Teaching and Learning Languages in the Virtual Community of
CoCo Research Centre
Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, Australia
25 September 2007
Second Life is an Internet-based virtual world launched in 2003, developed by Linden Lab, which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 (Sege, 2006; Harkin, 2006). Its users, called “Residents”, interact with each other through motional avatars in a downloadable client program called the Second Life Viewer, provided an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, create and trade items (virtual property) and services from one another. All of the content (buildings, scenery and people) in Second Life is constructed by the residents and so it has become a place where our imagination is given freedom to create and explore. The Second Life Grid provides a unique and flexible platform for educators interested in distance learning, computer supported cooperative work, simulation, new media studies, and corporate training.
The educational potentials of Second Life are being explored around many educators and using it to teach and to learn languages has become a pretty popular topic recently. (see www.avatarlanguages.com and www.languagelab.com ) This paper tries to report and analyze this topic using notions of “Affordance” and its taxonomy and “Conventions” (Gibson, 1977; Norman, 1999; Conole & Dyke, 2004).
The word affordance was coined by the perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson (1977) to refer to the actionable properties between the world and an actor (a person or animal). To Gibson, affordances are relationships. They exist naturally: they do not have to be visible, known, or desirable. Conole and Dyke (2004, p.p.115-120) develop this concept by clarifying a taxonomy, which can help us infer the educational potential and possibilities of Second Life. And now we focus on the affordance for teaching and learning languages:
As introduced by Second Life’s website, students and educators can work together on the Second Life Grid from anywhere in the world as part of a globally networked virtual classroom environment. They don’t have any additional hardware or equipment to get access to Second Life. The students and educators can easily download the program and install it to their computers and then use its basic functions for free. So far Second Life provides four editions of languages — English, German, Japanese and Korean, which satisfy those who using the system of these language and those who know at least one of these languages.
Furthermore, there are more and more traditional classroom environments integrate the activities in Second Life Grid to provide new opportunities for enriching an existing curriculum, in the situation of which the accessibility can be guaranteed by the education providers.
(2) Speed of change
The introduction of voice into Second Life has led teachers to offer a different sort of language class – one that is both centered on the student carrying out tasks to produce a piece of work and that involves the student talking with real people in the language they are learning to gain specific information and, of course, practice their language skills. This, to a large extent, avoids outdated instruction and enables students to navigate their way through the myriad of changing information and to benefit from the change of the real world concerning the language that they are learning.
Virtual language schools in Second Life offer access to a vast range of diverse and different experiences that can inform learning to replicate complex behavior by the approach termed as SurReal Quests (s, 2007), since the quests combine the realism of communication with real people, the very real information available on the net and the virtual encounters within Second Life. SurReal Quests are intended specifically for language education and therefore combine the social and communicative aspects of Second Life with the wealth of information available on the web.
(4) Communication and collaboration
Second Life’s voice capabilities have enhanced the communication and collaboration in languages being learnd by allowing residents to chat with each other in a way similar to talking with a group of people in a room. The students can communicate with other people (whether complete strangers, acquaintances, friends or colleagues) in a 3D setting regardless of where they are physically located in real life. For language teaching the addition of voice to Second Life must offer one of the most significant advances in technology in recent years – language students can socialize in their target language at anytime of the day without leaving home. Furthermore, communities and groups can be formed and developed around shared interests and students can work together in pairs or teams to develop the quests of the teachers such as producing podcast, blog and other materials. The completed materials could also be used as a basis for future activities with other students; perhaps a student carries out an activity based upon the information given in a previous student’s podcast, such as finding places, following directions or taking part in mini treasure hunts.
It can not be denied that the speed and pace of information change militates against reflection. It leaves no space for contemplation and considered judgment, and promotes a more pragmatic, reflexive immediate response to new information, as it is pixilated across our screens (Conole and Dyke, 2004, p.118). To avoid this situation, when processing the instruction, language schools in Second Life can assign the students to different locations on the island to discuss their topics in smaller groups and they can teleport from one location to the other and saved the text of their discussions which later they may be assigned to analyze for the best statements on those topics (Bump, 2007). So this can help balance the need of experiencing the rapid information change as well as the reflection.
(6) Multimodal and non-linear
Within Second Life, an approach with as varied tasks involving a wide range of language skills being practiced can be processed. This non-linear process forms a multimodal environment in which the students can adopt more individualized strategies and pathways aiming at different emphases, such as reading and listening (both for gist and for specific information), interviewing (both with peer students and other strangers), writing (appropriate use of vocabulary and style for the target audience), speaking (including pronunciation, intonation for maintaining interest). The role of the teacher is to ensure that practice leads to the actual development of the various language skills.
(7) Risk, fragility and uncertainty
This aspect of Second Life mainly focuses on the language educators. Different from setting up the own teaching and learning platform, the educators experience low risk as all the properties are in a huge and safe system—Second Life, rather than in a small office or something like that. The familiarity with Second Life of the learners before learning also provides them scaffolding which help them make sure more factors within the learning environment and avoid uncertainty. In this case, the students need not to learn and practice every new language learning platform that they are interested in. They can transfer among different language schools within the same system.
Second Life, as instant virtual world, of course guarantees the immediacy. Every student responses directly and immediately since they have any request from both the teachers and the peers.
When designing a graphical screen layout, designers greatly rely on conventional interpretations of the symbols and placement including three kinds of constraints (Norman, 1999). Designing language learning instruction in Second Life also experiences them:
(1) Physical constraints
The system requirements for Second Life are high, especially for the graphic card. It is well known that Second Life usually crash fairly often, which makes the educator embarrassed on resuming class after an unexpected downtime of the system. The cost of teaching in Second Life is pretty high due to the pricing of the lands…These are all the physical constraints, which may be the obstacles for promoting the learning products in Second Life.
(2) Logical constraints
As the students are from all over the world, logically it is known that they are in different time zone. So it also will be the challenge for language educators to assign synchronous tasks because some students won’t be available at some specific time.
(3) Cultural constraints
There are also other virtual worlds such as IMVU and There, the functions of which are different from that of Second Life to some extent. Those users coming from other virtual world or having been using other relevant software such as IM, would experience the logical constraints because they feel that something, such as voice, are not available in Second Life based on their experience and the culture in other software environments.
These conventions prohibit something while encourage others, which should be taken into account when designing online language courses in Second Life.
Based on the deductive work on the potential and possibilities of teaching and learning languages in Second Life, some questions may appear:
(1) Will teaching and learning languages in virtual world such as Second Life be the trend?
I don’t think so. This is because (a) the affordance is for behavior of teaching and learning itself but not for every potential students and teachers who may prefer not to use it, (b) the advantages of the limitlessness in virtual worlds will be evident only when the participants have some limitations in real world, such as time and space and (c) some constrains being the roles of drawbacks can not disappear in a short time or never disappear.
(2) What should traditional language schools do?
The affordance of virtual world for language teaching and learning does have great thread on traditional language schools. Yet the predominance of traditional models is difficult for the emerging ones to replicate or imitate. Conversely, the affordance of virtual world can be integrated to the traditional instruction by providing extra exciting experience to students. In such a process of integration, it would be essential to analyze and identify the different aspects of the affordance of virtual world and what exactly they are, but not to do what have been done in virtual world directly.
(3) How can the virtual world be improved to satisfy teaching and learning languages to a larger extent?
This is the predominance of the application of the taxonomy of affordance and convention. The common procedure is (1) to identify and analyze every aspect of the taxonomy, (2) to find out the weak points (such as Second Life’s incapability with many graphic cards), (3) to clarify the target situation (such as aiding the teaching and learning to what extent on what specific points and levels), (4) to find out the gap between (2) and (3), and (5) to deal with the gap.
Avatar Languages. (2007). SurReal Language Quests. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from http://avatarlanguages.com/blog/?p=14
Bump, J. (2007). Teaching English in Second Life. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from http://currents.cwrl.utexas.edu/spring07/bump
Harkin, J. (2006). Get a (second) life. Financial Times, 17 November.
Norman, D. A. (1999). Affordance, Conventions and Design. Interactions, May and June, 38-42.
Conole, G. & Dyke, M. (2004). What are the affordances of information and communication technologies?. ALT-J: Research in Learning Technology, 12(2), 113-124.
Sege, I. (2006). Leading a double life. The Boston Globe, 25 October.