Educational Opportunities in a Fictitious Country
Authors: Owen Kelly, Camilla Lindeberg and John Grönvall
Marinetta is the capital city of Rosario, a fictitious island situated in the Mediterranean Sea. It is also the title of an ongoing educational multimedia project that began in June 2002 and is intended to last for a minimum of five years.
Rosario has been created with a detailed geography, history, and local economy. It has a native language, which is (not coincidentally) identical to the reformed version of Esperanto known as Ido.
The goal of the project is to develop an immersive on-line environment that will permit different kinds of learning to take place simultaneously, while permitting one strand to interfere creatively with another. This will include both learning about the environment (graphic design, 3D modelling, scripting and programming, database management), and learning within the environment (language tuition, cultural theory lectures, and so on).
At the heart of this is an interactive, multi-user 3D world that has been constructed using the SCOL programming language, developed in France by Cryonetworks, and is viewable on PCs by downloading the SCOL Voy@ger plug-in.
We wish to offer a demonstration of the island, explaining the development process, exploring the resulting website, detailing the experience of the first six months online and outlining the long-term pedagogical goals.
Arcada is a polytechnic in the metropolitan region of Helsinki in Finland, serving the Swedish-speaking minority. In the spring of 2002 the Media Department decided that an umbrella project should be developed for the digital media courses. The students need and expect work experience as an important part of their course, and the recent downturn in the fortunes of the Finnish multimedia industry has meant that we have had to prepare to find ways of providing some of that experience in-house.
The umbrella project needed to allow students to maintain a complete and complex website with a real user base; it needed to force them to create innovate web applications to service the users and increase traffic to the site; and it needed to compel them to address theoretical issues concerning usability, user interface design and the possibilities of cross media integration.
The project also had to enable the students to work within the kinds of situations, and under the kinds of constraints, that they were likely to encounter upon graduating.
2. Creating Rosario
The initial task was to decide the core parameters for the project, and staff and students were canvassed for ideas. From this process emerged a consensus that the project should revolve around the creation of a 3D world available on the web.
The idea of setting this world on a distant planet, in remote past, or in the far future, was explored and rejected. It was agreed that any of these settings would make the setting of realistic work-related briefs too difficult. It was decided, instead, that the world should be set in the present, somewhere on Earth and that the parameters of the world should be taken from an existing description.
The nature of the world emerged from the discovery of a 1923 magazine story, Sexton Blake and The Time Thief, which was partly set on a Mediterranean island called Rosario. The island was described in sufficient detail to provide a basis for the 3D world, while leaving enough to the imagination to let the designers work creatively.
The members of a concept design course spent several months planning the island in great detail. Simultaneously, a design course and a programming course began the work of constructing a 3D world, using the SCOL technology. This software is extremely powerful and very easy to use in a simple way, but its documentation is very sketchy. The students involved were forced to grapple with fundamental issues including learning how to learn, and how to generalise their experience.
The concept design group produced a long and detailed history detailing the story of Rosario from 1452BC to the present day, which was revised when it was decided that the technical limitations of the software should be incorporated into the narrative.
It was agreed that the website should be the official government website of Rosario, and that it should contain an interactive 3D model of the capital city, Marinetta, with chat facilities, working buildings and in-world banking. It was also agreed that visitors to the site should feel as though they were visitors to a foreign country and that, to facilitate this, the island should have its own language. After much research it was agreed that the islanders should speak the reformed Esperanto known as Ido, which is the language used for all signs, advertisements and government documents.
Marinetta will be publicly launched on January 22nd 2003 at www.marinetta.net and the launch itself is currently the subject of a project for students training to be producers. After the launch, these students will continue to produce real-world events that mirror the various holidays and festivities that have been designed into the Rosarian calendar.
3. Visiting Marinetta
Users will be able to log in to Marinetta as residents or holiday-makers. Residents will receive a password-protected house in the city, and an in-world bank account. They will be able to use this to pay for the range of services that will be added over the next two years. Holiday makers will be able to roam the city, and engage in public chat, but will be unable to enter buildings which charge an entrance fee.
Marinetta will be equipped with two museums and a gallery, which will be curated by artists and arts organisations. They will be capable of displaying any work that is capable of being digitised.
The cinema will show a range of student and independent work in Realmedia or QuickTime formats.
The library will contain a range of e-books in Ido, English and Swedish. We will be looking to include a range of teaching materials for the Ido language there, including papers discussing the advantages and disadvantages of artificial languages in general. We will also be looking at ways of encouraging the production of new material for the library, including experiments in poetry in Ido.
The banks will contain in-world computers enabling users to carry out a range of financial transactions including payments and subscriptions.
4. Developing the island as an educational resource
The project has four long-term goals. Firstly it attempts to provide a rich multi-purpose environment on the web that will act as:
1. a new kind of environment for distance learning
Almost all the online environments that we have seen suffer from the fact that they are designed for one single purpose. Some are designed for distance learning; others are designed for entertainment such as role-playing games. The real world does not work like that. People walk the same streets and sit on the same train for very different reasons.
Our intention is to create such a multi-purposed world: a world in which distance learning is one of the many possible activities that take place. We believe that this will provide a much richer and more appealing environment that allows for spontaneous interaction between the inhabitants.
The college in Marinetta has facilities for streaming live lectures, and for replaying pre-recorded material. The lectures will be streamed into lecture theatres within which those attending will be able to chat to each other and the lecturer.
The interface has a panel that allows the display of web-pages or Flash movies which means that materials and demonstrations can be given while the lecture is streaming.
Normally a user is represented on the island by a 3D avatar. However, smaller groups can hold fully interactive tutorials in private rooms where everybody can use a web-cam to communicate directly with everyone else.
2. a laboratory for cultural studies
If the environment that we create is rich enough then the uses that it is put to will be unpredictable. Learning how people use the environment and what people want from it will provide students with valuable experience in the fields of monitoring and marketing.
Within the environment itself there are opportunities to undertake marketing assignments and then monitor the results. A number of rival brands have been created (5L and Granda-L for soft drinks, for example) with the express intention of allowing to students to gain experience in developing brand strategies, including package design and advertising material.
The use, and public awareness, of Rosario will be able to provide the basis for many kinds of thesis work. If ideas are transmitted as memes across the internet then perceptions of the reality of Rosario might be the subject of fruitful scrutiny, for example.
3. a test-bed for web applications
The project has been designed to be as open-ended and flexible as possible in all aspects, including the database structure for the user accounts that uses an XML schema designed to facilitate expansion.
The initial applications that are planned include a radio station streaming to subscribers as long as they are logged in to the world; an in-world messaging system; buddy lists; an island stock exchange that allows users to buy and sell shares in the businesses on the island; and a number of job-themed games that enable residents to earn Rosarian lira.
4. a framework for in-house apprenticeships
Once Marinetta is launched it will be treated as an external client. A small government consisting of relevant staff members, and student representatives, will create job briefs that mimic exactly the kinds of briefs students will be likely to get upon graduation.
Students accepting briefs will be credited with work experience weeks as they would if they carried out work experience at a commercial company. They will be expected to carry out the briefs in the same way too. They will work on their own initiative, seeking help and tuition as they feel they need it.
1. From January 22nd 2003, Marinetta can be found at www.marinetta.net
2. An English version of A Visitors Guide to Rosario can also be can be found at www.marinetta.net
3. The Voy@ger plug-in can be downloaded from the Marinetta site.
4. Information about the SCOL programming language and development tools can be found at www.cryonetworks.com Cryonetworks have gone into liquidation and the future of the software is currently under discussion. It seems possible that the language will become an open source project.
5. Information about the Ido auxiliary language can be found at www.idolinguo.com