Virtual spaces for learning and collaboration

    Today, I’ve been doing a UCL short course. As we were coming back from a break, we were discussing the lack of ‘embodiedness’ in virtual interactions. This reminded me of experiments with different platforms that WAO did during the pandemic.

    This post by Alja from Tethix is prompted by a challenge-based learning platform that I took part in last year. They’re focusing on tech ethics (hence the name) and their approach was great. It was just that the tools got in the way to some extent.

    I think, after reading this, it’s time to experiment again with some of the tools mentioned in the post. Sometimes you do need a sense of play and feel like you’re connected in ways that go beyond small boxes on a screen.

    The Tethix Archipelago emerged from the Challenge Based Learning pilot we did in March last year. For the pilot, we designed a unique collaborative online learning experience in tech ethics and used Mural collaborative whiteboards and visual storytelling to situate the learning journey in a fictional world: the Tethix Archipelago. The Archipelago consists of four islands that emerged from the four essentials skills of the Challenge Based Learning journey: collaboration, exploration, practice, and reflection.

    Mural turned out to be a great tool for collaboration and live session guidance, but it didn’t really convey a sense of place. Clicking on a link in a Mural to visit the next leg of your journey just doesn’t feel like traveling, especially when you’re trapped in the same little Zoom box during every live session.

    So we started exploring tools that could help us convey a sense of space and discovered Gather and WorkAdventure, among others. These tools offer two-dimensional virtual collaborative spaces where you can walk around a space with your avatar and have proximity-based conversations by using your microphone and camera.


    You might be thinking: this is cute and all, but is this Archipelago all games and play? Well, playfulness is a big part of why we’re experimenting with these game-like worlds; we know that play helps us learn better and can unlock our imagination. But there’s much more to it than just millennial nostalgia for pixel graphics.

    As already mentioned, Gather allows us to build a sense of place, both inside rooms and between them. And a sense of place helps with learning and memory encoding. Historical records show ancient Greeks using the method of loci or memory palaces, a technique for improving memory encoding and retrieval, and humans have been developing other mnemonic techniques based on spatial relationship for much longer than that. We’re physical beings, uniquely equipped to understand space, whether physical or represented by pixels.

    Source: Welcome to the Tethix Archipelago | Tethix

    You don't hate Mondays, you hate capitalism

    🧠 I Feel Better Now — "Brain chemistry and childhood trauma go a long way toward explaining a person’s particular struggles with mental health, but you could be forgiven for wondering whether there is also something larger at work here—whether the material arrangement of society itself, in other words, is contributing to a malaise that various authorities nevertheless encourage us to believe is exclusively individual."

    😟 Where loneliness can lead — "Totalitarianism uses isolation to deprive people of human companionship, making action in the world impossible, while destroying the space of solitude. The iron-band of totalitarianism, as Arendt calls it, destroys man’s ability to move, to act, and to think, while turning each individual in his lonely isolation against all others, and himself. The world becomes a wilderness, where neither experience nor thinking are possible."

    🙍 The problem is poverty, however we label it — "If your only choice of an evening is between skipping dinner or going to sleep in the cold before waking up in the cold, then you are not carefully selecting between food poverty and fuel poverty, like some expense-account diner havering over the French reds on a wine list. You are simply impoverished."

    👩‍💻 Malware found on laptops given out by government — "According to the forum, the Windows laptops contained Gamarue.I, a worm identified by Microsoft in 2012... The malware in question installs spyware which can gather information about browsing habits, as well as harvest personal information such as banking details."

    🏭 Turn off that camera during virtual meetings, environmental study says — "Just one hour of videoconferencing or streaming, for example, emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide... But leaving your camera off during a web call can reduce these footprints by 96%."

    Quotation-as-title by unknown. Image via top-linked article.

    Saturday shoutings

    The link I'm most enthusiastic about sharing this week is one to a free email-based course I've created with my co-op colleagues. It's entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Virtual Meetings and part of a new series we're working on.

    Skills for the New Normal

    The other links are slightly fewer in number this week because time, it turns out, is finite.

    Clean Language: David Grove Questioning Method

    Developing Questions
    "(And) what kind of X (is that X)?"
    "(And) is there anything else about X?"
    "(And) where is X? or (And) whereabouts is X?"
    "(And) that's X like what?"
    "(And) is there a relationship between X and Y?"
    "(And) when X, what happens to Y?

    Sequence and Source Questions
    "(And) then what happens? or (And) what happens next?"
    "(And) what happens just before X?"
    "(And) where could X come from?"

    Intention Questions
    "(And) what would X like to have happen?"
    "(And) what needs to happen for X?"
    "(And) can X (happen)?"

    The first two questions: "What kind of X (is that X)?" and "Is there anything else about X?" are the most commonly used.

    As a general guide, these two questions account for around 50% of the questions asked in a typical Clean Language session.


    I had a great chat with Kristian Still this week, for the first time in about a decade. Kristian was part of EdTechRoundUp back in the day, and early EduTwitter. Among the many things we discussed is his enthusiasm for "clean questioning" which I'm going to investigate further.

    How ‘Sustainable’ Web Design Can Help Fight Climate Change

    Even our throwaway habits can add up to a mountain of carbon. Consider all the little social emails we shoot back and forth—“thanks,” “got it,” “lol.” The UK energy firm Ovo examined email usage and—using data from Lancaster University professor Mike Berners-Lee, who analyzes carbon footprints—they found that if every adult in the UK just sent one less “thank you” email per day, it would cut 16 tons of carbon each year, equal to 22 round-trip flights between New York and London. They also found that 49 percent of us often send thank-you emails to people “within talking distance.” We can lower our carbon output if we'd just take the headphones off for a minute and stop behaving like a bunch of morlocks.

    Clive Thompson (WIRED)

    Small differences all add up. Our design choices and the decisions we make about technology all have a part to play in fighting climate change.

    Apple, Big Sur, and the rise of Neumorphism

    When you boil it down, neumorphism is a focus on how light moves in three-dimensional space. Its predecessor, skeumorphism, created realism in digital interfaces by simulating textures on surfaces like felt on a poker table or the brushed metal of a tape recorder. An ancillary — though under-developed — aspect of this design style was lighting that interacted realistically with the materials that were being represented; this is why shadows and darkness were so prevalent in those early interfaces.

    Jack Koloskus (Input)

    The dominant design language over the last five years, without doubt, has been Google's Material Design. Will a neumorphic approach take over? It's certainly an interesting approach.

    Snowden: Tech Workers Are Complicit in How Their Companies Hurt Society

    He called on those in the tech industry to look at the bigger picture regarding their work and its implications beyond simply a project—and to think deeply and take a stronger stand with regards to who their labor actually serves.

    “It’s not enough to read, it’s not enough to believe in something, it’s not enough to write something, you have to eventually stand for something if you want things to change,” he said.

    Kevin Truong (Motherboard)

    The tech industry is an interesting one as it's a relatively new and immature one, at least in its current guise. As a result, the ethics, and the checks and balances aren't quite there yet.

    To my mind, things like unions and professional associations show maturity and the kind of coming together that don't put moral decisions on the shoulders of individuals, but rather on the whole sector.


    Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness

    [T]here is a narrative chasm between the twee and borderless dreamscape of fantasy Britain and actual, material Britain, where rents are rising and racists are running brave. The chasm is wide, and a lot of people are falling into it. The omnishambles of British politics is what happens when you get scared and mean and retreat into the fairytales you tell about yourself. When you can no longer live within your own contradictions. When you want to hold on to the belief that Britain is the land of Jane Austen and John Lennon and Sir Winston Churchill, the war hero who has been repeatedly voted the greatest Englishman of all time. When you want to forget that Britain is also the land of Cecil Rhodes and Oswald Mosley and Sir Winston Churchill, the brutal colonial administrator who sanctioned the building of the first concentration camps and condemned millions of Indians to death by starvation. These are not contradictions, even though the drive to separate them is cracking the country apart. If you love your country and don’t own its difficulties and its violence, you don’t actually love your country. You’re just catcalling it as it goes by.

    Laurie Penny (Longreads)

    I always find looking at my country through the lens of foreigners cringe-inducing. I suppose it's a narrative produced for tourists but, sadly, we seem to have believed our own rhetoric, and look where it's gotten us...

    How Big Tech Monopolies Distort Our Public Discourse

    The idea that Big Tech can mold discourse through bypassing our critical faculties by spying on and analyzing us is both self-serving (inasmuch as it helps Big Tech sell ads and influence services) and implausible, and should be viewed with extreme skepticism

    But you don't have to accept extraordinary claims to find ways in which Big Tech is distorting and degrading our public discourse. The scale of Big Tech makes it opaque and error-prone, even as it makes the job of maintaining a civil and productive space for discussion and debate impossible.

    Cory Doctorow (EFF)

    A tour de force from Doctorow, who eviscerates the companies that make up 'Big Tech' and the role they have in hollowing-out civic society.

    Header image by Andrea Piacquadio