Blog Post

Immersed in Social/Virtual Media

I do get behind on my blogging. Way behind. Cathy Davidson is my blogging idol, and there is a reason (actually many!) why she is a well-known and prolific author and I'm not.

Most of my writing is in the form of long, reflective emails to colleagues. I've often thought I should just slam those into my blog--better than nothing, right? Well, tell me what you think, because I'm about to do it!

I taught college chemistry for 35 years and spent a year at the National Science Foundation as a program director. Teaching is what I love, and right now my focus is on information literacy and new media, particularly virtual worlds.

PARC WUSTL I recently took a 1/2 time position as Communications Director for PARC: Photosynthetic Antenna Research <>. This job may seem a stretch for me, but forming a community out of a whole mess of professors and grad students around the world cries out for some serious social media experimentation - and a lot of learning.

Here is what I wrote to my three closest colleagues in PARC this morning:

Hi guys,

I'm so excited that you all are interested in becoming avatars at the edge of the future!

I've been thinking long and hard about how to use "what I know" about new media and community for "what I do", which is to teach complex concepts to people who need to know them. It's the same thing I did for 35 years with college chemistry and for NSF, but right now what I need to teach/help people learn is way more important in the big picture. That's what makes me passionate about it.

Part of my work now centers on PARC, and the reason I feel OK about that is because applying these concepts in the PARC context can (in theory) provide a micro-laboratory for how to teach them in a broader context. Understanding why I say that will clarify why what I spend my time on may not always look like "PARC" work. But it is.

I believe that learning best takes place in context, so I was very excited that you three expressed interest in trying some of the newest tools for our PARC community, including Virtual Worlds. 

Even though we can physically be in the same space at Wash U, I think that it's valuable for us to practice using the remote communication tools before and during the time we are rolling them out for PARC. I do travel a lot, and spend long hours working at home. But with planning, we can turn that into an advantage. 

I was in our Second Life space last night brainstorming some possibilities. We have access to a conference center, a variety of smaller meeting spaces, and a multitude of presentation tools. We have a dedicated virtual space that we can configure as we like, and engaging our PARC members can be part of the process of building the community.

I propose that we model and test the use of social media tools (beyond email and phones) for our own weekly meetings and for our communication in general. 

Here are some ideas for steps we can implement. Just getting our PARC members into our Ning space isn't sufficient. We need to be strategic and know how these tools work for US so that we can help the broader group to see the value.

For us:

1. Schedule a regular daily (~30 minute) meeting in Second Life (say at 1 PM) to discuss where we are in our PARC community building.

2. Schedule longer meetings (~1 hr) online once a week (in addition to our F2F Monday meeting) to explore how others are using social media tools. This could include tours to SL business and education sites, attending online sessions on pertinent topics delivered in a variety of media, and running our own meetings in different tools to test their affordances.

3. Brainstorm regularly in these meetings about how the PARC Ning will become central to community communications.

For the PARC community:

1. As soon as we are comfortable meeting in the Second Life space (2-3 meetings?) we can invite in the most enthusiastic tech contacts.

2. Schedule regular (short) meetings with them online and later in Second Life.

3. Experiment with the configuration of our virtual space, and involve selected members of the PARC community in the process.

4. Ask the tech coordinators to bring in one or two of their local colleagues to test the online and virtual tools as soon as they are comfortable.

Ongoing informal assessment:

Spend part of a meeting once a week to reflect on where we are and what we are trying to do with the tools and our community.

I also believe what clever English teachers say: "I write to find out what I think." What I write to you in emails is much more thoughtful than what I might say off the top of my head in F2F meetings. In that spirit, I'm going to post this communication on my HASTAC blog to see what others have to say about our process.

See you tomorrow in the virtual world?

Liz D.



I'll be very curious to see how your experiment turns out, Liz.   Is everyone who is part of PARC already a committed SL user?  What is the learning curve to entry, in other words?   And had you already been having f2f meetings?  Will there be any f2f meetings or will all be in SL?  I suspect you discuss this but I wonder if you could be explicit about this for HASTAC readers so we can grasp what this "micro-laboratory" will produce different from if you didn't do it---and different from the rest of us do.  At HASTAC we have a weekly call between our West Coast and East Coast partners preparing for the DML Competition opening on Dec 14.   For us, the threshold would be too high to be meeting in SL each week since only some of us are already comfortable with SL.   But there might be other things we can take away.   In any case, would love to learn more and thanks for this start. Other peoples' email is so much more interesting than my own.


Thanks so much for commenting Cathy. Great questions.

PARC is a brand new DOE-funded EFRC (Energy Frontiers Research Center) with ~10 remote sites. I helped with the section of the proposal on using social media to create community, especially for all the grad students involved. A main goal is to share seminars at local sites across PARC using Adobe Connect or other similar online venues. We had one so far, and I'll try to blog our somewhat rocky experience.

The idea to use Second Life is mine, of course. I've been thinking for over 2 years about how to get new folks into SL in a way that shows them how powerful the experience can be before the learning curve scares them off. I think we (including the many brilliant friends I have in-world) are figuring it out.

As I said, just recently the other three on the administrative team (all young women + me) expressed interest in trying it out. So we'll see how it goes. Yay!

I'm up to my eyeballs in NSF proposals right now (panel starts tomorrow evening in DC). But you've inspired me to blog our experience through short posts or even more emails. I'll have a go when I get back this weekend.