Thursday, July 5, 2007

Why immersive class spaces?

Literature Alive! aims to bring immersive study of literature to it's students, using Second Life to create those environments and that immersion.

This isn't always easy - taking a work of literature and turning it into a scene or tableau that engages the learner, but still supports them in learning the literature content is an interesting challenge. The same sorts of challenges apply in creating immersive learning for other things too.

There's a lot of hmming and hawing about how you measure immersion, and whether immersion is automatically better than non-immersion. One of the things to bear in mind is that our focus remains, always, on the educational content. If there is a choice between better teaching and better immersion, we head towards better teaching. Usually, it has to be said, we find little difficulty in this - the challenge is more technical to me, the SL content creator, to make the stuff easy to use and immersive for people that aren't necessarily used to SL - doors that open easily, simple notecard givers that don't spam etc. combined with builds that evoke the right feel whilst remaining relatively easy to navigate around - a challenge in, for example, the Poe House which ought to be dark, cramped and the like.

Does immersion really matter? I mean, we're all here having survived without it, and we've become highly qualified and most of us are teachers (whatever the title our institution gives us) passing information on and getting students qualifications through our hard work.

I will counter that with memories from two classes that have run in SL. One of them with a lot of building and scripting input from me, one with almost none.

When was the last time you remember a student, voluntarily, spending 4 hours working and learning on a Sunday evening? Reading, scouring in fact, the provided texts, expanding from that to research texts on the internet, determined to get every last little drop from the class? Dashing in and out of the "classroom" (the Poe House in this case) to where the teacher was waiting, exploring props, assigning them to stories, debating the story and how the content was at odds with it in places and so on. Not just one student, but 4 in fact did this. Sure, they might all be 'A' grade students and would have done it in real life too, but somehow I doubt it.

The other one - when is the last time that you remember students, people with PhD's in the topic and the like entering into a role-play and discussion about the class material lasting over 2 hours? The Canterbury Tales pilgrimage did just this - and two of the students enjoyed it enough the first time to come back and do it again the second time it ran. This too, nicely demonstrated learning - those on the pilgrimage were asked to play a character from the Tales, and portray their responses to the discussion questions whilst actually walking around the route of the pilgrimage. They were expected to stay in character - which obviously requires thinking about that character - whilst determining who the other characters were as they were portrayed by the others - which requires a fairly good understanding of the whole of the tales, unless (as happened in at least one case) they go for the much larger than life ones (Wife of Bath for example).

Are these examples chosen because they're unique? No. In fact they're pretty typical of Literature Alive! classes. They're chosen because, for the most part, most of the people that read this will have heard of, and probably read, the books - even if they're not British or American.

I don't think there is anyone out there that would suggest it's better to teach students who aren't engaged compared to those that are engaged. Engagement and immersion are not synonyms, at least I don't think so. But, I have yet to see a student who becomes immersed who does not also become engaged. How much preparation do you think it's worth to see 100% of your students become engaged throughout your class, to the point of remaining outside class? How rewarding do you think it would be to mark materials from a class where they're all engaged compared to the more usual engagement rates in class? I teach enough to suggest that, over a typical course, you get less than 50% engagement, probably much less, half the students half the time would be 25% - and a pretty good result for most of us. SL courses to date, taught this way, 90%+ - that's all the students for the vast majority of the time.

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