Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Education in Virtual Worlds, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Of Two Minds: Virtual Worlds for Education and Enterprise

I went to two schools when I was a kid, and they swung from one extreme to the other. In the first school, my teacher would start the day by pulling out a guitar and singing to us. One of the highlights of the day was “feeling time” when we’d all be asked to place our heads down on our desks and to consider what we were feeling – were we happy or sad, frustrated or bored, and at the end of this communal silence, we were supposed to share. During ‘feeling time’ I’d slip a book into my lap and read that instead, and whether that forever scarred me from being out of touch with my feelings I have no idea.

But then I transferred. And at my next school we started each day with a sort of military drill to the sounds of the Popcorn Song – we all did jumping jacks and jogging-on-the-spot beside our desk, and the only thing missing from it being the type of thing they did at Toyota plants was a group chant or song. I seem to remember classes having a hyper-competitive feeling to them – if you answered a question in class, the teacher made a big point out of how they were making note of it in this big ledger, and it was implied that those scores somehow counted for something. I seem to remember a lot of ad hoc competitive things like flash card exercises during math class where the boys faced off against the girls, and the girls usually won.

The first school was structured like some sort of choose your own adventure book – only there was no clear end, or all the endings were happy so long as you shared your toys, didn’t sulk, and re-enacted Star Wars in front of your peers (we had all memorized every line of the movie, so re-enacting Star Wars was a big part of English class). In the second school, we were taught to compete, to learn the value of discipline, and to think on our feet.

So I suppose I’ll always be of two minds about how you create value: hierarchical, competitive, results-oriented; or free-flowing, creative and expressive.

And virtual worlds, it turns out, are the perfect space in which to explore both – although it’s often when the two synthesize that you realize it’s not one or the other, there’s room for both in the world and they can work hand in glove.

Students and Avatars
Two seemingly unrelated articles in the New York Times yesterday remind me of this.

Now, I’m from Canada, and I’m not sure what the schools are like these days. As far as I know they teach pot smoking or give classes on gay marriage. And if I don’t know how they teach in Canada, I can hardly say what they teach in the U.S., other than knowing that the debate this week is whether to put my nephew in the nursery school that teaches Spanish and the value of sharing, and that the trend is for three days a week instead of two.

(He’s 2 1/2, and I don’t have that good a memory, but somehow I have this idea that when I was a kid, you didn’t really start class until you were 4 or 5. Thankfully I’ll be retired before I have to manage this cohort of geniuses).

The Times reports on avatars in the classroom:

While not quite the eye-popping technology of the movie “Avatar,” schools are increasingly offering lessons in the virtual world as an alternative to textbooks and PowerPoint presentations. Teachers and students say the use of avatars and virtual worlds in classes from health to economics pulls in even reluctant learners, and encourages problem-solving and higher-order thinking as classroom knowledge is applied to real-life situations.

In Suffern, N.Y., 2,500 middle and high school students have logged into a virtual world known as Teen Second Life for lessons in subjects including math and foreign languages. Eighth-grade health students fashion avatars to challenge media and social perceptions of beauty. A social studies class visited a recreated Ellis Island to go beyond historical facts and empathize with immigrants and immigration officers through role playing.

Peggy Sheehy, a media specialist for the Ramapo Central School District, of which Suffern is a part, said such virtual worlds allowed students to learn academically as well as socially.

“They’re able to explore other options, other genders, other races, other personality types,” she said. “A very outspoken, confident person may go into Second Life and be just that, or he could take a side seat, or a student who is very shy may not feel intimidated and becomes a much more vocal part of the community.”

And Sheehy’s quote is intriguing: the exploration of other personality types. The ability to inhabit another persona.

While the article kicks off by talking about how students are using avatars to brainstorm solutions to the recent oil spill in the Gulf, and how the use of game-type mechanisms can help students understand basic theories of economics, I was also struck by one student who chose a male avatar when signing up for a business-type simulation:

The Spill game throws tasks and challenges at students to give them a taste of real-life work experience. Students were graded on how well they measured up. There were meetings with the mayor, negotiations with vendors, even an on-screen glossary to look up unfamiliar business terms — like outsourcing and accounts receivable — and a notepad for jotting down assignments.

Then the fun started. Students designed their own avatars from a menu of options. One heavyset boy added a paunch to his avatar. Jalisa Wilson, 18, chose a male avatar because she felt a man would have a competitive advantage in business. She named him Bob.

The Warrior Mind
An unrelated editorial in the same paper also spoke of “two minds”. David Brooks wondered how the U.S. Military could shift so quickly to dealing with counter-insurgency, and focused on “leading with two minds”:

They say that intellectual history travels slowly, and by hearse. The old generation has to die off before a new set of convictions can rise and replace entrenched ways of thinking. People also say that a large organization is like an aircraft carrier. You can move the rudder, but it still takes a long time to turn it around.

Yet we have a counterexample right in front of us. Five years ago, the United States Army was one sort of organization, with a certain mentality. Today, it is a different organization, with a different mentality. It has been transformed in the virtual flash of an eye, and the story of that transformation is fascinating for anybody interested in the flow of ideas….

There are still gaps, but now when you talk to soldiers, you see that the counterinsurgency doctrine has been bred into their bones. Now some say that the approach codified at Fort Leavenworth has become so dominant that it is actually stifling innovation. This is a complete intellectual sea change.

The process was led by these dual-consciousness people — those who could be practitioners one month and then academic observers of themselves the next. They were neither blinkered by Army mind-set, like some of the back-slapping old guard, nor so removed from it that their ideas were never tested by reality, like pure academic theoreticians.

It’s a wonder that more institutions aren’t set up to encourage this sort of alternating life. Business schools do it, but most institutions are hindered by guild customs, by tenure rules and by the tyranny of people who can only think in one way.

The ability to switch from a participant in codified structures to one able to break those same structures down and rebuild them from scratch is both a survival skill for the military and an exploratory skill for today’s student.

Beyond the Codified in Virtual Worlds
There’s intriguing work in education, and a lot of the teachers seem to get that virtual worlds can go beyond pattern recognition, game mechanics, and ‘learning by rote’ and open the doors to exploration of identity, perspective, and ideas.

And so it’s often with a sense of despair that I realize that much of the language around enterprise use of virtual worlds focuses on porting the same old value propositions and “deliverables” as previous media.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: collaboration, meetings, and training are words that people understand. And groups like ThinkBalm do a good job packaging everything up in nice, neat value propositions.

Sure, we can ‘distill’ solutions. But we can also propose that the values will be unknown. That what we’ll learn or how we’ll see the world or how our employees will feel can’t quite be measured yet – this isn’t about virtual worlds at all, it’s about finding some way to struggle with and challenge our assumptions about how we did everything that came before.

Now, don’t get me wrong – there are serious people with serious spreadsheets and a serious need to evaluate technology and tick off lists and find the right “fit”.

It’s just that I’m personally less interested in how new technologies can be made to fit with old business models, but rather with how new technologies are the source of inspiration for entirely NEW ways of looking at the world, and constructing value chains that can upend industries.

Virtual worlds can move us beyond training/collaboration/trade shows and saving costs on meeting, and are challenging our assumptions about business models in the first place. Yet in the enterprise space we primarily hear about inExpo or we sit around in little conference rooms on Protosphere (although, all credit to Proton Media, they are pushing the boundaries a little, especially related to data visualization).

Talking about how virtual worlds can replace the trade show, or how they avatars can sit around a conference table and review their quarterly sales results is a lot like the U.S. military continuing to follow the methodology of the old wars.

Virtual worlds need the people like Gen. David Petraeus….challenging the very conventions upon which business is built, recognizing that social media, augmented reality, and new forms of media don’t indicate that we should come into virtual worlds and distill, but come into virtual worlds prepared to over-turn.

It’s funny – because while I give tours to enterprise clients of the board rooms, the conference tables, the Metanomics stage – the real innovation, the real reasons they come, is usually because of somewhere else – Immersiva, say, or sitting in Eshi’s flower and realizing that there is something ELSE happening here….that we’re in a place where we’re both distillers and imagineers, students and teachers all.


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