a more poignant thing to look at maybe over the next 12 to 18 months that the New Horizons Report puts us at 2007 two to three years out for this so we’re looking at maybe 2009 2010 for students to start looking for this as a service in some way. So what we’ve done at the state level to fund this Island and organize it is that we’re trying to as a team of involved people come to the understanding that was so many people involved.

We’re doing great things with financial resources and human resources but that it takes a lot of coordination and really the ability to sort of give up ego and just give the space its own control through extended group thought. The book that I recommend in here for people to read if they want to take on this kind of a project is called “The Starfish and the Spider” and it’s about the collective intelligence of organizations being distributed out into its knowledge set rather than into a standard hierarchy. We are trying to enable systems that encourage group participation like Wiki’s and blogs and getting people their own autonomous face when we can on the Island though much of it is not physically on the Island per se because in Second Life you can also build on the Z Axis up in the sky. So you could float people a private space in what’s called the ‘Skybox’ and allow for them to really just rest their classrooms out of their pocket if they’ve been scripted and built correctly for a temporary use and a private space and them put everything away. It would be like we’re trying to set this up for our health clinicians in allied health programs because we have about a 10 year backlog of students that we just don’t have the physical space to serve for them to be able to really use this in a very flexible way. But also to know with 17 community colleges involved we’re really just a point of contact for everybody and that there is an amazing amount of creative teaching content happening in Second Life right now and more is being generated by today. And one great thing about this space is that everybody really seems to be very sharing about what they’re generating there at least for an educational experience from my perspective I admittedly kind of I felt throughout anybody who’s looking for a full profit model because I worked for a non-profit organization. So your experience may vary depending on what vendors or providers you look for. One of the things I can suggest to that is that you do an education search if you get into Second Life. It’s got a pretty decent search engine and so you’re going to pull down, we can just ask for only an education specific material which is good because in Second Life one of the negatives is that you could get off into a pretty salacious adult area without even realizing it. It’s a very mixed bag right now but there is so much value I think in the education space is that you can check that, give me only PG content box and keep yourself or your students pretty safe from that kind of an experience. One of the things we’re going through right now is trying to find subject matter experts for different areas that they would be teaching or even leading other teachers through Second Life trying to work the ‘Train the Trainer’ phase of making this actually work for our state and I’m learning along the way as a coordinator to be as transparent as possible about our entire process because there are so many people involved.One of the biggest challenges is that folks will drop in and out of the project and so it’s important to be transparent but also very good at keeping our history of what’s happened with the projects so that people do feel comfortable getting in and out of it as they have time. Because most of it right now is a voluntary effort, we don’t have a lot of funding to be able to pay people although we are planning out of our grant funds of $55,000 to keep the Island running for a year to take about 60% of the money and put it into training and stipends for people to try experiments in the space. Oh, and understanding how to support a good community of practice is really probably a thing as well. Etian Benger is a man who does research in communities that practice if you just Google community and practice. He’s got some great ideas on how to get those going. So what you would do next for your professional development if you were interested in Second Life and you didn’t know where to begin.If you don’t have an account they’re free. You never have to spend to Linden though if you pay then there $60 a year they really give you the money back in a weekly stipend of 300 Linden a week. And that kind of freeze you from the necessity of going and doing anything like one of the activities that happens for new people is called ‘camping’ where you spend time on somebody else’s feasible space in Second Life to help them up their stats and so they’ll give you a very minor stipend of Linden which is the currency in Second Life that actually trades for United States dollars. So 266 Linden are in American dollar and that’s one of the things that also makes the space very enticing for especially economists and their students to take a look at. Marketing people, you can jumped in and start a theoretical business pretty rapidly for a very low amount of American money you can buy a house for about 4,000 Linden and it’s a pretty nice house. So it gives you a bit of flexibility to try things with the monetary expression of cash it’s not necessarily very easy in our current economy. You should join the Second Life Educator’s List it’s called the ‘SLED List’. If you Google SLED, it’s will be the first thing that you find and that is an international group of people right now again, growing by the day probably faster than I can give you a number. The other group to join is ResEd on Ning and that is becoming a global central hub for virtual worlds in education and so its not just for Second Life and that will give you some a few more the sites and services they’re also developing at the same time. There are other alternatives to Second Life at this point but they’re all pretty rudimentary and nothing as quite as developed as this though here are some limitations to Second Life like 50 people per simulation space at a time to be able to support all the programming, scripting, and graphics that are going on at once so that the system doesn’t in bug down. And as you can imagine if you’re trying to have a larger event that can be a pretty is stiffly requirement. And if you don’t know where to begin, I left a piece of paper on all the tables. Its got our URL for our site that describes what’s going on with our projects and from that site there is what’s called the ‘SLURL’ which is a Second Life URL which basically if you have Second Life installed in your system and you have an account, you can just click on this and it will give you a button to teleport straight to our Island. And its one of the ways that people get around in Second Life as through teleportation from XYZ coordinate A to XYZ coordinate B through a click. And then again searching education events on Second Life once you’re in there is a great thing to do to be able to figure out what’s going on and that’s a pretty simple search.

And if you can’t figure out how to get in but you really want to try it, email me, I’m happy to help anybody you know over Skype virtual over the shoulder just to get started because if you just experienced one or two of this places and start thinking kind of how teaching has never been able to happen in either such a democratized space or place that we’ve been able to share rendered imagination. I mean, not just has been happened hasn’t been capable in human history prior to think of something and then be able if you have some pretty rudimentary skills to render it in front of someone give it some atrophies and then show them what you meant out of your head. It’s pretty exciting to me. And I just totally blast to that super fast so anybody has any questions?

Audience 1: Will you find a typical time is the students spread out the game mechanics because that’s simple thought you can figure in and actually walk …

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: It’s incredibly buried for our ESL and SL students a long time. It’s pretty difficult for them because they need the additional Second Language Support for a pretty decent percentage of 18, 19 year olds that are now coming in. They’re actually not even interested in the system because they are too busy with other virtual systems that they are already into and that’s one thing that you’ll hear as a complaint from younger kids is that this is clunky and the controls are not like their regular MMO Systems and so they don’t necessarily like to play here.

Audience 2: So are you saying there are other virtual line ups?

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: Yes and again the tools for expression are not quite as developed in Second Life and we also have a huge body of other researchers that are in here right now and I think we could make a leap at least on our general understanding of what virtual environments can do for education if we all culminate our knowledge. Any other questions?

Audience 3: I’m looking at your timeline. Are you planning at any of the privitizations of interests? Any numbers.

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: Yes. Sparse at this point. I'll say we haven't done any real heavy promotion. What we are dealing with now are the first wave of very early adopters. They don't necessarily need our help but they know that the system is out there and they just want to have access to the resources that we can assist them with. And to me that is perfect, because those are the people who can probably be far enough to talk to the rest of their department.

And I do not know if this is true at your institutions, but in my institution especially as an education technologist that doesn't teach along with my teachers. I am a conduit but I am absolutely not ever a stick, I am always the carrot. I present what technology we can afford for them, but I never tell them they have to use them. And I would never say at this point that Second Life is as stable or as universally usable a system as would be smart to try and run most general courses with it. Anyone else?

Audience 4: Is that a SLURL over here?

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: That doesn’t have the SLURL but it has a URL to our working community colleges site and that’s where the SLURL is. It also has that site also has a link to our blog and all of the rest of our resources can be found co-list in that one hub. Yeah.

Audience 5: So with the patent or you find it one-half of that area or another or with all over the board?

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: It’s all over the board at this point. Chemistry, botany, allied health, physics, engineering, landscape architecture, machine manufacturing, though we’re not quite sure how we’re going to use it yet. It’s just again one instructor who uses it privately game design. I’ve had probably about a dozen different areas and only two repeats so.

Audience 5: So it did go in or you made more of these. Or did you make more that you can take?

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: Well, right now it’s up to them. It’s such a low used level that we can really offer whatever exploration they want to try in the environment and again I’m happy to enable that because I think those are the people that are probably going to like fires underneath others who are interested in the future

Audience 6: What’s will that overall cost to you guys to?

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: Well, just to get an Island and to keep it sustained I think it was about $7,000 to sort of get things going and it will be about $3,000 to keep things going but that doesn’t recognize the cost of someone like me to be able to be a community practice leader and also go out and to train the trainers and to give trainers stipends and everything else. And so that’s one we’re at now the state for another $50,000 is here and again that’s pending approval. I’ve heard it’s approved but the state we have to jump on once they say yes but it’s still pretty stiff

Audience 6: Is there a cost to students?

Monica Martinez-Gallagher: There’s no cost to students. And again for teachers to use it it’s also free. You can get a Second Life account for free and there are people that have gained the system to have a totally free experience in Second Life even to go on say as virtual land prospectors and make a pretty healthy living in the thousands per month in Second Life. Now, that’s somebody taking on Second Life as a full time job and I wouldn’t really recommend that for any of you educators but it is a possibility that you know the primary game model if there is one that you could say about this social world is that the Linden exchanges to the United States dollars. So just as capitalism is a real world game it becomes one in Second Life as well. Anyone else

No? Well, thank you everybody. I appreciate you listening this early.


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