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1:3 Learning in a virtual world

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What are some of the affordances of a virtual world for education?

Students who learn in a technology rich environment are perhaps more comfortable and therefore engaged than those who are left without these resources.  As Nicosia (2008) contends, “Today’s students are most deeply engaged when their senses are stimulated visually and physically.”  Whilst a virtual world is still not common day practice for most adolescents, it is almost guaranteed to engage them.  And isn’t this one of the greatest challenges educators face today?

In regards to reading and writing, Second Life and the virtual world are not rich in print-based-text, although written text is available it is not the focus.  One of the things that virtual worlds offer the classroom are comprehension tasks, the ability to expand on texts, and to visit ‘physical’ sites.

Some examples and ideas for using the virtual world in the classroom include role play and play, which could be interacting with characters or entering a site, i.e. a historical site or a place from a novel, guided tours of sites, taking part in historical events, scavenger hunts and interacting with works of art (MaryAnnCLT, 10 August, 2007).  These activities across different learning areas are heavily interactive allowing students to gain a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.

The text based chat element in Second Life allows students to participate in discussions, which may then be saved and used for documentation or assessment (Nicosia, 2008).  This adds another component to virtual world learning.  The previous activities listed are intended to improve learning and understanding of the topic.  Adding text based chat allows for teacher, peer and self assessment to take place.

One fantastic use of virtual world learning would be distance learning (Nicosia, 2008).  The Internet and modern technologies have allowed for students in remote areas to access information they would otherwise have been denied.  Second Life would allow them to see themselves in virtual classroom, talking, learning and interacting with the teacher and fellow students.

Whilst Second Life is currently complicated and time consuming to integrate into a curriculum, it has the potential to greatly enhance the classroom and student learning.

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1:2 New Literacies

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What are the so called “new literacies”?

Also referred to as “digital literacy (Tyner, 1998), multiliteracies (Unsworth, 2001; Kress, 2003; Luke, 2000, 2003; The New London Group, 1996; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000), and the literacies of technology (Selfe & Hawisher, 2004)” (Thomas, 2008, p. 2), new literacies encompass all that are related to technology, as Thomas (2008, p. 2) refers to it they are all “technology-mediated literacies.”

Lankshear and Knobel (2006) argue there are two perspectives concerning the way new literacies are regarded, paradigmatic and ontological.

Paradigmatic refers to a way of thinking.  It is concerned with the approach to literacy, in particular a socio-cultural approach (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006).  This approach argues that literacy is a matter of social practices that are bound with social, institutional and cultural relationships and can only be understood when within context (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006).   Gee (2004, p. 1) contends

“when you read, you are always reading something in some way.  You are never just reading ‘in general’ but not reading anything in particular.  For example you can read the Bible as history or literature or as a self-help guide or in many other ways.”

He continues by arguing that reading and thinking are both social achievements connected to social groups (Gee, 2004).  He claims that we indentify with several different social groups, and when we read and think we can do so from different points of view.  For example I may read a text as a female, as an Australian, or as a single woman in my late 20s.

Ontological is concerned more with the content, it refers to the new ‘things’ that are being sold on the market, the chronologically recent forms of “digital-electronic technologies” and new forms of “texts and text production” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p. 25).  Lankshear and Knobel (2006, p. 25) explain the emergence of chronologically recent hardware is accompanied by a new “ethos” or “mindset” concerned with social and cultural relations, priorities and values.


1:1 Growing Up Digital

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What does it mean for schools and educators to have students in their classrooms who have grown up “digitally”?

Today’s adolescents have never known a world without technology (Thompson, 2008).  They have never known a world without mobile phones, iPods, the Internet, Instant Messaging and social networking websites.  They have grown up with an indefinable amount of information instantly accessible to them in seconds.  Outside of school their lives are rich with modern technologies, computers and handheld devices.  They glide between real life and the web with ease, not noticing any kind of transition.  The stark classroom with pens, paper, and books is quite often foreign to them and one they don’t necessarily feel comfortable in.  Without their phones and access to the Internet students may feel alienated and disconnected.  Have you ever left your mobile phone at home leaving you feel a tiny bit insecure?  I did it yesterday.

A lot of schools place heavy restrictions on the Internet blocking many websites.  While this is done with the best of intentions, the result is that it prevents educators creating a link between the world students live in and the world we want them to learn in (Considine, Horton, & Moorman, 2009).  “If there is a crisis in today’s schools, [it is] students’ perceptions that school is boring and largely irrelevant to preparation for life outside school” (Howe & Strauss, 2006; National School Boards Association, 2007; Prensky, 2008 in Considine, Horton, & Moorman, 2009, p. 473).  Traditionally the older generations may have scoffed at this comment claiming they know how to prepare students for the outside world better than the students know, however with new technology this may be changing.

The perception younger generations have of the world is very different from older generations and this may be best explained by the different mindsets as described by Lankshear & Knobel (2006, p. 38).  The first mindset is that commonly found in the older generation, who see the world as it has always been just with more advanced technology, this is referred to as the Newcomer mindset.  The second is common for those who have grown up with this technology or for those who see technology as a creative tool with endless possibilities.  According to Lankshear & Knobel (2006), Newcomers see the world as explainable through physical means, whilst the Insiders do not.  Newcomers see production as material artefacts, infrastructure and production units and tools for producing, whilst Insiders see it as enabling services, leverage and non-finite participation and tools for mediating and relating.  The Insiders have a focus on collective intelligence while the Newcomers still focus on the individual.  Similarly, expertise and authority are distributed and collective for the Insiders, whereas they are seen as to be individuals and institutions by the Newcomers.

The blocking of websites in educational institutions, therefore, is quite characteristic of the Newcomers.  They do not see the internet for it’s endless possibilities in this case, they see the possible dangers.  Take YouTube as an example.  This website is blocked at the Melbourne high school I worked at, as well as the UK primary school where I am currently working.  Insiders can clearly see the infinite educational uses of YouTube and find the blocking of it frustrating and old fashioned.  The Newcomers see that YouTube may be used for entertainment purposes, thereby distracting the students from their work, or that students will be accessing inappropriate videos.  For them, these issues outweigh the educational possibilities.  For an Insider it is quite the opposite – as an Insider I think the educational opportunities the web has to offer are extremely rich and meaningful, and while I recognise the dangers, I respond to that by saying educators should be teaching critical literacy which traditionally is already part of a high school curriculum.

Gee (2004) explains that there are different ways of reading and writing.  He says each domain has it’s own rules and requirements, each has a culturally and historically separate way of reading and writing, thus has a different literacy.  While this is relevant for traditional written texts, it is even more relevant in today’s world of multimodal texts.

What does it mean for schools and educators to have students in their classrooms who have grown up “digitally”?  It means we must strive to understand the changing needs of student learning and engagement, and the literacies needed to successfully participate in modern society, and we must modify education to suit.