Unifying the Curriculum in a Digital Playground

 
 
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This paper was co-authored with Camilla Lindeberg, who delivered it at the 2004 SIITE Conference in Atlanta.

Abstract

This paper outlines the second stage in the development of a long-term project at Arcada Polytechnic. Marinetta is an online multi-user 3D depicting the capital of the island Rosario at the south of the Mediterranean Sea. Marinetta is intended to provide a virtual community with a real sense of location, and to offer distance education in the college on the island. Marinetta has provided a platform for practical student projects in the areas of production, design, and programming as well as for thesis projects involving experiment, research and analysis, and facilitating cooperation between departments.

In the second stage it will act as a venue for international collaborations and experiments in the area where art meets education. We are currently seeking partners who wish to participate in a project built in a bottom-up manner and aim ed at fostering creative interference.

1 Background

In the spring of 2002, the Media Department at Arcada Polytechnic agreed to begin a long-term initiative that would tie together different aspects of the multimedia course, provide an environment within which students could experiment and devise their own projects, and facilitate the development of cooperative projects with other departments and external agencies. This took the form of a multi-user 3D environment implemented using an open source programming language called SCOL technology [1].

2 Objectives

The objectives of the Marinetta project are:

  1. To create an environment that can be used for both education and entertainment.
  2. To build an educational institute in the world that can be used to develop distance learning initiatives.
  3. To work with the Department of IT and Electronics in Arcada to create a security system that offers variable levels of security for different purposes, such as access to personal areas; access to membersonly facilities; access to s tudent records and secure transmission of sensitive data.
  4. To lay the foundations for the introduction of services such as online banking, shopping, etc.
  5. To facilitate partnerships with other organizations to develop the world; to train students; and to provide employment opportunities for graduates.

3 The nature of the world

Marinetta is intended to provide the setting within which lively, involving communities can develop. Because the world has no single, fixed purpose the nature of the communities that develop will be up to the participants. Growth and change will be organic, and unpredictable. Philosophically the project follows the methodology that Peter Small has developed in a series of books and in practical on-line experiments [2].

Much of the first year?s work has been concerned with creating the history and culture of the island, and with developing a complex back-story that will provide a context for future work. This history has been published as a series of e-books that are being made available for download from the website.

As the project progresses different users and groups will administer and develop areas of the world. As the project develops it will therefore move from being centrally controlled to an unplanned amalgam of inter-related interests: work-related, educational and purely for entertainment. Importantly, all of these will impact on each other, causing creative interference and increasing the richness of the total experience. The world has been online and at www.marinetta.net since August 16th 2002. It will be officially launched at the end of 2004. Until then it will be deemed to be in a beta phase and subjected to regular testing, modification and upgrading.

The interface in particular has been the subject of intense development. The version under development will be launched in November 2003 and will act as a fully fledged instant messenger and virtual PDA, as well as providing access to the 3D environment.

4 Education

Marinetta will act as a virtual educational environment for Arcada students . Experimental distance learning will begin in early 2004, when the security issues have been completely resolved. The first experiment will use the basic 3D graphics course in spring 2004 for interactive media students as a testing ground. ?The Principles of 3D? is an introductory computer graphics course that will take place inside the virtual world.

The course will consist of a variety of teaching scenarios; there will be public lectures held at the city square for anybody that happens to walk by and wishes to attend, combined with more detailed classes held at the college, to which only the students that have signed up for the course have access.

The embedded technologies in SCOL allow for new ways of delivering lectures. Some lectures will utilize the streaming video features of SCOL which allow students to take classes whenever they want and in any order. There will also be scheduled lectures where the students can chat with the teacher in between video clips. The SCOL environment also allows for videoconferencing among the partakers of the lectures.

The 3D world in itself will also be used on a meta-level to illustrate how 3D objects can be crafted and transformed. Buildings will be torn down and rebuilt and animations used for describing the events of constructing more complex objects. Our intention is to develop the current state of ?distance learning? at Arcada Polytechnic into a truly interactive experience including functionality that has been hitherto unavailable using the more usual plain web page type of remote tuition.

5 The Technology

Marinetta has been built using the open source SCOL programming language and the SCS development tool [1], both originally created in France by CryoNetworks. Parts of the architecture were imported from 3D Max [3]. The textures were made in Photoshop, or imported from the SCS library.

A SCOL engine server hosts not only Marinetta but also a SQL database with user and space information. The nature of the SCOL technology is such that areas of Marinetta can be stored as separate accounts, although users experience it as a single world. This enables decentralized development and administration of the world, and provides the basis for a range of projects involving students and staff from different departments.

6 Art, education, practice and theory

The first year of development has been spent wrestling with the geography and history of the island, as it became clearer and clearer that we had to begin by creating the island?s culture, in order to provide a coherent logic for the world. Much of the history is now available at www.marinetta.net in the form of four downloadable e-books for Windows 98 or greater. One or more books will be added each month to provide a comprehensive picture of life in Rosario.

The initial 3D world was intended to be indicative of the main features of the town, and has now been withdrawn. It is currently being redesigned in line with the principles of live configuration, dominance and dependence outlined in The Structure of the Ordinary [4]. This will give shape to the history by providing visual depictions of its progress, and effects.

In December 2003 Marinetta will be used as the laboratory for a master class to be held in Belgium, under the auspices of the Fondation Hicter[5]. A selected group of cultural practitioners and arts managers will spend two days designing and planning a major event to be held on the island in the first quarter of 2004.

This event will include participation by artists and educators from England, Belgium and France, and is intended as a pilot project that can be developed further over the next eighteen months with different international groups.

In April 2004 two distance learning courses will be offered by the island?s college, La Kolegio Ilana, and in the autumn of 2004 these will be extended to include a regular sessions of lectures and debates. Our intention is to solicit interest from teachers and artists, cultural workers and pranksters during the next twelve months, and to promote educational and creative projects within the city. We believe that the bottom-up nature of our design process is beginning to create a world that is genuinely multi-purpose. More accurately we believe that the world is beginning to show encouraging signs of purposelessness, and that the participants are beginning to define their own purposes within this space.

We would welcome an opportunity to speak about this and to find additional partners who would be excited by the opportunity to join in a unique collaborative project with deep pedagogical and cultural implications.

References

1. SCOL Technologies (open source). http://www.scol-technologies.org (retrieved 01.10.2003)
2. Web page of Peter Small. http://www.petersmall.net (retrieved 02.10.2003) His work on stigmergy is
particularly interesting, and his three books on using the web (beginning with The Entrepeneurial Web,
ft.com) are directly relevant to the growth of Marinetta.
3. Web page of the product 3Ds max the company Discreet. http://www.discreet.com/products/3dsmax∞
(retrieved 27.6.2002)
4. The Structure of the Ordinary, NJ Habraken, 1998, MIT Press
5. The Fondation Hicter is an international cultural training agency based in Brussels. For further details
see http://www.fondation-hicter.org

 
 
This essay was first published on March 19, 2004