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Techniques in Virtual Lecturing

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to lead a lecture/discussion in Second Life for CyberOne-Extension about relationships, networks, and how to build relationships through one-to-ones. (We are asking students to interview a SL personality to lay the groundwork for their projects, and I thought that the grassroot organizer’s approach was probably the best one to take since the projects have a grassroots feel to them). I had hoped to vidcast the session with audio commentary from myself and my wife Rachel (who is an organizer, and whose ideas about the topic shaped my talk), but the perfect being the enemy of the good and all that, I’m now settling for text.

The night before I had attended a training by Milosun Czervik on behalf of the SL Library Group on presentation tools available in SL. Milosun had introduced the topic to the SLED listserv with a heavy dose of disclaimer yet still received admonitions from active-learning fundamentalists. I tend to anti-lecture bias myself, but teacher-centered presentations are crucial even to the most student-led educational experiences. After all, students still need to know how to conduct their activities.

I picked up some really useful tools at the Milosun’s presentation, most notably a chatfeeder (works like a teleprompter — you pre-write the talk and press a button to “speak” each line from the text) and AngryBeth’s whiteboard. These two tools allowed me to prepare my presentation in advance, crucial to ensuring that the discussion stay focused and on-schedule. What’s more, the chatfeeder helped me overcome what I find to be the biggest problem in text-based presentation: typing speed and the time gap between a speaker and a respondent. With a press of a button, I can issue a complex and thoughtful idea that would otherwise take as long as a minute to formulate and type. This ability gives the presenter an “edge” in pushing conversation forward in what can otherwise be a chaotic free-for-all. Partly this is because people can read faster than they can type, so audience members can easily take control of a discussion just by sheer weight of the amount of text 30 people can generate simultaneously. (As I’ll eventually get around to writing up, text-based chat is excellent for egalitarian, non-linear discussion, but by the same token difficult to anchor).

In preparing the presentation beforehand, I also made sure to incorporate audience interaction, which seems paradoxical, but was quite effective on Thursday. So, every third line or so I asked a question that usually succeeded in setting off audience discussion that seemed quite engaged. Probably more importantly, I used the prepared text as the backbone of the talk, but then interspersed them with live chat that responded directly to audiene input. Here is an example:

GeneKoo Li: question: How might new technologies or media change commercial exchanges into relationships?
USA Brody: more resources
GeneKoo Li: (I think we are already covering that, but any further thoughts?)
Cordelia Moy: cooperation?
Mith Feingold: Businesses use customer databases and preferences to shape their offerings and make targeted ads
Dancer Morris: new technologies allow more interaction between a business and a customer
GeneKoo Li: OK, is there a difference b/t what Mith and what Dancer describe?

In this segment of the talk, the first line I spoke was through the chatfeeder, and the other two were “live.” What then followed was several lines of animated discussion among the class which continued for a while even after I moved on to the next item in the prepared speech — which is fine pedagogically, since it’s important for the audience to “own” the learning even as the lecturer tries to maintain a strict agenda, but presented a technical challenge that I’ll turn to now.

Despite what I felt was a successful discussion, we also ran up against the boundaries of the chat discussion. As several students have now complained, SecondLife (and There.com) lack a threaded chat capacity. The result was a huge blob of undifferentiated text, and one student even requested that the instructors preface their lines with some kind of special character so our words could easily be segregated from the audience’s. (Not a bad idea, either, for indicating whether a line of text is live or canned). Hopefully I’ll take up the topic of chat’s architectural biases shortly.

What has impressed me most about this event how the students took ownership of it afterwards. One student took the trouble to create a color-coded transcript (PDF courtesy of another student), and another posted a video capture of the event. Ergo, my desire to overlay a conversation on top of the video in “director’s commentary” style afterwards, which I still hope to do at some point.

Finally, I am writing up some best practices for the State of Play Academy on how to deliver a lecture in a virtual world. Because There has speech capabilities, the chatfeeder is unnecessary, but the need to prepare is universal. Also, the likelihood — in fact, the desirability — of audience cross-chat is consistent across platforms. For presenters used to linear, one-way lectures or facilitator-controlled discussions, text-based chatting is probably the most alien experience as it demands a different way of thinking about audience engagement as well as the capacity to keep track of multiple discussion threads simultaneously while still driving the agenda forward.

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