Virtual Classroom Project Reflection

Cross-posted to Leigh Blackall's work on the islands of jokaydia in Second Life is truly inspiring. We've had many discussions since he agreed to take part in my Virtual Classroom Project and it's been fascinating to observe his progress. I envisioned the Virtual Classroom Project as an opportunity to explore alternatives to our traditional notions of teaching, learning, and, specifically, learning space design. I'm pleased that Leigh, the project's first Educator-in-Residence, has taken up that challenge by sharing a unique and thought-provoking concept. I cannot wait to see the finished project and am looking forward to further discussions with Leigh.

Before I delve into my first reflection on his work, I'd like to encourage you to follow his progress and take part in a virtual workshop that Leigh and I will be hosting this weekend on the islands of jokaydia, the home of the Virtual Classroom Project.

Leigh's Project - A Brief Introduction

 Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 14, 2008)

As soon as Leigh announced his plans for a virtual prototype of a learning space based on the principles of permaculture design I was hooked. I realized that, to Leigh, the Virtual Classroom Project presented an opportunity to address learning as a fundamental part of our daily existence. "Leigh's ideas," I wrote in my project notes, "suggest that he wants to explore the process of de-institutionalizing learning. He seems interested in asking why learning cannot be grounded in informal places, places that we take for granted, such as our homes." But Leigh took this one step further. If our place of residence is to serve as a focal point of learning in our lives, then we need to start asking ourselves some crucial questions about the kinds of places we inhabit and the relationship between those places and the environment. In other words, Leigh believes that the process of de-institutionalizing learning cannot lead to creating places that are as insensitive to the natural world around them as the big institutions that currently dominate our lives and, specifically, education. One could extend this argument and ask "What exactly are children learning in a school that does not have a recycling programme? What are they learning in a building that's surrounded by concrete?" I think that Leigh's project effectively addresses both of these questions.

Leigh's use of permaculture design, defined by Wikipedia as "an approach to designing human settlements, in particular the development of perennial agricultural systems that mimic the structure and interrelationship found in natural ecologies," suggests that he is interested in exploring to what extent human beings can be engineers of their own self-sufficient and ecologically-friendly environments. His design revolves around the notion of sustainability and is based on re-using discarded shipping containers because, as he says,

they are readily available for reuse, reasonably cheap, structurally sound, transportable (obviously), durable, and come in remarkably good dimensions for proportioning an efficient living and working space.

But Leigh does not use these containers to re-create the kind of institutional, impersonal teaching/learning space that we've all experienced in our lives as both teachers and learners. Instead of building a classroom, a lecture hall, or a place formally designated as a space for teaching and learning, Leigh decided to build a

family house that is large enough to host 15 or so people from time to time, but practical as a family home; that is fully self sufficient in providing for its own energy, water and food needs; that is a system that produces no waste; and that uses building materials and structures that are reused, portable and make minimal impact on the area being occupied.

Leigh's Project - Key Ideas

In one of his blog posts devoted to the Virtual Classroom Project, Leigh states that he is interested in

efficient use of space and resources; space design that is conducive to inquiry learning and skills training; and [...] every single aspect serving some form of opportunity for learning.

Let's think about this carefully - "every single aspect serving some form of opportunity for learning." What this means to me is that Leigh wants his family home to be more than just walls. The physical space here is not designed to be a mere container for teaching and learning. Instead, the space he's building is a kind of portal where every aspect of its design can lead an inquiring mind to discoveries about sustainability, permaculture design, or the environmentally friendly lifestyle. For example, the solar panels that he's planning to use and the small wind turbine already in place can lead to an interesting discussion on energy consumption.

Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 14, 2008)

Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 14, 2008)

The shipping containers, the very walls of the house, can lead to a discussion on reusing and recycling.

Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 7, 2008)

The roof of the dwelling and the glass floor panels inside the house can lead to a discussion on the importance of natural light and the need to reduce our dependence on electricity.

Virtual Classroom Meeting (April 14, 2008)

In short, the building itself provides numerous opportunities to discuss our ecological footprint and engage in discussions about the environment and eco-friendly lifestyles. Now, the question is, where would you rather learn about all of this - in a sterile classroom that looks like all the other classrooms around the world, or in a unique family home built upon the principles of permaculture design? Would you rather learn this from a teacher who has to deliver a unit on sustainability or from an individual who is passionate about the environment and whose home and lifestyle attest to his commitment to the environment?

What really fascinates me about Leigh's prototype is that, in addition to making us think about sustainability and the environment, Leigh also explores the notion of de-institutionalizing or deschooling society. His project revives some of the key ideas of Ivan Illich. During our discussions over the past two weeks, Leigh's comments about his design led me to re-visit my thoughts on informal education, lifelong learning, and community. Specifically, his ideas and the way he is implementing them remind me of Illich's notion that institutions tend to dehumanize people and commodify learning. Consider this passage from Ilich's Deschooling Society:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value (Illich, 1973).

In other words, our students tend to think that teaching equals learning. Learning and knowledge are commodified and transform education into a process of consumption rather than exploration. In addition, as Illich argues in Deschooling Society, schools discourage other institutions from assuming educative roles and tend to be places of confinement rather than liberating engagement. De-institutionalization, Illich argues, can take place when we recognize that education "relies on the surprise of the unexpected question which opens new doors for the inquirer and his partner." This kind of inquiry can take place when the instructor abandons what Illich calls "skill drill" instruction and focuses on helping "matching partners to meet so that learning can take place." Learners, he continues,

should be able to meet around a problem chosen and defined by their won initiative. Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern (Illich, 1973).

Leigh's project reminds me of some of Illich's alternatives to teaching institutions. Specifically, the family home that he's building can become a place where those who are "currently puzzled about the same terms or problems" can meet outside of institutional constraints and engage in exploratory learning. It's a place that supports what Illich referred to as "life of action:"

I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to make and unmake, produce and consume - a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies (Illich, 1973).

After numerous conversations with Leigh and after reading his reflections, I see his virtual project as what Illich calls a convivial institution. It's an institution that, unlike school, is not based on coerced membership. Instead, it encourages human interactions that are based on autonomy, creativity, and exploration. I also see Leigh's project as a potential learning web and I'm looking forward to discussing this aspect of his work with him over the next two weeks.

If you're interested in Leigh's views on learning and would like to explore his prototype (still in progress), please join us this weekend on the islands of jokaydia (Click here for details).

The Virtual Classroom Project

Cross-posted to I've been thinking about classroom design for a very long time but have never really been able to experiment with it until I found out about Second Life and the virtual building opportunities that it affords. When I first started working on my teachandlearn retreat on the island of jokaydia in Second Life, I realized that, for the first time in my career as an educator, I had an opportunity to create my ideal learning environment. I had the freedom to create any place I wanted. Strangely enough, what I created does not have desks or tables, it doesn't even have chairs. Instead, it has a hot-air balloon (great for small group conversations), a couple of Japanese tea houses, and a lot of cushions. Oh, and the view, you have to see the view!

Building my retreat helped me reflect on my work and my philosophy as an educator. Deciding what to build and how to organize my space was a challenging process. Even before I started, I knew that I wanted this piece of land to facilitate learning and encourage interactions. Then, I had to ask myself what kind of architecture and layout would most accurately reflect my philosophy as an educator and be conducive to learning and meaningful interactions. So, as I engaged in building my retreat, I kept thinking about the relationship between a physical space and human interactions.

As an educator, I had never had to think seriously about the relationship between physical space and learning. Teachers usually don't have to think about spaces for learning because they are provided for them. A teacher is always given a classroom, along with a course load and a group of students. A physical place in which to teach is just a given. In Second Life, however, I had an opportunity to create my own space. For the first time in my life as an educator, I had to sit down and think about the kind of space that I wanted to create as both a teacher and a learner. I had to think seriously about the relationship between meaningful interactions among people and the kind of place that best supports such interactions and learning that results from them.

In other words, Second Life, by providing me with an opportunity to let my imagination run wild, to both teach and learn in my virtual retreat, has allowed me to question my assumptions about classroom design. It allowed me to experiment. It was through that experimentation that I have begun to explore the science of building spaces for learning. My experiences with building in Second Life, my interactions with both instructors and learners in this environment inspired me to start a small project designed to engage educators in thinking about, experimenting with, and designing spaces for learning. It is my great pleasure to announce that this entry marks the official launch of my Virtual Classroom Project in Second Life.

Let me explain what the project involves.

Over the next three months, I will invite individual educators to design and build their ideal learning space for use as either a virtual classroom in Second Life or as a prototype for a real-life classroom. These "Educators-in-Residence" will share their vision and expertise by creating their ideal classrooms on a parcel of land designated especially for this project. Each Educator-in-Residence will be given a period of one month and the necessary in-world support and resources to complete the project. As part of the project, each participant will document the process of planning and building through screenshots, guided tours, regular blog entries, and video capture. Once the project is completed, I will conduct an interview with the participant to highlight his or her work and bring it to the attention of a wider audience in the form of a podcast. Screenshots, blog entries, and video clips describing the project and its various stages of development will also be made available online in order to encourage discussions about classroom design both in real life and in a virtual environment such as Second Life. Each month-long residency will conclude with an in-world event to showcase the finished virtual classroom.

Virtual Classroom Project - Welcome Sign in jokaydia

(Welcome sign, The Virtual Classroom Project, jokaydia)

Let me now introduce you to the project's first Educator-in-Residence, Leigh Blackall (SL: Leroy Goalpost). I am delighted that Leigh agreed to be the first participant. I am confident that his immense expertise in the field of instructional design and his passion for learning will be of immense value to this project. I cannot wait to see how Leigh will engage all of us in thinking about learning and classroom design. Leigh has agreed to document his ideas and his experiences as Educator-in-Residence by sharing blog entries, screenshots, screencasts, and even voice recordings on a wiki page that he has already created for this project. If you're interested in following his work and the evolution of this project, please take a moment to bookmark the SLurl to the project site on the island of jokaydia and drop by when you're in-world. You can also follow Leigh's reflections on his blog.

The point of this project is not to merely observe as one educator designs and creates a learning environment. The purpose of this project is to start conversations about learning in online communities, virtual worlds, and everyday physical classrooms. I believe that the act of following one educator as he attempts to design his ideal learning space should not transform us into passive observers. Let's engage Leigh in discussions about teaching and learning or at the very least jot down questions to ask him once his project is finished. Let's remember that the space he is about to build will be his ideal classroom. It may not be your or my ideal space, but that doesn't mean that we cannot learn from Leigh and the creative process that he has agreed to share with us. Please contribute your thoughts and reflections by commenting on Leigh's work. Visit him inworld, leave a comment on his blog or his wiki, or respond to his ideas on your own blog. Take the time, in a week or two, to visit the project site. Take pictures. Ask questions. Above all, think about your own ideal learning space ... and if you're interested in being the next Educator-in-Residence, drop me a line.

I am looking forward to this project and believe that it will be of particular interest to not only educators and educational technologists but also institutions interested in exploring learning space design, teacher preparation, and teacher professional development both in virtual worlds and in real life. I intend to record all my interactions with Leigh and reflect on his ideas and his work. I can't wait to see what he creates and I am sure that he will engage us in many valuable conversations about learning.

Finally, I would like to thank jokay Wollongong for her support and for providing a virtual home for this project on the beautiful island of jokaydia in Second Life. This project would not be possible without her unfaltering encouragement and support.

Creating Learning Experiences

I've spent the last couple of days thinking about the tools I will use next term with my classes (21classes? Edublogs? Ning? Wikispaces? PBWiki? MindMeister?) only to discover that what I'm really interested in is preparing the ground for learning. I don't want to structure and pre-define. I do not want to create a community or a social network for my students. Instead, I want to create the conditions necessary for the right kind of environment to emerge. Building an environment for the students is likely to result in failure: environments and communities need to be build with the students, with their full participation, through their work and their interactions with and about texts. It's not just about choosing a blogging platform and letting the kinds in. We need to move beyond the traditional approach of "pick the tools, add students and stir." Unfortunately, my curriculum is still to a large extent dominated by units, lessons, assignments. Those are the realities of teaching and learning in North America in the 21st century - it's not about the process, it's about the product. So, as a teacher in the 21st century, I am taking a stand: I want to have a classroom where my students can enjoy learning experiences. Instead of dividing the curriculum into neat chunks, I will try to set the stage for the right kind of environment to emerge - the kind of environment where learning experiences can take shape. The kind of environment that is similar to what Ben Wilkoff has termed, "the ripe environment," one characterized by "a culture of connection."

Before I explain what I have in mind, let me take you back to last term. I'd like to tell you about Vanessa. Last term, she chose to research child soldiers. She spent months reading articles, interviews, watching online videos, and documenting her research on her blog. Gradually, she immersed herself in her topic and learned much more than I ever could have taught her. Then, towards the end of the term, after documenting her research, reflecting on it, and sharing it with her classmates, she started writing poetry in response to this gruesome and difficult topic. Take a look:

I am part of the Revolutionary United Forces and I will stop at nothing for victory... To overthrow the enemy one must not abide by the rules, Governing ourselves, altering the thoughts of many Vulnerability in a child is our advantage Even in the children's eyes, death is to be taught as the answer The children have sorrow in their eyes longing for love They cry, Scream, Weep for love,

Defeating the enemy, is of the utmost importance No sympathy, no traitors, no survivors The child's innocence will not affect us, Risking their lives will lead us closer to victory. The children have sorrow in their eyes longing for hope, They cry, Scream, Weep for hope

Respect given to the children will conquer any love once given to them Our training methods constant and cruel On the front lines of battle, they shed blood for us We are the R.U.F's, envisioning only supremacy The children have sorrow in their eyes longing to defeat the enemy They cry, Scream, Weep for victory.

I realized that this was a genuine personal response, indicative of a lot of personal investment in the topic. It was a kind of personal way of coming to terms with what she had learned. Vanessa wasn't the only one. Trudy, who'd spent months researching Anne Frank, also posted some poetry:

The book opens A new piece of information is just being handed to you But you know at the end something dark awaits And lets just say its not a happy ending

You read the beginning and then the end Throughout each day personalities change Feelings change It is a new type of life unfolding right in front of your eyes

You witness life in the eyes of a young girl The way she writes the way she explains, Its like its happening To you Right this very moment Everyday sounds and voices scare you But shes just a 13 year old girl what can she do? Nothing

New laws, new relationships are all so different Its kind of like beginning a new life Like a caterpillar growing into a butterfly A new life unfolds

No fun, no friends Just your family With petite spaces and little boundaries Closed windows make you want to witness nature But you can't

A new love, Someone to share your feelings with But is it true? Or have you just gotten to the point you can't think and you do things that you would never do in you old life

So many rules to follow: Be Quiet! Walk Slowly! Sit Down during the day! Read, write just be quiet....during the day!

When the sun has gone down and the moon has gone up There are different rules: Walk Around Be Free But Don't open the windows Or go outside!

With every pleasant thing you do, There will always be a consequence During this time of your life

All the personalities change so quickly Funny Talkative Sometimes even ignorant Personal

There is so much time but soon.... Sooner than you think There will be no more time left.

At first, while certainly very impressed by the creative work of these thirteen-year-olds, I did not think that there was anything out of the ordinary about it. Then, I realized that there was. Having become researchers (one might even say content experts) in their respective fields, Vanessa and Trudy started contributing. Yes, contributing! We don't often think of students as contributors. Even in the context of Web 2.0, I often talk about collaboration and connections, but rarely about genuine contributions. These poems, it occurred to me one day, are learning objects - they are unique artifacts that I can use next year with another class when discussing child soldiers or Anne Frank. Much like edubloggers around the world who, through my aggregator, contribute to my knowledge of learning in the 21st century, these girls were contributing specific artifacts to the topics they chose to study.

I started thinking about their progress as researchers and it occurred to me that the whole class seemed to follow the same pattern. Once I gave them the freedom to find a topic they were interested in, they began to seek out and immerse themselves in learning experiences. No one really seemed to care about grades or tests. Instead, they were immersed in learning about topics they cared about. Looking back, I realize that the process that the whole class engaged in consisted of four stages. Vanessa and Trudy, however, moved beyond into the fifth stage. The girls, along with their classmates, inspired me to start thinking about the process of creating learning experiences. The five stages described below illustrate my emerging approach based on my classroom practice and the work of my students (be kind - it's still a work in progress):

Creating Learning Experiences

1. DISCOVER: First, the students were given the freedom to pick a topic of interest within a specific context that we had entered through our discussions of literature - the context of social justice. I gave all my students sufficient time to think about what they were passionate about, visit some sites, read some articles and uncover that one specific topic that they wanted to learn more about.

At this point, the students were really just surfing and lurking. They were visiting various sites and communities to explore topics that were of interest to them as potential ideas for future research. There were no conversations here, just fleeting interactions.

2. DEFINE: During this stage, I gave the students time to post some preliminary entries on their blogs, to think out loud about their topics in general terms before they started their research. The point here was to allow them the freedom to start defining their research topics and possible ways of tackling them.

3. IMMERSE: The next step was the longest and most complex. Having narrowed it down to a specific topic, the students then were given time in class to immerse themselves in the topic, to learn more about it, to start looking for, identifying, and interacting with valuable resources. This was an opportunity to bookmark relevant content and use RSS to start creating a network of valuable and reliable resources (I want to extend it this year to a network of peers and adult experts). I wanted my students to become researchers who locate valuable content, read, interact, and document their learning on the blog by writing entries about the topic and their journey as researchers.

4. BUILD: The students' efforts to document their discoveries and their learning contributed to the process of building their own knowledge in this specific area. The entries showed me and their peers - our whole community - how much they were learning. These were thoughts made visible. The students used their blogs to document their research and to build their own knowledge in their respective fields of expertise. There were many connections that emerged among students researching related ideas. The students interacted with each other by posting comments and by sharing and commenting on resources. They were engaged in their own research projects as individual researchers but, at the same time, there emerged many small networks within our class blogosphere of students interested in similar topics. They were all engaged and connected.

And that was where the process ended, or so I thought until I noticed Vanessa's poem and then Trudy's. Both girls were contributing unique, personal content to the fields they chose to research. That's when I realized that in order for the learning experience to be complete, the students needed to go beyond researching, connecting, and network-building to become creators and contributors. Of course, one could argue that their research entries contributed valuable material to our class community, but this - their poetry - was unique and personal. These were artifacts which, despite their personal, literary, and creative nature, could enrich anyone's understanding of child soldiers or Anne Frank. They emerged because the girls went beyond the process of documenting their research.

So, I realized that there was one more, final stage in this process.

5. CONTRIBUTE: This final stage happens when, as learners, the students begin to contribute through their own creativity. It happens when, having acquainted themselves with the topic, they begin to rewrite or remix it in their own unique way and thus contribute to and enrich the field they're researching. This is the stage when the students begin to create unique artifacts that contribute to the existing body of knowledge on a given topic. This final stage is not just about contributing links or resources to a group project or to a community. It is primarily an exercise in creativity. It begins when the students interact with ideas, resources, and people to create or enter a network. Once they can tap into the collective intelligence of their networks, they can begin to learn, and once they begin to learn, they can also begin to create their own resources - podcasts, films, creative writing, or any other artifacts that can then be used by others and can enrich their grasp of the topic.

Why can't this fifth stage replace my traditional evaluation strategies? Why can't I replace tests or assignments given to the whole class with the kind of engaging and personally relevant approach to learning that is encapsulated in the five-stage process above?

I think it can certainly be accomplished but, first, I need to foster in my classroom the kind of environment where this five-stage process can take place. This means that I need to think about how to create the kind of environment that fosters and supports learning experiences, not the kind of environment that imposes them on students. Perhaps, what I'm really interested in is what Dave Cormier calls "habitat." He states that a proper habitat can "make it more likely for community to form and more likely that that community will do the kinds of things that were intended … that prompted the creation of that habitat." In other words, as Dave argues, "a careful attention to the construction of habitat can increase the chances of a community forming." I spent the last three years creating communities with my students and I learned that if the right (ripe?) environment is there, the community will emerge. It seems to me that the approach I described above can help create the kind of habitat that will lead to the emergence of networks, correspondences, and - most importantly - contributions.

In order to make all of this happen in a grade seven or eight Language Arts classroom, I need to think about facilitating connections and supporting my students in the process of creating their own networks where their contributions - poems, interviews, chatcasts, blog entries, podcasts, films - will be seen as enriching artifacts.