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Case study Avatar@School


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School bullying and violence is an issue of serious and increasing concern all over Europe. Many empirical research works have shown that the pupils’ aggressiveness often influences the learning environment in a negative way, affecting productivity and success at school. In recent years, a...

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Case study Avatar@School

  1. 1. CASE STUDY Avatar@School by Andrea BelliniThis document is part of the overall European project LINKS-UP - Learning 2.0 for an InclusiveKnowledge Society – Understanding the Picture. Further case studies and project results can bedownloaded from the project website This work has been licensed under a Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author(s), and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
  2. 2. School bullying and violence is an issue of serious and increasing concern all over Europe. Many empirical research works have shown that the pupils’ aggressiveness of- ten influences the learning environment in a negative way, affecting productivity and success at school. In recent years, a growing attention has been paid to the “school peer mediation” approach, an innovative and effective method to enhance students’ capacit- ies in conflict mediation, and therefore reduce school violence. The emergence of the Learning 2.0 paradigm have opened new scenarios to peer mediation. The Avatar@School project is an interesting case of application of this learning approach, which in a certain sense is innovative in itself, through Web 2.0 technologies. Case profile – Avatar@School in a nutshell Avatar@School Peace at school: Mediating together through the Internet stateWebsite http://www.avataratschool.euStatus Inactive (12/2006 – 12/2008) Thomas Jäger, ZEPF, University of Koblenz-Landau (Germany)Interviewed person Marinella La Placa, CINECA (Italy)Funded and promoted by… Project co-funded by the European CommissionLocation of the Learning Activities Formal setting (e.g. schools)Target group(s) Pupils from 10 to 18 years of ageNumber of users Approximately 100 participants in 26 virtual role playsEducational Sector(s) Secondary schoolCategory of the Learning Activities Non-formalWeb 2.0 technologies used... Second Life-like environmentMethods to support inclusion School peer mediation and virtual role plays Short description and key characteristics The basic idea behind Avatar@School was to promote peer mediation in secondary schools. At the very beginning, before the project started, the idea was that pupils prac- tised conflict mediation within a virtual learning environment, which should have had the form of a chat room. However, in the first phase of the project the partners found out that the better solution would have been creating a “3D” environment, where pupils could interact in form of avatars, in the context of “virtual role plays” reproducing con- flict situations that had to do mainly with school bullying and violence, and more gener- ally with social exclusion. The Avatar@School project started at the end of 2006 and ended at the end of 2008. It was co-funded by the European Commission with an awarded grant of 274,000 Euro on a budget of 398,000 Euro. The transnational partnership included six organizations from 2
  3. 3. five European countries. CINECA (Italy), a not-for-profit consortium gathering together 41 universities and other institutions, was the project coordinator and the hosting or- ganization of the project web server1. The project partners were organizations with a high specialization and qualification in the several fields of interest for the project. More in detail, Actionwork (UK) is a world leading theatre and film company dealing with bul- lying, violence, and empowerment2; Associazione Equilibrio (Italy) is a not-for-profit as- sociation with a strong commitment in the development of extra-judicial methods for dispute resolution and in the creation of mediation centres3; the Centre for Social Medi- ation of Sant Pere de Ribes (Spain) is a public body which undertakes the activity of con- flict mediation at the municipality level4; Project Wolf (Romania) is a form of “social theatre” addressing the needs of specific community groups, working in collaboration with other theatre groups such as Actionwork5; the Centre for Educational Research (ZEPF) of the University of Koblenz-Landau (Germany) is an institution undertaking re- search activity within a wide range of fields, amongst which education6. The project was addressed to pupils, teachers, and mediators in secondary schools, and it was focused on actual or potential victims of school bullying or violence, which repres- ented the main excluded group targeted. It involved approximately 100 persons, who participated in 26 role plays in the main phase. Dimension of learning and inclusion The main aim of Avatar@School was to help pupils in secondary schools, in particular young people at risk of social exclusion, to cope with conflict situations and develop ca- pacities in conflict mediation. The exclusion aspects specifically addressed were those related to school bullying and violence, racism, absenteeism, vandalism, problems with multiracial and gender integration. The learning model was based on the combination of school peer mediation and virtual role plays developed in the context of a 3D environment, within which the participants interacted in form of avatars (see Figure 1)1 3
  4. 4. Figure 1: The learning model of Avatar@School7 The project staff developed 40 role plays scenarios and, for each of them, created avatars covering all possible roles in conflict situations at school, i.e. victims, bullies, me- diators, etc. (see Figure 2). In this framework, the pupils had to find together and autonomously, although under the supervision of expert moderators 8, the proper solu- tions for the conflict situations. In such a sense, as it was based on active learning, the approach that stood behind the project should be seen as “constructivist”, and the learning content as “dynamic”.7 The project staff cooperated with the teachers in the schools involved. In most of the schools there were small teams, coordinated by a person, who was also responsible for the implementation of the project. The aim was avoiding that pupils participated alone. 4
  5. 5. Menu bar User’s name and role Chat text display Functions bar Figure 2: An example of school conflict scenario in a 3D environment Besides the main intended “learning” outcome, i.e. the development of capacities in conflict mediation, the use of a 3D virtual platform was also likely to increase ICT skills and indirectly improve intercultural and language skills, as it made pupils from different countries interact in English language. The enhancement of labour market skills was not among the main aims of the project, although it is easy to imagine that, in a very indir- ect way, it could have an impact in terms of an increase of opportunities on the labour market, i.e. through the development of interpersonal social skills. Innovative elements and key success factors The Avatar@School project followed innovative technological and pedagogic ap- proaches, as it was based on a “Second Life-like” virtual environment, developed through an open-source software, and promoted “school peer mediation”. As regards the technological approach, the initial idea was to implement the project on Teen Second Life9, a Second Life’s separate platform for young people of 13-17 years of age. This posed an apparently insurmountable problem, as the policies of the company that holds the property of Teen Second Life did not allow to protect teenagers from adult harassment, what was not acceptable from an ethical point of view and potentially thwarting the effectiveness of learning processes. Therefore, the choice was to create9 5
  6. 6. an entirely new virtual world based on Open Simulator10, an open-source development software, in order to have a safe place for teenagers. The use of OpenSim instead of Teen Second Life did not pose any particular problem, even though OpenSim had actually some initial constraints. Every object in the virtual world had to be created from the beginning. For this reason, the virtual experiences on the first version of the new platform were not so various and dynamic as they could have been in Teen Second Life. Nevertheless, according to the project managers, this did not affect the success of the initiative. On the contrary, the limited variety of environ- ments and situations was functional to the development of the role plays. In addition, as the platform was hosted by CINECA, the project partners could have a more effective control on it, and therefore were able to achieve a better protection of the participants’ privacy. In such a sense, the platform could be seen as a separate and closed system: the “users” were listed and registered by the project staff, who also defined their roles with- in the role plays and assigned them avatars. The 3D virtual environment was sometimes used also by the project staff for holding project meetings. According to the project managers, it seemed to be even more effect- ive than more “traditional” means of communications, such as mailing lists or chat rooms. The system also included a Moodle platform, mainly dedicated to internal com- munication and training. In general, the use of Web 2.0 tools enhanced the “cooperative” character of the pro- ject. The pupils were also involved in the first phase of project development, specifically in testing the 3D virtual environment and the role plays. From the pedagogic point of view, innovativeness was in the learning model itself (see again figure 1, above), as it combined school peer mediation and 3D virtual role plays. In particular, the use of avatars had clear advantages, as it allowed pupils to see the faces of other pupils, even though they were “virtual” faces, what it would have not been pos- sible in a normal chat; on the other hand, being in a virtual world made it easier for pu- pils to interact and perform their roles with no restraints, what made the role plays more realistic and effective. This was confirmed to a certain extent by the analysis of a chat transcription, which revealed the use of explicit language and the adoption of un- constrained behaviours, although always under the supervision of moderators. Other innovative aspects were related to the creation of opportunities of interaction between pupils from different countries – what allowed them to improve also their in- tercultural and language skills, since some role plays were held in English language – and to the promotion of school peer mediation and virtual role plays in a country like Ro- mania, where both these learning methods were relatively new. Problems encountered and lessons learned The project staff had to face mainly “technical” problems in some schools, sometimes due to the use of up-to-date computers and more often to the presence of firewalls or filters. These problems were solved holding specific technical support sessions. A major problem was related to the role of “mediator” in a virtual environment. The mediator helps the two or more parties involved in a conflict situation to communicate with each other and see each other’s point of view, needs to clarify any misunderstand-10 6
  7. 7. ing and explain any thing that people do not understand. Nevertheless, in a virtual envir-onment the mediator is not able to see the body language of the “real-life” people,which instead plays an important role in helping the mediator to “mediate”. More gen-erally, in a virtual environment people are not always who they say they are and thisposes a problem for peer mediation, which has to be necessarily a process between“peers”, in particular when young people are involved. In such a sense, the choice ofcreating a new virtual world on an OpenSim platform allowed to overcome this problemand have a safe place for the participants in the role plays.In general, according to the project managers the project seems to have achieved itsaims. School peer mediation and virtual role plays have proven to be excellent learningmethods if combined together. The evaluation phase, based on an online questionnaire,has revealed a positive feedback by the participants. In total, 94% of respondents saidthat they had a “very good” (36%) or “good” (58%) impression. On average, they foundthe role plays “fun” and agreed that playing with pupils from other countries was “agood experience”; furthermore, they said that they thought it was easier for them toplay their role in the virtual setting than it would have been in a “real” role play. In thewords of the project managers, once again, the teachers believed that the initiative“had positive effects on the climate in classrooms”. Some schools asked for the possibil-ity to use the platform to carry out role plays after the end of the project. In some cases,they did it autonomously, with the technical assistance of CINECA and the support ofmediators from Associazione Equilibrio.No negative impacts or unintended outcomes have been identified from the point ofview of either learning or inclusion. However, an impact analysis would be needed toevaluate these aspects more in depth. 7
  8. 8. Collaborating institutions in LINKS-UP Institute for Innovation in Learning, Friedrich-Alex- ander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen, Germany Arcola Research LLP, London, United Kingdom eSociety Institute, The Hague University of Applied Sciences, The Hague, The Netherlands Servizi Didattici e Scientifici per l’Università di Firen- ze, Prato, Italy Salzburg Research Forschungsgesellschaft, Salzburg, Austria European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN), Milton Keynes, United Kingdom 8