On 8/22/2007 I was driving to work at the Phoenix Elementary School District #1 office and listening to NPR. A marketing company called Crayon was apparently using a virtual reality environment to hold meetings instead of flying their employees to one location or doing conference calls. The only avatars I knew about were on Yahoo instant messenger but as an instructional technology specialist I immediately figured out that if you could hold meetings in a virtual world, you could also hold classes. I felt a bit "out of touch" because this was the first I had heard of Second Life and I used to be the one who told everyone else about the latest thing. I guess I had some catching up to do.
I mentioned the story to one of my team and he had heard it also but he had actually created an avatar and explored a bit. When I had a chance I visited the Second Life web site and I began the registration process. Several hours later (not quite, but if you have ever done this you know this might be the most time consuming part)I was Norma Underwood. After downloading the software I logged in and was very single-minded as I arrived in Second Life. I had to laugh because I was standing in a group of other new avatars and the female ones all looked exactly alike. Yes, I started out as Ruth, the vague looking brunette with the purple shirt. As an art teacher and designer, I was not very happy with the look but my mind was set and I was determined to find Crayonville. I had never worked an avatar before but I saw the arrows and figured that was worth a try and now I was walking away from the group.
I saw a search bar so I typed in Crayonville and voila! Ok, now what. Ooooooo! Teleport! "Beam me up Scottie!" What fun for someone who has been a Star Trek geek since Captain Kirk was at the helm. Whoosh! (gotta love the sound) and I was in Crayonville. (Yes, I completely didn't catch the fact that I had landed in Orientation Island and bypassed the whole newbie training.) I was alone in Crayonville so I took the time to make a few adjustments to my avatar. I tried to make it look a bit more like myself and had no problems using the sliders. I figured out a different outfit and then explored the land of Crayon which included a movie theatre and a 50's style diner. I was in awe of the possibilities in this wonderous world that existed in pixels. If avatars could meet in a movie theatre, wouldn't students enjoy that also?
I flew around a bit (how cool is flying?) and ended up in an open area where there were other avatars. I watched as they pointed and things would appear like magic. I had landed in a building sandbox. I also discovered that I was in a land of giants! They were all so tall, and thin, and well dressed, and attractive. I, on the other hand, trying to look like myself, looked like a hobbit! Arrgghhh! But this was where I made a truly remarkable discovery. Everyone was ready to help me. I was taken under the wing of a designer from the east coast who was wearing a snowman head and driving a go kart. He asked if I would like a ride and my improv training from Comedysportz always was to say yes, so soon I was on a maniacal ride which ended at the bottom of a body of water. Mr. Snowman was no Mario Andretti.
He was very helpful however and sent me to a Freebie Warehouse where I purchased tons of stuff for zero Linden dollars. You could be totally poor and still get lots of things in Second Life. Ah, if only that worked in the real world. I stayed up way too late that night opening up packages in the sandbox and trying on new skins and shapes to improve my look. I went to bed exhausted and excited by my adventure. The following day my boss showed me an article in Master Teacher magazine that talked about students becoming addicted to a virtual world called...Second Life. He thought I should explore this. Ha! I told him that I had about 6 hours of experience and that I thought there were real educational opportunities there. Wow, not only am I finding this cool but I have a boss who wants me to figure it all out! Woo Hoo! Oh sure, neither one of us knew how addicting this was going to be, but when something has educational potential, you are trying to figure out how you can use it to motivate kids. If they are getting addicted to this on their own, then let's tap into that proclivity and toss some content at them!
I spent my first two weeks in the sandbox. I spent most of my time doing some basic building and then someone mentioned classes. Oooooo! I spent the next few weeks attending as many classes as possible. I got something from everyone I met; be it advice, a gadget, a technique, or object. I decided that I was going to do some serious hanging out inworld and sprung for a premiere account and also got myself some Lindens. Lindens are the inworld currency and the exchange rate is about 240 Linden to the dollar. I got $75 worth and all of a sudden, I was RICH!!! LOL I rented a shop on Book Island for a book I wrote and was promptly introduced to someone from the UK who became my mentor for the next several months. He knew so much and taught me quite a bit. We went to scripting classes and after I learned how to make clothes, we opened up a T-Shirt shop.
For a while I had 4 shops going in various locations. I had a book shop, the shirt shop, an art shop, and one for gowns I designed under the Norma Underwood label. I rented a house and built a comedy club skybox. I created tutorials and started teaching a comedy class and a Gimp class for GQ headquarters. I built an educational skybox above my comedy club and decided I would use it to train teachers in my district if they were interested. With the help of Teeple Linden, I created a class of teacher training avatars and trained two groups of 20 teachers during our 2008 summer tech boot camp.
It was around that time that I found out about ISTE island and started meeting the fabulous teachers who had been doing for years what I only imagined was possible! One morning I was ready for their tour and something happened and it was going to have to be cancelled. I offered to take the small group to my skybox and show them the things on which I had been working. After that, more people came to see the skybox and asking if they could bring others to see it. I was thrilled. I let the shops go, dismantled the comedy club so I could use the prims and worked hard to make the place educator friendly. I met ScubaChris (Chris Johnson) and joined the Second Life AZTEA group and got a chance to show him the skybox. I met him and several of the members in real life at a Web 2.0 conference which was very cool too. I got enough courage to ask if I could have a tiny presence on the AZTEA space on ISTE Island2 and before I knew it, Chris had built this great skybox which was twice as big as the one I had and graciously said I could use it. Chris Johnson rocks!!
Now our district had an excellent area right above AZTEA on ISTE and I got a chance to bring our cabinet members inworld. One of the things I had heard from several teachers I'd met was that admins only thought of Second Life as frivolous with fairies flying around with wings, etc. I decided it was imperative to have this first experience be one that would not leave them with that impression. I put all the avatars into businesswear. I created four women's dress suits that could be tinted for many looks and provided them free for all new teachers so they could have a professional wardrobe. I also recreated as many real life items and textures as possible so they would have the familiarity of the visuals. I had our district internet policy as one of the presentations. Photos of the district offices were on the walls. I did not scare them off! Whew! (See video below)
After that I spent a lot of time working on activities students could do to show teachers how Second Life could be used with Middle School Students. I got a chance to hear Bernajean Porter and Peggy Sheehy speak and realized I was still playing catch up but their programs were great examples of what was already wonderful work being done by young students. That was going to be my dream, to work with kids on the teen grid but I didn't know how to go about it other than prepare lessons and add to the skybox. I was at a school one day giving a survey to teachers and I made a remark to the principal that if we had some money, an island on the teen grid would be a great place for the older students. She looked at me and said, "I trust you. If you think it's a good idea, then let's start the purchase order!"
I was in shock. Wasn't I supposed to have to grovel at someone's feet for something like that? Well I immediately told my new boss who was already a Second Life afficienado what was said and she said, "Let's do it!" Was I in an alternate universe? Did I really just have two people tell me we could do this? I was not going to question anything but we never heard back from our original fax telling Linden Labs that we were indeed background checked and wanted to work on the teen grid. I let it slide mainly because I was more concerned with my daughter possibly leaving the nursing home after a very bad accident that left her bedridden for quite a long time. So, I dropped the ball on the island till after our Winter break.
I lit a fire under myself and made sure we got the purchase order going for the island. I waited impatiently for 3 days while our dear secretary Jennie stayed on top of getting the PO#. Finally I was able to fill out the online application and get a confirmation of the order. Our IT guys wanted to make sure students could not browse to inappropriate websites within the Second Life browser. Bernajean Porter talked to me inworld and said she was pretty sure they couldn't and was kind enough to call Peggy Sheehy and give her my number so we would have her input. Armed with the information that we could control those permissions, our IT guys were happy to know this was not going to be a problem. So now it is my job to wait for the invoice and thank Bernajean and Peggy for their generosity. Time is so precious to all of us and they gave me theirs in order to help. I am so grateful to everyone who got me to this point in Second Life. It is an "each one; teach one" global community of learners and teachers. How can we not use this to give our children that same spirit of collaboration and giving?