Language Learning and Teaching with the aid of Technology

Diary of a Second Life English Teacher … Part 6

Yesterday was the day this term's Business Talking course finished on Kamimo Island. The students had Assessment 3 to do which is a 'group presentation'. This time they could present about anything they wanted to, but the group of three's presentations had to be linked in some way. For example, we started (as usual) with the far eastern group at 3.00 pm), which happened to consist of a Kazakh studying to be an architect at Beijing University, a Swede working for Citibank in Shanghai, a music teacher living in the south of Sweden and a Russian exchange student who's actually here in Kalmar (it's odd teaching students you could meet face-to-face if you wanted to!). They put on a great series of presentations about links to China, with the Russian detailing the many centuries of relations between Russia and China; the Kazakh talking about the way foreign students are catered for in China; the Citibank employee talking about the delights of Shanghai; and the music teacher using the experiences of a colleague of hers (in Sweden) who is Chinese - and a music teacher. I.e. they each got to talk about something of great interest to themselves, but they found ways of linking their presentations together.

One interesting addition to the toolbox of ways of assessing performance is that I gave each group 10 marks/student (out of 100) to allocate to their own performances in preparing for this group presentation. The idea is to reward them for work done on preparing for the big day … preparation which I couldn't possibly monitor myself. As usual there was quite a range of marks being given, with all the students being really challenged by the task of evaluation their own performances.

It was an intensive day for me (I didn't get home until 10 pm). I had Assessment 3 marks and feedback to write, and then each student got a mail with their feedback and final grade, a form to apply for a course certificate and a link to the course evaluation (thank you Survey Monkey!). We'd already done some general feedback at the course meeting, but I want to also give the students the opportunity to say what they think after they'd received their final mark.

And just to add spice to life, 30 minutes before the far eastern group showed up, a representative of my university's Student Union turned up at my office. They'd heard about Second Life and wondered if they could use it as a place to give support and advice to distance students! After a quick cup of coffee, I was able to hand over the headphones and let him talk with some real distance students (Shanghai to Kalmar is quite a way!). I do hope I haven't frightened him away … it'd be real fun to have a student union presence on Kamimo.

I've still got one or two assessments to carry out. There've been people ill and away on business trips. But most of what I've been doing today has been preparing for the influx of (probably) about 45 students on the spring 2010 version of the course. I'll be able to divide them into groups … but it's going be an interesting challenge to handle groups of 20-25 students at a time in world. Dr Bryan Carter, from the University of Central Missouri, and I will be linking our students up again, and we're going to try to devise ways of getting our students to keep their contact going all through the term.

It feels really good, though, to be able to start thinking of this course in Second Life as a 'mainstream' course.

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Comment by Graham Davies on December 24, 2009 at 6:46am
Just an afterthought: Take a look at Helen Myers' video on her experiences as a language learner in SL. She is a member of this Ning and a language teacher in secondary education:

Language learning in Second Life: an introduction:

Her enthusiasm is quite infectious! Helen is known as Karelia Kondor in SL and manages the HQ of the Association for Language Learning and MFL Resources on EduNation I Island:

Happy Christmas!

Comment by Paul Driver on December 24, 2009 at 4:40am
"Second Life is what you make of it in the end - as is Real Life."

Can't argue with that!

Happy Christmas guys, in both worlds.
Comment by Graham Davies on December 23, 2009 at 10:20am
Paul, I agree that SL can be clunky and primitive and some of the spaces that I visit are often empty. On the other hand, many spaces that I visit are very busy: pubs, clubs and live gigs in particular.
SL has improved a lot since I joined in early 2007. At that time voice chat was not available and the graphics were poor. But now voice chat works pretty well in my experience - I use it to keep in touch with my wife when I am away from home; I just phone her on my mobile and tell her that I'm going online. I now have a much faster broadband connection, a faster computer and a better graphics card - all of which have improved my SL experience.

As in other online environments, just turning up to see who's around is not very fruitful a lot of the time, but I find pre-arranged meetings in SL work very well. Many groups to which I belong have regular meetings at fixed times, and I usually find that enough people turn up to make it worthwhile attending. SLexperiments, for example, runs regular meetings, and I also belong to the American Cancer Society group in SL, which runs regular support meetings at which cancer patients - many of them recently diagnosed - can express their fears, seek advice and just exchange information about their experiences.

Second Life is what you make of it in the end - as is Real Life.

Comment by Paul Driver on December 23, 2009 at 6:25am
Thanks, I read the report after spotting the link on the other thread.
I've read a lot of positive things about learning environments in SL and I'm still optimistic regarding its potential. After signing up for an account back in 2005, my personal experience of SL has not been postive however. I've also found much of the research I've read on teaching and learning in SL to be particularly uncritical, so the Arcadia report was quite refreshing. Whenever I read about the "rich, stimulating, engaging, immersive, interactive" virtual world, I routinely download the latest build and go about exploring, only to find SL as clunky, primitive and empty as I remembered. This is truly frustrating. I know there are many people investing time, energy and creativity into improving the experience, but they only have limited control over the tools they have to work with.

As far as the debate surrounding whether or not to replicate traditional F2F classes in SL goes, I definitely side with those who advocate exploring other options. Throughout my 17 years of teaching, I've found myself in a constant battle to overcome or subvert the limitations of the formal learning spaces I've had to teach in.
Comment by Graham Davies on December 23, 2009 at 4:01am
Have a look at Stefanie Hundsberger's report on Foreign language learning in Second Life and the implications for resource provision in academic libraries:

I mentioned this report in an earlier blog thread, 6 November 2009:

One of Stefanie's topics of investigation in this study was the type of classroom that teachers use. She writes:

"Group work (enquiry based learning) is featuring quite heavily both in SL as well as
in real life. Opinions are divided on whether to replicate face-to-face classes in SL or
whether to try different scenarios. Amongst educators in SL the traditional classroom
setting is seen as somewhat controversial. The most common replica of a face-to-face
class would be a teacher’s desk at the front with a whiteboard behind and with a set
of seats at the other side of the room. This is not a very exciting and inspiring setting,
and it is even less so when considering the rich environment that SL has to offer.
Teaching in SL often involves quests, treasure hunts, and role play. Students seem
very happy to use a specific teaching ground as both a starting point and an end point
to the lesson, but in between they like to travel to different places and explore and
learn while they enjoy their experiences."

Comment by David Richardson on December 22, 2009 at 11:31pm
I'd hesitate to call this a 'shift away' yet! I was part of the group which designed Kamimo Island and we had a lot of discussions about what it should look like at the beginning (it actually took 6 months to discuss design and purchase land, and then about 6 days to actually implement the final design!). In that process we turned the question over to a bunch of design, teacher training and computer programming students and got some very interesting ideas back. The Yggdrasil centre is partly a result of that process, where you, as a teacher, can send the tables into the air for private group discussions and then bring them back down to the ground for plenary sessions with all the tables.

However, my subjective impression is that people are still taking conventional classrooms as their model when designing SL environments, which I see as the same process as the one that happened at the beginning of television where sets were made like theatres from the early days in the 1950s until the middle of the 1960s.

I must admit, though, that even though we've departed from the traditional classroom design somewhat, "uninformed trial and error and aesthetics-driven design" is still a fairly accurate description of the process we went through! However, one of the beauties of virtual environments is that they're fairly quickly and fairly easily re-shaped. I sense there's an evolutionary process underway in which the better-adapted designs will outcompete the less well-adapted designs, 'adapted', that is, to the well-founded conclusions experts in learning space design and environmental psychology have come to. Or, to put it another way, I think students will gravitate towards well-designed spaces and away from badly-designed ones.

However, it's early days yet. There are still too few students (relatively) who study in this sort of environment to be able to avoid idiosyncratic conclusions about how they behave in them, in my view.
Comment by Paul Driver on December 22, 2009 at 3:56pm
I'm glad there's a shift away from spaces modeled on traditional classrooms. I think learning space design and environmental psychology should be part of teacher training these days. Without this it's a question of uninformed trial and error or aesthetics-driven design.
Comment by Graham Davies on December 21, 2009 at 6:02am
I think many people who teach in SL are moving away from environments that look like traditional classrooms. I know one teacher who has set up an environment for teaching that looks like the inside of a space ship. There has been some research on how people behave in SL and to what extent their behaviour in RL transfers to SL - I must hunt this down sometime. I read that most people behave in a similar way to the way they behave in RL. I know that I do most of the time, but I often wear funny clothes and I go to clubs and dance the night away (which my old body in RL can't do any more).

I have three avatars. My main avatar, Groovy Winkler, displays a profile that identifies me as his RL owner. I have another male avatar and a female avatar that have completely fictitious profiles. I remain anonymous when I use them - which gives me a different perspective on what I observe when swanning around in SL. If I am in a educational area as Groovy Winkler and displaying my true profile then people often behave differently towards me.

My female avatar gets a lot of (often unwanted) attention from men. I mentioned this to my wife, who is a Second Life addict and mainly interested in fashion design. "Now you know what it's like being a woman", she said.

Comment by David Richardson on December 21, 2009 at 12:20am
You'll find Kamimo Island, where I work most of the time, at

It's an 'all-purpose' educational island, designed to look a little like Norway, so there are log fires to sit around and pavilions (which look a little like the outdoor dance floors people use in the summers) where more or less formal presentations can take place. There's also a sort of 'board room' up in the sky, but I don't use that much.

I've taught just over 50 students in this environment so far (with another 50 starting in February), over four terms. It's too early to make much more than 'qualitative' judgements, but there are som interesting trends, at least in my experience. For example, people are definitely affected by the environment, from day one, saying 'sorry' if they bump into someone, and using their avatar names rather than their real names right from the start.

I teach 'outdoors' more or less all the time, which is a very familiar environment for Scandinavians (who make up the majority of my students). On AVALON (a neighbouring island designed by an EU project) they've also created an environment like this. Another two neighbouring islands, though, are Virtual Montmartre and Virtual Harlem, where many of the activities take place 'indoors' in rooms whose interiors are historically accurate (from the 1920s and the 1900s respectively). It'll be interesting to see if there are any similarities and differences in the kind of interaction which takes place.

I've also just started getting significant numbers of students from places like Russia, Korea, China, Germany and France. The Koreans seem to love the social nature of SL, but are also very 'obedient' to their teacher. The Germans and the Russians keep trying to be business-like and strict … but they lose it every now and then too. The appearances of the avatars of the respective cultural groups are quite different. I had a Korean exchange student (i.e. she was here in Sweden IRL) who decided to be blonde for a week, to see what it was like! She said that there were so many exotic blondes around her that she wanted to share their experiences. She looked like a Valkyrie for a while …

Were there but world enough, and time … there'd be a nice little research project for someone in all this. I'm just too busy creating the 'research data' in order to be able to do it myself.
Comment by Paul Driver on December 20, 2009 at 6:24pm
That's interesting. It seems then that when the interactions are moved to a virtual world, the implicit messages of hierarchy and authority that influence behavior do not automatically transfer. I wonder if this is something intrinsic to the nature of simulated environments or whether there is something particular about the spacial design of the virtual environments you teach in.

I have only just joined this group and haven't yet had time to read back through your previous posts, but I'd be interested to know if you teach in a classroom-like virtual space, or something entirely different?

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