Jul 24

A film-making project with language learners

In a previous post I have written about Project Based Learning in Second Life showing some examples and relating it to language learning. In this post, I would like to show a machinima project with English language learners. The course was run by Talkademy, a Second Life language school where I also teach at and the teacher was Andrew Standen-Raz. Andrew is a film-maker and English language teacher in Real Life. I think this project shows yet another way how Virtual Worlds can be used creatively for language learning and teaching.

What is machinima?
Machinima is a film-making technique within 3D virtual environments like Second Life. Read more about machinima here.

I saw the machinima at the Awards Ceremony, which was a live mixed-reality event (some, like me, in SL and students at the university). Students’ film was shown and then, they had to give a short presentation about the making of the film

I think it is amazing what the students produced during the course considering that they were complete Second Life newbies when they started the course. Also, Kudos to there English trainer, Andrew, who agreed to answer some questions about the course in an interview.

The machinima

1. Second Life Granny

2. The Murderer in You

3. The Slightly Different Camping Trip

4. The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side

Making of the Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side

The Interview

Nergiz: Can you briefly describe the project and how long it lasted?
Andrew: The idea to use machinimas for teaching English was initially part of an online language programme developed by the founders of Talkademy, Gerhilde Meissl-Egghart & Klaus Hammermueller. I joined them after they had started their project, initially as a teacher. They had the technical expertise and background to build the Talkademy Environment in SL. When I saw the potential of SL through their work, I decided to offer my film experience to create the “i film academy” concept: taking students sometimes with zero film knowledge step by step through all the steps to make a Machinima–a short film concept combining “Machine & Cinema”–and using the fun part of making a film to motivate students to improve their language skills. The project has been going now for one trial 10 week session as part of an Austrian University Business English programme. The idea now is to develop the concept further by promoting it as a way to connect teachers and students via the internet. Across the EU initially, then further afield via a simple programme that helps students to improve their language skills, to connect to others and to develop cross-cultural communication, something that is quite important these days!

Nergiz: Very interesting concept.That partly answers my next question: Did you have any previous knowledge about film making and was that necessary? Did you read up on this topic?
Andrew: Previous knowledge is always important, but one could also say that to be a good teacher requires the desire to help students improve themelves and to make the most of their own potential. Every teacher starts somewhere. I do have extensive film experience, as well as some good teaching experience, and both were necessary to begin the i film academy concept. I wrote the i film programme based on my film production experience, with valuable input, editing and technical support from Gerhilde and Klaus. and combined this with my experiences of teaching language through drama techniques as a model for how to interract with the students.

Nergiz: So you had experience in both fields. Did you see yourself more in the language teacher role in this project or more as someone who teaches the students how to produce a film or both?
Andrew: Good question. Making films is of course fun and creative, but it is also very hard work. The i film academy course is designed primarily as a language course and I always had to keep that in mind, especially when setting homework or grading the students on their assignments. The students were attending my classes as part of a Business English course. So it was easy to explain the process of making a film through business terms, ie. writing a good script is like developing a business plan. And from there it was not so hard to grade the students based on their ability to use complex language, to improve through the course, and on how they used language to communicate effectively with each other and with their teacher while making a motivational project such as the Machinima.

Nergiz: What was the students background? Was this course part of their curriculum or optional? And was this a face-to-face class or distance?
Andrew: The students were offered this class as part of their business English course. The project was always designed to be via SL. This is why it interested me. Initially someone might ask how can one possibly teach filmmaking solely through an online portal? But when you see how it is possible for someone in Portugal for instance to teach three students in Belgium how to use simple capture camera and edting technology, then you see how amazing SL can be when used for something postive and productive.
Nergiz: I agree.
Andrew: I never met the students. We only communicated in class in SL or via email when I sent them extra instructions or motvational information

Nergiz: Obviously, they had to do a lot of the work outside class. What kind of tasks did you do with them in the synchronous sessions and what was done outside class time? Did you do any language work with them?
Andrew: The most important two steps were: first to work with them in class on understanding what it is to make a film, what is involved and how serious the students had to take the process. Making a film is not just fun. And the idea was of course to encourage them to always view this as an English lesson as well, so we decided to include some basic Business English phrase learning, and to impress on the students that their use of language would be assessed for improvement through the course. The work in the class was sometimes learning fun drama techniques, such as acting short comedy skits to each other, or I had the students present their latest storyboards or scripts and the other students commented on them. This allowed the students to get comfortable speaking and discussing interesting topics and complex issues in English. Outside the class was only for additional advice via email.

Nergiz: Did you give any specific language feedback after these discussion/drama sessions?
Andrew: Gerhilde, Klaus and I had a lot of intense discussions when planning the course, to try to make a balance between classical language teaching and the non-traditional techniques. The consensus was that this was more of a “training” course, geared toward encouraging the students to get more comfortable writing, speaking and developing concepts in a foreign language. The feedback I gave the students was in small part correcting their use of language, but a larger part encouraging their efforts without using grading in a de-motivational way.

Nergiz: So, would you say this was a general English or an ESP class?
Andrew: I would say this class is something different again–the course I taught was an aditional part of the traditional language course curriculum. So this course functions best when used as an “add-on.” It could not entirely replace a standard English course.

Nergiz: Now, to you 🙂 What did you enjoy most during this course?
Andrew: that is an interesting question! I love teaching, even difficult students
Nergiz: I think it is important that teachers enjoy themselves
Andrew: Absolutely. Like all teachers I have had “moments” when you struggle to remain calm, and to keep control and times when you despair that your students will ever understand that you are trying to help them to improve themselves. With this class, I had students who were already highly motivated, at university level. These students were hungry to learn and smart enough to learn the SL technology.
Nergiz: Sounds like a dream class 🙂
Andrew: There were times even these students despaired that their work load from other courses was too high to cope also with making a film, or that they could not manage something with the technical side of making machinimas, but we worked through it. My favourite part is always using the drama techniques. When you take student who have never performed in front of anyone, who are maybe shy, who think they are not creative, and then you see them surprising themselves when they improvise successfully, then you know it is all worth it.

Nergiz: I can imagine how satisfying that must be. Would you do a similar course again and if so, would you do things differently?
Andrew: Yes, I would certianly do the same course again. This was just the pilot class, so there are things we can improve. I constantly revised the class as we went along, with input from Gerhilde, and took on board the students input as well. That is very important. These days, you have to include the students in the process, not dictate to them.

Nergiz: Absolutely! What did the students think about the project?
Andrew: We do have feedback forms but we are still analyzing them. I do know this–after the class, a couple of students asked me if they could connect via facebook. So I guess that is a sign I did something right!

Nergiz: That certainly is! 🙂 What is your opinion about virtual worlds in language education?
Andrew: Hmmm, again an interesting question. The first time I saw SL, I thought, here is the future of social networking. Here you can actually see someone, and interract with them almost like in the real world, so a vast jump ahead from facebook etc. The main question about all of our uses of the internet is “do we use these tools like social networking for positive and productive purposes, or do we focus merely on junk?” What internet innovators like Gerhilde and Klaus have achieved with Talkademy is a means to use the virtual worlds of SL for the most useful way of all  — teaching.
Nergiz: I obviously agree.
Andrew: My input to then use these virtual worlds as backdrops for teaching film making is merely one more way that I hope to add some positive input into the internet.

Nergiz: Thank so much for answering my many questions! Do you have any other comments?
Andrew: Not really. I think your questions covered it. Hopefuly you can also join us more with Talkademy or the i film academy. I am sure you would have some great input.
Nergiz: Thanks! Well, this was very insightful. Thanks a lot for taking the time!
Andrew: You are welcome

Jul 21

EUROALL and CALICO in Second Life

EUROCALL and CALICO, or better Graham Davies and Randall Sadler (I prefer speaking about people rather than organization), have been very active in Second Life. They have joined headquarters in SL now and are working together on several projects one of which is collecting and making available resources for language teachers. Graham took the SLExperiments members on a tour of the HQ and showed us among other things the three holodecks.
Holodecks in Language Classes

Randall, who is the master builder :-), also showed me his most recent scene, a most beautiful tree house with lots of built-in goodies which are fun to explore.

Randall's new tree house

Graham kindly agreed to an interview to answer some of my questions which I hope are interesting to other language teachers as well.

Nergiz: Can you describe the EUROCALL/CALICO HQ, what kinds of resources are available there and who can use them?

Graham: EUROCALL set up its HQ building in 2007 with a view to advertising the existence of EUROCALL, holding small meetings and running training sessions for newcomers to Second Life. So far it has served these purposes well. The visitor log shows that many people drop in and pick up notecards providing information about EUROCALL, and we have used the facilities regularly for meetings. My colleague Lesley Shield and I ran the first training workshop for newcomers to Second Life at the EUROCALL 2008 conference in Hungary, and I will be running a similar workshop at the EUROCALL 2009 conference in Spain.

Currently the EUROCALL building has facilities for holding small meetings, with display screens for the presentation of PowerPoint slides and videos. There is also a Horizons holodeck rezzer on the roof. These facilities are available at no charge to anyone who wishes to use them.

The CALICO HQ was set up by Randall Sadler earlier this year, when a plot became vacant next door to the EUROCALL HQ. It was felt that having the two HQs side by side would be useful. We already collaborate closely as professional associations, so it makes sense to work together in SL. On the CALICO side of the sim, 1000 metres high in the sky, there is Resources centre, accessible by the internal teleport system, which contains a growing collection of free resources: clothes for newbies, landmarks of interesting locations, PowerPoint presenters, building resources, etc. There are two holodeck rezzers, both of which use the Horizons system. One is at ground level and one is located on the Skydeck, 2000 metres high in the sky and accessible via the internal teleport system. The holodecks contain a selection of off-the-shelf scenes and some new imaginative scenes built by Randall Sadler. The holodecks may be used freely by visitors.

Groovy Winkler and his dog

Nergiz: Can you say something about the new Virtual Worlds SIG?

Graham: Both EUROCALL and CALICO encourage the formation of SIGs dedicated to special aspects of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL).

There are currently three EUROCALL SIGs: Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), CorpusCALL and Natural Language Processing (NLP). The NLP SIG collaborates closely with the CALICO Intelligent CALL (ICALL) SIG.

CALICO has six SIGS: Teacher Education, Second Language Acquisition and Technology (SLAT), Courseware, CMC, Virtual Worlds, ICALL (Intelligent CALL – which collaborates closely with the EUROCALL NLP SIG.

CALICO set up a Virtual Worlds Special Interest Group (VW SIG) in 2008, and Randall Sadler ran the first CALICO workshop for newcomers to Second Life at the CALICO 2008 conference. A wiki was set up for the 2008 workshop participants and another workshop, with accompanying wiki, took place at the CALICO 2009 conference.

At the EUROCALL Executive Committee meeting in March this year I proposed setting up a Virtual Worlds SIG to build on our activities in Second Life and to encourage more people to take an interest in the potential of using virtual worlds in language learning and teaching. Rather than setting up a completely new SIG, I suggested creating a joint SIG with CALICO. This was approved by the Committee, and the first outcome is the joint EUROCALL/CALICO HQ that you can see under development on EduNation III Island.

The joint VW SIG will be formerly launched at EUROCALL 2009, when we will hold our first face-to-face meeting to discuss the way ahead. We have no fixed plans in place yet and we are open to new ideas. Depending on the facilities available, we would also like to open up the meeting to online participants in SL. As with the other SIGs, only EUROCALL or CALICO members can join the VW SIG.

Nergiz: Where does your and Randall’s interest in holodecks come from?

Graham: I cannot speak for Randall but, as a Star Trek fan, I have been aware of the concept of a holodeck since the 1970s, i.e. a Star Trek holodeck is a virtual reality facility for the Starfleet crews and is used for recreation and entertainment purposes. It is capable of generating, for example, simulations of historical events, crew members’ homes back on earth, and facilities for training. And the Starfleet, of course, also used “transporters”, which work in a similar way to SL teleporters, instantly transporting crew members from one location to another.

My first personal acquaintance with a holodeck in SL was in April this year, when Randall set up a holodeck in the sky above his house in SL, using the Horizons system. The holodeck contained a lecture theatre in which he gave a presentation to participants in the EUROCALL CMC SIG conference in Spain. I was impressed by the ease with which a temporary scene could be set up for a special purpose and I immediately bought the Horizons system (L$500) for the EUROCALL HQ. The Horizons system came with a set of ready-made scenes, and in the meantime I have added a few additional scenes that I have purchased off the shelf. The rezzer is currently located on the roof of the HQ.

Holodecks in Language Classes

Nergiz: How would you like the holodecks to be used?

Graham: Holodecks make it easy to set up facilities for special teaching and training events, e.g. Randall’s lecture theatre that he used for his CMC SIG conference presentation in April 2009. One advantage of doing this is that the facility can be located a long way from ground level so that uninvited visitors do not stumble into it accidentally and it is also completely out of earshot from the ground. This is preferable, for example, to setting up such a facility at a ground-level location, e.g. in a public sandbox. There is already a wide range of holodeck scenes that can be used for teaching foreign languages, e.g. a hotel lobby or a restaurant in which students can act out different roles, and also shops and markets – something along the lines of the facilities that exist, for example, in dedicated sims such as the Ciudad Bonita SL sim for learners of Spanish and the LanguageLab sim. Having the scenes available as holodeck scenes means that they can be set up instantly in any location. Such scenes may, of course, be found in various locations in SL, but one has to look for them and they are usually public, meaning that anyone can walk in at any time, which may not be desirable in a teaching session. The Horizons system allows the scenes to be set up almost anywhere, including a public sandbox, either within the Horizons rezzer or independently – rather like the individual builds that can be created with the Builder’s Buddy, Rez-Foo or Rez-Faux packaging tools.

We welcome ideas for creating new scenes that can be made available through the EUROCALL/CALICO holodecks. It does, of course, take a bit of time to create new holodeck scenes, but we are prepared to share what we produce with other teachers. Randall is the expert builder. I have dabbled only with Builder’s Buddy, which I found very easy to use. It took me just one and a half hours to create a furnished log cabin, assembled from items in my inventory, and now I can share it with anyone who wants it. It would make a nice starter home for somebody!

Holodecks in Language Classes

Nergiz: The EUROCALL conference is in September in Spain but there is also a virtual strand. How can teachers participate from a distance?

Graham: The EUROCALL virtual strand made its debut at the EUROCALL 2006 conference in Granada. I was able to experience it at first-hand at a distance as I was recovering from major surgery at the time and unable to attend the “real” conference. The 2006 virtual strand consisted of a dedicated blog and wiki, with facilities for text chat and voice chat (which didn’t work very well at that time as it was still rather primitive). I enjoyed using the virtual strand. I watched all the plenary presentations in streaming video and I was very active in the blog. Since then, we have added new facilities, but we no longer use a wiki as this was not very popular at the 2006 conference and hardly used by participants. The 2009 blog has now been set up, and we will also be using CoveritLive and Twitter feeds.

The plenaries will be streamed this year, and there will be also be exclusive presentations online, along with selected podcasts. If you wish to participate in the full range of the virtual strand facilities there is a charge of 25 euros, but the blog and Twitter feeds are open to everybody. More information can be found here.

Nergiz: Do you have any other comments?

Graham: I would like to add that I find Second Life the most exciting development in new technologies for language teaching and learning that I have experienced since I first became interested in CALL in 1976. I have experienced a huge range of new technologies since the first microcomputers appeared at the end of the 1970s with black-and-white, text-only screens. I have witnessed the arrival of full-colour graphics, audio and video playback and recording, interactive videodiscs, CD-ROMs, DVDs, the World Wide Web, interactive whiteboards, Web 2.0, and now Second Life. See the History of CALL, Section 2 of Module 1.4 at the ICT4LT site.

All the new developments were exciting at the time, but virtual worlds have really got me hooked, both for educational and for entertainment purposes, and especially for making new friends all over the world. As teachers, we often overlook what is going on in other areas of activities in Second Life. As a cancer survivor, for example, I have discovered the excellent work that the American Cancer Society does in Second Life, providing support both for sufferers and carers and supporting the fund-raising Relay for Life initiative. I also enjoy going to live music performances, and I am trying to learn Spanish by visiting Spanish-speaking sims. Just look around. There is so much to see. I also have written a brief History of Virtual Worlds, which can be downloaded from here.

Personally, I was most intrigued by Graham’s “Virtual World History” which says that VWs have a long existence and started with text-based VWs back in the 70s!

Thank you very much Graham for taking the time to answer my questions!

Snapshots by Nina/Nagora

—> Link to all blog posts related to holodecks, Builder’s Buddy and language teaching ideas.

Jul 18

SLanguages 2009 conference archives

I didn’t manage to blog about, SLanguages 2009, the annual conference dedicated to language teaching and learning in Second Life which is increasingly becoming popular.  But the conference website contains lots of valuable information, links and resources that I wanted to share the link with you. It is worth visiting even after the conference.

Many sessions at this year’s conference were video or audio recorded and presenters shared their slides. They can all be found in the archive.The presentation my colleagues Graham, Nick, Dennis and I gave — Virtual Worlds and Language Learning —  is also there.


Jul 14

Summary of my SLTalk presentation

Last Thursday, I was invited by Andreas Mertens, SLTalk.de to give a presentation on Language Learning in Virtual Worlds to a very diverse audience of around 13 professionals in different fields (3 SLTalk staff, two SL/RL authors, vice director of a school, consultants, a further education office, a culture manager, mfg innovation, and others). The presentation was in German.

I started my presentation with the statement “Language learning in Second Life is possible” and asked my audience to show me their opinions (rather than say or type them) by walking into one of the 5 sections of the Opinonator ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. I was positively surprised to see everybody in either strongly agree or agree. So, I did not have to persuade anybody of the value of SL for language learning 🙂

I then asked the participants to collaboratively come up with answers to the question why language learning in SL is possible before showing them my slide. I was once again surprised and happy to see all the reasons they came up with:

  • visual context
  • every day situation
  • you can hear native speakers
  • immersion
  • compared to a physical classroom, you can show more situations/settings
  • group pressure similar to a class situation (I asked for clarification here: if you study with a group of people in SL instead of alone, there is a bit of positive group pressure that helps the learner to continue and stay motivated)
  • learning through experience
  • fun

After so much enthusiasm and ideas in favour of learning languages in SL, I almost hesitated to ask my next question: “Why might learning a language in SL be not a good idea?” My aim was to have the participants think about what needs to be considered when learning or teaching in SL rather than finding reasons not to use it. Here are their answers:

  • complicated to use
  • steep learning curve of SL
  • struggling to take SL seriously (for those who think it is a game)
  • you can’t see the speaker’s (teacher or learner) mouth – difficult to show how a word is pronounced
  • takes a lot of effort to learn to use SL (this person added: I know several people who would even have problems installing it).
  • needs a powerful PC
  • lesson preparation probably takes long
  • age restriction

This showed me that the participants were well aware of the possibilities as well as limitations of Second Life. At this point, I showed a mindmap with an overview of my presentation.

Because they had already mentioned most of the points about the “Why?”, I could quickly move to the second section, the “How?” showing some snapshots of my previous classes and some student feedback. This section was divided into formal and informal learning with many examples for both.

The third section was about the teacher and teacher development in SL. I mentioned SLExperiments, VWLL, official organisations like EUROCALL and CALICO, who have their joint HQ in SL, and EU-funded AVALON and Niflar projects.

My reason for using the Opinionator at the beginning was not only to make my presentation more interactive and SL-like but also to present some of the tools I use in my classes by using them during this presentation. Other tools I used or demonstrated were

  • a slide presenter and a pictureboard (both creaeted by Dudeney Ge aka Gavin Dudeney),
  • the prim pointer that can be positioned in front of any viewer to point at specific areas or information on a slide.
  • physical cubes with hover text that can be pushed on different field with categories that I made for a matching exercise in a Business English session (see picture below)
  • the BrainBoard
  • and, of course, a Builder’s Buddy scene ( I chose Anna’s Italian kitchen scene).

The participants asked questions and commented throughout the session and once they had stood up to use the Opinonator, most kept standing with me on the stage, which made it feel like we were all doing the presentation together rather then me speaking alone, which i quite enjoyed.

Special thanks to Tobias Würtz, SLTalk for providing the snapshots.