Faculty Voice

Think Second Life and images of fantastical avatars or electronic shopping malls leap to mind. David Phang, from the School of Computing, offers another facet of the 3D multi-user online world – that of a virtual classroom.

NUS has had an official presence in Second Life for over a year. NUS is by no means the first tertiary institution to venture there. Neither will it be the last. Part of the attraction is the ability to gather students in one place, regardless of their physical location.

David shares that several tutorial classes for IT1001 Introduction to Computing were held in Second Life during the past semester.

“We thought it would be a good idea because this course is about introducing students to current concepts of computing and also emerging concepts and applications,” David explains, “we wanted to let students experience how it was like to have class discussions in the Second Life setting. Quite a number of universities do this and organizations like IBM hold meetings in Second Life.”

As an introductory course open to students from different schools and faculties, the Second Life tutorials also enabled the students to attend the class without having to traverse the campus. It also helped cross-faculty students to find a common time and place to meet for projects and discussions without having to factor in travel time.

During the designated sessions, students log in to Second Life at the time they would normally attend their real-world tutorial for the week. During the tutorial, David would facilitate the discussion of the tutorial questions via in-world text chat.

Here, things take a slight departure from the norm. Instead of taking turns to speak, David allows more than one discussion to take place at the same time. He explains, “We want to tap on the capability of this kind of virtual world by allowing conversations to flow, even if it is multiple parties talking at the same time, so that students don’t lose their train of thought. I moderate the discussions by asking students to slow down or to focus attention on certain threads of discussion.”

What, then, is the advantage of Second Life over text chat or instant messaging since the classes make use of text feature in Second Life?

David concedes that students tend to be more expressive over both text chat and Second Life. However, he feels students tend to be more careful and thorough in answering questions through text in Second Life.

He surmises two opposing things are going on. One is that the virtual, avatar-based environment provides a non-threatening space for students to speak up. The other is the familiarity of a classroom – the virtual space where the class is conducted represents a physical one – makes them feel that they should be contributing in a constructive and comprehensive manner.

At the end of the tutorials, the text-chats are saved and distributed among the students of that class.

The Second Life tutorials look set to stay, as long as NUS maintains its presence in that virtual environment.

The mindmap starts off bare – just the main topic in the centre with the sub-topics surrounding it. As the tutorial progresses, the mindmap takes shape, like a creature sprouting colourful appendages. The end result is a visual summary of the lesson, which students find so useful that they take photos of it with their cameras.

Dr Chua Ai Lin is a mindmapping maven. The Department of History lecturer has been creating mindmaps since her days as an undergraduate. Initially, she used it for note taking, but she extended it to teaching and brainstorming when she progressed on to doing her Masters and PhD.

“I’ve never taught a single tutorial without using a mindmap,” Dr Chua highlights, “It’s an absolutely crucial and integral part of the way I teach.”

Her foray into mindmapping began when a cousin, who was teaching at NUS, introduced her to mindmapping, recommending the seminal book by Tony Buzan. Dr Chua, waiting to start her undergraduate studies at the time, didn’t need further encouragement to proceed. She read the book and put what she read into practice.

What was it that drew her in? She explains, “Ultimately, linear notes are not so fun to make. And it’s not just the colours but the way in which every time you make a mindmap, it’s very organic. It looks distinctive. At the end of the day you can enjoy is visually as well. I like that.”

During tutorials, Dr Chua splits the class into groups and asks them to discuss various sub-topics related to the lesson of the week. Each group has a different topic. As the students present what they have discussed, she draws the mindmap on the whiteboard. So, in a sense, it is the students who come up with the mindmap.

“Mindmaps are very good at drawing together what everybody in the class is saying and making links between what they are all saying so that we can see how it is all tied together,” Dr Chua points out, "The organic look of multicoloured hand-drawn mindmaps helps to stimulate right brain/creative thinking as well as being a visual mnemonic device"

Pen-and-paper or marker-and-whiteboard mindmaps do have their limitations, as Dr Chua observes, “There are times when you want to do something presentable, to make handouts, for example. Also, I wanted to find a way to use mindmaps for lectures as I feel the linear form of Powerpoint presentations is boring.”

She actively researched mindmapping software, narrowing down her choices to a few which she downloaded and tried. While she is partial to iMindMap – Tony Buzan’s official mindmapping software – for its highly organic-looking mindmaps, Dr Chua used an free online mindmapping tool called Mindomo to create a mindmap, about the Singapore River, for distribution to her class. All Dr Chua needed to do to share the mindmap was to inform her students of the URL.

Dr Chua offers one other use, “With mindmaps online, students can possibly collaborate on a mindmap, though I haven’t tried that.”

Will Dr Chua give up pen-and-paper mindmaps? “For myself, I would still draw them on paper because of that creative and organic look,” she states, “But there are times when you want to use software to do it.”

CIT has launched an online mindmapping tool for staff and student use. More information can be found in this issue of IDEAS and on the information page about the Mindomo-powered online mindmapping software.

eLearning Week (eLW) posed two big questions to all lecturers involved in the exercise: how to delivery lectures and how to conduct tutorials? While most of her colleagues chose to use Breeze to deliver their lectures, Ms Mary Lee, an Instructor at the Communications & New Media Programme, opted for a less conventional method – an audio podcast.

“I think it’s an expedient way of delivering a lecture, as well as my desire to explore the audio medium” Mary explained, “It’s quite creative. I actually had in mind executing a radio talk show format. I thought a podcast was a great opportunity.”

Other reasons included her colleagues’ difficulties with Breeze and Centra – the more oft used methods of delivering lectures during eLW as well as her fear of technical glitches.

With the format decided, Mary proceeded to flesh out the podcast. She would be covering press releases and news conferences in the podcast lecture for NM3219 Writing for Communication Management.

“I was thinking, ‘What are the resources on campus that I can use? Who can be my sparring partner, my talk show host?’ And I looked around and I thought, ‘Hey, there’s Radio Pulze!’ They may be students but they are students who are very serious about wanting to do radio broadcasting as a career. I thought maybe I could sound them out about my proposal and maybe they’d be keen to take this on. You know, it’s something different and yet educational. True enough, they were very enthusiastic!” Mary shared.

With students from Radio Pulze on board, she set out to script the programme, as she wanted to make sure that the podcast covered her learning points and objectives.

“I enjoyed the process a lot more,” she said of writing the script, “I did not have to do PowerPoint! I think better in Word, because PowerPoint is linear and Word, I can just move [things] around. It was like writing an essay first and then polishing it so that it’s more of a spoken thing, a conversational thing – a dialogue.”

Karthik Srinivasan, a 3rd year Engineering student from Radio Pulze, was Mary’s co-host for the podcast. After an initial meeting, they recorded the podcast in about two hours at CIT’s studio. Melvyck Leong, another student from Radio Pulze, helped with the post-production, working throughout a weekend to polish the podcast.

CIT staff Lilian Lim then helped to publish the podcast and the transcript in IVLE. She helped to coordinate the production, planning the timeline, handling logistics and coordinating with the students from Radio Pulze. Through Lilian’s efforts, the podcast was delivered before the deadline.

Mary exclaims, “She made everything plain sailing for me! Lilian worked out the production schedule and included buffer time, if it wasn’t perfect and I wanted to re-record. She made sure things ran properly.”

Students from NM3219 seem to have taken the podcast lecture in their stride, with no complaints about the lecture. On Mary’s part, she found the whole experience enjoyable – from conceptualizing and writing the script to recording the podcast with the enthusiastic Radio Pulze students.