Friday, July 7, 2017

Gentle Heron at the Safe Water Foundation's "Let's Mertalk"

By Bixyl Shuftan

About twice a month, the Safe Waters Foundation hosts a discussion called "Let's Mertalk." Grace Wrigglesworth described the event as, "We mingle every other week ... Sometimes Open Topic, and other times there will be other topics announced in advance. So ask your questions and see amongst all of us to see if we can provide some answers.  Special topic speakers will sometimes answered.  Product demonstrations are welcome - so builders and designers - consider participating." So far, the talks have occurred at the bottom of the Union Passage sim, and take place every other Saturday at 1PM

The Mertalk on Saturday June 10 was a special one as its speaker was Gentle Heron. In the community calendar, Grace described the event as, "This week Gentle Heron will speak about her experiences with helping with SL gateways.  How do new people in SL get introduced to the new environment.  Gentle led the opening of an award winning SL Gateway - come hear more - she will suggest some discussion questions for the mer - and of course we hope you come brimming with questions for discussion as well." Just a few days before, Linden Lab had announced their Community Gateway program was officially back.. So the topic was still fresh in the minds of those concerned about the matter.

I arrived a bit late for the discussion, so missed the first ten minutes. There were a number of people present, most were in merfolk avatars, though there was one other fur and one human. Among those in mermaid tails was Barbie Alchemi of Creations for Parkinsons. So was Any1 Gynoid, whom had written for the Newser in the past and was the one who told me about the talk. Gentle Heron was present in a white Beluga whale avatar. "Try to sit close to the white beluga," Grace told us.

Gentle explained that the "newcomer self-instructional orientation path" was done with the help of some librarians, "specifically designed to help people with disabilities learn to use the virtual world. We call it our NROC, New Resident Orientation Course. It takes up about almost half of the Virtual Ability island, and teaches SL skills such as walking, sitting and flying, text chatting, friending, and joining groups; 'buying' things (for free), finding things in inventory, and unboxing purchases; using maps, landmarks, and teleports to get around; and customizing your avatar appearance and outfits."

Gentle went on, "Virtual Ability specializes in assisting people with disabilities to learn how to function in SL, no matter their capabilities, needs, and use of assistive devices to access their computer." She then asked us what we thought was "the most commonly used assistive technology device." Most of us thought a cane. Any1 guessed eyeglasses, which Gentle stated was the case, "Physical disabilities include paralysis, limb loss, arthritis, neuromuscular diseases… anything affecting the ability to move. This is going to impact typing and mouse use, of course. Many people in our community use some form of assistive technology to use their computer. Some of our members type with a wand attached to a headband. Others type with their toes. Some control the cursor with movements of their tongue, or by sipping and puffing into a tube.  And some folks who are totally paralyzed use their eye motion to control their computer."

Gentle went further, "People with mental and emotional disabilities often need mentors to provide social support. It may take them longer to learn how to function within the social norms of a community. Acceptance of diversity is wonderful. But so is acceptance of community standards. There has to be a balance, and that is aided by patient mentors who guide behaviors. People with developmental disabilities must be protected from some of the more 'adult' activities in SL. Again, patient mentors and guides are an important resource for these folks."

"And finally people with sensory disabilities sometimes need very specialized assistance," Gentle stated, "Deaf people need to have transcribers who type the gist of spoken presentations or classes or discussions so they can participate in text in real time. Of course these text transcripts also benefit people whose first language is not English and people with distractibility problems. They can scroll up in text and review… you can’t do that with audio alone. Blind people can’t access SL through either the Linden or the Firestorm viewer. The Radegast viewer provides text-only access that works with their screen reader software. This allows blind people to participate fully in Second Life despite not seeing their surroundings. ...  In fact, we’ve found that many of the adaptations our community makes for people with specific disabilities often benefit others who do not consider themselves disabled." Barbie commented, "That is why the work that Gentle does is so important and valuable! She helps make SL accessible to everyone no matter what their disability!" "Even if they have fins not legs," Grace, in her merfolk avater, mused. It was brought up that Creations for Parkinsons had a blind DJ (news article). Barbie told the group, "Keao is our friend who has been blind since birth and Gentle has taught her and others how to use the Redegast Viewer so they can enjoy SL!"

Gentle then moved on to Community Gateways, "Our community was invited by Linden Lab to be part of their first Community Gateway program along with several other communities, I think that was back in 2009 or thereabouts, and later to be part of their Resident Help Network program, with other mentoring organizations. That was around 2012. Recently, we’ve become part of the new Community Gateway program. Linden Lab announced that program here:   Now please remember, I’m not an employee of Linden Lab so I’m not an internal expert on the Community Gateways program. I can tell you of our community’s experience. Linden Lab’s emphasis this time around seems to be on newcomer retention. They still are not doing well at keeping a majority of those who enter SL past the first week or month. Too many folks try SL once or twice, then never return."

Raks (rakshowes Resident) commented of most new residents leaving, "That is because the controls are hard at first. Many people I not know helped me in first weeks." Grace commented, "(I) would love to figure out how to make the merfolk community more accessible to those new folk. Not to plan her/now, but just a dream of mine. ...  I wanted to see if others shared my dream- as I can't do all the work myself."

Gentle went on, "Those who stay tend to be those who get involved right away with a community. That realization was the 'AHA' for Linden Lab to re-institute Community Gateways. This program took about a year and a half of planning on the Lab’s part to come to fruition. They did a ton of research. Some of the requirements for becoming a Community Gateway are: • an active community in SL for at least a year and a half, with identified leaders, in good financial and disciplinary standing with LL, • a Full region, with a welcome/orientation area including tutorials and other helpful content for newcomers, and without commercial activity,  • separate land access and resident groups, with the newcomers becoming part of the resident group, • a website with a page that allows account registration through a Linden Lab RegAPI."

Grace stated, "We have this region, (it) is is not an official linden gateway for newcomers. It is a resource center for people interested in being part of the merfolk community, and in good standing with the Lindens I believe - so might be a prospect. But if you go see Gentle's gateway, (it) really has some intensive build requirements." Any1 commented, "I recommend everyone go through Gentle's Gateway... it's an SL ground zero training course... the best that's ever been made." Grace agreed, "Absolutely, it is terrific." Barbie added, "Gentle is my hero! I have the deepest respect for her and the valuable work she does in SL."

Gentle responded, "Thanks for the compliments, friends. I think you will want to hear the rest of this. What does LL offer the Gateways? • They put information about the Gateway communities at their intake areas, both their Orientation and their Social Island areas. • They make the island holding the orientation area free, no tier payments. What you particularly want to remember about the Community Gateways is that they are not a place. They are a process. Not a place! A newcomer welcome and orientation process, beginning at the community’s website and continuing on through an inworld learning experience. For more technical details about the new Community Gateway program, you really should speak with Patch Linden. He's very accessible. The RegAPI on the website was really difficult. It took us many months and much sweat and tears to get it working."

When Any1 wondered why the merfolk community wasn't already doing this, Gentle answered, "You'd need a programmer, not an SL programmer but a website one." Grace then spoke, "Do list, a good team to have. What would be the roles you suggest?" Gentle responded, "It helps to have an educator on the team to write the curriculum. And experienced mentors, as well as sim designers. And those who can make whatever materials your community considers necessary for newcomers, along with website folks, who don't even have to work in SL at all. Then you want to think of ways to advertise. Now, more generally about helping newcomers to a virtual world, I will say that our New Resident Orientation Course planners based their work on the theory of andragogy. You may be more familiar with the term pedagogy, the science of teaching children. Andragogy is the science of adult learning. It’s widely recognized in education that adults learn differently than children. And we are all adults here. I’ll summarize the points of andragogy quickly: • Adults are self-directed as learners. They want to decide for themselves what to learn and when and how to learn it. • Adults have life experiences to draw on. That background provides context for new learning. They can learn from mistakes. • Adults learn as part of their social roles: for work, as students, or for entertainment and relaxation. They learn what they believe is relevant. • Adults learn best by solving problems. You can learn more about andragogy here: . Please bookmark."

Gentle went on, "We also laid out our orientation using a spiral curriculum, to use another education term. This means the learner uses what they just learned previously in the next lesson. So for example, the first thing people learn on our orientation is how to walk. Then they practice walking to get to the next lesson, on camera skills (looking around). They walk to the third lesson, where they use camera skills to find items to click on. Then they walk to the fourth lesson and look around for items to click on that are pose balls." "Baby steps" someone commented. "Exactly," Gentle responded, "and repeated repetition! See how this is a spiral, and how previous learning is reinforced in each subsequent lesson?" Barbie commented, "It really is an amazing orientation and it is so helpful that VAI offers mentors!"

Gentle then decided to answer questions, saying if anyone wanted to schedule a look at the orientation pathway behind the scene with explanations of the design to contact her after she was done. Grace asked, How did you keep the motivation going? Get people to help?" Gentle answered, "I think you mean motivation of the designer build team. That was not a problem! We all knew how much we got out of being here, and wanted a way for more folks like us to experience the virtual world and its benefits." Grace commented, "Really people involved in getting the effort moving forward. You didn't do all by yourself obviously." Gentle told, "Oh no, it was a whole team. After the community leaders determined this need, we sought out people with the skills needed to make it happen. One of our team members was The Sojourner. Soj was the founder of the first disability group in SL. We also included people as testers. We had low vision folks look at various designs of our signage to see what worked best for them. So no, the team was intentionally planned and recruited. Eme Capalini led that team, and she remains estate manager on that island and several of our other properties."

Raks (rakshowes Resident) brought up, "One of the problems for newbies is that they not know where to go. And if they go to places, often no one is there. This can be a turn off in first days." Gentle answered, "If you mean to get orientation, that's why LL advertises the gateways at their own orientation, and also why the gateway communities have to have an outreach website to do their own advertisement. If you mean that newcomers don't have any idea what they can do in SL, yes, that's often true. It's one of the things our mentors assist with. 'What would you like to do?' 'What would you explore if you had a chance?' " Grace told Gentle, "Raks often meets new merfolk in SL, and a common complaint is they visit the sites and don't find people." Gentle told stated,  "We suggest that people go to *events* not *places,* because people cluster at events." Raks added, "As a newcomer you do not know where to go, how to search, who to ask, it is a totally alien world to you." Gentle nodded, "Yes Raks, so true. But it is like visiting a different country. Guides help!" Grace stated, "We are trying to reform our SWF Concierge team. So welcome and help people when they are here - for events or for when the concierges can be in world." Gentle remarked, "We request that if someone KNOWS they will need assistance (E.g., if they are blind) they write to , and we assign someone to contact them, and set up a meeting. We help people even before they are in SL, if they need assistance getting through the sign up process. We work by phone and Skype and in some instances even go to their home if there is a mentor near enough." Grace felt, "We can do similar or adapt some of her approaches. The sea is the limit. I wish we could get a mer avatar into the selections, and Lindens want to start up many more of these gateways, so they get a better start." Barbie thought the idea of a mer as a starter avatar was a good idea.

After that, the chatter went into several other questions and issues. Someone brought up the theory of Climate Change, and felt the community should be involved with the issue, Grace told her this wasn't a political activist group. Barbie commented of mer avatars, "As my 90 Years Young Mom said in the video... she can actually feel her muscles relax and strengthen when she watches her avi swimming as a mer!"

Eventually, the conversation wound down, and people went about their different ways. Later that day was Grace's rezzday party, so there was some preparing for that after the discussion.

The "Let's Mertalk" taking place tomorrow, Saturday July 8 at 1PM, will have Barbie Alchemi as the featured speaker.

Union Passage (96/229/1)

Note: Corrected after someone pointed out a question attributed to her had actually been made by Grace. 

Bixyl Shuftan

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