WARNING: those of you interested in Japanese studies but not in internet technologies, new media, and the whole question of how digital learning does or doesn’t effect academia should go no further. Here there be dragons.
I had the chance to attend a very unusual conference this past week. Well, “attend” is perhaps not the best word. This particular conference was held in Second Life, an unusual and large online community–technically a virtual world–in which you manipulate an “avatar” (kind of like a personalized character) to navigate an incredibly diverse landscape of “sims” (simulations, which translate into islands). People build buildings, art, natural environments, they buy and design and rent out sims, they sell virtual products and services, they collaborate or compete in games or educational endeavors, they socialize at dances and raves, and they do everything else that you can (or possibly can’t) imagine. I had never entered Second Life until the head of academic technology at my college informed me that we had some complementary tickets to a virtual conference on new media in the academy. I was skeptical about the whole Second Life thing but thought it might be interesting.
The conference schedule is now available online at the website of the New Media Consortium, the host organization and owner of the sim in which the conference took place. The program now includes links to “videos” of the presentations in Second Life, which look a bit like small movies of someone playing a really boring video game. If you listen to the presentations, though, the presenters turn out to be real teachers and academic technologists talking about a range of new media tools, including familiar ones like blogs and Facebook but also a slew of new technologies, and how they can be applied in the classroom. I was most impressed by the ways in which the conference was interactive. It is hard to get a sense of this from the video, but when your avatar was actually sitting there in the amphitheater listening to the presentations (which were made by people wearing headsets and presumably sitting at their own computers in various offices around the world), you could participate in an open, text-only chat (some of the sessions listed on the program include chat transcripts) that ran concurrently with the presentation. I didn’t have a mic and headset, like many other participants, so if I wanted to ask a question I just typed it into the chat window and someone not in the middle of presenting might answer it immediately, or, alternatively, one of the presenters would eventually get around to answering it. This was a form of multitasking that I had not previously experienced but that, surprisingly, really worked. I’m sure those of you who play linked online video games have experienced this mixture of virtual action and global conversation. You’re watching the screen (which frequently included multimedia presentations in the strange box above the presenters’ heads), listening to the spoken presentation, and also participating in a text-only chat discussion all at the same time. And at certain moments it was very informative and interesting.
So, what are the applications for Japanese studies? Well, first of all, Second Life itself could in theory be a very interesting teaching tool if used judiciously. I did a bit of searching in between sessions and discovered that there are a number of Japan-related sites that are open to visitors, most of them designed by Japanese users. “Bakumatsu Kyoto,” for example, is an educational sim (meaning it does not allow violence or, ahem, mature content) that aims to recreate the imperial capital at the end of the Tokugawa period. It is sort of amazing to walk around the city, or fly above its buildings (did I mention avatars can fly?) and see the odd but compelling attempt to create a digital version of that historical place and moment. I also dropped in (actually I “teleported” but that’s a whole different story) to the city of Edo, but when I saw people sword-fighting I thought, no, maybe not, and returned to the conference. Another day perhaps. Quite a few educational institutions have sims in Second Life. The virtual campus of Princeton University, for example, is particularly impressive.
Other tools that I learned about for the first time through the conference included Voicethread and Cosketch, two websites that I could easily imagine using in a Japanese history class or, if I taught one, a language class. Voicethread allows you to create a slideshow into which viewers can embed written or spoken comments or add their own threads of information, allowing unusual and visually compelling forms of interactive information. Cosketch is like an online whiteboard that allows simultaneous discussion and visual collaboration which would be great for talking to someone in another country, planning an event, preparing for a conference, or learning about a set of images when people are not together in the same room.
The presentations ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, particularly the concluding session which compared proprietary course management software such as Blackboard to the zombies that increasingly infect popular culture such as movies and video games. The presenters actually arranged for a small army of virtual zombies to attack the conference, which was pretty silly. They argued for the effectiveness of open-content new media tools like Word Press (which powers this blog) and open syndication services as a way of creating “revolutionary” (their word, not mine) ways of learning.
I’m not sure what to make of all this, and when I returned to the classroom on Wednesday and Friday after experiencing these sessions I still had to figure out how to explain 18th-century Japanese intellectual developments, walk students through preparations for a presentation, and help my advisees to register for classes. Connecting the tools and idealistic visions of the presentations with the daily realities of the academy will take an investment of time and energy which will probably be worth it in the long run . . . But I also worry that because these technologies change so quickly these particular tools may be outdated as soon as I manage to figure out how to use them.