On October 20th, representatives from community colleges and universities across Oregon attended the Oregon Immersive Education Days summit (OiED). The hosting institution, Oregon State University (OSU), invited Dr. Julie Fronzuto and I to give this year’s keynote presentation. This was a significant honor for several reasons. Not only was this our first keynote address, but we were addressing schools with a cumulative population of over a quarter million students. With only a week to prepare our hour and a half presentation, we were not sure what to expect at the conference. We were outsiders spearheading an interstate summit.
How did OSU get wind of our project in the first place?
I was stranded at the airport with Jon Dorbolo, OSU’s Associate Director of Technology Across the Curriculum, after the worldwide Immersive Education (iED) summit in Boston. Bound for Portland, our plane was struck by lightning taxiing into the gate, the other plane to Seattle was grounded for hitting a bird, and the backup plane flying from Seattle to Boston was grounded in Seattle after striking a bird upon takeoff. Recognizing Jon from the conference, we started talking and began to share our projects, which made the 10 hours at the gate only feel like 4. I was intrigued by their use of a virtual holodeck where prospective students are paired together in a 3D replica of their dorm room. Tasked with figuring out how the furniture and other accessories would work, students were able to find compatible roommates before that awkward first day of class. Jon was intrigued by our virtual lab proof of concept.
Six months later, Julie and I would be in Corvallis.
After providing the attendees with an overview of what life is like in rural Alaska, and after highlighting some of the challenges we face with teaching across such a vast area, Julie and I pulled out the big guns: fast-paced, comprehensive videos that highlight the functionality of our virtual lab system. From complex animations to inter-object reactions to camera presets, the audience quickly realized why we were there. After our demonstration, one group dropped their presentation.
For anybody unfamiliar with our virtual lab environment, we utilize the Second Life platform to reconstruct real life labs for use online. Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, offers a “sandbox” platform where the graphics, inventory, and networking protocols are taken care of in the background. This enables the user to focus more on content creation. Virtual worlds are utilized for their persistence, meaning they are active with or without people. This enables students with access to our labs to attend class in 3D in real time anywhere in the world, synchronously or asynchronously.
While the number of sandbox virtual worlds platforms are increasing as the technology evolves (Open Wonderland, Open Cobalt, Open Croquet, RealXTend, VastPark, ExitReality, JIBE, Blue Mars, Entropia, etc.), Oregon remains heavily invested in Second Life/Open Sim. Julie and I hoped to capitalize upon this as we shared our ideas and techniques at OiED.
Most institutions utilize virtual worlds for their static environments. Offices and landscapes are the focal points for presentations and nothing more. PWSCC utilizes the full capability of virtuality, manipulating workflows and even time to create a responsive learning environment. We start with laboratories that work well in a physical lab. Julie and I conduct these live labs and note any challenges and mistakes that students often make. I am then responsible for all of the scripting, modeling, texturing, layouts, mind mapping, and technical reports that are necessary for a unified design. Julie ensures that the virtual lab is consistent with her lectures, student learning outcomes, class goals, and is adaptable for multiple classes. We then go through each lab and figure out all of the ways in which a user could screw it up to address any major glitches. Problem areas that might be difficult to address during a live class are designed so that, should a problem occur, it can be fixed within one or two mouse clicks. This is important because our labs currently contain over one thousand animations across 9 subjects and those numbers will only increase over time.