Crash of the House of Usher doesn’t keep students down

[Editor: Joe Essid teaches a class about Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” for the department of English & Rhetoric & Communication Studies at the University of Richmond, using virtual space on the JokaydiaGrid.]

With some glitches along the way, six groups of students completed their final exams, or at least the immersive experience upon which they’ll base a take-home essay exam.

It all began very poorly, and that’s a warning to those working in OpenSim for classroom work critical to students’ grades. The first day, the grid would not load, but I was in luck: the one student in the lab happily delayed his journey to the House of Usher and joined a group later in the week. Jokay Wollongong [Jo Kay], our grid manager, was thenceforth online for every exam: thank God. We had a serious crash later in the week, but Jokay restarted the region and we all relogged. In fact, we roleplayed the disorientation within the scope of Poe’s story, and odd things do happen to Poe’s characters.

Virtual House of Usher on JokaydiaGrid. (Image courtesy Joe Essid.)

The culprit for our crash may be the old server software that runs Jokaydia Grid. Jokay cannot fix that, but the owners of the servers at ReactionGrid can. The good news is that ReactionGrid plans an upgrade next week. I’ll hold them to this — I want to restore hypergrid availability to our build.

A word about the talented folks at ReactionGrid: the company has switched emphasis in recent months to Jibe virtual world technology. Jibe is promising for ease of use and the ability to run inside any Web browser. On the other hand, it’s not for those who wish to build collaboratively in-world and in real time with students. That’s a killer app for my use of virtual worlds. Jibe’s protocols for 3D object design, like those of SL’s recently introduced Mesh technology, are beyond my and my students’ skills; Richmond lacks enough advanced arts students who might wield Maya or Blender. And there is no incentive for faculty here to learn.

On the other other hand, prim-work in OpenSim or Second Life are within my skills set and those of the student-builders I train, often in teams working together, so that’s where I’ll stay.

As for getting hypergridding back? It offers special affordances for educators. That, after all, is how edutech works: we share and link to each other. Even Blackboard, the course-management behemoth, is now moving to a more open model with the arrival of a “share” button.

The closed-grid model, on any platform, is that of the video-game world. It protects IP and functions for gamers and socializers, but it’s not best for many of my colleagues in education. I give my own content away with Creative-Commons licensing or in the Public Domain. We are even considering whether we have tech support, locally, to host an OpenSim grid on our campus, as schools such as the University of Bristol are doing as they pull their work out of Second Life.

As we move forward to new engagements in an OpenSim grid or Second Life, I still need more data. From my students’ essays, I plan to gather data for an article about effective educational roleplay and types of student roles. But I’ve already learned one lesson: without Jokay Wollongong’s hands-on help, I’d never have trusted Reaction Grid’s old version of OpenSim for something as crucial as a final exam.

Next up, I’ll finish the Usher series from Jokaydia Grid with reflections by the students, from their exam essays. And a surprise twist right out of Poe: Usher is coming back to Second Life!'

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.

4 Responses

  1. Ener Hax says:

    the older version of OpenSim is not as stable but is not the weak link in your deployment.  hardware is the big deal and a dedicated server always provides the most stability (and gobs of RAM, bandwidth, and CPU). Chris Hart is outstanding from Reaction Grid and prices for land like Jokaydia can’t be beat (you are getting Jokay’s personal expertise, which is invaluable for those not having the tech know-how)

    computers and apps like OpenSim will always be fickle but you can stack the odds in your favour and it pretty much boils down to money and your own desire for reliablility

    neat lesson for your students – it’s easy to think everything should run perfectly, but even Facebook with it’s 1000’s of servers and staff of 100s runs into bumps too =)

  2. Joe Essid says:

    Ener, those of us without your level of technical skill are rather stuck…I don’t intend to learn to manage a server cluster, since that is so far outside my job expectations as to be laughable. I gladly handed over our Apache server to our Data Center a few years ago. There are talks about a local OpenSim server on campus, in the same data center, but that is all smoke and mirrors at present.

    This, I’m going to hold Reaction Grid to their promises to upgrade. Like many of us, I just adore Jokay. She’s our guardian angel and I want badly to stay anywhere she goes. But her hands are tied by the grid-management as well. It’s not her hardware.

    In the end, I have students to teach and am evaluated annually. I lack the cushion of tenure for risk-taking. I will, as my Plan B, be shopping for a more modern and stable OpenSim Grid “just in case.”

    Besides, I lucked out with a colleague who has given us a huge parcel in SL. I’ll be moving a version of Usher back there, for at least a year, tier-free. I hope to have it as a showplace for immersive literary RP, and other classes can visit. It will be at least two more years until I teach a course with “Usher” again.

  3. Ener Hax says:

    lol, i am hardly a technophile  =D but thank you for the vote of confidence. i am persistent though but my skill level for the server is limited to being able to RDP into the server, stop the OpenSim consoles, download Windows Updates, restart the server, and then restart all the consoles. i’m not fast at it and only do it once every two months (takes about 20 minutes)

    as to actually doing anything with MySQL or the OpenSim install? pffft! i can rename the regions in the region ini files but i don’t even know how to manually create user accounts

    my success lies in a very stable initial installation of OpenSim by James Stallings II who is an OSGrid admin and pretty much a server guru. in the first two weeks of his server setup, i did need help to learn what a console was but since then (about 16 months) i have never placed a work ticket with him

    it’s not because i’m tech savvy, it’s because it is so solidly set up. lots of peace of mind too – automatic daily MySQL backups and automated daily OAR backups. because he trusts me with admin access to our server, i am able to grab copies of those as well as see how the server is performing

    i like the freedom he allows me and his trust that i won’t blow up the server and go crying to him

    but . . . all of that comes with a cost. we have a dedicated server with a 4 core processor, 8 gigs of RAM, and a 6,000 gb pipe and that makes for a very stable server capable of easily running OpenSim

    a better and less costly solution than what i have would be to have a developer dial into a dedicated school server and set OpenSim up (an ideal situation probably not possible under current budgets). that can run between $350 to 600 which seems like a pretty good bargain for the loang haul

    so since you are heading back to SL, you don’t have any students under 16?

  4. Ener Hax says:

    it does not take much tech expertise to run the server. setting up OpenSim does but only has to happen once. our grid has been running on a 16 month old install and only gets standard Windows Updates

    it’s not OpenSim in your case, it’s the virtual server and resources allotted