Friday, January 15, 2010

Rotating Sculptures in OpenSim

I've been playing around with overlapping rotating volumes in OpenSim. They make nice sculptures but could also make for nice visualizations of concepts in Calculus. Some math teachers got excited when they saw them.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Virtual Architecture Course in OpenSim

I've been teaching a week-long class on virtual architecture with nine 10-12th grade girls at my school using one region of our school sandbox 4x4 megaregion. It's been one of the most enjoyable teaching experiences I've had. They've taken to the project of building homes on the mountainous terrain I've provided with so much care and attention, placing some furniture I provided just so, and yet they clearly delight in the ability to defy gravity by building in mid-air or jutting over a sheer cliff. There's a general thing for circular houses, one of the most impractical shapes you could have in real life. One student made a diving board off her 20-meter-high pool only to find that she landed on the ground when she walked her avatar off it. So she moved the diving board to the other side of the pool and happily flailed her way down to the water. They've been having fun visiting each others' houses and pushing each other around when they feel too cramped in houses they wish they had made bigger. One student has been working very hard on a more thoughtfully planned spacious house and it turns out she is interested in studying architecture in college. I mentioned that the architecture departments of many colleges have land for their students to work with in Second Life. I had to tell her to stick to campuses, though, with the wild west atmosphere of so much of "mature" SL.

Possibly the most exciting event was the sim crashing. At one point everyone reported losing control of their avatars. I logged in to the server to see a big alert and lots of red errors on the console. They all logged out and as I restarted one student mentioned a warning message she had gotten when linking the prims in her house that the limit for linked objects was 255. She had the craziest staircase with dozens of irregularly placed steps that turn out to be really easy for avatars to ascend and descend. So she crashed the sim trying to link them all with her house. Once it was back up they logged in to find that half of their work was gone. They were so upset and old enough to laugh at how upset they were. Fortunately I had seen this before and knew that the sim probably needed a second restart after crashing to put things back in order, which turned out to be the case.

Virtual building is an amazing creative medium for teaching. The students learned the tools fairly quickly and in just a few classes have applied them to developing such unique visions for their spaces. I'm interested to see how they want to wrap up the class. I'll leave them the option of working on their creations when they have time after this week but this will end our collaborative effort. I plan on trying to corral their avatars in one place long enough to snap a photo at least.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Computers and Hard Work

This week I'm teaching three special courses for our Winterim session: Virtual Architecture with OpenSim, Mix Your Own Tunes with Audacity, and 3D Storytelling with Storytelling Alice. I'm having a great time. I love putting building tools in kids' hands and watching what they will do with them. The students range in age from 9-18 in three separate age groups and I've noticed a common reaction to the content of all of the classes. On the first day, once I'd finished my intro to each program and the goals of the course, students started working and very soon became whiny and frustrated. Across the board, they were confused by the unfamiliar interface of each program as well as the workflow required to complete different tasks. Once they realized what making a song out of audio clips, scripting a story, or building a house piece by piece was going to involve, they pushed back and wanted it to be easier.

My response was to say that we had four more days (1.25 hr classes each) to work with this and that they would get used to it once they decided what they wanted to do. Basically, each class is just a lot of time to work! Since then they have complained--mostly to their computers--but it's hard to get them to stop when it's time. They have settled into a rhythm and are focused on making their musical, animation, or building ideas work. Almost without exception I haven't had to tell any students to get to work. One student confessed that she is still completely lost in Storytelling Alice and will need more guidance. And another student finished one audio mix and exported her MP3, saying, "There's no way I can start another one right now." I know how she felt. You finish a big project that's required a lot of focus and the last thing you want to do upon finishing it is jump back into a new project.

When students complain about work on the computer being hard it's often a knee-jerk reaction to having to think and focus with something that in most other contexts is used for entertainment. But they will stick with it through all the complaining if they feel that what they are doing is meaningful.