Last Friday evening I caught up with my colleague and collaborator Jeremy Knox from the MSc in Digital Education. Some careless talk on my part appeared to have earned/landed us the role of exploring the possibility of an 'after-party' to follow the Digital Education programme's formal graduation ceremony this coming November.
The graduation for the MSc in Digital Education, like the programme itself, is original and imaginative. Students can elect to graduate in 'real life' within the University's McEwan Hall, or synchronously in the Second Life virtual world campus space of Holyrood Park. As I understand it, major credit for this innovation goes to Fiona Littleton. It was Fiona to whom I loosely mentioned the idea of a graduation party that would simultaneously take place in Second Life and the 'real-life' of the physical campus.
My original thinking behind a post-graduation party was simply to recreate the drinks celebrations that I see taking place across campus, where proud students, parents and tutors recognise years of academic endeavour through the ritual of supping Merlot and nibbling quiche. The more I thought about it however, it was clear that a synchronous party in real/Second Life could provoke interesting questions about presence, embodiment and other areas of interest to those concerned with digital education. At the same time, an imaginative and thought-provoking event would provide many of those present with a fitting way of marking the end of their active engagement with the Digital Education programme.
And so Jeremy and I ducked out of the Edinburgh rain to explore how the graduation after-party might look and sound. I've summarised some of our key discussions and conclusions below, without for a moment committing us to turning these speculative plans into reality.
We felt it important that an event of the kind should attempt to provide some level of parity of experience for those in either space. We wanted to avoid the sense that participants in Second Life were 'other', or were looking in on a 'proper' party taking place on campus. We felt that a sense of unity and parity might be partly achieved by focusing on the meeting of the two spaces, rather than emphasising their differences. More literally, we talked about configurating the two spaces to resemble each other as closely as possible, as if to imply a two ends of a single room. At the end of either space, a screen would project what was taking place in the other half of the room.
Moving beyond the physical representation of the venue, unity and interaction could perhaps be achieved through activities shaped by the actions of those in either space. For instance, a single musical soundtrack could play in both spaces, with participants determining the choice and sequence of tracks. Perhaps an iTunes playlist could be viewed on a Macbook within the physical campus setting, and on a digitally rendered Macbook in Second Life. We could also hook up an old video games system and enjoy a 2-player game of Space Invaders (or whatever games people play at parties nowadays) with opponents located in different spaces.
Drawing on what takes place after conventional graduation ceremonies meanwhile, we could stage a class photo taken from both real life and Second Life perspectives: just because you attend class as a digitally-rendered reptile doesn't mean you can't have your photo taken with all your study buddies. Jeremy and I also discussed the possibility of an #mscdeparty hashtag where messages capturing the experience could be projected onto a wall (whilst simultaneously spreading news of the party to a much wider audience). There was also the idea of a synchronised attempt to encourage all those present to capture and then share a photo snapshot of their space, which could be projected to form a visual backdrop to the party.
On reflection, while it has been interesting to explore how Second Life might provide an immersive and interactive event for students who are united by interest but separated by distance, it would be difficult to realise in practice. To begin, the cost of hiring a large digital screen might be prohibitive (assuming of course that we could find a suitable venue for the party). And then there would be the time and expertise required to create the venue and materials in Second Life: I don't imagine it would be straightforward to create a cross-world game of Pong. Finally, and personally this would be the biggest barrier for me, there's the fear that no one would turn up: there are few things more deflating than a sparsely populated party, even if those present include a tipsy unicorn and a dancing dragon.
I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.