By its nature, Skoolaborate is an international venture, but some Australian educators are key driving forces behind the project. Good luck to all the finalists – all illustrate some of the significant good coming out of virtual worlds.
Christian Salles, Olivier Lamirault, Serge Soudoplatoff, Jean Michel Billaut and Franck Bellido are five impressive individuals. All from France, they have played various roles in France’s technology sector (their full bios follow at the end of this post) and they intrinisically understand virtual worlds. One (Franck Bellido) developed his company’s Second Life island presence.
Over the past week these five have been on a mission to see how Australia utilises virtual worlds and it’s been quite a tour. They’ve spoken with key people at VastPark, NICTA, AFTRS, SLCN, ExitReality, Skoolaborate,CLI and Smart Services CRC to name a few.
In the few hours I spent with the team from France, I was struck by their passion for the subject and their obvious respect for the work being done in Australia with virtual worlds. It was also a stark reminder of Australia’s lack of broadband infrastructure when seeing their reaction to our broadband speeds, which makes achievements to date locally even more impressive in a lot of ways.
Sometimes it takes a collaborative occasion like this to really bring home the fact that Australia well and truly has a virtual worlds industry – one that attracts interest worldwide.
A big thanks to Mandy Salomon at Smart Services CRC for the invite to take part.
Christian Salles career in applied research spans 35 years working in France, Norway, Taiwan and Frankfurt with the banking conglomerate BNP Paribas. Mr Salles pioneered intranet technologies in 1996, overseeing 200 installations including that of Reuters. More recently, Christian created his own consulting firm, Back End Office and is a professor at Paris’ Dauphine University.
Jean Michel Billaut consults on technology and innovation at the highest level of government and industry. His career with the Euro bank BNP Paribus has included Senior Economist and ‘VP in charge of Communication’. He is currently their advisor on the Internet. Jean Michel has chaired the ‘Centre d’information et d’etudes sur le credit’, a research organisation on credit, savings and financial problems and since its foundation in 1993, chairs ‘Club de l’Arche’, a multi-disciplinary thinktank to exchange information and thoughts on the introduction of new information technologies and the communication in society. In 1983, Mr Billaut launched Atelier, the first financial telematics service in France, and is chief editor of ‘Journal de l’Atelier, a review on technologies and marketing for professional organisations. Jean Michel was amongst the first to implement BBS systems and launched one of the first websites in France, ‘Web de l’Atelier’ (1994). In 1998, he created Canal Atelier, France’s first video streaming channel. As advisor to the provincial city of Pau, Jean Michel oversaw the introduction of innovative internet services underpinned by an optical/wifi network of 100 megabits for 30USD /month. Between 1998 and 2002, Jean Michel chaired the ‘Digital Towns Association’ and is currently lobbying for a ‘new deal’ in Europe: to build a fibre optic infrastructure end-to-end all over Europe. Jean Michel has written widely on the net economy and holds degrees in economic science (PHD) and informatics. He was awarded the distinction ‘Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur’, by President Chirac for the promotion of the Internet in France.
Serge Soudoplatoff is the president and co-founder of Almatropie, an association devoted to the promotion of innovative Internet usage. As such, he continues a distinguished career on the leading edge of high technology. He has recently founded Commonbox, a company devoted to simplify money pooling, and make it more cooperative. He is a co-founder of the multi-national provider of pricing, rating & charging solutions, Highdeal. Prior to that, he was Director of Innovation for France Telecom, driving the telco giant’s work group defining Internet policy and action plans. As such, he launched projects on mobility and the Internet, corporate IP telephony, and the services and new economic models needed in the Internet age. Before joining France Telecom, Serge managed the innovation research centre in Paris for Cap Gemini. He also did research on speech and pattern recognition at IBM research labs in Yorktown Heights, NY, and spent several years as a university professor. He began his career as a geographical engineer for the French national geographical institute, doing image recognition and satellite positioning. Mr. Soudoplatoff is a former secretary-general of the French professional group, CP2i, comprising research organizations with the joint aim of promoting high tech innovation. Serge teaches Internet and strategy at Hetic, the school of the Internet, and at ESCP-EAP. He has an engineering degree (PHD) from France’s equivalent to MIT, Ecole Polytechnique, and is the author of “Avec Internet, où allons-nous ?” Le Pommier, 2004. (‘Where are we going with the Internet’) The book is downloadable. In addition to speaking fluent English and French, Serge is conversant in Russian.
Oliver has been working on eLearning solutions since 1992. As director of Ingenium, he is devoted to the development of Ingenium and building the Ingenium team. The objective is to maintain Ingenium as a leader in the field of e‐learning. Olivier designs and realizes the pedagogical engineering of Ingenium partners. He manages projects and monitors the production to ensure the quality and the relevance of teaching resources produced. Technology and pedagogy play an important role in its activity. The remaining time is devoted to developing relations with external partners.
Franck is the Flash and 3D developer of Ingenium. He is responsible for achieving the development of complex flash animations which required coding in the language action‐script. Franck also develops elements into 3D environments for Ingenium’s video production and illustrations. Franck develops VirtuaLearn, the Company’s learning and collaborative island in Second Life.
I spent this morning at a session organised for a team of French innovators called ‘Lead Educators : Virtual Worlds and the Immersive Web’ . I’ll talk more about that in another post but I wanted to devote this one to a topic we’ve covered previously: Skoolaborate.
Since that time, there’s been some incredible progress, with more than forty schools now involved. I had the opportunity to see Skoolaborate up close at Sydney’s MLC School today. Director of Online Learning at MLC and Skoolaborate‘s founder, Westley Field, spent an hour or so presenting the outcomes to date from the project, which was established in 2007. Essentially, the outcomes demonstrate the power of a well designed 2D content delivery system combined with the use of Skoolaborate‘s islands in Second Life. Here’s a small example of such an outcome:
The main messages I took out of the session aren’t news to educators working regularly with virtual worlds, but they bear repeating for the rest of us:
1. Virtual worlds provide a powerful complementary role within the broader learning context
2. Some students immerse themselves in the virtual world aspects, others don’t like it, and most fall somewhere in the middle
3. Having an evangelist within a school for learning innovations like Skoolaborate is crucial, but having a supportive Principal is even more important
It’s not an entirely rosy picture for Skoolaborate though. Funding has improved although it remains an ongoing battle, and the time commitment from educators involved is significant. Most importantly, I detected a level of frustration around some inequalities existing in accessing Skoolaborate. One of the most stark illustrations of inequality with it is due purely to State Government ineptitude.
Let’s use the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) as an example. Essentially, no NSW (or Australian) public schools are involved with Skoolaborate. The reason: schools falling under the control of the NSW DET cannot access Second Life. Why? The usual response on blocking content is around protecting children from unwanted information. The thing is, in the case of Skoolaborate, educators have already identified the issue and solved it. Participating schools are set up in Second Life so that only authenticated students and teachers can access in-world activities. In NSW, the private schools involved have mandatory ‘working with children’ checks and worldwide each participating school must complete their own relevant police checks for each adult participant. In fact, successful registration to access any content requires completion of the police check. This would have to make Skoolaborate one of the most child-secure online learning environments in existence.
What makes this issue particularly frustrating is that key bodies within the NSW DET actually understand that initiatives like Skoolaborate are delivering for students. The NSW DET’s own Centre for Learning Innovation (CLI) has staff well and truly across virtual worlds, and there’s recognition from its General Manager down that immersive worlds will be key to further online learning initiatives. Given that any school should be attempting to prepare its students for the realities of the outside world, and that units like the CLI already see the potential of virtual worlds for education, why would the DET have a policy of preventing access? It’s either a politically motivated call or a case of plain ignorance at the higher levels of the DET.
Either way, some serious questions need to be asked on how long the situation will occur. This may be a case of failing to protect children by not equipping them with appropriate knowledge. How will kids know how to navigate emerging technologies if they have no exposure in their schooling?
Update: Westley Field has contacted me to correct the assertion that no Australian public schools are involved with Skoolaborate – there are in fact public schools involved, just none from NSW. He also added: “The National Government , through its values in action program is leading the way by supporting us. This support partially based on the fact that we have all three sectors involved. We are very proud of that fact.”
Stan Trevena, director of technology for Modesto City Schools, is the man responsible for the PacRimX project, developed in 2007. The idea was that kids from Modesto and their counterparts from Kyoto Gakuen in Japan would be able to interact with each other in a virtual environment, prior to an international student exchange in which 20 Modesto students traveled to Japan, and vice versa with 50 Japanese students.
Due to time-zone issues, video-conferencing was ruled out as a solution early on. Instead, Trevena bought an private Island on the Teen Second Life Grid. He fitted it with some basics, including a welcome centre, but noted that “a lot of the innovative use of the island will come from the kids.” The number of islands has now expanded to four. Trevena describes the facility as “a place for our students to communicate and collaborate with each other in building a place where they can share their interests, cultures and languages.”
Students from Kyoto arrived in Modesto on June 24, 2008.
Westley Field, Director of Online Learning at MLC School Sydney, founded the Skoolaborate Project in 2007. Skoolaborate works with junior high schools around the globe to foster students collaboration, involving the use of digital technologies: wikis, blogs, virtual environments and other online learning tools. The Skoolaborate learning space, also on the Teen Second Life Grid, is a private, secure area with an invitation required to access it. “Skoolaborate now has 14 schools from Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and the USA.”
“In the Global Challenge, teams of US high school students collaborate with international counterparts from October to May to address global climate change and compete for prizes and scholarship awards.”
Approximately 2,000 students have already participated in their program.
Kyoto Gakuen has been working with both Skoolaborate and PacRimX independently since the genesis of each program in 2007. This is how a relationship developed between the directors of the programs, which ultimately led to the merger between the two. The Global Challenge program was brought in separately, to complement the work of the others.
The resulting merged program, featuring input and participation by 17 schools from across the globe, is now the world’s largest virtual environment project, designed for kids of junior high school age.
“Schools collaborate using a variety of online tools and environments to share experiences, thoughts and ideas from around global understanding, social and environmental education.”
Having a private project on the Teen Second Life Grid could have been a great way to ensure that students encountered a slow-moving, sterile environment, with great homogeneity of culture, opinion and thought. However, this partnership should bring together a rich and diverse mix of folks, students and educators, which should create a varied, stimulating environment in which to learn.
Linden Lab is in flux, and the cause is not at all clear: speculation is rife and rumors abound, and the Lab has all but cut off communications with it’s residents. The Millennial Generation does not seem to be the target audience for the Second Life “platform” – this indicates that there is unlikely to be an “Education Grid” any time soon, or perhaps at all. It looks like the program developed by the combined force of PacRimX, Skoolaborate and Global Challenge will be the one of the largest contenders for an alternative.
The question is: will the Teen Second Life Grid remain active for long enough for any of their goals to come to fruition?