Obstacles and isolation

I think what really struck me today was something that I’ve (had to) take for granted for several years now; the optimistic assumption that other people are up-to-speed with technologies and the internet.

I say “had to” because it’s a truism – in terms of work, and of advising friends and family, after a few years experience I now believe it is impossible to develop technology and counsel and train colleagues on technology at the same time. I believe it’s a problem that all developers face, and something which the open-source movement has yet to tackle (namely, it doesn’t have the money to try). But in order to develop a meaningful product, you have to have users who are able, willing, and likely to experiment with and use it to its potential. Therefore you cannot offer beta technology to an unknown audience, and expect results.

The fact that Alex got trapped in the CCCP room – Denise’s phrase “became quite tense” is absolutely spot on, however irrational – is testament to the fact that learners operate on many different levels. When I first entered the environment I too was concerned that something was wrong, because the doors wouldn’t open. Turns out all you need to do is disregard the laws of physics and it’ll all be OK. But while these unintuitive aspects quickly become playful – slamming at speed into the ground just for spectacle – they are serious flaws in presenting a virtual world to the wide range of students that can be expected to study at University.

Mature students are one army with a different line of reasoning from the current undergrads; disabled students too occupy a different stance. Following the social model of disability, Alex was disabled by the environment – the walls were too restrictive and the doors didn’t open as you expected. This is exactly the same physical division you see with wheelchair users and other people with mobility impairments, and it exists even in a purely electronic world.

Even excluding the physical barriers, the moon is a huge landscape with no radar; people with learning difficulties or lacking in confidence would easily give up long before they discovered where the rest of the group where; would they even try to contact by chat or would they go it alone? A student with Aspergers probably would opt for the latter – and notably may get more from the course in experiencing the solitude than if they’d been restricted. But the dislocation is profound, and I can easily see how easy it is to be lost, both in the environment and in the user interface itself: throughout the entire time that Alex was lost, nobody suggested clicking the Teleport To Home button that would’ve resolved the entire crisis. Again I chose not to do so because it defeats the purpose of defying the obstacle; that the easy way out exists doesn’t entail it should be chosen.

And yet no classified disability is necessary to encounter obstacles; that’s what I have suddenly re-learned from today (and in other areas over the past few months with computer security crises and the fact that broadband internet is a warzone suitable only for the well-equipped). Every user who embarks on a new venture requires a helping hand, and it is empowering to see a community spirit developing where there is no precursor; there is no relationship between any of us other than an entry in a Registry database tying us into this one course, and there is no requirement for us a collaborate and communicate (yet) in order to benefit our marks. Yet it still happens. So long as humanity itself does not wane, there may be hope for such immersive VLEs!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *