Language Learning and Teaching with the aid of Technology

Diary of a Second Life English Teacher … Part 7

The spring Business Talking course started last Thursday with the course launch. Between 3pm and 6pm our time we had 63 avatars in total on Kamimo, with about 40 Americans there to find about 20 'Swedish' buddies, so that they could whisk them away and get extra credit for recording the 'Swedes'' reactions to what they'd seen. My tongue-in-cheek analysis is that you get Americans to do things by paying them - but you get Swedes to do things by appealing to their sense of what's good for the group. My 'Swedes' will therefore get brownie points (but no academic credits) for spreading the news about what they learned at our first teaching meeting tomorrow. I'm writing 'Swedes', because they're not all Swedish. We've got the usual mix of Swedish, French, Portuguese, German, Korean, Chinese, etc, etc in the group (I have to give the easterners special lessons in pronouncing 'l' and 'r'). This is what it looked like at course launch:

The course is proving more and more popular. We're now up to about 30 participants (I don't let students even start the course until they can prove that they've got Second Life working properly on their own computers, so the exact number is always a bit fluid until the first teaching session). We've achieved that without any advertising at all, apart from a brief plug at a meeting for exchange students at the beginning of term. The composition of the group this term is the usual: most of them have full-time jobs where they have to speak English some of the time, and the rest are either full-time students somewhere in Sweden or exchange students. One of the first group works for the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency … and needs to get better at presenting in English at the moment because he's shuttling back and forth between Sweden and Haiti coordinating disaster relief.

The technical problems students have accessing Second Life have been familiar - but fewer as computer technology gets better. One of the exchange students, for example, had the kind of computer you get free with a packet of Cornflakes, but we fixed her up with a nice alternative:

Whilst we were at it, we installed the client programme in another meeting room too. The one we fixed has a 42-inch flat screen - but the picture shows Second Life on a 60-inch screen! It's a fantastic experience. We've got room mikes in both rooms, so you can sit back and just … talk.

One conceptual problem we need to be clearer about next time is that there are two operations involved in getting on to Second Life: creating an account and downloading the client software. Lots of my students failed to realise this! The Swedes also had occasional problems with the diacritical marks! The Second Life account database doesn't like å, ä or ö and returns an 'incorrect password' message. I created a test avatar this time called Jez Whelan (for androgeneity), so that students could try out the client software - and thus narrow the problem down to the account creation. If they managed the software download, it meant automatically that their computer could cope with SL. However, I've taken the Darwinian approach again - survival of the fittest on to the course!

This time around both Bryan Carter (in Missouri) and I have had to double-check the small details of our courses to a much greater extent than in the past, simply because we're approaching a situation where we've got 'mainstream' group sizes (which is what I was aiming at for my work in SL). I'm offering three timetable alternatives (the course budget can stand it), so that I've actually got three groups of about 10 to cope with, rather than one group of 30. If I can keep on being allowed to run groups of 10 at a time, then the course will always be scalable up. The next challenge will be to get more teachers working this way - maybe there'll be a job opportunity for someone on this Ning!

We're having a meeting of our English group in March and I've asked for the status of the on-line courses in general and the SL course in particular to be discussed. We're in a crazy situation at the moment where campus courses are really struggling to recruit anyone at all, whilst the on-line courses are bursting at the seams. Time to get a strategy worked out …

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Comment by Graham Davies on February 10, 2010 at 1:27pm
Getting people started in SL is always a slow process. I have run several workshops for beginners, both face-to-face and online. The learning curve for newcomers to SL is pretty steep - it seems that you have to master everything all at once. I find learning from short video clips useful but I also like to have written step-by-step instructions in front of me. I have been using these downloadable introductory notes with newcomers for just over two years now. Most students say that they are quite easy to follow, but some students need to be led by the hand every step of the way:

Graham's Introduction to Second Life

Other introductory materials are listed in Section 14.2.1 of Module 1.5 at the ICT4LT site. Russell Stannar's Camtasia videos are very good.

Comment by Nergiz Kern on February 10, 2010 at 6:31am
Right. Normally, you would introduce students step-by-step to a new tool or technology but in SL, they have to master quite a lot on their own before they can join the first lesson, especially in a distance course.

I think the best help really is good introductory tutorials where you record yourself while creating an account, downloading the software and teleporting to the meeting point. There are a lot of these on youtube but not all are suitable for learners of English.

A discussion thread might really be useful so that we can pool ideas and then maybe write a short guideline based on them.
Comment by David Richardson on February 10, 2010 at 6:15am
I understand the situation only too well! I've been spending quite a lot of time in the last couple of weeks sorting this kind of situation out. Perhaps we can start a discussion thread on this Ning to swap ideas about getting students started purely technically.

One lesson I have to keep re-learning is about the difference between what I know (but often don't know I know) and what a complete newbie knows. When I think about it, there are actually three steps the student has to take: create an account; download the client program; and firstly get hold of a headset and then make sure that that's the one SL is using. No wonder they go a little cross-eyed at first!
Comment by Nergiz Kern on February 10, 2010 at 6:08am
Your daughter is creative :) Glad you found a solution for the student.
For a business English course that I taught in SL, the students, who were all from the same company) were provided with netbooks with SL pre-installed and avatars created. It worked quite well but the Internet connection (via Dongle) was not always stable.
Comment by David Richardson on February 10, 2010 at 5:59am
My five year-old made a 'computer' out of a Cornflake packet - and that was about as much use as this one the student brought along!
Comment by Nergiz Kern on February 10, 2010 at 5:54am
Thanks for another useful account of your course, David!

I didn't know you could get a free computer with your cornflakes :)
I would envy you for the large screen but I am very happy that I have a larger one with my relatively new iMac after having worked for two years with a MacBook. The experience is so much better.

Good luck with the new course!

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