Lessons Hard and Wonderful From A Faculty Member Pioneering in OpenSim

May 17th, 2011 | Posted by iggy in The Rebel Yell

Creative Commons License

Joe Essid, University of Richmond Writing Center (SL: Ignatius Onomatopoeia)

Mountains of Nevermore

Abstract

This presentation will explore lessons learned after the migration to OpenSim by an experienced teacher who had worked in Second Life for four years. The goal will be to give participants a pioneer’s report on what new settlers may need to learn, where old skills sufficed, and what resources have proven essential in the DIY world of a new and relatively unpopulated new grid. Participants will get a pioneer’s rucksack with URLs, even scripts licensed for noncommercial use under Creative-Commons.

Author’s Note: This talk was given at the VWBPE 2011 meeting, and I have tipped in some of the slides I used.

The last four months have been tumultuous ones for our university. With the end of educational discounts for our island in SL, we faced a tough decision. Second Life’s steep learning curve and our local system of incentives and rewards for faculty had discouraged any use of virtual worlds in our curriculum.

As of last semester, only I and another colleague, whose position has been cut during the Recession, had been working actively on virtual worlds with students. I had built an interactive simulation based on Edgar Allan Poe’s novella, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and with some help from my colleague, we beta-tested the simulation in an English class and used it in two others focused on New Media.

Our goals were to inspire students to re-read Poe’s work closely, after seeing, in three dimensions, how a writer’s obsessions and those of his era made for enduring works of fiction. We set our retelling of Usher in 1847, with actors in the roles of Roderick and Madeline, the doomed brother and sister of the story. Student actors, in period garb, played Poe’s narrator and were given tasks for a session of improvisational acting that followed. All of our teams had the roleplaying goal of saving the Ushers from what might be a family curse, a medical crisis, or even a nefarious body-snatcher in the form of the family doctor.

Students enjoyed it. Then we had to pull it all down.

Faced with a tier we could no longer fund from our discretionary budget, we decided not to renew our contract with Linden Lab. In January of this year, Usher, a product of 200 hours of my time and perhaps 100 of my students, went back into my inventory. As the last of 6000 prims vanished, I was on my own, but this was not unfamiliar.

As an educator who learned the rudiments of HTML in 1994, as I made one of our first academic Web pages on campus, I recognized the sensation of looking across a blank horizon devoid of settlements.

That excitement made any remaining resentment about Linden Lab’s decision fade, quickly. There’s something about gaining autonomy that can do that.

A rapid grid-hunt ensued, for a less expensive home where we could have off-grid backups of our materials. This led to me Jokay Wollongong and Jokaydia Grid. My presentation will discuss the challenges and accomplishments four months on. I hope that this talk will be of particular use to those of you relatively new to virtual worlds yet thinking of expanding your horizons to other grids. You may be uncertain of where to begin.

03VWBPE2011

The third slide shows what we had in SL and what, after a bit of work, confronted us in our new OpenSim home. Moving to OpenSim involves more than creating an avatar. Arriving at the new grid was easy, and I even had estate managers with the names Roderick & Madeline Usher. Rezzing my alpha prim was familiar enough. Uploading textures was free. But what next? In Second Life a huge marketplace of reasonably priced, high-quality items exists for educators who need a piano, an easy chair, a fireplace, or a gargoyle. I am not a scripter and nearly every item I needed for Usher, from furnishings, scripted items, landscaping, and avatar costumes needed to be made by me or the other pioneers at Jokaydia Grid. Because I would be using megaprims on the new grid, most of the items I had made and textured in SL were useless to me, even though I could legally export and import them with the Imprudence client.

It was1847, indeed. I was back on the frontier. But as American frontier humorist Johnson Jones Hooper once had his fictional con-artist Simon Suggs remark, “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” My goals were to be shifty in its positive sense; looking for opportunities, finding treasures, making do or doing without in the same way that pioneers must in a physical landscape.

Here (on slide: Jokay’s ethos & support, my experience as a builder, the promise of the hypergrid) you see the factors that led me to one particular grid. Those new to OpenSimulator as a teaching and learning environment need to consider whether a closed grid, such as Second Life or InWorldz, offers the optimal choice for working with students and colleagues. Alternately, the potential gridnaut must consider whether the emerging constellation of grids linked by hypergrid teleports, a subject of Maria Korolov’s talk yesterday, offers a better option.

Both sorts of grids have their place, I’d argue, but in my case an open grid linked by hypergrid technology proved the key advantage. Jokay Wollongong’s support for educators and students has been exemplary, and I like to reward those who support us. I also like to make my home in a place that gives me the freedom to build as I see fit, and that treats me as much as colleague as it does as customer. I’m no master builder, but for a pioneer I do well enough.

I wanted, in short, to be part of a community of educators who could come to visit me and easily help with the development of what I was already calling Usher 2.0. This type of space exemplifies Kenneth Bruffee’s ideas about social constructivist learning in the writing classroom, but now I was thinking not merely about writing but about making stories in three dimensions. We hypergrid denizens were building a new world together and from it, as in social constructivist learning, new knowledge would inevitably arise.

I wanted every barrier to hypergrid visits removed, and I wanted to give any of my creations, worthy enough to consider, to others to take home with them. I realize that runs counter to the interests of many merchants in closed grids, and I can see why they remain reluctant to provide content to linked OpenSim grids.

But that is decidedly not my concern: we educators are not here to make money. We are here to form communities and share ideas and advance human knowledge and deepen student engagement. As with the Internet itself in Barlow’s famous Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace in 1996, a Virtual World “consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications.” The wave advances, changing us and our students, while a set of practices pedagogy, starting with a pedagogy that considers the virtual space itself, emerges.

05VWBPE2011

My pedagogical considerations focused on a few issues. First, OpenSim does not yet support the number of avatars per sim that we take for granted in Second Life. At least to me, that would not matter because I needed no more than 7 or 8 avatars present for each session in The House of Usher.

Most grids lack physics such as we find in Second Life. This could be a show-stopper for a different sort of simulation of, say, Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom.” But for Usher and most of the related work I contemplated, good story and effective roleplay trump special effects. I’ll later share some resources for the effects we did find: particle scripts for fog or fire or candlelight, secret doors that would open with a chat password, ghosts who would appear to give visitors a warning.

Finally, the limited scope of a one-region virtual experience in no way hampered my work. Though Jokaydia Grid consists of at least 80 regions, my students will need only premade avatars, a short orientation, and one sim.

So I only needed a place for a single assignment, not a launching pad for exploring an online community. In other settings and other assignments students might need to see a new world in all of its glory and large community. Not so for this assignment. They need an old house, some good actors, and a very disturbing piece of fiction written by a master of psychological horror.

We only had to build it.

Pioneers face these sorts of struggles in a physical environment, and this conference’s group of Second Life pioneer-educators likewise had to carve out spaces for themselves in a virtual world with a large population and an emergent set of social norms and commercial practices.

Pioneers often love that freedom. Unfortunately, as teachers, we have to consider students’ evaluations, mandatory assessments of their work and ours, hardware and software standards, and more. My advice for potential OpenSim educators is the same as what I give to those new to Second Life. Spend half a year or more traveling, studying, attending events, and more before designing assignments and bringing in a class.

06VWBPE2011

I’m fond of the edupunk maxim of “DIY”: Do it yourself. The lack of most amenities in OpenSim would not stop me, and a virtual world is surely more than hair, clothes, and pose balls.

Textures are, however, important. In addition to pulling out my camera, I’ve found that learning two key skills with Photoshop saved me: using layers and creating alpha-layers to create TGA files. Then I could have transparency-effects and lower prim counts.

I needed to create or mash textures up from work online that is licensed for derivative use under Creative Commons licensing. The latter type of image can be found easily through options for Google image-search or at Flickr. To get the effects I wanted, I copiously used Photoshop’s layer tools to rearrange small elements, so I would have a few variations large areas such as walls or floors to avoid repetition.

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Slide 7 gives an example of using the alpha-layer feature of Photoshop to make a one-prim bridge instead of wasting prims on an object that would load slowly in student’s clients. Even with the lower costs for a region in OpenSim, I decided never to be lavish with my prims or scripts when building.

As I built there, I found almost no learning curve beyond one bug. That one crops up when editing linked sets of prims. Otherwise, OpenSim’s in-world building tools feature all of the utility and frustrations that can be found building in Second Life. So that part of immigrating to a new grid posed no problems.

Your pioneer’s rucksack near me will contain a few textures of this sort that I’ve made for your own builds here in SL. Kudos to Arcadia Asylum for this hobo backpack. She’s a builder who has long inspired me to give things away. I’ve filled this copy with several items and URLs that helped to set the atmosphere for The House of Usher.

In time, I plan to have my items and textures available as a zip archive you can download, along with individual virtual items that I am using on Jokaydia Grid.

As I began creating scripts not provided in the general set of free scripts that Jokay gives all new residents, I used two tools that in SL proved to be life-savers. Both have limited functionality for advanced work, but they are wonderful for what I need. In your Pioneer’s Rucksack you’ll find URLs for both Scratch for SL and the Script Me! Site.

Scratch, a very simple script builder that appeals to visual learners, enables some fairly complex scripts, but it is an unfinished application. The developer at MIT has moved on to other projects. Still, with Scratch, the Script Me site, and free creative-commons scripts online, I accomplished some key goals for the House of Usher:

  • Having secret doors that open with a password typed in chat
  • Making objects that rezz something when touched
  • Creating a decent fireplace, candles, and other items using particles.

I understand that some LSL scripts do not work properly on all OpenSim grids, but I’ve yet to encounter this problem. In any case, I want scripting minimal, in order to reduce lag. The core of the Usher experience, as it was in SL, will be good roleplay and clever decisions by students who have used Poe’s texts to solve a mystery.

Sound was another issue, since what properly spooky house would lack creaky doors and rattling chains? I was lucky to find freesound.org, where short mp3 clips, up to 10 seconds long, could be downloaded, edited if needed, then uploaded to my new grid.

In all, what took me 200 hours to build in SL should take about 50 in Jokaydia Grid. I suppose that another 50 will add the remaining details to the House and the Island, where I and a student builder will add elements from other works by Poe to create a backstory for the Usher family and subplots to enrich the study of Poe’s world, circa 1847. Much of my reduced time spent building on the new grid comes from my the experience gained in SL, but other advantages helped speed up the rebuilding. These include using megaprims and having a region to manage instead of a parcel.

08VWBPE2011

Slide 8 notes the trade-offs of working outside SL. I think most have been covered, but they do merit a little more discussion.

John Lester, known as Pathfinder Lester here in SL, gives all of you a great chance to look before you leap. And he will make you leap, as a member of the Hypergrid Adventurers’ Club. On a regular basis these gridnauts leap through the hypergates to new destinations. Spend a lot of time exploring before you rent space on a new grid. Then explore some more.

The URLs for Pathfinder’s site and other useful Web sites may be found in the Pioneer’s Rucksack and by clicking the red URL giver near me.

Slide 9: Overall, the four months in OpenSim have gone far more smoothly than anticipated. The real test of the simulation will come this fall, when 24 students from a 200-level literature class use the Jokaydia Grid simulation in groups of 3 and 4. I am confident that the sort of response I got from a prior student will apply here:

09VWBPE2011

That is not a bad outcome. I’ll now take questions from the audience. If you would put them into text chat, I’ll do my best to answer. Thank you.

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