NMC Symposium debriefing

I really enjoyed attending the New Media Consortium’s symposium March 24 and 25, which took place in Hakone, NMC’s version of Second Life. At first I was pretty nervous, given my history with the medium. But I swear, I didn’t get my avatar caught in a chair or sit in anyone’s lap. I did miss the reception on the first night, which meant I didn’t receive the dance steps that Cynthia Calongne had given away, but I got them at the end, so I fit in.

cc licensed flickr photo by NMC Second Life: http://flickr.com/photos/nmc-campus/4462786993/
cc licensed flickr photo by NMC Second Life: http://flickr.com/photos/nmc-campus/4462786993/

Navigation is always challenging in unfamiliar environments — when I tried to learn Second Life a couple of years ago I was totally confused by the map and teleporting. However, host Alan Levine (whom I’ve met and was delighted to reconnect with, however virtually) and the NMC gang continually sent out useful notes and chat messages to help attendees find their way throughout the conference.

In many ways, I was as interested in how the presenters were using the space as I was in the presentations. Second Life-style environments seem to create a different sort of venue for a conference, and I’ve never been to a full conference inside a virtual world. I was eager to see how the presenters what would happen.

The answer was: not as much as I expected, which was both a relief (because I might get caught in a chair) and a surprise.

Presenters did actively engage the attendees in many sessions. There were many great sessions about digital storytelling. Lou Rera’s Flash Fiction presented the possibilities of the six-word story (classic example is Hemingway’s “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”) and very short stories using multimedia. At one point he invited people to create a six-word story in the chat — the results are on the page.

Very few sessions, however, made use of the environment to tell their own story. Only two really worked with the venue.

cc licensed flickr photo by HVX Silverstar: http://flickr.com/photos/photolibraries/4460044125/
cc licensed flickr photo by HVX Silverstar: http://flickr.com/photos/photolibraries/4460044125/

The first was Cynthia Calogne’s The Mars Expedition as a Virtual Context in Storytelling, which took place in a “plantarium” she had created inside the virtual world. It was hard to find and get into, but I didn’t mind the challenge since my sound was working fine and I could hear the presentation before I found my way into the planetarium. Once there, we sat on little spheres, and at one point Cynthia made the floor disappear so all the avatars were in star-studded space, very appropriate for the presentation.

cc licensed flickr photo by Lisa M Lane: http://flickr.com/photos/10123995@N04/4464020880/
cc licensed flickr photo by Lisa M Lane: http://flickr.com/photos/10123995@N04/4464020880/

The other was Craig Kapp’s extraordinary insight into Augmented Reality, where the presenter had set up a model inside the presentation space. Most of the presentation was slides/video on a screen, but many of the most amazing things he showed on the screen can be found at his blog, where you can actually print out a paper that will trigger your webcam to show 3-D examples of AR. Attendees were doing this both during and after the session, even as Cynthia generously helped me and another attendee change into ball gowns and change our clothes (that’s the kind of thing you can only say at a Second Life-style conference!).

As you can tell, the environment itself was both distracting and enlightening. The distraction was partly because I confess I’m not as interested in digital storytelling (nor in gaming, a big focus of the second day) as I ought to be. I do see their use and the wonderfulness of new media, but I have trouble applying them to anything I do. I discovered I am somewhat of an anachronism in that I love the new web and multimedia, but I am not a gamer, a truly social networker (I’m an anti-social networker), nor a teller of my own stories (except here, I guess).

So the most important session for me was probably TwHistory:  Tweeting History in the Classroom, which detailed events at TwHistory.org, where historical events are re-enacted using primary sources and Twitter posts. While I found the idea intriguing, and the focus on primary sources excellent pedagogically, the point seemed to be to connect students with the emotions of the past. I’m afraid I’m not very post-modernist about my discipline, and could see any number of pitfalls, which I promised to detail at some point for the presenters (Tom Caswell and Marion Jensen are instructional technologists rather than historians, though historians are using the technique). I felt very much like I do at Renaissance faires, that everyone thinks the historical anachronisms don’t matter (such as Lincoln using “IMHO”), but I think they do and find them very disturbing. It turns the past into a character or setting, as in a work of fiction, though it isn’t supposed to be fiction. Speaking in iambic pentameter or tweeting a Civil War diary on the exact day 146 years later does not reclaim the past for me, nor use it for anything I find significant. I’ll work on this one… maybe I’m stuck in a chair on this?

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