One university’s pioneering OpenSim journey

The last four months have been tumultuous ones for our university. With the end of educational discounts for our island in Second Life, we faced a tough decision. Second Life’s steep learning curve and our local system of incentives and rewards for faculty had discouraged any use of virtual worlds in our curriculum.

As of last semester, only I and another colleague, whose position has been cut during the recession, had been working actively on virtual worlds with students. I had built an interactive simulation based on Edgar Allan Poe’s novella, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and with some help from my colleague, we beta-tested the simulation in an English class and used it in two others focused on New Media.

Our goals were to inspire students to re-read Poe’s work closely, after seeing, in three dimensions, how a writer’s obsessions and those of his era made for enduring works of fiction. We set our retelling of Usher in 1847, with actors in the roles of Roderick and Madeline, the doomed brother and sister of the story. Student actors, in period garb, played Poe’s narrator and were given tasks for a session of improvisational acting that followed. All of our teams had the roleplaying goal of saving the Ushers from what might be a family curse, a medical crisis, or even a nefarious body-snatcher in the form of the family doctor.

Students enjoyed it. Then we had to pull it all down.

Faced with a tier [Ed note: Second Life doubled region prices for educators from around $150 to around $300 a month] we could no longer fund from our discretionary budget, we decided not to renew our contract with Linden Lab. In January of this year, Usher, a product of 200 hours of my time and perhaps 100 of my students, went back into my inventory. As the last of 6,000 prims vanished, I was on my own, but this was not unfamiliar.

As an educator who learned the rudiments of HTML in 1994, as I made one of our first academic Web pages on campus, I recognized the sensation of looking across a blank horizon devoid of settlements.

That excitement made any remaining resentment about Linden Lab’s decision fade, quickly. There’s something about gaining autonomy that can do that.

A rapid grid-hunt ensued, for a less expensive home where we could have off-grid backups of our materials. This led to me Jokay Wollongong and Jokaydia Grid.

Joe Essid (Iggy) builds fresh on OpenSim-based Jokaydia Grid.

Moving to OpenSim involves more than creating an avatar. Arriving at the new grid was easy, and I even had estate managers with the names Roderick and Madeline Usher.

Rezzing my alpha prim was familiar enough. Uploading textures was free. But what next? In Second Life, a huge marketplace of reasonably priced, high-quality items exists for educators who need a piano, an easy chair, a fireplace, or a gargoyle. I am not a scripter and nearly every item I needed for Usher, from furnishings, scripted items, landscaping, and avatar costumes needed to be made by me or the other pioneers at Jokaydia Grid. Because I would be using megaprims on the new grid, most of the items I had made and textured in Second Life were useless to me, even though I could legally export and import them with the Imprudence client.

It was 1847, indeed. I was back on the frontier. But as American frontier humorist Johnson Jones Hooper once had his fictional con-artist Simon Suggs remark, “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” My goals were to be shifty in its positive sense; looking for opportunities, finding treasures, making do or doing without in the same way that pioneers must in a physical landscape.

Those new to OpenSimulator as a teaching and learning environment need to consider whether a closed grid, such as Second Life or InWorldz, offers the optimal choice for working with students and colleagues. Alternately, the potential gridnaut must consider whether the emerging constellation of grids linked by hypergrid teleports, offers a better option.

Both sorts of grids have their place, I’d argue, but in my case an open grid linked by hypergrid technology proved the key advantage. Jokay Wollongong’s support for educators and students has been exemplary, and I like to reward those who support us. I also like to make my home in a place that gives me the freedom to build as I see fit, and that treats me as much as colleague as it does as customer. I’m no master builder, but for a pioneer I do well enough.

I wanted, in short, to be part of a community of educators who could come to visit me and easily help with the development of what I was already calling Usher 2.0. This type of space exemplifies Kenneth Bruffee’s ideas about social constructivist learning in the writing classroom, but now I was thinking not merely about writing but about making stories in three dimensions. We hypergrid denizens were building a new world togehter and from it, as in social constructivist learning, new knowledge would inevitably arise.

I wanted every barrier to hypergrid visits removed, and I wanted to give any of my creations, worthy enough to consider, to others to take home with them. I realize that runs counter to the interests of many merchants in closed grids, and I can see why they remain reluctant to provide content to linked OpenSim grids.

But that is decidedly not my concern: we educators are not here to make money. We are here to form communities and share ideas and advance human knowledge and deepen student engagement. As with the Internet itself in Barlow’s famous Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace in 1996, a virtual world “consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications.” The wave advances, changing us and our students, while a set of practices pedagogy, starting with a pedagogy that considers the virtual space itself, emerges.

My pedagogical considerations focused on a few issues. First, OpenSim does not yet support the number of avatars per sim that we take for granted in Second Life. At least to me, that would not matter because I needed no more than seven or eight avatars present for each session in The House of Usher.

Most grids lack physics such as we find in Second Life. This could be a show-stopper for a different sort of simulation of, say, Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom.” But for Usher and most of the related work I contemplated, good story and effective roleplay trump special effects.

Finally, the limited scope of a one-region virtual experience in no way hampered my work. Though Jokaydia Grid consists of at least 80 regions, my students will need only premade avatars, a short orientation, and one sim.

So I only needed a place for a single assignment, not a launching pad for exploring an online community. In other settings and other assignments students might need to see a new world in all of its glory and large community. Not so for this assignment. They need an old house, some good actors, and a very disturbing piece of fiction written by a master of psychological horror.

We only had to build it.

Pioneers face these sorts of struggles in a physical environment.

Pioneers often love that freedom. Unfortunately, as teachers, we have to consider students’ evaluations, mandatory assessments of their work and ours, hardware and software standards, and more. My advice for potential OpenSim educators is the same as what I give to those new to Second Life. Spend half a year or more traveling, studying, attending events, and more before designing assignments and bringing in a class.

I’m fond of the edupunk maxim of “DIY”: Do it yourself. The lack of most amenities in OpenSim would not stop me, and a virtual world is surely more than hair, clothes, and pose balls.

Textures are, however, important. In addition to pulling out my camera, I’ve found that learning two key skills with Photoshop saved me: using layers and creating alpha-layers to create TGA files. Then I could have transparency-effects and lower prim counts.

I needed to create or mash textures up from work online that is licensed for derivative use under Creative Commons licensing. The latter type of image can be found easily through options for Google image-search or at Flickr. To get the effects I wanted, I copiously used Photoshop’s layer tools to rearrange small elements, so I would have a few variations large areas such as walls or floors to avoid repetition. Even with the lower costs for a region in OpenSim, I decided never to be lavish with my prims or scripts when building.

As I built there, I found almost no learning curve beyond one bug. That one crops up when editing linked sets of prims. Otherwise, OpenSim’s in-world building tools feature all of the utility and frustrations that can be found building in Second Life. So that part of immigrating to a new grid posed no problems.

As I began creating scripts not provided in the general set of free scripts that Jokay gives all new residents, I used two tools that in Second Life proved to be life-savers. Both have limited functionality for advanced work, but they are wonderful for what I need.

Scratch, a very simple script builder that appeals to visual learners, enables some fairly complex scripts, but it is an unfinished application. The developer at MIT has moved on to other projects. Still, with Scratch, the Script Me site, and free creative-commons scripts online, I accomplished some key goals for the House of Usher:

  • Having secret doors that open with a password typed in chat
  • Making objects that rezz something when touched
  • Creating a decent fireplace, candles, and other items using particles

I understand that some LSL scripts do not work properly on all OpenSim grids, but I’ve yet to encounter this problem. In any case, I want scripting minimal, in order to reduce lag. The core of the Usher experience, as it was in Second Life, will be good roleplay and clever decisions by students who have used Poe’s texts to solve a mystery.
Sound was another issue, since what properly spooky house would lack creaky doors and rattling chains? I was lucky to find freesound.org, where short mp3 clips, up to 10 seconds long, could be downloaded, edited if needed, then uploaded to my new grid.

In all, what took me 200 hours to build in Second Life should take about 50 in Jokaydia Grid. I suppose that another 50 will add the remaining details to the House and the Island, where I and a student builder will add elements from other works by Poe to create a backstory for the Usher family and subplots to enrich the study of Poe’s world, circa 1847. Much of my reduced time spent building on the new grid comes from my the experience gained in Second Life, but other advantages helped speed up the rebuilding. These include using megaprims and having a region to manage instead of a parcel.

Overall, the four months in OpenSim have gone far more smoothly than anticipated. The real test of the simulation will come this fall, when 24 students from a 200-level literature class use the Jokaydia Grid simulation in groups of three and four.

I am confident that the sort of response I got from a prior student will apply here:

(This article is adapted from a talk Joe Essid gave at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices Education Conference in March of 2011.)

iggyono@gmail.com'

Joe Essid

Joe Essid directs the Writing Center at the University of Richmond, where he teaches courses in the departments of English as well as Rhetoric & Communication Studies. He holds a PhD in American Literature, with a specialization in the History of Technology, from Indiana University. As Ignatius, Joe can be found wandering Second Life or, as Iggy Strangeland, in Open Sim grids. He writes for Prim Perfect about grids beyond SL. He has published several articles about pedagogically effective ways to teach with technology in writing-intensive classrooms. He also publishes short work about gardening, history of technology, and sustainability. Ever a geek, Joe designs and plays old paper-and-dice roleplaying games. His at-times snarky blog, "In a Strange Land," combines these interests from Joe's perspective as neo-luddite who rides a bike, refuses to use a cell phone, works on a farm, yet thinks avatars provide an ecologically sustainable way of communicating and building immersive simulations.