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Jessamine Cooke-Plagwitz, Northern Illinois University
Multiuser virtual environments (MUVEs) are quickly gaining importance as tools for foreign language instruction by promoting collaboration and social presence in a lifelike 3-D environment. One of the largest and fastest growing of these MUVEs is Linden Lab's Second Life (SL). With an international membership of over 9,000,000 residents, SL is proving to be an important tool for foreign language education. This article provides an introduction to SL and examines some of the advantages and disadvantages of its use as an instructional tool for foreign language students and educators.
Virtual Environments, Second Life (SL), Online Communities, Online Instruction
Teaching and learning with internet technology has been widely recognized and discussed in recent years. One of the more intriguing of these emerging technologies is the 3-D multiuser virtual environment (3-D MUVE) where emphasis is placed on promoting community participants' social presence and collaborative inquiry (Dalgarno, 2002; Dickey, 2005; Jones, 2004; Jones, Morales, & Knezek, 2005). 3-D MUVEs can motivate learners to engage in a series of purposeful educational inquiries without losing interest or sidestepping intended learning goals. Some entertainment features such as 3-D role playing and animated interactive environments are modeled after popular commercial games where players are placed in realistically rendered, yet fancifully animated, scenes while participating in a series of challenges or puzzles. Combining these concepts of animated scenery and challenges, 3-D MUVEs can add meaningful educational resources and curriculum goals to "provide highly collaborative, immersive environments that promote interactions among students and with the instructor" (Jones et al. 2005, p. 221).
Learners in these 3-D environments often have opportunities to experience life-like social interaction while at the same time engaging in meaningful learning activities. For instance, Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Carteaux, and Hakan (2005) created a 3-D MUVE, Quest Atlantis, to support participant-centered collaborative inquiry by providing interactive quests and social games through animated avatars and virtual scenes. The resulting 3-D real-life interaction metaphor, pedagogically driven quests, and online collaborative features incorporated in this 3-D MUVE provide learners and instructors with a community-building center for engaging in meaningful educational social activities (Dickey, 2005).
The continued progression of 3-D MUVE technology has resulted most recently in the development of online social gathering sites. The largest and probably best known of
these environments is Linden Lab's Second Life (SL) (http://secondlife.com). The SL site is a MUVE currently inhabited by over 9,000,000 people worldwide and is experiencing exponential growth at the approximate rate of 100,000 additional users per month (http://secondlife.com/whatis). It provides users with the ability to build a graphic visual representation of themselves (an avatar) as well as to purchase "land" in SL on which they can "build." Additionally, one can experience graphics, video, animations, and audio in SL. Generally, SL users (residents) communicate via text chat that shows up on the screen for all users present to see. Recently, however, Linden Lab enabled voice chat capabilities in SL, and this method of communication is quickly gaining popularity among language educators "in world."
SECOND LIFE AS AN EDUCATIONAL ENVIRONMENT
According to statistics provided in March 2007 by Pathfinder Linden, there are over 200 universities or academic institutions already involved in SL (Kelton, 2007). There are several reasons for this enthusiasm. First, and perhaps most important, with today's increasingly nontraditional student population (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005), many students are seeking alternatives to the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom setting. These nontraditional learners are keen to avail themselves of educational opportunities but are often unable to attend classes given at times when they are working, commuting, or taking care of their families (New Media Consortium and Educause Learning Initiative, 2007). Online courses have been available to such learners for some time now, but the impersonal nature of text-based, often asynchronous course communications can create difficulties for students who desire a sense of community and involvement from their course interactions. The SL site presents a realistic virtual space and visible "classmates" (see Figure 1), elements which can assist students in gaining a sense of participation and of belonging (Omale, Hung, Luetkehans & Cooke-Plagwitz, 2007).
In addition, there are more personal reasons for the interest in SL as a teaching and learning tool. Many SL residents become personally attached to their avatars, perhaps because of the time and effort involved in creating them. Since avatars are quite often the
expression of one's "ideal self," they often become virtual extensions of their creators. Moreover, because the 3-D virtual environment "feels" so much more life-like than simple text-based chat, both students and faculty find it easier to become engaged in the experience: "Once student and instructor meet on the common ground of agreeing that they exist, albeit virtually, in an environment in which learning will take place, that agreement is the cement that ties all parties involved to the learning initiatives" (Kelton, 2007, p.4).
Many educators who employ SL for instruction indicate that communication among their virtual students is livelier and more engaged than in their face-to-face classes (Foster, 2007). Indeed, students entering the virtual world of SL for the first time are often fascinated by their avatar's ability to fly, walk underwater, and magically teleport from one location to another. Many are excited by just how realistic the virtual environment feels and are delighted by the novelty of participating in a class discussion while seated on fluffy pillows by a roaring fire or floating on an inner tube on a huge pool of water.
Along with this ability to choose one's avatar comes the ability to alter his or her appearance, to the extent that one's avatar need not necessarily take on human form. While many residents of SL fashion their avatars upon idealized versions of their real-life (RL) appearance, others prefer to experience this new environment in a completely different form, choosing a different gender, race, or even species. This freedom of expression, it has been argued, offers students a unique opportunity to engage with their environment in a completely new way and to gauge reactions from and interactions with other residents based upon a new set of perceptions and beliefs (Omale et al., 2007).
Proponents of SL in education assert that this ability to manipulate one's environment and appearance within SL is a large part of the interface's appeal because group cohesion is increased when all involved parties can contribute to the creation of their communal space. Indeed, the mere existence of a "space" and a "face" one can identify as the classroom, instructor, or fellow student can significantly decrease the sense of isolation students in online text-based classes often feel (Omale et al., 2007). This sense of community assists in breaking down barriers to communication that can exist due to restrictions which exist in text-based environments and even in face-to-face learning situations.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION AND SL
The actual physical separation of students who interact via electronic communication can be a deterrent to students' sense of belonging within a learning community and can thus hinder their learning success. This can be especially true for foreign language (FL) classes in which student-student and student-teacher interaction is particularly vital (Doughty & Long, 2003). In 3-D MUVEs, learners are typically represented by avatars which may electronically replicate human or animal forms, depending upon how learners create or select them (see Figure 2).
This means that the online experience may be realistic in the sense that it mimics a face-to-face experience in which learners interact with other's avatars synchronously online. This seemingly life-like experience may give some learners the impression that they are in a face-to-face setting and, thus, enhance their sense of being a part of a group and of participating in realistic face-to-face interactions. More introverted FL learners may even be more comfortable in the virtual environment and better able to participate and learn than in the RL classroom (Bradley & Lomicka, 2000; Roed, 2003). Because the 3-D MUVE allows learners to choose or enhance the appearance of their avatars, many students will create characters which are either improved versions of or completely unlike their RL selves. These "disguises" often impart a newfound sense of confidence to the timid student (Wallace, 1999).
Virtual environments such as SL provide an ideal setting for collaborative learning by encouraging meaningful communication between students through content-based activities (Schneider & Von der Emde, 2000) and by emulating a language immersion experience through the creation of an environment (albeit virtual) in which only the target language is spoken (Stevens, 2006). Indeed, SL has its own "countries"--areas predominantly populated by native speakers of a variety of languages--and many groups exist "in world" which take advantage of this golden opportunity for authentic language learning.
The large international membership in SL provides numerous resources for FL learners and educators who have enthusiastically adopted the MUVE as the ideal platform for online collaboration and instruction. The SL environment is especially suited to younger FL learners because many of them already see the internet as a natural place to learn and play (Vickers, 2007a). Thus, a growing movement of FL educators is exploring the potential of virtual worlds. In June of 2007, The SLanguages 2007 symposium organized language educators to share experiences of teaching languages within SL and to explore new ways to use the MUVE for FL education (http://edunation.theconsultants-e.com/SLanguages2007.pdf). In addition to working within RL schools and universities, virtual private language schools have also begun appearing "in world" in which avatars and their RL counterparts can participate in fee-based virtual language classes (e.g., Avatar English; LanguageLab).
Language educators who wish to work within SL will find that the possibilities offered by the application are seemingly endless. Early language learners have an almost infinite variety of surroundings and avatars to describe. The ability to change the appearance of one's avatar provides numerous variations on the theme, not to mention the multiplicity of available movements, gestures, and so on which can provide hours of descriptive subject matter. More advanced language learners can avail themselves of the plethora of realistic virtual cities (e.g., Paris, Vatican City, Tokyo, Barcelona, and Moscow) and take minitours of their landmarks (see Figure 3). Now that SL has added a voice-chat feature, talking with native speakers of a target language is as simple as saying "hello." Because SL allows users to record short videos of their travels, the creation of their own target language minitours is also a constructive project for language learners.
Howard Vickers, who runs the online language school, Avatar English, has adapted Bernie Dodge's original WebQuest model (http://www.webquest.org/index.php) to the 3-D virtual environment with his SurReal Quest (Vickers, 2007b). By exploiting the communicative features specific to SL, Vickers sends his students on information quests throughout SL which require them to interact with native speakers of the target language (in this case, English) within SL in addition to pursuing traditional internet research. Students are ultimately required to present their information in an audio or video podcast. This combination of web-based research and virtual social interaction allows learners to practice their language skills in a pedagogically significant manner (Vickers, 2007b).
The collaborative space of a SL classroom permits student groups to discuss topics and construct knowledge within a safe environment where one may incorporate media from external sources (e.g., web pages, PowerPoint presentations, videos, etc.). Some SL educators blend the interface with other applications, such as BlackBoard or Moodle (Kemp & Livingstone, 2006), requiring their students to log into both applications simultaneously then employing the whiteboard or threaded discussion features of their course management system to immediately reinforce concepts or to provide resources for students to use asynchronously outside of scheduled SL meetings.
PITFALLS OF SL FOR LANGUAGE LEARNING
SL is a relatively new player on the field of CALL, and, as such, some wrinkles remain to be ironed out before it can become a true mainstream tool for language education. Part of the difficulty with SL at this stage is that it is simply too complicated for many educators to use. Its interface is not intuitive, and its learning curve is fairly steep. Few full-time teaching faculty will wish to devote the time and energy necessary to make SL a useful instructional tool for themselves and their students unless they have had prior experience with such virtual
environments (perhaps through their own online gaming experiences) or possess a particularly strong desire to work with it.
Issues surrounding the size and memory usage associated with SL can eliminate users with older machines or insufficient graphic cards from the pool of eligible students and teachers. Additionally, in order to run the software effectively, one's internet connection must be relatively fast. Users logging on from home computers will need broadband access. Even those working from sophisticated university computing labs may face significant lags if too many users attempt to log in or occupy a single "space" simultaneously because excessive traffic can cause SL to crash or arbitrarily eject residents from overcrowded areas.
Working with SL can be expensive for those who desire more than the free basic membership. Though one can join SL with no financial commitment, residents soon realize that in order to be more than a mere spectator requires a monetary investment. For example, possession of a permanent "space" in SL requires a premium membership costing $9.95 US per month. Land must be purchased in addition to membership fees and a monthly land-use fee must be paid on any land one owns (http://secondlife.com/whatis/landpricing.php).
Educational institutions wishing to set up shop within SL are faced with even higher expenses. Should they, for example, wish to purchase their own approximately 16-acre "island" in order to establish a virtual school presence, the initial cost is $1,675.00 US. However, there is a 50% discount for "verified real world educators and academic institutions" (http://secondlife.com/community/land-islands.php). Once purchased, islands require monthly maintenance fees beginning at $295.00 US for the smallest, 16-acre version. This clearly represents a sizeable expenditure over time.
In addition to the fees associated with owning land in SL, schools serious about establishing an SL presence must consider hiring full-time staff to tackle the design, development, and upkeep of their virtual campuses. These individuals will often be assigned a faculty support role as well, acting as mentors for faculty interested in teaching within SL but who lack any real knowledge of the interface. These e-learning specialists (or their avatars) must often be present during several class meetings to answer questions, load graphic files and videos, or troubleshoot, all of which represents a considerable investment of time.
The SL environment remains relatively insecure. While the tools exist to make spaces more secure, educators in SL frequently remain reluctant to lock down their spaces for fear of negating their purpose for being "in world" in the first place. Educational institutions working with SL generally wish to share their activities with colleagues and interested students; excluding all parties except those who are teaching or who are registered for a specific course prevents schools from showcasing their cutting-edge work. Unfortunately, the freedom to roam and the relative anonymity of SL can encourage some individuals to express themselves in undesirable ways. Unless one's classroom is well hidden (e.g., in a skybox) or in a member-only area, residents unaffiliated with one's class or institution are free to wander in. At times, these individuals will do their utmost to disrupt a class or meeting in progress. These "griefers," as they are known, may talk incessantly, bump into students and teachers, or unleash torrents of vulgar language. Sometimes their mere appearance or actions can be enough to disrupt a class meeting. Griefers have been known to dance, strip, bleed, or vomit profusely. On one occasion in an Ohio University virtual class, a griefer entered a classroom and began shooting at the avatars assembled there (Bugeja, 2007). The university had no choice but to shut down the school's virtual campus until the perpetrator could be removed (Carnevale, 2007).
The best method of dealing with these individuals is generally ignoring them, thus
denying them the angry reactions they hope to provoke (Drake, 2006). Sometimes, however, as in the case of virtual shootings, the best approach is to have an "Area B"--a safe area to which all members of a group can quickly teleport upon a given signal from the teacher. While Linden Lab does have a reporting function to which one can report these offenders, sometimes the best and most immediate option is to beat a hasty retreat.
Although educators should have their own permanent meeting places or classrooms in SL, one of the most valuable tools for FL learning in SL remains the vast array of target language areas available to visit. However, SL is very similar to the real world in many ways, and just as there are undesirable individuals prowling about the real world, so too in SL, do unsavory characters abound. Johnson (2006, p. 5) has noted, SL "is teeming with strip clubs, casinos, escort services, cyber prostitutes, etc." The educator's best course of action when assigning virtual field trips is to make students aware of the potential problems and ensure that they know how to exit any uncomfortable situation quickly. Despite the presence of bothersome avatars, the SL field trip is ultimately very safe. Even if one does encounter unpleasant situations, one need only teleport to a different location or log out of the system in order to return to safety. Moreover, since SL is divided up into areas classified as either Mature (M) or the milder Parental Guidance (PG), one can attempt to limit field trip activities to those PG areas where gambling, sexual activity, foul language, and violence are not permitted. Because it is not always possible to prevent students from wandering into the more mature areas, many educators patrol their student groups periodically to verify that they are not engaging in any seedy behavior or studying material not included in the course syllabus.
FIRST STEPS IN SL
Instructors new to SL must be aware of the fairly steep learning curve. Even those educators who have long taught online or made use of online resources will find that SL provides a very different experience. Because it is so new and because it was not initially intended as an educational tool, SL is not necessarily intuitively designed for the novice. There are no simple templates waiting to be filled in, nor buttons to click in order to facilitate navigation through this virtual environment. In many ways, SL is, in its present state, the online equivalent of the Old West, and the real work of establishing and maintaining one's presence in SL is the responsibility of the individual faculty member or school who must purchase land and build their own facilities there: not a task for the beginner.
There are, however, over 200 schools and universities that have built "islands" or campuses in SL, (see Figure 4), and several of these have established programs and projects which take place exclusively "in world" (Foster, 2007; Kelton, 2007). At such institutions, it is often simply a matter of a faculty member's expressing an interest in working with SL for him or her to gain administrative (and occasionally financial) support for their endeavors.
Faculty preparing to teach a course either wholly or in part within SL should be prepared to devote at least one class period to acclimatizing students to this new environment. Though one might expect "millennial learners" (Howe & Strauss, 2000) to be completely savvy in navigating 3-D MUVEs, this is not necessarily the case; unless students are avid online gamers, there is a very good chance they have never before entered or navigated a 3-D virtual space. While some educators encourage their students to prepare their avatars and explore SL's Orientation Island ahead of time, it is often more useful for students to have an experienced resident walk them through this initiation, for, if students' initial SL experience is confusing or even frightening for them, there is a very real possibility that they will be reluctant to return. It is a good idea, then, to help them learn to navigate some of SL's features
before any actual coursework begins. They will require time to become comfortable with the controls in SL, the text and voice chat functions, maps, searching, and setting landmarks for speedy traveling. There are several helpful guides for newcomers to SL on the web (see the list in the appendix to this article).
Once students feel secure with basic navigation in their new environment and are content with the appearance of their avatars, the instructor can begin to set them small tasks which will enable them to fine tune their new-found skills. Conklin's (2007) 101 Uses for Second Life in the College Classroom suggests a scavenger hunt for acclimating new SL residents. In her sample hunt, Conklin has students seek out specific locations, change the appearance of their avatars according to detailed criteria, take snapshots of their avatars in a variety of locales, and make movies of their avatars experimenting with assorted dance moves.
Recent attention has focused on the imprecise nature of legal issues within 3-D virtual environments. Those educators and students who wish to incorporate SL into their curricula must agree and adhere to Linden Lab's terms of service (http://secondlife.com/corporate/tos.php). However, that document provides no information regarding who is held accountable should students required to participate in SL as part of a course object to this prerequisite, or worse, be subjected to harassment or other unpleasant experiences while logged in. Faculty wishing to employ SL for all or part of a course are well advised to have their students sign a waiver stating that they are aware of the realities of this virtual world and that they know and accept what they may encounter.
MUVEs such as SL have much to offer the field of foreign language education. They have the potential to change the way students learn and the way teachers teach (Dieterle & Clarke, in press). The SL site enables classes to meet in a 3-D virtual environment in which they can collaborate with other students from around the world. Its international membership provides
countless opportunities for language learners to gain oral, aural, and cultural proficiency through interactions with native speakers in life-like settings, while the realistic nature of the 3-D environment provides authentic learning conditions difficult to make available in traditional classroom settings (Dieterle & Clarke).
With all of its promise, however, SL is a relative newcomer to the catalog of CALL technologies and, as such, requires a more significant investment of time and energy on the part of FL educators who wish to employ it for instruction. The rewards are well worth the expense, however, because the life-like environment of SL and its abundant resources for language learners offer both instructors and students alike some of the most realistic linguistic and cultural immersion possibilities short of actual travel. Moreover, SL provides nontraditional students the opportunity to be part of a class in a much more tangible way than has heretofore been possible in text-based online environments.
As SL continues to grow and its residents continue to create, the "in-world" tools available to educators will doubtless become far easier and more intuitive to use. FL educators already involved with SL are pooling resources and creating immersive virtual environments in which language learning can occur through collaboration and exploration. Since SL is a world created by its residents, its educational possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of its creators: the residents, themselves. Ultimately, it is this freedom to create the ideal (virtual) educational environment which may make SL one of the most useful tools for CALL to date.
Barab, S., Thomas, M., Dodge, T., Carteaux, R., & Hakan, T. (2005). Making learning fun: Quest Atlantis, a game without guns. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(1), 86-107.
Bradley, T., & Lomicka, L. (2000). A case study of learner interaction in a technology-enhanced language learning environment. Journal of Educational Computing, 11(3), 247-368.
Bugeja, M. J. (2007, September 14). Second thoughts about Second Life. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(3), Chronicle Careers. Retrieved November 20, 2007, from http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2007/09/2007091401c/careers.html
Carnevale, D. (2007, July 13). Colleges find they must police online worlds. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(45), Information Technology. Retrieved November 12, 2007, from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i45/45a02201.htm
Dalgarno, B. (2002). The potential of 3D virtual learning environments: A constructivist analysis. Electronic Journal of Instructional Science and Technology, 5(2), 1-19. Retrieved April 15, 2006, from http://www.usq.edu.au/electpub/e-jist/docs/Vol5_No2/Dalgarno - Final.pdf
Dickey, M. (2005). Three-dimensional virtual worlds and distance learning: Two case studies of Active Worlds as a medium for distance education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(3), 439-451.
Dieterle, E., & Clarke, J. (in press). Multi-user virtual environments for teaching and learning. In M. Pagani (Ed.), Encyclopedia of multimedia technology and networking (2nd ed.). Hershey, PA: Idea Group, Inc.
Doughty, C., & Long, M. (2003). Optimal psycholinguistic environments for distance foreign language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 7(3), 50-80. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from http://llt.msu.edu/vol7num3/doughty/default.html
Foster, A. (2007, September 21). Professor Avatar [In the digital universe of Second Life, classroom instruction also takes on a new personality]. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(4), The Faculty. Retrieved November 9, 2007, from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i04/04a02401.htm
Howe, N., & Strauss, B. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York: Vintage Books.
Jones, J. G. (2004). 3D on-line distributed learning environments: An old concept with a new twist. In C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of the Society for Informational Technology and Teacher Education (pp. 507-512). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. Retrieved September 7, 2006, from http://courseweb.unt.edu/gjones/pdf/Jones_SITE_FP_04.pdf
Jones, J. G., Morales, C., & Knezek, G. A. (2005). 3-dimensional online learning environments: Examining attitudes toward information technology between students in internet-based 3-dimensional and face-to-face classroom instruction. Educational Media International, 42(3), 219-236.
Johnson, N. (2006). The educational potential of Second Life. In Digital Union Showcase (pp. 1-15). Retrieved May 1, 2007, from http://digitalunion.osu.edu/showcase/virtualenvironments/Second_ Life.pdf
Kelton, A. (2007). Second Life: Reaching into the virtual world for real-world learning. Educause Center for Applied Research: Research Bulletin, 2007(17). Retrieved October 12, 2007, from http://www.it.udel.edu/SecondLifeERB.pdf
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Oblinger, D., & Oblinger, J. (2005). Educating the net generation. Boulder, CO: Educause.
Omale, N., Hung, W., Luetkehans, L., & Cooke-Plagwitz, J. (2007). Learning in 3-D multi-user virtual environments: Exploring the use of unique 3-D attributes for problem-based learning. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Roed, J. (2003). Language learner behaviour in a virtual environment. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 16(2-3), 155-172.
Schneider, J., & Von der Emde, S. (2000). Brave new (virtual) world: Transforming language learning into cultural studies through online learning environments (MOOs). ADFL Bulletin, 32(1), 18-26.
Vickers, H. (2007a). Language teaching gains Second Life: Virtual worlds offer new methods to teach languages. Omniglot: Writing Systems and Languages of the World. Retrieved September 22, 2007, from http://omniglot.com/language/articles/secondlife.php
Wallace, P. (1999). Psychology and the internet. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Resources for Educators new to SL
Second Life Grid--Education and Nonprofit Organizations (http://secondlifegrid.net/programs/education)
Jessamine Cooke-Plagwitz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Northern Illinois University where she teachers courses in the German language and in technology-enhanced instruction for language teachers. Her research interests include online L2 instruction, authentic assessment models, and technology-enhanced constructivist learning models.
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
Phone: 815 753 6465