Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Campus Tour

Today I visited Anteater Island, the experimental distance learning initiative for virtual reality contexts that U.C. Irvine is piloting in the online multi-user environment Second Life. I will likely hold at least some of my class time for my upcoming social media course on the island, although I am also looking forward to face-to-face meetings in the experimental classroom of the Teaching, Learning & Technology Center. After teleporting in front of a storybook scaled virtual version of a newbie's guide to SL, one of the first landmarks I encountered was the library's poster presentation that consisted disappointingly of screen shots of the homepage and help pages from their official website.

Although I was able to visit a number of facilities on the island -- including a conference center with space age furnishings and a variety of indoor and outdoor classrooms -- and could stop by a virtual kiosk for the SL Browser developed by UCI faculty member Crista Lopes, I did find myself shut out from a large parcel, which I assume has been alloted to the freshman game development class. The territory that was off-limits appeared to be part glassed-in research park and part boy scout camp with flags and pup tents.

As someone who has represented the School of Humanities on the university's work group on classroom facilities and instructional technology, I was especially interested to see the "Holodeck" that could be reconfigured with the push of a virtual button on the wall. The space was capable of shape shifting into a seminar room, library, and traditional classroom, along with something called menacingly "Room 101." It also had more exotic spatial representations that included "moonscape" and "shogun."

Perhaps the strangest classroom configurations were the ones that seemed most wildly inappropriate for a university concerned about decorum, appropriate conduct particularly between teachers and students, and the risks of sexual harassment. Most hilarious were the really incongruous holodeck choices for an academic setting: "dinner for two" (which featured a sky of shooting stars, a candlit intimate table, and hearts everywhere imaginable), "bedroom" (which seemed straight out of the Playboy mansion), and "club 360" (which I have reproduced above)

Of course, as someone fascinated with twenty-first-century classrooms, I couldn't help but wonder why they showed classes with uncomfortable chairs in learner-unfriendly rows, particularly ones in which -- from a practical point -- there would be nowhere for me to sit as a facilitator. At least elsewhere there were some cushions under palm trees and a semi-circle of hovering seating platforms, but I left feeling mystified as to why they would orient so many of their virtual learning spaces in ways that only reinforced existing hierarchies of power and emphasized passive reception of material coming from a screen.

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