Did you know that in Naples, in Federica Square...

Piazza Federica (Federica Square in Italian) is the “3D virtual square” that should constitute the innovative web-learning system of the Federico II University in Naples, Italy. I already reported in another article that Penguins can’t enter Piazza Federica, explaining why that is bad for a service of a public University. In additions to those penguin barriers, however, there are other things I don’t understand in the public service offered by Piazza Federica.

The original press release issued in March, 2009 said that “the tridimensional spaces of Piazza Federica will be animated by celebrities from Italian culture and international experts”. Since I am not allowed to enter Piazza Federica, in order to understand what that means I had to find and watch the official YouTube video. Watching that clip I discovered that the so-called Living Library of the online virtual campus of the public University Federico II of Naples, Italy is “an extraordinary guide to the best scientific resources available online” and that, once you enter its PodStudio section, “with just a few clicks you can choose the podcasts of the lessons that interest you… an absolute novelty in the Italian universities didactical landscape”. But Piazza Federica opened in 2009, and just two clicks on Google showed that the University of Pisa was (even if on a much smaller scale) already publishing online podcasts and other educational resources for its students in the 2007/2008 year. But never mind, let’s focus on the real value: did you know that, in Piazza Federica…

…there is a magic pyramid?

The video explained me that, if I had that operating system that creates cocaine-like addiction, inside Piazza Federica I would find Italian celebrities and international experts ready to guide me; that, unlike what happened with old Web of the past century, I could enter inside the website of each Faculty with just one click; and, above all, that in the center of that fairy world lays, eagerly waiting for me, “a magic pyramid made of crystal, that will lead you in the world of Federica”. It looks like this magic pyramid contains lots of “advance international news, thanks to feeds updated in real time from media outlets worldwide, easily accessible, for the first time, in a 3D environment". Really! I’m not making this up!

Did anybody really need a square like this?

Let’s give credit where credit is due: the online library and the selection of educational resources put online by the Federico II University of Naples are a great, good and useful service anyway: the “mere” fact that all the courses are structured according to “one single standard for all sectors” is an excellent thing. Kudos to the University for this, for the sheer quantity of stuff they put online and to the great effort that was surely necessary and is very useful for all students, to select and present in a clear, coherent way the content of the Living Library.

This said, I can’t help but notice that Piazza Federica also contains a bit of ridiculousness (in the pompous way it is presented, at least) and lots of superfluousness. How can the pyramid summons inside its crystal walls “advance international news”? Maybe, since it’s a magic pyramid, it put a spell on CNN and friends to get those news way before the rest of the Internet? Besides, if you look at the panels in that video, those news appear to be nothing more than absolutely standard RSS feeds and bidimensional images: in other words, all flat stuff, absolutely usable without any magic in any browser by at least 10/15 years. Being the first to render plain, bidimensional images and textual news in a 3D enviroment may be a great accomplishment from a purely technical point of view, but what is the point? What sense does it make? Sounds a bit like a bread toaster with a satellite TV dish, if you ask me.

Besides, very frankly, when I saw the magic pyramid I found myself wondering if it had been placed in Piazza Federica simply out of envy of the Louvre or to cheer up kids who before entering the University had only read the Da Vinci Code. Because, both from the video and from the official presentation] it really looks like there is no service in Piazza Federica that justifies all this deployment of 3D software wizardry. May I ask to the students of this University who, by definition, are at least 18 years old: my dear boys and girls, do you really need, at your age, 3D cartoons and videogames (that only work well if you have a broadband connection…) only to download lesson podcasts, read news and search online? Duh!

Interactive, 3D virtual reality environments surely have a place in modern teachnig, but only when they provide something useful and impossible to achieve with other methods. Everything explained in the official Federica page and video seems to be perfectly doable with much simpler technologies, that would be surely usable with any computer, operating system and Internet connection (as in “more affordable for all students”) and probably at a smaller price for the University. It’s great that there are Italian software houses with the know-how to build 3D, realistic software versions of real Italian buildings like the ones you can find in Piazza Federica. But maybe the public money used to build Piazza Federica should have been given to the same companies to build something more urgent first: like, for example, faithful models of the House of the Gladiators and other Italian monuments before they fall apart for lack of public funds for their maintenance. In any case, a public University that got cuts for more than 20 millions Euros in the last two years and operates in a country that can’t find money for broadband may pay more attention to avoiding unnecessary expenses for itself and its students and [don’t create unnecessary barriers ].