Fig. 1 At the Drive-Through School of English
About a decade ago, research for a teacher training course I was part of, involved a presentation on the use of Technology in Education. One of the platforms I looked at, was the Virtual Reality (VR) world of Second Life (SL). Multi-user virtual environments (MUVE’s) had started to move away from the game/role playing aspect of online interaction and had started to generate interest in the world of education. The VR world was seen as a way of offering learners a variety of learning strategies, such as research, group work and online discussions (Bricken, 1991).
Fast forward another decade and I’m in a similar position, researching online learning platforms. I hadn’t really given SL much thought in the intervening decade. At the time I had found the application visually interesting and the educational aspects intriguing; but beyond the novelty value, it actually seemed to offer little in the way of learning opportunities in through a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). My recent research has however, brought SL back into view. I wondered what changes if any had occurred since my last interactions with it and how and if somebody could learn an L2 using this platform.
Second Life as a VLE
According to Pan et al. (2006) a VLE should have the following four features which are the main components of a VLE:
Knowledge Space – this is the actual virtual environment that provides the platform for learning.
This is something that SL does provide, the platform is available and for the most part groups are free to form. Problems arise if you want to conduct classes within the VR environment itself. This involves paying to ‘build’ a VR space within SL that learners can come to for lessons. This cost obviously presents something of a barrier to most people. There are some language schools in SL such as Drive Through ESL (see fig 1.). Language Lab (see fig 2) another popular online VR platform has however pulled out of SL and now delivers via it’s own website.
The lack of VR environment within SL has led to free language groups being formed. One of these Virtlantis describes itself as a providing language learning activities rather than being a language class. Most of these groups use SL as a point of contact, but the language learning itself occurs outside of it. Virtlantis, which provides practice in different languages publishes it’s timetable (Fig. 3) on it’s own website and interactive sessions are held for the most part using Skype. A Facebook page also provides a number of resources for language learners, including textbooks, wav files featuring pronunciation and language lessons and online activities for learners.
Communication Community – multiple methods of communication for both general and social communication, must be provided for learners. These include email and chat applications for group discussions.
Another feature of SL is the variety of methods of communication. All the language learning environments I viewed on SL shared the principle of collaborative learning and featured multiple methods of communication. Chat is direct and synchronous but as mentioned previously can be asynchronous. Lessons can be downloaded and reviewed and students are able to meet and have group discussions.
Active Action – this allows learners to contribute towards their learning by providing information, asking questions and providing answers.
This overlaps somewhat with the communicative approach adopted by the language learning communities.
Facility Toolkit – this provides a method of organisation, timetables, the tracking of learner activity and recording learner progress.
The formal online learning providers feature an online tracking system to monitor learner progress much like a language school in real life and learners are taught by a qualified ESL teacher. This can be problematic however, who is checking qualifications? What kind of regulation is there? People are paying money to learn and there doesn’t seem to be an answer to this question. For the more informal language groups, no monitoring is done, it acts rather as a kind of online conversation club where volunteers teach and monitor groups.
So as a VLE, SL seems to for the most part meet the criteria. My problem with it is that in the ten or so years since I last looked at it, little seems to have changed. It still seems to me to be full of possibilities and has some exciting features. These however seem to be overshadowed by the negatives. Interest seems to have peaked in SL around 2010 and it looks like it’s been downhill ever since. As mentioned language groups seem to use it as a point of contact, with lessons actually taking place somewhere else. The ideal scenario however, would be that lessons actually happened within SL.
Achieving this and actually enrolling on a course in SL could prove difficult however. The actual interface is quite difficult to use. The first step is building an avatar of yourself to interact in SL. Once this is done you have to actually find somewhere to learn a language. There is no directory, just a method of searching which seems to be a little hit and miss. My initial try at joining a class took nearly two hours and resulted in not much action. Indeed I found it was quicker to simply Google or YouTube language groups. This I believe is the fundamental problem with SL. It looks great, but it can be difficult to find someone to talk to and it seems like being on a ghost ship, it’s frustrating, time consuming and didn’t deliver the results I wanted. In this day and age, I want to search, find and do within minutes; SL unfortunately didn’t allow me to do this, hence the title!
Blasing, M. (2010). SECOND LANGUAGE IN SECOND LIFE: EXPLORING INTERACTION, IDENTITY AND PEDAGOGICAL PRACTICE IN A VIRTUAL WORLD. Slavic and East European Journal Vol 54 (1), 96-117.
Bricken, M. (1991). Virtual Reality Learning Environments: Potentials and Challenges. Computer Graphics Volume 25 (3), 178-184.
Pan, Z., Cheok, A., Yang, H., Zhu, J., & Shi, J. (2006). Virtual reality and mixed reality for virtual learning environments. Computers & Graphics 30, 20-28.