Here in Modesto we have been back to school for just over three weeks. In Kyoto they are four months into their school year. Our Spring Break Exchange for 2010 was due to go to the School Board this past Monday, but was bumped out to October 5th. We were waiting for approval to distribute the information packets for the Spring Break Exchange and the permission slips for Skoolaborate/PacRimX at the same time. In Modesto, none of our new students have their Skoolaborate accounts yet.
So imagine our surprise when we got an email from Kyoto the other day explaining that a National TV News Crew in Japan wanted to film a bridge building exercise for a documentary series they are doing on innovation and technology in education. Being that PacRimX is now part of a much larger project, Skoolaborate, we were able to pull off this event in only a few days, much to the relief of the Kyoto Gakuen administration.
Native English Speakers Get Set for Event
To match up pairs of students from Kyoto with native English speaking students we pulled from several sources. My three sons, who helped get PacRimX off the ground almost three years ago (and are now High School seniors) volunteered to help out. We ended up setting up four computers at our house to run this event due to the short window between when they got out of school and when they had to be logged into Second Life (I live almost an hour’s drive away from Modesto). One of my sons went to Kyoto last year and the other two will be going this year as a reward for all their hard work over the past three years with the PacRimX project.
Bryan Waiting for His Partner
Some students from Australia also volunteered to fill in some spots. And both Brad Cornwell (lead teacher from Modesto for both the physical and virtual exchanges) and I also took up the challenge. Two areas were set up on different islands for this event by Chris Flesuras in Kyoto. Unfortunately, since I was participating as a builder, I only got to take screenshots of the area where I was located.
A Teacher Meeting an Hour Before the Event
The request to do this for the TV crew only came this past weekend. This left only enough time to pull together our groups of students to match up with the Kyoto students. There was little time to test out the new Skoolaborate setup, or to do a dry run to make sure everything was stable and that the new expanded rules for this event would flow smoothly. Where in the past we only had the students clone the base platforms via chat, and then they were free to decorate their side of the bridge. This time the entire bridge would have to be built one segment at a time via voice chat, and be symmetrical and identical on both sides. We hoped this would not be too challenging.
A Japanese Student Arriving at the Construction Area
We got our first segments of the bridges set up before any Japanese students arrived. Above is one of the first Kyoto Gakuen students to arrive at her post ready to build. In the past we’ve had to rely on text IM to communicate because of sporadic voice issues with SL (Murphy’s Law). A few hours before this event we thought we were going to have to do that again this time. But a full hour and a half before the event the voice issues cleared up, and Murphy ran away in fear. The SL Gods were definitely smiling on us today.
Bridges Nearing Completion
To our relief, it ended up that the expanded bridge building exercise was not too difficult, the Kyoto students this year have a much better grasp of the English language, and the students were ALL eager to engage in voice chat with each other. The building phase of this exercise went on for close to 45 minutes. In the end we had a nice variety of bridges that all used less than 20 prims each.
Finished Bridges After the Students Moved on to a Video Conference
With the TV crews there, the students quickly exited when the bridges were completed. They had to wrap up the filming and then move on to a video conference with Brad Cornwell (Modesto Teacher). Before logging out, Brad sat atop his flag pole with the Johansen High School Flag and surveyed the view of the completed bridges and exhaled a sigh of relief, as nothing went down during the event and everything went very smoothly.
Brad Cornwell, Teacher, Surveying the Bridges
I was lucky enough to get paired up with a student who was very active last year, and who I met while in Kyoto on the exchange. The first thing he asked me when he opened private voice chat was “Do you remember me?” I said “Of course, you were one of the first accounts I set up last year, and how could I forget your name?” (his avatar’s first name is ‘Crazy’). We would see this question repeated many times later during the video conference between Brad and all of the students in Japan.
Posing with Crazy While Building Our Bridge
Only Text Chat, The Rest All Voice
The Japanese avatars are almost always very different and unique from the American ones. Crazy’s was a mix of geometric shapes, symbols, tweaked body parts, and a skull for a head. I always love seeing the creativity the Japanese students pour into their avatars. Sometimes they are very abstract while at other times they are ultra realistic and sometimes historic in their look.
Variety of Avatars
The first group of students to get on the video conference were alumi from last year’s program. They wanted to say “Hi” to Mr. Cornwell, and most wanted to know if he remembered them from our trip.
Alumni Kyoto Students Went First
It was so good to see these students again after a long summer. We first met these students a year ago last April. They visited in the Summer of 2008, and then went through all of the activities this past year with our students online. And we went and visited them in Kyoto during this past Spring Break. A question asked of each was where they were planning to go to college this year, and if they were ready for their entrance exams.
Next Up Are This Year’s Teachers
After all of the alumni students had their chance to say “Hi”, this year’s teachers got to introduce the new students that will be visiting us in the Summer of 2010. That’s Nick Flesuras, younger brother of Chris Flesuras (co-founder of PacRimX), on the right.
New Students for 2009/10 Year
The new students were very eager to introduce themselves. Each year the students get a little more comfortable and a lot less shy. These guys had us laughing right off the bat by asking if Brad “remembered them”.
After all of the new male students introduced themselves the girls got their turn. They were also not shy and jumped right in asking Mr. Cornwell questions about California, his school, and sharing their eagerness to participate in the program this year.
Last Group of Girl Students
Not wanting to go solo, the last group of girls had three students in it. The girl in the middle spoke very fluent English and finally revealed to us that she had recently returned from living in Texas for three years. She had moved there because of her father’s job, and she very much enjoyed her time in the US and was looking forward to visiting again this next Summer.
This is our third year of the PacRimX program. Every year the students take large leaps in their openness and very few are as shy as many who were in the first program two years ago.
Brad Cornwell Showing Off The New Lab and Equipment
Because of the success of the PacRimX Project, Brad’s classes were moved to new facilities at Johansen High School over the summer. The new classroom has a series of adjoining labs and rooms. This used to be a photo class with darkrooms and labs attached to the main room, now they will all support the video classes. The students will even get to use a “green room” to shoot some amazing video and transport themselves to anywhere in the world (or off world) using green screen video techniques.
Brad and Nick Discussing Upcoming Events
After the students all went back to their morning classes, Brad and Nick discussed events we have planned for the next few months. Nick told us that the students are very excited about the trip next Summer, and that they are very eager to get fully engaged in the program. We have a video conference event planned for early October, the Halloween Party for the last week in October (lots of voice chat and virtual dancing to break the ice), the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) in November, and our Christmas Gift Exchange via video conference in December. By November we will have identified our group of 30 students for the Spring Break Kyoto Exchange. We will also have a series of video conferences and language lessons sprinkled around in the next four months.
This is the earliest we’ve ever gotten started with student activities. Last year it was late November when we first started recruiting students for the Exchange trip, this year it will be mid October when we start. Each year we get a little better at this, make the events a little bit more challenging, and get a new crop of students that are just a little more excited and a little more prepared to take on the challenges of this program.
I’m looking forward to sharing all of this with all of you as the year progresses. Keep an eye out here for frequent updates. And as you’ve probably noticed by now, I’ve all but stopped posting industry news items or posts on this blog that are not directly related to Skoolaborate or PacRimX. One reason is simply a matter of time, and another is that there are so many other places that cover that kind of news in much more detail than I can provide here.
It’s going to be a great year!
– Stan Trevena, Director of Technology, Modesto City Schools