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Friday, July 11, 2008

2 virtual worlds: NECC and Second Life!

Last week I went to my first NECC, the giant National Educational Computing Conference, this year in sticky, toasty San Antonio. We heard at the keynote (appropriately given by James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds) that some 18,000, mostly tech educators, were there. I was there to speak on a panel about online safety presented by the California Technology Assistance Project, which had Larry Magid and me speak about our book, MySpace Unraveled, a couple of years ago (more about CTAP in a moment) and to steep myself in tech education for a few days.

NECC was both inspiring and overwhelming. But overwhelming was good because, instead of trying to figure out what on earth to sample of the hundreds of workshops and presentations, I decided to go deep. I went to everything I could find about virtual worlds Second Life and Teen Second Life (besides my online-safety meetings). I'd long wanted to learn more about SL and virtual worlds in general, and what better way?

Which takes me to the inspiring part: what tech educators are doing in Teen Second Life (parents, you've got to see this stuff!). I attended presentations by two rockstars of the ed tech world....

  • Peggy Sheehy of Suffern Middle School in the New York area and creator of Ramapo Islands, I believe the very first real-life school in Teen SL (here's a video intro to what's happening at Ramapo, including the students' views, in the blog of another genius tech educator and Second Life resident, Kevin Jarrett), and if you prefer text to video, here's a transcript in Sheehy's blog of a mock trial based on Of Mice and Men staged by Suffern students (or rather their avatars) in Teen Second Life. Ramapo is now six islands in Teen SL, used by 1,000 students and 35 teachers.
  • Westley Field from Sydney, Australia, founder of the very international and Skoolaborate Island in Teen SL (to see what's going on there, check out the first video on this page). So far this new project has 10 schools in 4 countries collaborating.

    Just a few positives I witnessed and heard about in my NECC brushes with education in Second Life (watch this space for more on all this): a girl who never participated in class blossoming in virtual-world classes and then later in real life; the same for a boy whose mother wrote a profound thank you note to his teacher; students in multiple countries learning what species are endangered in others and together creating virtual spaces for them with the kind of environments in which they can thrive; students thinking critically together about body image and developing more healthy views of said by creating different avatars representing their evolving views; an entire class reading all of Of Mice and Men, not just the Cliff Notes, so they could play judges, DAs, prosecutors, witnesses, court reporters, jury members, etc. in the mock trial; students who don't want to miss any of it logging in from home when they're sick.

    The amazing CTAP

    I'm referring specifically to Region IV of a statewide project to help California's educators integrate technology into learning but also deal with students' extracurricular use of tech! I definitely have a bias because, through my friend, ed-tech eyes 'n' ears, and CTAP staffer Anne Bubnic, I have learned a great deal about both technology and education! You'll see at a glance on this CTAP4 page how much they're doing for California educators just in the area of cyber safety, which CTAP intelligently defines as "the safe and responsible use of the Internet and all information and communication technology devices, including mobile phones, digital cameras, and webcams."

    This one region of a state project has a huge sphere of influence. Its funding is for assisting California schools, but the Web has a way of ignoring borders and the Web-wide, worldwide resources Anne has pulled together in Region 4's site are valuable to educators at least nationwide. In addition to the site it continuously updates, CTAP also trains teachers, administrators, school safety people, etc. in person and via videoconferencing. Obviously this second part of its work isn't as visible to all, so I'm going to zoom in on that training in a feature very soon.

    Why all this about tech education in NetFamilyNews? Parents' certainly aren't the only shoulders on which society places responsibility for young people's constructive use of technology! Most of the negative stuff involving youth on the social Web is not criminal, so law enforcement (where people so often turn) usually can't help. Very often, then, the focus shifts to school policy and discipline. Yet, a lot of the imposter profiles, defaming blog posts, and general online or phone harassment that disrupts learning at school originates at home or somewhere else off school grounds. So it can really help parents to know what teachers and administrators are dealing with where student behavior's concerned, so the two parties can collaborate - with each other as well as the student(s) involved, hopefully - in solving tech-related problems that come up (see also "Why schools, parents need to fight cyberbullying together"). Problems involving the participatory Web require participatory solutions!

    Related links

  • Peggy Sheehy's Suffern Middle School in Second Life
  • Westley Field's Skoolaborate
  • Kevin Jarrett's The Story of My Second Life
  • The official California Technology Assistance Project Web site's page about all the CTAP regions and their projects and Region 4's specifically (I'd like to know what other states have along the lines of CTAP - email me, people! - via

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  • Thursday, July 10, 2008

    Google's new avatar chat

    Google's, introduced this week, is kind of Second Life Lite. Both provide software you download to create your own avatar (a cartoon-like digital representation of yourself). But instead of creating and living in a piece of a very large virtual world, as in Second Life, with Lively you simply create a chatroom (or choose and customize one someone else has created and made available to all users) that can fit up to 20 of your friends' avatars at a time. The product will probably have a lot of appeal for kids and teens for a number of reasons: it's creative and self-expressive, allowing young people to experiment with identity (a key task of adolescence, child development experts say); it's about communication and socializing; there's no learning curve; it's basically an add-on to teens' existing social utilities, blogs and social sites; and they can embed their chatrooms in their blogs, social-networking profiles, or any other Web page, "as easily as a YouTube video," the New York Times reports (right now the software's only available for Windows XP and Vista computers). Here's brief coverage of the Lively launch from the Financial Times.

    Parents will probably want to be aware that there is as much potential downside for young users of Lively as for any other user-driven service of the social Web. As of this writing, right on the second page of the Popular Rooms list are several sex-related rooms to choose from and download. Lively's minimum age is 13 and the service's Community Standards say people under 18 "must have their parent or legal guardian's permission to use Lively. If we become aware that a user is under 13, we will delete their account." However, as far as I could see, neither the Community Standards page nor the Help Center says how to submit that permission.

    Crucial questions about Web 2.0, society

    This story's importance grows as the Web increasingly mirrors "real life." Society seems to be in an interesting transition time, and some important freedoms could be lost as it struggles to understand the user-driven Web. For example, in an effort to reduce risk or prevent harm, people (including parents) sometimes blame Web sites (e.g., social-networking sites) more than the relationships represented in them, for online harassment; so those sites, perhaps to stave off lawsuits, play "a governmental role" and sweepingly "wipe out content that's controversial but otherwise legal," to quote the Associated Press. Users whose legitimate or legal content that gets deleted try to appeal those corporate decisions, but companies' legal advisers are usually the decisionmakers and "no" often the answer. That "governmental role that companies play online is taking on greater importance as their services - from online hangouts to virtual repositories of photos and video - become more central to public discourse around the world," the AP continues. The questions are: whether decisions by corporate legal departments reacting to public fears and ignorance will jeopardize some freedoms we cherish, how to ease those fears and misunderstandings, and where the burden of easing them should rest.

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    Wednesday, July 09, 2008

    The video-driven Internet

    It's really the user-driven Net, but all those users out there are viewing, producing, and uploading more and more video. The lead of this article says a lot: "Video may have killed the radio star, but it doesn't have to kill the Internet." CNET reports that Internet service providers are scrambling to figure out how to keep up with all the "video-driven bandwidth demand." Demand grows as household use of broadband grows. The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently reported that 55% of US households now have broadband connections, up from 47% a year ago. CNET cites ComScore figures showing that "Americans are currently watching upward of 10 billion videos online a month" and reports that that's only the beginning. The rest of the piece is about what service providers are working on as they figure out how to support our habit.

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    Tuesday, July 08, 2008

    'Wii-hab' for patients

    That's St. Mary's Medical Center's Wii-hab Program. The San Francisco hospital uses the Nintendo Wii for patients' physical rehabilitation, this CNET video reports. About 100 people have been helped in the program, which combines the Wii with other therapies. It's the brainchild of Dr. David Liu, "self-described techie" and chair of the back and trauma rehab dept., who says the games' "fun factor" helps patients forget about pain and weak spots and keep moving. Gives new meaning to the term "leveling" (usually applied to that urge to go up higher in multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft)! [See also "Videogame fitness training."]

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    Wii game & its rating criticized

    Zooming in on Beer Pong for the Nintendo Wii, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is calling for a change in the way videogames are rated, the Hartford Courant reports. He pointed to the Entertainment Software Rating Board's "Teen" (13+) rating for the game. I couldn't find "Beer Pong" in's search engine, but it may have been removed because its maker, JV Games, says the game's name is being changed to Pong Toss, the Associated Press reports (I couldn't find Pong Toss either). JV Games says "the video game was never about alcohol, but rather the growing sport that has developed around [the popular college drinking game] beer pong." According to the ESRB, "alcohol played a minimal role in the game and no one was shown drinking beer." No one, including the ESRB, could argue that the US's game rating system is perfect, but it does give parents something to go by - a sense of definition - when the pressure's on to buy a game. Certainly there's value, too, in bringing attention to anything that promotes or even gives kids any comfort level with excessive or binge drinking. See also's 3 tips for videogamers' parents.

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    Monday, July 07, 2008

    Good citizens in virtual worlds, too

    I truly believe that children's good citizenship online helps protect them - and it's a large and growing piece of the online-safety puzzle. How so? Because (I know I've quoted this here before) "youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization," according to an analysis from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. So I was delighted to find "Raising Good Citizens for a Virtual World," a five-lesson course from author and tech educator Doug Johnson (thanks for bookmarking it, Anne Bubnic). But this is not rocket science, parents. Don't be put off by the words "course" or "five lessons." If you can just help your kids apply what they're learning about how to treat people respectfully and function in community to the online part of their lives, you're accomplishing a lot. Doug points out that the degree of anonymity cyberspace has an all-bets-off effect that people take advantage of. It's true. But this doesn't complicate things; it's simply why the same ethics and citizenship we've always taught them need to be applied to online behavior too. The other protective tool that needs to be applied online is critical thinking (see "How to recognize grooming" and "How social influencing works").

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