The Virtual Classroom Project Continues

I am delighted to report that the Virtual Classroom Project that I started last year on the island of jokaydia in Second Life is back in full swing. An Australian educator, Annabel Astbury, has been selected to be Educator-in-Residence on jokaydia until the end of February. Her residency was launched on February 1st at the jokaydia mini Unconference (you can download the audio recording of the sessions here).

The Virtual Classroom Project space on the island of jokaydia

Annabel (SL: Annabel Recreant) has been busy creating a very unique project. As a teacher of history, she is interested in creating a virtual learning space where visitors can learn about "settlement / colonisation in the south east of Australia." Specifically, she is interested in creating a space where students can explore and experience "the impact that colonisation had upon indigenous communities in Australia."

Annabel wants to create a space where the students can interact with the virtual land, where they experience the life of early settlers:

My idea is that when someone first visited the site they would be faced with a simulation of the Australian bush as it appeared pre settlement. Uncleared. Perhaps with evidence of Indigenous inhabitants. Features of the natural landscape.

Visitors may have read documents in class (hence the working with not around) or read some of the documents provided in another part of the space regarding elements of Frontier life such as the process of settling on a new land, difficulties faced, the ways these were solved (if at all) etc.

Once armed with some of this foreknowledge, visitors would be invited to clear the land themselves taking into account the topography, geography and physical elements of the landscape. Provided with a ‘box’ visitors would be invited to build their own hut, or settlement.

What I like about her project is that Annabel wants her virtual learning space to be a place where the visitors can build and create, not just view, watch, or listen to whatever has been prepared for them. She wants the visitors to not just read about early settlers in Australia but also to interact with the virtual landscape, to make it their own and, in the process, learn about issues faced by settlers. This idea emerged from some very critical questions about the educational potential of Second Life:

[...] I think I became a little disengaged at the end of last year with Second Life ... because I had reached a ‘now what?’ stage. Having been part of the community of learners on the Islands of Jokaydia was great, but personally I felt I had plateaued in what I could offer or do. More than that I think I started to find it difficult to see the other uses of Second Life other than that main one of being connected to a network of great teachers.

[...] what I began to obsess over was this: if anyone came to my plot .. why would they? Why would they come into Second Life merely to click on a few urls that would take them to the internet? To me, that wasn;t a good use of the platform.

To me, the problem Annabel describes here has always been a major weakness of how Second Life is used in education. It is often a place where artifacts are built for visitors and where mere reproductions of real-life lecture halls are quite common. Annabel wants to use Second Life as a place where students can build their own understanding while (virtually) building a homestead and clearing the land. She wants to engage visitors by providing them with primary and secondary sources that will then enable them to make well-informed decisions as virtual settlers. Her virtual classroom will never really be finished - it will be more of an empty canvas where visitors can construct their vision of early settler life.

Virtual Classrom Project - Annabel Recreant

Annabel envisions this project as an opportunity to show other educators how students can be encouraged to use virtual environments such as Second Life to build their own understanding of history so that it becomes visible to anyone who visits the virtual space. This is not going to be just about building a virtual space where students can click on some URLs and read secondary sources. Annabel wants to develop a virtual resource to engage students in Historical Thinking by providing them with resources they can consult and artifacts they can use to build their own understanding of history. It’s almost like creating a virtual world wiki where instead of being confronted with a carefully designed space, a student is given access to a variety of resources and tools to build that space and, in the process, demonstrate his or her understanding of the material. The wonderful part about this is that this process will make learning visible in 3D. A student who builds with the resources provided in this virtual space and by using her own understanding of the time period will create an artifact that other learners can explore, interact with, and also rebuild or redesign.

Virtual Classrom Project - Annabel Recreant

I hope that you will follow Annabel's work by reading her blog, checking out the Virtual Classroom Project Flickr group, and exploring her work inworld.

Virtual Kenyan Classroom

In August I traveled to Kenya with Teachers Without Borders - Canada. We delivered teacher professional development workshops to elementary and secondary teachers in a rural region, located about eighty kilometres outside of Nairobi. When I returned, I started looking for a creative outlet to reflect on my experiences. I wrote about my experiences on this blog, but merely writing about them didn't seem sufficient. So, I started sifting through almost 3000 photographs that I took while in Kenya and it occurred to me that they tell a story that is much more powerful than anything I could ever hope to convey in a blog post. The next day, I started building a virtual exhibit in Second Life.

TWB-Canada Exhibit Poster for the 2008 jokaydia Unconference

But in the process of building this exhibit, I also realized that it could be so much more than just a virtual gallery - it could become a learning environment, a place that anyone interested in education in Kenya could visit and explore. So, the initial virtual gallery idea quickly morphed into "unfinished ..." - a project to build a virtual Kenyan classroom, a typical classroom in a typical rural school in Kenya.

Virtual Kenya Exhibit - Second Life

Of course, some will say that I didn't have to use Second Life, that a blog entry, a Flickr set, or a PowerPoint presentation (or maybe all of them combined) would have been just as effective. That's why, before I began, I asked myself: What can I do in Second Life that I cannot do on the world wide web? Why do I need a multiuser virtual environment?

I wanted the visitors to be able to experience, even if only virtually, what it is like to stand in a typical rural Kenyan classroom. I can’t do that on my blog, but in Second Life I can create that classroom. I can try to re-create that environment. Of course, as a visitor to my classroom exhibit in Second Life, you won’t feel the fine Kenyan dust on the floor - the kind of dust that penetrates into everything in Kenya. You won’t be able to interact with Kenyan students or look through their notebooks. I cannot create tactile experiences in Second Life. What I can do, however, is create a visual experience that is very close to what I saw in Kenya. I can create a replica of a typical classroom and then use it as the setting for tours, presentations, or conversations about education in Kenya. I can create a virtual environment that provides a meaningful context for discussions about education in developing nations.

That environment wouldn't be complete without photographs of children and school life that I took while in Kenya. You will find them scattered around the exhibit. You will see photographs of children and classrooms leaning against a virtual fence or the classroom wall.

Miti Mingi Primary School, Kenya

Again, an argument could be made that all those pictures could have been shared on Flickr. True. I did share them on flickr, but as soon as I uploaded them I realized that they didn't fully represent my experiences, that individual photographs, when placed against the white backdrop of a flickr photo page, lose their richness and become just another snapshot. In Second Life, however, I can create an environment for them, a context that will help the visitor see them as part of a larger story.

When building this virtual space, I tried to make the environment as reminiscent of the actual schools in Kenya as possible. Many of the textures I used for walls or corrugated iron panels were extracted from my own photographs of Kenyan schools and imported into Second Life. Before I built the desks for the virtual classroom, I scrutinized the pictures I took of student desks in Kenyan classrooms. Before building the classroom itself, I carefully analyzed my pictures of rural schools in Kenya.

Why "unfinished ..."?

I chose this title because when I first walked into a classroom in rural Kenya, everything around me seemed ... unfinished - the bare walls and gaping holes instead of windows all contributed to that impression. It seemed that the classrooms were still under construction. Of course, the sad truth is that the classrooms I visited were all finished - there simply isn’t enough money at many of the schools in Kenya to put in windows or buy new desks. There simply isn’t enough money to put plaster on the walls, buy bulletin boards, or put up posters.

Not every classroom in Kenya looks like the one I created in Second Life. Some schools are better equipped than others. Some classrooms have windows and plaster on walls instead of bare bricks. Some have new desks. Many have electricity. The classroom I built in Second Life, however, is not atypical of rural classrooms in Kenya. It represents rural schools and the country itself quite well. In Kenya, many things, including roads, schools, buildings, and public services, seem ... unfinished.

The work that Teachers Without Borders - Canada has begun in Kenya is also unfinished. We had initiated great projects, worked with many teachers, and established valuable contacts with ministry officials and other NGOs. We look at these accomplishments as work in progress and an opportunity to continue to move towards our goals. One of those goals - and my goal for this virtual exhibit - is to raise awareness of some of the challenges faced by teachers, students, and administrators in developing nations.

I hope that you will take the time to walk through the exhibit and experience school life in a rural Kenyan classroom. The following link will take you into Second Life, to the island of jokaydia where the project is hosted: (SLurl to the Virtual Kenya Exhibit).

Virtual Kenya Project Machinima (Link to the original file on

Interested in a Tour?

If you like what you see and would like to bring your students or colleagues into this space, or learn more about education in Kenya or the work of Teachers Without Borders - Canada, please feel free to contact me. I've given a number of tours already and would be happy to chat about the space or help you build a lesson around this virtual exhibit.

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).