Study and teach in Second Life
What does Second Life have to offer the English teacher and learner? We talked to five people working in Second Life: Kip Boahn (Second Life English), Gavin Dudeney (The Consultants-E), Shiv Rajendran (Languagelab.com), Graham Stanley (British Council), and Howard Vickers (avatarlanguages.com).
iT's: How did you come to be working/teaching in Second Life?
Graham Stanley: I came across Second Life (SL) in a magazine article on gaming and virtual worlds in February 2006 and knew it was something that I wanted to be involved in. So I created an account and plunged in (at that time there were only 600,000 people registered - now there are over 10 million residents!).
After a while, I realised that there were lots of possibilities for learning and teaching languages, and so I set about trying to convince the British Council to do something there. They agreed, and a small team of us started to work on a project. Development is now well underway, and we are set to open an island for teenagers in early 2008. We are going to be opening a 3D virtual self-access centre rather than teaching there. It'll be open to any teenagers from around the world and will feature lots of interesting spaces for them to hang out with other teenagers, treasure hunts, quests and other games as well as more formal learning opportunities.
Howard Vickers: I was looking for a more engaging and effective environment to offer online classes. I then started to look at virtual worlds, because they allow for real-time communication in a variety of contexts. In this way they offer very immersive experiences for language learners.
Gavin Dudeney: Part of my job is to keep up-to-date with emerging technologies and to incorporate them into the services my company offers. We don't teach English in SL, but rather train teachers how to use SL for teaching and training. I spent eight months researching, observing classes, learning the scripting and building skills, trying out teaching tools, etc. When the time was right, we moved in properly, buying land and building our virtual training centre.
Kip Boahn: I began experimenting with teaching in SL approximately
one year ago. At that time, my wife and I were working on a 2D platform
called Virtlantis, and I became intrigued by the immersiveness of SL
and other 3D worlds. The richness and multitude of environments seemed
to offer wondrous opportunities for exposure to language. I initially
gave private lessons but soon found myself offering "learning events"
to larger groups. These events gave learners a 3D exposure to the English
language and provided teachers an opportunity to explore and develop
various instructional methodologies.
iT's: Who goes to Second Life to study English?
Shiv Rajendran: Pretty much anyone with a desire to learn a language and good Internet access. That's the advantage of this approach - it's a place people can visit easily and regularly. The learners themselves range from students to retirees to tourists to people who need to speak another language for their jobs.
H. V.: There is quite a range of language students who use SL. Our students are looking for one-to-one lessons with a private tutor, and they seem to be especially interested in more communicative and immersive learning opportunities. Probably the students who are most drawn to SL are those who value the communicative and social aspects of language learning.
K. B.: Learners from all over the world are interested in learning English in SL. This adds a very multicultural and multilingual aspect to group events. One doesn't normally confront so many different nationalities in a real-life classroom.
G. S.: People who are interested in e-learning but who are dissatisfied with other forms of learning and studying on the Web. Or who use this virtual world as a way of meeting other English language learners and native speakers to practise in a visually rich environment. Obviously, it's also only for those with a high-speed Internet connection and an up-to-date computer with a good graphics card. The digital natives of today ( i.e. those under 30) take to it far more than people who are technophobic or who have never played a 3D computer game before.
G. D.: We need to define what studying English means. SL has
a wide mix of users, and the common language is English - at least to
date. So study might not be defined in terms of classes, but rather
in terms of meaningful and real-life exposure to the language. There
are a few places where you can study English, but it's in the daily
interactions between SL residents where the real learning is taking
iT's: Why choose Second Life?
H. V.: Second Life is a social environment, and this is by far its greatest strength for ESL. Students can use their English in very real situations with real people, similar to as if they were actually present in an English-speaking country. SL offers the opportunity to move beyond role plays and into "real play", where students practise their language skills in real situations with real people, albeit in a virtual world.
G. D.: At the moment it's the best of a very early bunch of Web 3D applications. It has numerous advantages over competitors in terms of how it works, what you can do and what you can produce - and, perhaps more importantly, a very active and vibrant learning and teaching community. To date, it's the only real player in the field of serious games - the others either don't have the quality, the creativity or the critical mass.
G. S.: If you've ever tried to learn a language or indeed study anything using the Internet, you'll know that it's easy to become demotivated and feel that you are alone. Email, forums, text chat, virtual learning environments and even video conferencing all have their place, but we are used to moving about in a 3D visual space, and that's why SL has an immediate appeal (once you get used to walking around and stop bumping into walls!).
K. B.: In my opinion, SL is currently the most interesting 3D world for education. The ability to create lends itself well to educational endeavors. The ability to quickly establish a sense of community is also an advantage.
S. R.: The platform allows us the build the best environments
for language learning. Its 3D voice feature is particularly important
and superior to most others we've tested.
iT's: What's the best way for someone who knows nothing about Second Life to get started?
G. D.: Linden Lab (the creator of Second Life) say that someone needs to spend 20 hours in SL to really get the hang of it and see the potential. This is a lot more than most people are used to putting into a piece of software. I think the best way is to do a course with someone who knows what they're doing and can help you get through the initial learning curve to a position where you feel comfortable, confident and prepared to use it in your daily life.
G. S.: After creating an avatar and downloading the software, I recommend spending sufficient time learning the ropes on the Orientation Island before teleporting to the mainland. Then, once you're there, the best way to find people with common interests is to join groups and start attending the events they organise. One such group, for example, is the Webheads, an international group of teachers interested in learning technology, located on the Edunation Island. Edunation is one of the best places for teachers to become familiar with, and they are about to start a series of monthly seminars, meetings, etc.
H. V.: Jump in! There is nothing that can go wrong. English learners can go to a place and just listen and watch. Then if they want to start a conversation with somebody, they should just say "hello". Teachers can talk with other educators already using SL. Anyone reading this is more than welcome to contact me for advice or to share ideas.
S. R.: The beauty of Language lab in SL is that it's all about
people. So the easiest way to start is to come and talk to one of our
greeters. People can do this either directly from our real world web
site or by signing in online and following the simple five-step path
iT's: What three things would you advise a visitor to Second Life to do?
K. B.: 1. Explore with an open mind; 2. Attend an orientation; 3. Be friendly to people you meet!
S. R.: To put it simply; meet, greet and explore. More seriously though, SL is potentially a very rich social environment, but the ability to communicate well is incredibly important.
G. D.: 1. Don't be put off by the learning curve - take your time and learn how to use SL properly; 2. Try to start off with the help of a friend who knows what they're doing; 3. See a concert, attend a sample class, go to a nightclub, lie on a beach and chat to someone ...
H. V.: Learners: 1. Visit a real life place, perhaps Dublin, Liverpool or London, and talk with local residents. Just say "hello" and see where the conversation goes; 2. Visit Assisi for an automatic guided tour of the monastery in English; 3. Go window shopping at Dell, Apple or one of the many fashion stores and talk with the sales assistants.
Teachers: 1. Meet with other educators. Every Monday language educators meet to share ideas about how best to use SL; 2. Visit real-life places and explore the opportunities they offer for real and structured language skill development; 3. Experiment with building and creating by using one of the many Sandboxes; Edunation Island has a place where educators can experiment.
G. S.: SL above all is a powerful 3D social networking tool,
so I recommend connecting with people through joining groups and attending
events. I also suggest checking out areas that are particularly popular
or well designed. One way to find out about these is to buy the official
guideook (http://secondlife.com/corporate/slguide.php), which is full
of suggestions of places to visit and things to do.
iT's: Where do most people tend to study?
K. B.: I don't think learners tend to study in the traditional sense. This could change in the very near future, but learners now seem to be more interested in organised activities and socialising.
G. D.: I've seen classes around campfires, on beaches, in the sky. I've seen classes on spaceships, in traditional classrooms and in amazing re-creations of 1900 Paris, or a mosque in Morocco. Learners go where creative people have made learning spaces that are rich in content, rich in atmosphere, and peopled by educators and learners who are prepared to put the time in, and get something amazing out of the other side.
G. S.: Study sounds very dry when talking about SL. As far as languages go, for example, people often visit locations that have been modelled on real-life places. If someone wants to speak Catalan, they could visit the SL re-creation of Barcelona. And if anyone fancies practising their Danish, there's a fabulous community called Wonderful Denmark, where people are very friendly and offer free guided tours (in English or Danish!).
H. V.: Our students combine SL with a variety of online tools, such as Google Docs, Skype and podcasting. Where they go within SL depends on where their personal interests lie. Lessons with Avatar English are individualised, private lessons with a tutor. So there is a lot of flexibility for students to follow their own learning paths and therefore how they use SL.
S. R.: Unlike in the real world, course location can be easily
adapted to course content. Our campus is vast with facilities designed
for each course we offer. Students on the English for Work course tend
to study in the Business centre or in office environments, while those
on the Travel course will start in the airport and move to the hotel,
iT's: When is the best time to go?
S. R.: Anytime - there are users from all over there world so there is always someone to talk to.
H. V.: Anytime. If you don't find anyone you would like to socialise with, then go to another place or go back to the same later. There are usually around 50,000 people in SL at any one time, so there is no shortage of people to chat with.
G. D.: If you're in Europe, then mid-morning is a great time as there are fewer users and everything works quickly and without technical problems. If you want more interaction opportunities, concerts, dancing and a busy social life, then you need to be looking at peak times in the United States, although this is changing as the non-U.S. population catches up to - and overtakes - the U.S. population. Really, the best time to go is when you can meet up with friends or colleagues and have a good chat - or go to a class.
G. S.: When your friends are there! Actually, late evenings and weekends are when you'll find most activity happening
K. B.: SL English 'experimental' events now take place every Friday (11:30 a.m. SL time) and Saturday (4 a.m. SL time). SL English courses will soon be offered. We hope to offer courses for the various time zones.
iT's: How do you think things will develop in Second Life over the next 10 years?
G. D.: It's not so much how SL will develop, but how the Internet will become more Web 3D. At the moment we have a lot of disparate technologies (blogs, podcasts, feeds, websites, etc.) but in five years' time all of this will be incorporated into a 3D interface where we will wander to our chosen sources of information and content. This will probably not be SL, but it will be something similar - which is why early adoption of SL is so important - we need to get the skills now, to leverage the platform in the future.
G. S.: I am convinced we'll see SL and other virtual worlds grow into something that a far greater section of the population uses as a matter of course. We can also expect to see virtual worlds become integrated into browsers, and access becoming available from mobile phones. I think all distance learning will also partly take place in a virtual world - in fact, this is happening already, with more and more universities setting up islands in SL.