I’ve got just over a week now to get this report written and if anything I am getting more, rather than less, confused about what I am doing, or trying to do. Try as I might to focus in, I am finding myself focusing out and looking at big pictures rather than little details – maybe the result of too many OU systems thinking courses.
I am hoping that putting down some of my thinking may help me to make some sense out of the muddle and to come up with something credible to discuss with my thesis committee. Guess my main concern is not to look too foolish!
My starting point about this time last year was whether Second Life was providing any added value to learners in formal learning situations. I had read Maggi Savin-Baden’s paper which had addressed troublesome learning and was struck by the language being used being reminiscent of the language used in counselling and therapy – the suggestion that working through a learning disjunction leading to a complete change of thought patterns (maybe I exaggerate!)
During the past months, I have done a lot of learning and thinking and become aware of lots of different ideas which can contribute to thinking about virtual worlds and education. I have also found myself re-visiting my own personal history and ideology and looking at how my own thinking has developed against a background of big ideas and socio-economic-political change over the past half century. In looking at academic papers in particular, I am increasingly aware of the narrowing of focus of so much I read which makes little attempt to engage in joined up thinking across disciplines or ideologies. At times it feels as though wheels are constantly being re-invented or origins of ideas are being ignored as knowledge is developed incrementally rather than holistically.
At the same time, in my own thinking, I am finding I am looking more at big ideas, influences and trends. For example, when I began work in community development in the early 70’s, there was a strong awareness of the roots of community development being in the philanthropic movements of the 19th century, the university settlements of the inter-war period and post-war socialism, all tinged with the emerging rights movements (at that time women and black, but later others), and counteracting the individuality of the 60’s. Though there was a recognition of links between community development in the UK and community action in the States, there was little attempt to look for common methodology with community development elsewhere (I can’t even remember what the terms used to describe the third world or developing nations was back then).
Community development in the UK effectively disappeared in the early 80’s – no funding – and the volunteer movement had to re-assess itself because of changes in political ideology. It is possible to trace the language used by Margaret Thatcher in various key speeches through that period which signalled a change from community being important to the rise and fall of voluntarism to emphasis being placed on the individual with the famous words ‘there is no such thing as society’. Behind these changes seemed to be a growing awareness than community development, voluntary organisations and even volunteers cost money. By the end of the 1980’s the notion of voluntary organisations being contracted to undertake specific tasks by public bodies was firmly rooted and much social care is provided today on this type of contractual basis. At the same time, the lottery was born and grant giving to charitable bodies gave a new lease of life to more innovative organisations.
Other major changes during the past 4o years have been in communications and globalisation – each feeding the other. We have become familiar with seeing news as it happens. Film of famine in Africa no longer has quite the shocking quality it had when we saw the first pictures of the Ethiopian droughts, but perhaps we are still shocked by the effects of natural disasters in New Orleans or Italy – at least briefly. In recent months we are being reminded again of community, this time in the form of the global village as we are told that it is only through collaboration and working together that the credit crunch can be overcome. Again in recent days, the risk of global pandemic has raised its head, and with it a realisation of what a small place the world is now that so many people are involved in travel to so many different places.
Returning to virtual worlds, my starting point was very simplistic – what does Second Life offer to education by way of added value. Over the past months, I have become much more aware of the existence of other virtual worlds and have visited some, albeit briefly. More importantly, I have realised that any thinking about Second Life has to recognise previous thinking about virtual worlds – and the scope gets quite scary. At the very least this needs to acknowledge Usenet and bulletin boards, the 2-D web, gaming, virtual reality and social networking. In considering education and virtuality, there is a need also to be aware of changing trends in elearning and open access learning materials such as the MIT and OU repositories. Second Life was not developed as a learning environment, although parts of it have been colonised by educational institutions. There is a lot of informal learning happening in Second Life, just as there is throughout Web 2.0, and much of this reflects community initiatives of one sort and another.
My journeying over the past months has also led me into an awareness of some motivational theories, principally Flow and Self-determination theory. SDT is of particular interest with its emphasis on autonomy and relatedness (both important themes to any community development professional).
Looking even more specifically at Second Life, apart from reading a lot of stuff about things going on in the virtual world and attending several workshops and conferences with a virtual world focus, I have been involved informal educational experiences with both OU and Sussex students. There is no doubt that the virtual world does offer an opportunity to develop learning experiences using the specific affordances of the virtual world, but I am beginning to question whether this is actually what I am interested in. However, I am still interested in Second Life as a learning environment and I am finding myself thinking again about some of the tenets of community development and self help and how they apply within the virtual world. Linked to this is the recent government white paper with its emphasis on informal learning.
This blog is getting even more disjointed now!
Informal learning has always interested me as so much of what happens in community is experiential, informal learning involving a transfer of skills and knowledge. It fits in with various personal growth philosophies. Self-help fed the development of the WEA. Early years education in the UK has formalised the work initiated by parents in the development of pre-school playgroups. Although APL and APEL have been around for some years, there is very little accreditation of informal learning – it is so varied, it is difficult to see how this can happen and even if it is a good thing. Does formally recognising the informal change or restructure it? Some would say the early years curriculum with it’s emphasis on assessment runs totally counter to the objectives of playgroups.
So where is this leading? I am interested in the potential of Second Life as a learning community and I am interested in informal learning. I am also interested in how people own their own learning and how they support each other through self-help and exchange of skills. I am interested in what makes people want to learn when there is no formal recognition or validation of that learning. I am interested in drawing connections between the developing community in Second Life and the trends which are observable in the bigger world picture. I am interested in joined up thinking rather than disconnected nuggets.
Now how do I turn any of this into anything that will make sense for my DPhil annual review meeting?!