Serena goes to Hollywood

This post is about a language teacher’s experience at MachinEVO 2014. Just in case you don’t read to the end – and yes, it’s a longish post – I would like to say straight away that if they hold it next year, sign up! No, this is not a sponsored post.

For those who are thinking about reading to the end, here we go…

I blame Twitter. There I was in the first week of January, minding my own business, scrolling away through my feed, when I came across news of the EVO sessions. Free PD! Topics galore! Moderators I would love to learn from! This was something I would definitely need to sign up for, but what to choose? Okay, let’s go for something I know nothing about – making movies, in Second Life, no less. I like a challenge, me.

Thus it was that I signed up for MachinEVO, a five-week workshop promising to teach participants to “…produce visually appealing videos in virtual worlds. These videos are commonly called machinima and they can be used for language teaching and learning in Virtual Worlds and in the physical classroom.” I could already see my Moodle course getting a whole new dimension.

My SL experience prior to this was limited to a couple of visits about three years ago, and as I recall, I spent most of the time figuring out why my avatar seemed strangely averse to wearing a whole jacket. First one of the sleeves disappeared, and then the other – and I couldn’t get them back on. What with these more pressing worries, I was obviously unable to focus on the educational potential of SL. 🙂

It was made clear that you could attend MachinEVO even with no experience of virtual worlds, as there would be a special fast track for new residents in the first week, when they would be taught all the necessary practicalities before joining their film crew. And so, Serena joined the motion picture industry.

Now, five weeks later, I look back over the whole experience and think – well, I’m still far from those visually appealing videos. That was a somewhat ambitious goal, at least in my case. But I like to think I learned a lot and it was a hugely enjoyable experience overall. And that’s saying something, because there were moments when I truly despaired. I couldn’t possibly do the whole event justice in one post, so I finally decided to focus on the most challenging as well as the most encouraging parts of the ride. Those are the ones that will stay with me.

Clueless is an understatement

During the first week, I was reasonably satisfied with how things were turning out. The new residents all worked together, and in our sessions with the moderators in-world (online, in SL) we learned how to do undemanding yet practical things, like how to sit on objects or turn up someone’s voice. If we missed a session, there were recordings in Adobe Connect to make sure everyone could keep up. So far, so good. I felt quite confident because, unlike some of the others, I didn’t seem to be experiencing many technical difficulties.

In the second week we split up into groups according to the stories that we wanted to work on. I joined a group practically at random, not really hearing what our movie was going to be about, as my avatar didn’t seem to be wearing any trousers. Everything below my waist looked gray to me, but what did the others see? Should I log off? What if I missed something important? Later on, in the recording, I was relieved to see my jeans. 🙂

Group communication took place in Google docs. When I first looked through our document, I could see there were about ten of us, and there was already a detailed storyboard. Group members were invited to share their experience, skills and expectations, and those who had done so clearly had all three. I briefly considered if there was any way I could say that I lacked the first two and was entirely vague on the third, which wouldn’t make it sound as if I my contribution to the group would be minimal, but eventually decided to say nothing.

I downloaded a screen recording and video editing program and experimented with it a little, making a machinima using still photos. These were provided, along with the instructions, by the moderators, while our twice-weekly sessions progressed to dealing first with basic, then advanced filming and editing techniques. In the meantime, between these sessions, our group began meeting in-world to shoot the storyboard sequences.

It soon turned out that there were far fewer people who were actively participating in the making of our movie than had originally signed up to be in the group. And out of these, I was the only complete beginner. I think I must have driven them crazy – in fact, I’m sure I did – especially at the start, when I got the impression that they all knew each other from before, and had worked together at some point. I needed help with everything, asked a million questions, and produced useless footage. They talked in what seemed to be a foreign language – mesh, prim, sim, rez…what??? – while my avatar bumped into walls like a headless chicken.

And the time everything took! A shoot could easily last for three hours, and did. I was convinced that this was because I was new and was slowing everyone down. But that wasn’t all. Video clips then needed to be uploaded to Dropbox. And the others’ clips had to be downloaded so that all of us could experiment with / work on editing. Sometimes it seemed that I was in SL every (real-life) evening, either for a shoot, or a session, or a special guest appearance, because the organizers had also arranged for well-known machinimatographers to speak to the course participants. I’d had no idea it was going to be so time-consuming.

A MachinEVO session
A MachinEVO session

A sharp learning curve

I cannot emphasize enough that my feeling of incompetence was not brought about by the attitude of the others in my group, or of other MachinEVO participants or moderators. In fact, I can’t remember when I last met a friendlier and more supportive group of people, especially when you take into account the fact that we haven’t actually met. Not in person. And yet, after all that time together, I feel like we have. I thought it would be more or less like just another MOOC, but it was much more intense.

Possibly they’ve all worked as kindergarten teachers at some point in their lives? They had boundless reserves of patience. The moderators were constantly active in our Google group, posting content and commenting, which was incredibly useful both in terms of the content itself and in conveying the reassuring impression that the course itself was alive and well. 🙂 I strongly suspect that some of the members of our small movie crew have discovered the secret to extending the standard 24-hour day, because they seemed to devote quite an incredible amount of time to our production.

Over the past couple of weeks I went from zero to the following:

  • gained a whole new insight into how video can be used in (language) teaching / learning – which I think is crucial; if you can’t see a practical application, you might have doubts about justifying the time invested
  • discovered various opportunities for language learning that virtual worlds offer
  • learned how to work with different video editing software, and not just on making machinima
  • opened a YouTube account and can actually see a use for it in future
  • learned / was reminded of some things that make a difference to successful teamwork – and I’m happy to report that our (geographically) quite diverse team made it to the performing stage)
  • met many educators and other machinimatographers from a range of settings
  • experienced different stages of movie production, which also included coming up with and delivering script lines (I’ll be lucky if I get called for another audition 🙂 )

Bonuses (not really educational, but still):

  • I got to wear blue and pink hair (happily not at the same time)
  • people could pronounce my name (the one I’d chosen for my avatar, actually, which made a nice change)
  • now I know what to do if I a jacket sleeve goes missing

All the groups are currently finishing off their movies and getting ready for the film festival at the end of the month, so I expect that the period of intense collaboration has come to an end for now. I might be reporting again after the awards ceremony and, if so, will probably have more reflections to add. And on that note, a very sincere thank you goes out to everyone involved for making MachinEVO possible. Special thanks to all the moderators, and, most importantly, Group 4 members

And yes, I would be very interested to read the impressions of any of the other participants this year; please let me know if you have blogged / decide to blog about MachinEVO too!


Words in the shape of a fruit

I’ve played around with Wordle on a few occasions previously – if I’m honest, not so much because I was interested in finding out frequency of word use, but more because I found it visually appealing. Content was important, but the packaging even more so. No, I’m not really all that shallow; at the time I was playing community manager for the Octopus Facebook page, and discovered that pictures got a lot more likes than just about anything else. My initial reasoning was that those who followed a language school would much prefer useful recommendations to aid them in language learning to pictures of the teachers having a coffee, but that’s a whole other topic.

Anyway. I remembered Wordle while writing a journal entry as part of the online course I’m currently teaching. We use the Mahara e-portfolio, and each unit ends with students reflecting in a journal entry on what they have learned. As this was the first time most of them – possibly all – were using an e-portfolio to keep a learning diary, I thought it might be helpful to record things in my journal as well. I figured it might clarify things in terms of expectations – purpose, tone, entry length, etc., and may also encourage them to be open about what they (dis)liked when they saw that I wasn’t holding back in my reflections. I think that worked, but again, that’s a whole other topic.

So yes, Wordle. I wanted to address the importance of recycling vocabulary in that particular entry – namely, to describe my attempts to get students to revise the 400-odd new vocabulary items over a period of time through interactive activities, as opposed to leaving it up to them to memorize said vocabulary the night before the exam. I ran all the posts from one particular forum through Wordle and ended up with an appealing visual to accompany my Mahara entry. Luckily, some of the key vocabulary from the unit (as opposed to pronouns and conjunctions) made it into the top 100 words – e.g., “dismissal”, “job-seeker”, “welfare” – which meant I was able to work in a little additional revision, at least for those who read the entry. 🙂

Then it occurred to me that I could do the same for the course noticeboard forum. In Moodle, this forum is used only by the instructor in the course, meaning the students can read posts but can’t reply to them. I left a total of 29 posts – on average 200 words in length – in this forum during our three-month course, and suddenly became quite curious about my top 100 words. What had I actually been saying to the students throughout the course?

First I ran all my posts through Wordle and came up with some attractive visuals, but then the next day I came across Tagxedo and, fickle soul that I sometimes am, decided I liked it even more. I won’t go into detail as to why right now, but one of the main reasons was the fact that words could form recognizable shapes, like those of a cat, dolphin or Abraham Lincoln’s face. Ok, sometimes I am that shallow.

This is a visual of the 100 words I used most in the course noticeboard, in the shape of an apple. It turns out these rather more unadventurous shapes are better for presenting the content – if you’re less interested in seeing the actual words clearly, you can go with a reindeer.

taxgedo 101What jumped out at me as I first scanned the apple was the word “don”, just below the stem. I had no idea what it was doing there! If I was urging my students to put on a piece of clothing or warning them about the perils of organized crime, I was clearly inadvertently doing so. What else was I about to find out?! It turned out – perhaps a touch disappointingly – that the program understood “don’t” to be “don”. This would indicate the need to adjust the punctuation settings, something that I can’t remember having to pay any attention to when I used Wordle.

Anyway, the words used most often are “course”, “unit”, “activities”, “topic”, “know”, “feedback”, “posts”, “work”, “page” and “assignment”. I can’t really say that this came as a surprise, because I would have probably listed quite a few of them if I’d had the sense to note down my expectations before Tagxeding the posts. However, it is interesting for me to reflect on the context in which they were used and whether some could/should have made fewer appearances. My post was originally going to include this analysis – it was going to be about the words used, not about e-portfolios or the merits of Wordle vs Tagxedo – but I’ve apparently found it difficult to stick to the topic. 😦 I’m therefore going to stop here and look at the actual word use in another post.