Real learning is a part of the work, not apart from it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Virtual Worlds: "Being There"

Recently I attended a Gronstedt Group’s Virtual Worlds workshop which was held over 2 days (3 hour sessions each day). I “beamed” into Avaya’s Web.alive virtual world where about 18 of us appeared. I must say, since the last time I used Virtual Worlds (VW) in 2009 (Second Life) this however seemed much easier; easy to create an Avatar and intuitive keyboard short-cuts to animate my vehicle.

So why do it?  Frankly for two reasons, the first is that I saw an opportunity to extend our current training initiatives to our remote workforce. Yep, although the hosts would tell you that VW can support 70, 20, and 10, I just don’t see folks donning their avatar while in the work flow to meet at a virtual water cooler to catch up on Q3 results or hockey scores. To me it’s all about making the “10” better (see @bbetts post The Ubiquity of Informal Learning) or if not better, making it more accessible for certain practice exercises that are critical for our business – interfacing with our customers. The second reason was it was led by Anders and Co. I have been exposed to the Gronstedt group before. I have attended a few of Anders' conference presentations and frankly find that he is extremely experienced, passionate and knowledgeable. If I was ever going to dip my toes in VW, it would be with these guys.

I found the exercises relevant and the hosts more than knowledgeable and helpful however I never completely got immersed as I honestly couldn't get beyond the creepy looking cartoon I and others appeared as. My avatar had a "face" yet it was hardly expressive, my body gestures were limited to waving, clapping and the very inhuman ability to jump 4-5x my own height. Dianne Rees writes very well about avatars in learning in her post On eLearning, Avatars, and the “Uncanny Valley". In it she shares that basically when non-human technology (avatars, robots, etc) try but fall just slightly short of being "human" we real people reject the technological simulations as its ever so slight variation makes it hard for us to connect with. According to Dianne's summary, you might be better off with less human looking avatars (Think R2D2).

Despite this drawback I’m more confident now that this environment can help recreate our sales environments (close to actual context). I can see our SMEs stepping into the roles of our customers and various new employees or ones seeking a refresher of content appearing in fishbowl type activities for short bursts. I was impressed by the ability to use real world technology (notepads, search engines..etc) in the VW and saw instantly the possibility of using the same for our workforce (financing applications, manipulative, charts, etc).

Because our extended training needs are really soft-skill based, I found something very interesting happen; throughout the experience the attendees displayed proximal courtesies. For example, if an avatar stepped in front of mine during a presentation they would say "excuse me" and move out of the way. In another situation an avatar ran up to speak to me and when they noticed that they were literally nose-to-nose with me they took several steps back before engaging me. And once someone appeared to run into me and although my avatar would be un-phased they kindly said “sorry.”  Sounds goofy, right? Maybe, but for me it was a critical piece. The ability to "see" the human-being behind the cartoon-ish exterior equates to the empathy and sympathy our employees must display to truly be successful in their jobs of connecting.
There may be something to this and its impact on long-term learning. A colleague of mine, Steve Covello @apescience, brought to my attention the Media Naturalness Theory. According to the Wikipedia article:

The theory builds on human evolution ideas and has been proposed as an alternative to media richness theory. Media naturalness theory argues that since our Stone Age hominid ancestors have communicated primarily face-to-face, evolutionary pressures have led to the development of a brain that is consequently designed for that form of communication. Other forms of communication are too recent and unlikely to have posed evolutionary pressures that could have shaped our brain in their direction. Using communication media that suppress key elements found in face-to-face communication, as many electronic communication media do, thus ends up posing cognitive obstacles to communication.
As this simple graph (below) shows the further you move away from the F2F medium either by reducing elements found in F2F or adding more communicative features beyond that of F2F the result is a reduction in effectiveness of the medium.  Fair as to say, a Virtual World can be created to be very rich in communicative elements and the research would reinforce that one should take a more minimalist approach (i.e. cut the bells and whistles). 
Figure 1. Face-to-face medium naturalness
One could argue then that social media may actually fall a little short as a tool for learning. Not to say it isn't valuable but they often do lack in the F2F element. However, given their ease and convenience, these tools definitely increases their utility compared to a virtual world or live classroom. As for VW, in light of the Uncanny Valley studies, Avatars will need to be able to be better at expression to be more effective or might that be a detriment? Hmmm, I guess one must now find compromise with Media Naturalness Theory and the Uncanny Valley for this environment to be most effective.

Beyond the avatars themselves it is important that one gets a sense of being there. In The Role of Presence in the Online Environment from the book Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to "Be There" by Rosemary M. Lehman and Simone C.O. Conceicao (again brought to my attention by Steve Covello), the authors discuss the importance and impact of social, emotional, psychological, and environmental factors in an online environment. Ideally, in any learning experience, we want the technology to fade away as the learner becomes immersed.  The author notes "when a course is designed with presence in mind, the experience comes alive and the learning process is driven by the dynamic interplay between thought, emotion, and behavior." Very true for online learning (VW or otherwise) but also for the still dominant classroom. Good instructors, good design make the content so engaging the tools, the environment, simply become invisible.
A few other notable observations from my time in a VW:
  • English spoken here – verbal communication is critically important. Yes there is text chat available in this environment but with so much to interact with, leaving your Avatar idol while you hammer out a sentence is just not “normal” (see Uncanny Valley)
  • Self-organization - It was interesting how people continued to gravitate towards the same groups between activities, etc. All due to the connections being made. As much as I appeared like a serial killer I still found people of similar minds (learning function, not murder)
  • Keep it Simple – there is much you can do in a virtual world. From you avatar’s ability to run and leap, to building huge whiteboards as large as highway billboards and Google search displays over 20’ high. Some technology worked, others didn't, some things looked quite real…but honestly it didn't matter. Focus on the content.

What I saw though as the greatest strength of VW was in our last exercise.  We were asked to collaborate on our VW elevator pitch or how would we "sell the idea" to executives. Definitely an activity that could be accomplished in the real world; usually with pen, paper and a peer. But only here could we have actually entered a virtual elevator, manuver its potentially crowded space and get a feel for what it might be like to really try and convince an executive in the journey between floors!

All-in-all an interesting experience. I feel it has potential but definitely the focus is on extending the “10” of the 70-20-10.  With regard to Presence and concerns over the Uncanny Valley and Media Naturalness - its effectiveness as a training tool all comes down to well thought out instructional/environmental design and careful considerations with communicative elements. 
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