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.


  1. Is Second Life still an interesting option? The peak of the hype is about two years ago and I heard stories about many deserted islands. Why would it still be interesting for serious activities?

  2. Thankfully the hype has died down, Michiel.

    Interestingly enough, as far as educational interest is concerned (e-learning, and language learning in particular), the interest continues to grow, with more and more universities and other educational organisations entering Second Life all the time.

    Research and practice has also started to mature - just take a look at the number of sessions on SL that take place at conferences such as IATEFL and EUROCALL and you'll see there's still plenty of interest in this virtual world.

    If I were you, I'd stop listening to those stories and go and see for yourself why more now than ever before it's an interesting option.

  3. Anonymous7:33 am

    Second life is something that brought up a major divide in the online segment.

    english school oxford

    Thankfully it has died down and there is not much relevance of it now.

    Thanks for the share.

  4. I haven't really had any kind of contact with second life beyond what I've heard about it. However, it is very interesting reading your impressions on it, especially what you mentioned about learner autonomy.


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