Monday, August 17, 2009

Interesting Talk on Teaching English in Second Life

Nik Peachey spoke to Dennis Newson about Teaching English in Second Life last night

Among other things, he spoke about the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats according to him. Here's a summary of what was talked about:


* lack of established social norms

The talk soon turned into a discussion with different participants agreeing / disagreeing with Nik. Talk mentioned the backchannel of the text chat sometimes interrupting the flow during meetings.

* no eye contact
* gestures and body language makes it difficult

Nik wondered about the effect of the lack of body language, gestures, etc have on students and the Teacher-Student relationship. Participants who have experience teaching online mentioned the fact that the more experience you have teaching online the better: you can pick things up in other ways (tone of voice, etc)

One participant, however, stated evidence has found that some students are more forthcoming because of this. Another mentioned the levels of control that classroom teachers have that do not exist in Second Life. She mentioned that this is similar to teaching high level business students - often teachers have to accept the interruptions that a lot of these (especially one-to-one) classes involve. Interruptions such as mobile calls, etc. Teaching in SL involves a similar degree of relinquishing control.

* Groupwork/Pairwork problems

Participants mentioned that groupwork is possible but other activities such as mingling activities do not work. Using different parcels or sending students to different areas makes groupwork possible. Nik mentioned that in particular, organisations that set up their SL schools like their RL schools have more problems than other types of language teaching organisations in SL.

Another participant said that many professionals involved in distance learning now agree that distance learning is often more labour intensive than RL teaching and that the ideal group size would be around ten people.

Monitoring student groups in Second Life is difficult according to Nik. And the idea of working with smaller groups means it is more difficult to make teaching languages in SL economically viable.

* Autonomous language learning opportunities limited

There are lots of opportunities online for autonomous language learning but they are few and far between in SL. Participants stated that SL should be used for what it is good for, and there's no point trying to use Second Life to do everything when there are bettwer ways of doing certain things elsewhere online.

Second Life, according to one participant is an example of disruptive technology. Development in SL is definitely catching up though.

* Ability to handle text

SL is a graphics delivery system and its ability to deliver motivating text is still a challenge. If you compare notecards to typical worksheets and handouts there are limitations (no formatting, they do not behave consistently, they don't look very good). Placing text in SL on the wall etc. is still not satisfactory.


* SL is a good social platform

Nik thinks that SL regulars get strangely attached to their avatars. This attachment is something that puts SL on a different level from 2D Web. He also mentioned that if he has met someone in SL, he feels he has met them "on a deeper level" than those he has only talked to on Skype or exchanged emails with.

The 3D aspect of SL is very important. SL provides a feeling of sociability

* Space ownership

It is easy to develop an identification of ownership of space. You can't build same kind of attachment / sense of ownership to a Moodle space, for example.

The discussion then moved onto using virtual worlds with teens and pre-teens

Nik suggests providing space for students - it will motivate them more if they can take ownership of the space and will provide a stronger pull to keep them interested as 'virtual residents' .


* Language Exchange

Sites such as livemocha, italki, and other language exchange sites work well and he believes that this could be done much better than it is in Second Life, with people helping each other to learn a language.

One participant mentioned this is an extension of tandem learning and pairing students up can work very well and offers great potential .

One of the problems for students find is not being able to find someone. Enabling students to find others to help them, to get feedback, etc offers great potential.

* Authentic tasks and projects

Nik thinks that SL offers a more authentic experience than learning in a classroom environment, which is very synthetic. SL hasa much more genuine correlation to the way languages are generally learned.

For example, there are real businesses in SL - there are real activities going on. If language teaching can tap into this, the real things that are happening, then this can provide a very authentic experience for students.

* Extra-curricular activities such as chat groups, drama groups, etc

There is a great opportunity to do this in SL and work on projects such as machinima / theatre in order to motivate students to use language in a real way.

* Playing/Creation of Video Games

Nik thinks SL is a playground and believes that SL can offer a great place where games can be created and played, motivating students through SL's visual strengths.

Many classroom activities do not work very well in SL. They lead to groups of students standing around in circles reading notecards. He believes the environment is so visually strong that we need to be able to use it, to create large spaces with motivating games. This will take serious groups of people with serious SL skills to be able to do this.

One participant mentions the common misconception of people thinking of SL as a game. This is good because it is attractive to students who like games. But it's also bad because teachers generally think of SL as a game and don't take it seriously.

Discussion moved onto Marc Prensky and the use of games in teaching and to another virtual world, There. Nik mentioned that he was impressed by this virtual world.

Strong motivations in computer games (mastering tasks, preserving life, evading enemies, etc) are lacking in SL. People will do things over and over again in order to get to the next stage of a game. This is one of the strengths of gaming that could be built into learning.


* Reliability

We are never really sure that SL is going to work when we go there. This makes it difficult if you are offering a commercial product and students cannot get into SL for example.

One of the participants mentioned the threat of:-

* Griefers

Being interrupted by people during a class can be a problem. One way round this, according to a participant is to locate the classroom on a sky platform.

The key is to teach people how to deal with this when it happens. A griefing incident can be turned into a strength if the griefer can be engaged in conversation by students, etc.

The discussion branched off after this...

Nik mentioned that using a female avatar brought him more attention on There - he got approached a lot more.

One participant expressed that she loved the feeling of playfulness that SL gives her. She mentioned getting involved in activities that she wouldn't do in RL.

The discussion came to an end with Nik mentioning the resistance that someone had in their organisation to using Second Life. He believes that there are so many changes that have happened to teaching and education through technology in the last 5 years. The average teacher now has a huge amount of pressure to learn new skills and to step in front of their students and to use these skills. It is a great challenge for teachers and lots will need to take it slowly. Nik believes the best way to introduce SL to other teachers is to make it part of their professional practice first, before it can ever be part of their classroom practice. Teachers then will feel more comfortable about using it with students.

Nik then mentioned that the whole nature of the way we communicate is changing because of technology, and what we teach and the way that we teach it should reflect this. If our students want to use these tools, then they'll need help. Just as students needed help with writing a letter, then some will need help communicating in places such as Second Life.

One participant mentioned that SL would benefit a good intermediate learner best.

Nik said that for students who have a gaming background find SL much easier to use and understand.

All-in-all a very stimulating discussion.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Paper vs Digital ELT materials

There is currently a debate going on in the IATEFL Young Learner SIG Yahoo Group about the the pros and cons of publishing digital ELT materials/resources as compared to paper-based ones (i.e. books).

I have been reading the posts on this thread with a great deal of interest, and can't help thinking that those defending the paper model echo what many in the music industry were saying about digital downloading when the first effective model (Napster) came on the scene. There was a time some years ago when the music industry had a real chance to utilise the emerging technology to provide a new business model for the industry. Instead, they chose to ignore the change implied by the new technology. As we all know now, this has led to widespread adoption of illegal file-sharing and huge losses by record companies all over the globe. Despite efforts to stop this (DRM, court cases, legal file-sharing through iTunes, etc), most people feel the battle has been lost and musicians are starting to realise that the money has to come from elsewhere.

What has this to do with ELT? It's tempting to think that books are different, that we will always want to hold the physical objects in our hands, to own and collect them as objects? This is true of our generation maybe, but what of the next? The current generation is fast becoming used to a different model, where access to information (video via Youtube, digital music streamed through programmes such as, etc.)

Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference wortks have been the first books to suffer (like it or not, Wikipedia is fast overtaking the Encyclopedia Britanica as a source of information - the pros of Wikipedia far outstrip the cons: in the 21st Century, our sources of information need to be up-to-the-minute and dynamic).

What about the other arguments for paper-based material? Reading on a screen is not sustainable? You can't take it with you on the train? Devices such as Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPod Touch and the iPhone have changed that. I no longer buy a daily newspaper - I download the news from the BBC and El Pais to my iPod in the morning and read that on the metro.

What about the parts of the world where the Internet does not reach? The signs are that this will change in many of these areas. The Internet probably won't come via PCs, but will instead be available via mobile phones (did you know that most mobiles are in the developing world?), which are becoming ubiquitous in most parts of the world.

As we have seen (most recently in a heated exchange on Twitter between a wide variety of ELT professionals), there is a demand for digital copies of resource books and textbooks. The ELT publishers have yet to cater to this demand. The danger is that unless something is done, then what awaits them is what happened to the music industry re. digital downloading.

In fact, it's already happening. There has recently been a proliferation of websites and blogs offering illegal copies of most ELT textbooks and resource books. These are generally scanned copies of the books advertised by the sites as 'free ESL books to download.' The website authors claim they are providing a service to people, "freeing information", etc. but look carefully and you'll see the sites are generally full of advertising, so their aim is to make money by illegally copying and distributing the books. I am not providing any examples of sites as I really don't want to encourage this sort of activity. Of course, the publishers act against these websites when they are found (it is common for authors to report them to the publisher), but I fear they are fighting a losing battle if legal downloading of digital copies of ELT books is not going to be offered.

How things will turn out is difficult to say, but you can look at trends and predict. We are currently experiencing the death of the newspaper ( - talk to any newspaper journalist and you'll hear the same thing). As mentioned before, the emergence of new reader-friendly devices and increase in Internet mean that the demand for digital downloads will increase whether you like it or not.

Although I am a book-lover and know I will continue to buy and read books for the rest of my life (I am also writing one!), I do think that the shift from paper to digital materials in ELT is inevitable.