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A web of technology

Since my Second Life avatar, Beacon Wirefly, was “born” five months ago, I’ve explored, learned and just plain goofed around in Second Life. With so much to do and see in-world, I recently found myself putting all the Spencer Museum of Art’s eggs in one basket; asking things like “How can Second Life accomplish all the goals we set out in the IMLS grant?” I could feel panic rising. How were we going to find success?

Luckily, two things happened to pull it back together. Number one: Our Second Life artist, Stacey Fox, introduced me to the term “Convergent Media.” A blog by Jeff Wilkinson, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University called it “the melding together of different media, incorporating new personalized services.” In other words, using Facebook, Twitter, cell phone tours, Second Life, and many others to access the Spencer from a myriad of different angles (see illustration). Each form of media connects to the other in some manner and draws users straight back to the museum. A light went on in my head. Web of Technology

Then came number two: While browsing iTunes University, I came across a ground-breaking learning environment created by Professor Jay Clayton and Vice Chancellor Matt Hall at Vanderbilt University called “Worlds of Wordcraft,” a freshman-level English class. These two taught English 115F through the platform of an online game, Lord of the Rings Online. Besides my obvious excitement for the idea of meeting requirements while engaging students in their own world, I was struck by a comment from Clayton. “It was [a] pleasure … discovering new things about literature that I had never seen before because of the way we were teaching it,” he said.

That’s it! I thought in response. That’s the piece I’ve been looking for! Media has a dual opportunity here – it can teach new things to people who hadn’t experience them before, but they can also help people see something they’re familiar with from an entirely new perspective.

My mind immediately began generating possibilities for the Spencer. What if we did something like this: The museum creates an avatar in Second Life which visitors in first life can maneuver from a computer terminal in the museum. Visitors at the computer terminal are broadcast on a webcam which shows up in Second Life. The museum’s avatar has a Facebook profile and lets people know what’s going on in the virtual world of SL. He/she also occasionally creates video blogs which are posted on the museum’s blog and the website. And finally, he/she has an opinion on artworks in the RL museum (perhaps those also featured on SL) which is recorded and available through the museum’s cell phone tour.

Another angle: A digital artist takes a class about building in Second Life, held on the Spencer’s Island. He or she studies the museum’s online resources dealing with Climate Change and the Climate Change at the Poles exhibition before designing and creating a digital work of art which deals with this topic. This artwork – along with other artists’ works – is displayed on the Spencer Island and visitors there are asked to vote on their favorites. The submissions are also posted on the museum’s website and Facebook group where more people can vote. When voting finishes, miniature paper replicas are created and displayed at the first life Spencer museum where visitors can view them in person or through the museum’s webcam.

The possibilities are endless converging at the Spencer, pulling people in from different directions, and giving us the opportunity to look at something we may think we already know, but from a new angle.

That is the question

When the Spencer first decided to expand into Second Life, I was excited to be a part of an institution on the cutting edge. Naively, I imagined that our mere presence in the virtual world would be ground-breaking, drawing people and accolades from all walks of life. Little did I know.

Second Life is magical, surreal and fantastic. But once the “novelty factor” wears off, I began to see that Second Life had the same issues as real life – just because an entity had a presence in Second Life didn’t mean its island would automatically attract visitors or engage them in meaningful ways. What it does attract, I’ve found, are questions heaped upon questions.

I encountered the first of these from people who’d never experienced Second Life. “So it’s an interactive website?” I was asked. “People actually spend money on virtual things?” said someone else. And, “You mean there are people from other countries in there?”

The pile of questions only grew as we began to explore creating a public space for SL access somewhere in the galleries.

  • Do we make connections between Second Life and our collection or are we only trying to provide a space for people to access SL?
  • Will we provide a forum for interactions between SL visitors and RL visitors? If so, how?
  • What are the technical parameters we need to fit within and how can we create what we want within these specifications?
  • How do we set up a space which encourages visitor interaction?
  • How do people who don’t have an avatar access the island?
  • Will we allow people to explore all of Second Life from our public terminal? If so, what do we do if they visit places inappropriate for the majority of our museum visitors?

… and the questions continued as we looked at content for the island design itself.

  • How do we engage experienced SL users without making our island inaccessible to newbies?
  • How do we get people to our island and, once they’re there, how do we keep them coming back?
  • Who decides what the island looks like and what content is included?

We are slowly but surely answering these questions here at the museum, but I’m going to leave you readers hanging. Since it seems each answer turns out to be 3 more questions, I’ll need whole posts to adequately discuss the challenges. But always, the process of answering the questions is the process of our experiment in action. Stay tuned.

I first heard about Second Life in October 2007 as my colleagues at the Spencer Museum of Art were pulling together information for a grant proposal. Intrigued by my eavesdropping, I set out to explore a little. Come to find out, my 2005 iBook was filled with too much cargo and too many leaks to stay afloat in the Metaverse. I borrowed my brother’s sleek MacBook Pro a couple times and nosed around a little, but he moved to another city and I was once again without a portal.

A year later, when I found myself in the position of coordinator for the same, now-funded grant, I decided it was time to get serious as an explorer. The museum was behind it, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), our project funder, was behind it and I was the one pulling it all together. I just needed to know which direction to pull.

My initial explorations had taken me to various hotspots and islands featured in the Showcase portion of the SL search engine. I had a grasp on how to get around and a few highlights to share with people. So I thought I was prepared the day my officemate, retired art history professor and author of numerous books – including the textbook most KU students use in their beginning art history class – wanted to look around. Marilyn Stokstad, at almost 80 years old, was excited to learn more about this new world. What should I show an art history professor? The Sistine Chapel on Vassar College’s island, of course. “This will be right up her alley,” I thought as I waited for my avatar to teleport.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t as impressed as I’d hoped. We walked through the chapel doors and I waited for her oohs and ahhs. What I heard instead was “Oh no! What garish colors!” and “Look at the walls – they must have taken these pictures before they restored it and the ceiling pictures afterward. Oh, that’s just awful!”

Uh oh. I didn’t have a response. Personally, I loved the opportunity to see the Sistine Chapel in a 3D setting, only having seen flat images in textbooks – I could finally see the relationship between Michelangelo’s many vignettes. But that didn’t change the fact that the museum’s project would need to appeal to art connoisseurs like Marilyn. And she was excited about the project in the first place. What was I going to say to someone who was skeptical from the beginning? I renewed my search, now looking for other entities which were using SL in a way which broke the bounds of ordinary.

That brings us to today. The Spencer’s goal, and the goal of the IMLS: Engaging Communities grant, is to create a model for museums (and other organizations) to incorporate Second Life and social networking as an educational tool to reach new audiences and current audiences in new ways. As part of that creation process, I’ll be blogging on a regular basis, letting everyone know what’s happening, what road blocks we’re encountering and when we find successes beyond our wildest dreams!

To start off, I wanted to share two of the best ideas I’ve seen so far for using Second Life as an educational tool. The first is an idea by Peggy Sheehy, a staff member of the Ramapo Central School District in Suffern, NY (see the discussion here). Sheehy facilitated a body-image project for middle school students. After watching a video about the media and body image, students created avatars in their own image and discussed their experiences via IM-chat in-world. The next day, they changed their avatars to represent what they thought of as the media’s image of ideal beauty and discussed that experience. On the final day, they again recreated their avatars to represent the media’s image of ideal beauty for the opposite gender. A final discussion centered around which avatar-incarnation each student felt most comfortable with and why. Sheehy says, “I expected them to enjoy the process of creating avatars, but I had no idea how profound their discussions would become when they formed groups in the ‘pods’.” The somewhat impersonal qualities of IMing in the Second Life forum allowed the middle-schoolers to open up in ways they normally wouldn’t in face-to-face chats. This project made use of Second Life in a way which could only be done in a virtual world.

The second project originated from the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA. While most of the places and ideas I’ve come across in SL use real life as a jumping off point, the Tech Museum is doing the opposite – using Second Life as a starting point for real life exhibitions. (see more about their ideas here). They have created a space where anyone who joins (free of charge) can either get in on a project already in the works, or start their own. These projects are basically designing and creating an exhibition in the Tech Virtual. Museum staff choose the best of these projects to recreate in the real life museum in San Jose – using Second Life as inspiration for real life.

As I have wandered the new world of SL, I have come across many strange and interesting things including underwater classrooms, a shop attendant who looked like a cardboard box robot and vampires. All have only served to peak my interest and I’ll continue my search for projects and places which are truly innovative. Anchors away!

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