Metaphor Voom was interviewed in one of his creations – the Ensemble Pavilion on one of the Educators Coop sims. The pavilion was created as part of a grant from the National Science Foundation for computing education. Metaphor is responsible for the social networking part of the project, called Ensemble.

When one arrives at the pavilion, they are presented with three arches. The arch is a metaphor for the Ensemble project, as one is walking into and through passageways when they use social software. There are several floors to the Ensemble pavilion. The first floor is the original part of the pavilion where sits a slide viewer providing an overview of the project. The green arrows on the side of the viewer allow the user to navigate the presentation.

Ensemble is a new National Science Foundation (NSF) National Science Digital Library (NSDL) Pathways project working to establish a national, distributed digital library for computing education. Their project is building a distributed portal providing access to a broad range of existing educational resources for computing, while preserving the collections and their associated curation processes. They want to encourage contribution, use, reuse, review and evaluation of educational materials at multiple levels of granularity, and seek to support the full range of computing education.

Initially, SL was to be only a key part of the social networking component of Ensemble. However, the Ensemble Pavilion in Second Life instead became a virtual mirror of the Ensemble website, and it became an Ensemble portal with tools, communities, and collections all its own. The Ensemble Pavilion is the portal to their portals, and it is only available in Second Life.

What Metaphor ideally wants to create in Second Life is the visualization of ideas and how to make a curriculum three-dimensional. Being a “visual kinda guy,” Metaphor naturally saw how Second Life could be used as a graphic organizer. As he stated, “seeing relationships is one thing, but putting yourself inside the relationships is another.” Metaphor wanted to help students “see and be inside” the relationships between and among ideas. For Metaphor, learning, thinking, and interpreting are not linear practices. They are instead multi-dimensional living metaphors that Second Life can animate, while simultaneously encouraging the students to be part of the construction of the ideas and the environment.

Metaphor came to Second Life about three years ago just for the purpose of giving dimension to his curriculum, and his ideas have come to fruition on Glasscok Island for Digital Humanities and Visual Culture. Supported by an internal grant at Texas A&M University, the idea was to create a space for those educators not in the agricultural or mechanical areas. Glasscock is instead a place for the humanities and visually-oriented staff and faculty.

One of the courses that Metaphor teaches at Texas A&M is called Contemporary Visual Culture. This semester, his students were all given apartments in Second Life which they were encouraged to decorate themselves. The students then had to create and display ads from magazines that they interpreted following a methodology from the class. In each ad was a notecard explaining their interpretation. Their work then became part of the landscape in which they live. In addition, Metaphor’s classes are held in a wide variety of places including rooftops, sandboxes, and auditoriums. This creative atmosphere allows the students to be active participants in the construction of the physical and pedagogical landscape. It helps his students change and challenge the ways we think about teaching and learning in real life. Indirectly, the students learn about marketing as well, but the focus is on the interdisciplinary discourse of visual culture. In addition, because all of the work is at all times available to the public, the students can view and assess each others work, which is an essential component of constructivist learning and guided inquiry.

In order to get and keep his students in Second Life, Metaphor dedicates the first few weeks of the course just to navigating SL. He wants to ensure that none of this students drop the course due to technophobia. Before the semester even begins, Metaphor sends his incoming students some basic information via email and encourages them to log 20 hours of SL time before the semester starts. On the first day of class, all of the students are asked to log-in and meet Metaphor in the classroom. By that time, Metaphor and his students have been emailing back and forth about the basics of Second Life for quite a while. Once in SL with his students, Metaphor demonstrates some Second Life tricks and moves, but otherwise, they are fairly comfortable at that point. He makes sure that his students understand that his course is not “about” Second Life, but instead merely uses the SL environment, just as a biology course would use an auditorium. In fact, most of Metaphor’s students are not distance learners – they are students he meets weekly face-to-face. By the second week of class, Metaphor’s students have to meet a set of expectation and have mastered some basic skills within the context of assignments. The first assignment is due the third week, and so by that time students need to know how to upload images and make notecards.

Metaphor first heard about the Educators Coop from a posting. He thought the Coop would be a great place to work out his ideas for Second Life and his curriculum. The first two years of his involvement in SL, his department covered the costs. However, parcels are like potato chips – you can’t just have one – and so he has rented more land every year, opting to cover the expenses himself. After acquiring his first parcel of land, Metaphor taught himself how to build and script.

In addition to teaching in Second Life, Metaphor also uses SL for personal causes. Metaphor hopes to use SL to combat the global water crisis with the help of the TAMU Water Project. There are 5,000 children worldwide who die every day from water-related diseases. Metaphor works on appropriate technology, using clay, sawdust, and silver, that kills 99% of water-borne bacteria. The filter uses a clay bowl, and a five-gallon bucket that sits inside it. One to two liters of water are filtered through the clay per hour, rending water-borne bacteria inert. This device is used all over the world, including Texas. There are 50,000 people in Texas who do not have adequate access to clean water in their homes, and so this project is even being implemented in Texas A&M’s backyard. He uses SL to beta test the design of the filter and to bring awareness to the cause. TAMU’s sister facility is in the Dominic Republic where filters are being created and driven to Haiti. Metaphor works on TAMU with several people worldwide, with the help of the interdisciplinary team working on it at Texas A&M, and consultants at other universities.

If you ever have the chance to meet Metaphor Voom in SL, you will see that he tends to ware a black t-shirt with the name “Henry Box Brown” written across his chest. Henry Brown as a slave in 19th century Virginia. One day, his wife and kids were sold and sent to various places around the country. Naturally upset by these events, Henry decided he would do anything to stop being a slave, especially now that he would never see his family again, and so he and a white man that he knew devised a plan. The white man package Henry in a box and mailed him from Richmond, VA to Philadelphia, PA. It took 29 hours on train, boat, and cart, ½ of which Henry was upside down. Despite the odds, Henry arrived safely; he mailed himself to freedom. This touching and innovative story always inspired Metaphor and so he wears that t-shirt in homage to this hero.

The Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research SLURL:
http://slurl.com/secondlife/Glasscock/112/104/46

Ensemble Pavilion SLURL:
http://slurl.com/secondlife/Educators%20Coop%204/69/238/28

TAMU Water Project Site
http://tamuwaterproject.wordpress.com/

Ensemble Site:
http://www.computingportal.org/

The National Science Digital Library Site:
http://nsdl.org/