So, what’s the added value of SL for ELT?

This question (in a more general form; not related to ELT) crops up every now and then on the various Second Life educational or research lists or other SL education platforms and among among individual teachers. Often it is a question asked by teachers who are not in SL and want an answer to this before they decide whether it’s worth spending their time on SL or virtual worlds. But SL-/virtual world-experienced teachers are also asking themselves this question and rightly so.

The same question was asked by Wlodekzimierz Sobkowiak during the EVO Virtual Worlds and Language Teaching session and generated quite a lot of discussion (you can find a collation of all contributions here) and again in our EVO session Teaching Languages in a Virtual World this year.

I’m not going to attempt to answer it in this post. Firstly, I should actually be working on something else rather than writing a blog post … and secondly, in this form, this question cannot be answered in my opinion.

I have read through the discussion several times and there was always this feeling that everybody was talking about a different aspect of SL relating to their own context but without really saying it. This made it impossible to come to terms with the seemingly simple question. After all, if we have been spending so much time in SL, there must be something that we find is worth our time and energy, right?

One statement or question related to the one above that I keep hearing is “why use SL if we replicate real life activities?” And usually there seems to be agreement among many educators that this certainly isn’t the best use of SL. But I kept asking myself “for whom”?

I believe that what has been missing in all of these discussions is the context.

Before we can answer this question about “added value”, we have to know the context in which someone (teacher, learner, …) wants to use Second Life or any other virtual world (or any technology for that matter). Two such contexts (and there are many others) are the mode of delivery of a course and the location of the students:

a) face-to-face class
b) distance
c) face-to-face and in a country where the target language is spoken
d) face-to-face but in a country where the target language is not spoken
e) …

If the context is b) for example, you can justify using SL to replicate situations and activities that you would do in a face-to-face class because in such a situation, SL serves as a means to close the spacial distance between the learners and the teacher (compared to web-conferening and similar tools). The teacher and learners can be in one place and actually do things together (e.g. field trips). It is not (exclusively) used to add anything to the methodology. Though hopefully this would follow.

If you teach English in let’s say the US or UK and your students have paid a lot of money to be there and to immerse themselves in the language and culture, you better have some very good reasons to take them to SL. I’m not saying that there aren’t any but these would certainly not be the same as for situation b).

So, we cannot automatically dismiss activities as being too traditional or too real-life like (and thus less appropriate for a virtual world) without having a clear idea of the situation and the aims of a particular group of students and their teacher.

8 thoughts on “So, what’s the added value of SL for ELT?

  1. Hi Nergiz,

    I think there are two main factors in teachers not understanding the benefits of SL or the online world in general.

    1. The nature of the industry – The ELT world has been about courses & classes and not a lot else. The idea of learning a language by being part of an online community or anything other than courses and classes is something many teachers have not even considered.

    2. Total lack of experience with technology – They’ve not really used it so they don’t know and can’t imagine what’s so good about it.

    If the position were reversed, i.e. online learning was the norm it would be very difficult to find a reason to start using classrooms.

    The loss of flexibility, convenience, customization, choice, engagement along with the increased cost outweigh any benefit that an actual classroom could bring.


    • Hi Shiv

      You are right, it is difficult to get rid of old habits and think out of the box. It also means a lot of investment in time, energy and money, which not all teachers or institutions are prepared to do or see the need for. Teacher training is certainly another factor.

      You say: “If the position were reversed, i.e. online learning was the norm it would be very difficult to find a reason to start using classrooms…”

      I wouldn’t say that traditional classrooms have no benefit at all. I certainly wouldn’t want to replace face-to-face classes completely. Social interaction online and f2f is different and we will need both in the future (well, now).

      I agree that a lot of classroom teaching is often inefficient and not engaging but it is not really the location or building that makes it so. I have seen lessons in Second Life which were completely dull and unprofessional. So, although, the environment in which a lesson takes place is important, it is not the all deciding factor for good lessons. Would you agree?

      • So would you say that it is the abilty to transport a person who is far away into an exact replica of a place the ideal reason for teaching in SL? This seems to be what you are saying and it makes sense. It is true that many people still do not understand what is out there with the newest technology.

        • David, what I am saying is there are many good reasons for taking students into SL and we cannot make any judgements about how some teachers or learners use SL without taking their context into consideration.

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  4. I’m very interested in SL… but it’s another app/system/website where I need to learn how to use it and use it well before I can even attempt to take my students in there… and then I’ve got to educate my students on how to use it. At the moment, it seems like a waste of time for me, but I can see Virtual Worlds playing more of a part in the future of education in all areas. Surely it’s only a matter of time until TVs and PCs come with Virtual World access built in… you can do it all in the comfort of your lounge.
    Frightening, worrying, or exciting? Let’s wait and see.

  5. Tim,

    I know what you mean. There’s is so much to keep up with for teachers that we have to prioritize what we spent our time on – and it’s usually our free time when we explore and learn about new applications. Nobody else but you can decide whether SL or other virtual worlds are worth your or your students’ time right now.

    Although, I think you don’t need to be an expert in using SL in order to be able to teach in/with it, you should have a sound understanding of its “affordances” (I had to use that world :-)) and know how to operate it. You do already have the pedagogical background 🙂 You can learn the rest in a relatively short time, especially as there are language teacher communities in SL now, that can support you. Students usually pick up the necessary skills relatively quickly.

    As you say, virtual worlds will probably soon be just as normal as the Internet or email are now and it will become easier to learn to use them.

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