Tonight was the Virtual Worlds lecture at Modesto Junior College. The Modesto Bee and local radio have promoted this event over the past week. There were close to 200 people in attendance, mostly students from middle school and up. They were all there to meet Bruce Damer, author of the book “Avatars!”. The event went off almost perfectly, but the day was anything but.
I met Bruce back in October when I made a donation to his Digibarn museum. I’ve been around computer games going all the way back to the early 80’s on the college mainframes and CRT’s, back when games like Empire and Trek glowed green until the early hours of the morning in the campus computer labs. Bruce is the first person I’ve ever met that has more experience in these realms than I do. What started out as dropping off my donation for his museum quickly turned into an afternoon trip down the virtual memory lane. Since that visit I have kept in touch with Bruce, and I jumped at the opportunity of meeting up with him in my local community for this lecture. The goal of the night was to introduce our four students to Bruce that have been helping to get the PacRimX project off the ground.
We had planned to have dinner with Bruce tonight, along with some people from the college. I sent a screenshot that was taken for the Modesto Bee article (but not used in the story) to Bruce last night as I was heading off to bed. I included the names of each of the students with their avatars. He wrote back this morning and said it would be great if I could get up and have the students give a quick tour of Second Life and our island at the end of his presentation. I replied and said that we would be happy to do it.
I headed off to work mentally mapping out our 15 minutes in the spotlight tonight. At around 10:30am this morning, I got a call from Joel Hagen (at MJC) and Bruce. I quietly thought to myself that something must be wrong, what else could be the reason for this unexpeted call? I was told that Bruce had an emergency that was going to prevent him from coming over to Modesto to give the lecture as planned. The people at MJC who were sponsoring this event knew that there was going to be a large turnout, and they were hoping to salvage the evening somehow. Bruce asked if I had the resources to put together a remote lecture for him, to allow him to “virtually” be there tonight. We tossed around some ideas, and finally came up with a plan to use videoconferencing.
So just before lunch I packed up a Polycom videoconferencing unit, a few laptops, a projector and a bag of miscellaneous computer peripherals and headed over to the east MJC campus with some of my networking staff. We evaluated what was available in the auditorium, and started connecting equipment (Debbie, a tech at MJC was also very helpful).
We contacted Alan Phillips at the Imperial County Office of Education. Alan runs the K12Video.org website and associated videoconferencing systems available through the California K12 High Speed Network (HSN). Bruce lives up in Boulder Creek, high in a remote area of the Santa Cruz mountains. Alan assisted in scheduling our conferences through his webpage. We emailed Bruce a link to some open source videoconferencing software for his Mac. We had a test run planned from 3:00p – 5:00p, and the actual lecture from 7:30p – 9:00p. It took most of the afternoon for the planets to align, and for our link to stabalize at both ends (with a great deal of help from Alan). We had many setbacks, and to say that some of the MJC people were stressing about this plan would be a gross understatement. By the start of the lecture we were all holding our breath for the connection to hold through the evening.
The lecture went great, the connection held, and the audience was captivated by Bruce’s tracing of the evolution of virtual worlds from the Stone Age through to present day. The students had fun giving the tour of the island, and everyone really enjoyed the evening. We had many questions at the end, and several inquiries as to how students that were interested in our project might get involved. And this is what struck me the most about tonight. All of these students, mostly high school age, had come out on a Friday night to watch a presentation at the local junior college on Virtual Worlds. I remember when I was in high school, and I was much more likely to be downtown cruising and not down at the local community college watching a lecture by someone old enough to be friends with my parents. Another thing that struck me about tonight is that every single question at the end of the lecture was asked by a student, not the adults in the audience. The youngest student in attendance that asked a question was probably 11 years old.
The lesson learned tonight is that the students already get this. They’ve grown up playing video games, texting, IMing, surfing the web, posting info to MySpace, and are now ready for the next level. They were born with a joystick in one hand, and a keyboard in the other. They are the fish that will populate the oceans of the emerging virtual worlds, and venture out onto the many landscapes that will emerge. They are poised to dominate the coming Metaverse (as was first envisioned in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash). And they will be the ones that will truly establish these new virtual worlds as a platform for education.
The next ten years will see a movement of these technologies from the living room to the classroom. These student pioneers of today’s virtual worlds will be the first generation that actually has the potential to alter how we teach, and how students will learn in the not too distant future. They only cut their teeth on video games, stand back and watch what they do next.