Nergiz Kern learns to teach in a virtual world.
‘I don’t even have time for my first life and certainly can’t handle a second life’ is typical of the statements that I hear from sceptical teachers. Well, I don’t lead a second life either, but Second Life (SL), the three-dimensional virtual world is very much part of my first or Real Life (RL). It is one of the tools in my repertoire that in many ways closes a gap and, in some instances, enhances my classroom practice. It has now become very much a part of my professional development.
Getting into SL
At first, I was intrigued by what I heard SL had to offer to learners and teachers. I am a visual learner with an interest in technology and the internet. As a teacher, it was the immersive and collaborative nature of SL that appealed to me. I had also been looking for motivating ways to teach online and the game-like nature of SL seemed to be one such way. Consequently, I signed up for SL, created my avatar, the figure who represents me in SL, and started exploring.
Learning to use SL
My first trips into this virtual world were not very satisfactory. Only when I finally met some colleagues in SL and found out about educational places and tools did it start to make sense. It took me about two to three months of regular trips to SL, and intensive learning by observing and participating in events, conferences and lessons and trying out tools, to reach a point where I felt comfortable enough to start teaching. (Teacher support groups, networks and SL training courses are increasing for those who do not have that much time to invest.)
Teaching in SL
Once I had decided to start teaching, I needed students for my first SL English course. Finding students is a relatively easy task in SL because many learners are less sceptical than teachers, and many sign up to SL because they want to practise English. If you offer free classes, you will have no problem finding volunteers. Fourteen students signed up for my course but only around eight to ten of these were regulars (not all of them came to every session, though).
They were from Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India, France and Germany. Some were experienced SL users, others had just joined.
Basically, you can use all the places within SL to teach (except, of course, any inappropriate ones with mature content). It is actually a dream come true because instead of just looking at pictures of remote places, hotels, restaurants, sports, etc and pretending to be there, teachers can actually ‘take’ their students to these locations in a matter of seconds. This is called ‘teleporting’.
It is an advantage, however, to have a meeting point where the lesson starts and ends. This should be a place where teachers have the right to ‘rez’ objects (take items such as presentation screens, whiteboards, chairs, realia, etc out of their inventory and place them in the location so that they can be seen and used by everybody who is present). Our meeting point was a garden where I had my presentation boards, some chairs and a lot of space to move around. For groupwork and discussions after field trips, we also used my own house in SL, which is divided into two areas so that people in one room cannot hear those in the other, and no one can be heard from outside the house.
I decided to offer a pre-intermediate general English course as the majority of the potential students I had talked to were at this level and already had enough knowledge of the language to be able to follow a course where they would not see their teacher face-to-face. In the end, I had a mixed-ability class, with students ranging from elementary to intermediate; I didn’t turn down any student because it was a trial class and they were very eager to participate. It was a six-week course, with two 90-minute sessions a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The synchronous ‘face-to-face’ lessons took place in SL. In addition, I used Moodle for homework assignments, to make resources (vocabulary lists, slides, additional exercises, etc) available after class and for discussions and questions. As SL has a game-like nature, I wanted to make homework interesting and varied, too. So I selected online games to practise vocabulary and grammar, and used voice-recording tools for further speaking and listening practice. Whenever possible, I gave students the choice to submit their homework either in writing (blog posts) or in spoken form (recorded), depending on what they thought they needed to practise most.
In order to decide what to teach, I looked through my material and notes of past lessons for this level and browsed through some coursebooks to see what topics, skills and structures they covered. I wanted to have a mix of topics, structures, skills and activities to make it interesting and relevant to the students, but also for me; I was keen to try out different things to see whether or how they worked in SL. I also knew what kind of difficulties students from the participants’ countries usually have. However, I didn’t plan all the lessons prior to the course; I left myself free to be able to base some of them on the needs of the students. I would only discover these needs once the course had started.
I adapted materials, games and activities to SL where possible. Sometimes, this was easy (eg finding pictures for a topic and uploading them to SL to show on a slide/PowerPoint projector or picture board). I found that activities such as ‘twenty questions’, short dictations or board games, and pair- and groupwork were also possible in SL. One style of activity that did not work, however, was mingling. Although SL offers three-dimensional sound (people who are closer sound louder than those further away), students have to move much further away from each other than in real life, otherwise voices get completely mixed up. As a result, they ended up taking turns in pairs, with the others listening.
I had a whole range of tools available thanks to generous experienced SL educators and programmers, who usually give them away for free. Tools I used in this course were: a presentation screen for slides, picture boards, a board that displays notecards/text, a timer, and objects that automatically hand out their content when touched (eg notecards with instructions or homework). What I missed most was a whiteboard that I could write example sentences or draw on spontaneously (now there are some tools that make this possible). Writing words or sentences can be done in the chat area or on notecards and then displayed, though they aren’t in colour and there is no way to highlight things (except by using asterisks or capital letters). However, drawing is not possible at all without prior preparation of slides.
I discovered that there are also, however, things that are possible in SL but not in RL. I tried to capitalise on these as much as possible. Most lessons took place ‘outdoors’ and we went on many field trips. Corrections could be done in text chat or with private instant messages without interrupting the students or putting them on the spot. Text chat (and even voice chat) could be saved for review and vocabulary work or given to students who missed the class.
I soon realised that more rigorous planning is needed for SL lessons than for RL lessons, and that preparation in general takes more time because you cannot simply point at the coursebook. The lesson plan has to be written, pictures found, vocabulary, example sentences, grammar explanations and homework instructions written. Once you are in SL, pictures and slides have to be uploaded, the inventory folder needs to be organised: tools, notecards and slides have to be named appropriately so that they can be found easily, places to go have to be selected, etc.
After planning a couple of lessons and teaching the first sessions, I found that my lesson planning was taking a long time, partly because I was thinking in terms of RL and trying to transfer those lessons into SL. Sometimes this was justified, but often it was possible to be more spontaneous, using different activities and tools that were available to teach in a more SL-style. To give one example, instead of showing pictures of objects, it is possible simply to drag them out of one’s inventory. So, all kinds of realia (including such objects as houses, airplanes, animals, etc) are instantaneously available in the ‘classroom’, not in two dimensions, but in three. Fewer uploads of pictures also means less money spent as each upload costs ten ‘Linden dollars’, the currency of SL. This is not a lot of money (at the moment of writing 266 L$ = 1 US$) but it can accumulate. On the other hand, you do not have to make any photocopies, so you are saving money there.
Again, given the game-like nature of SL, I wanted to make my lessons fun and interactive. Interactivity and student-centred lessons in SL are even more important than in RL for several reasons. Firstly, most people in SL are there because they want to have fun and they want to do things, not just listen to somebody. Secondly, we may meet synchronously at the same virtual location but, ultimately, everybody is sitting at home in front of their computers. So, the teacher cannot see who is listening attentively and who is nodding off. Keeping the students active and having them move around, teleport to different places, form groups, etc and getting them use voice as often as possible, will make sure they are not in the kitchen preparing food while their avatars are the only ones ‘listening’ to the teacher!
Each lesson was self-contained as I could never be sure who and how many would attend the following session. However, some of the lessons were still connected thematically (eg a lesson about news, practising asking questions, interviewing peers, interviewing a guest, watching a presentation, giving a presentation).
We took two field trips where one student was the tourist guide and showed the tourists (all the other students and the teacher) their favourite SL location. Another field trip was to Reuter’s SL office. We played word, board and other games to practise and review previous lessons. In one lesson, students had to build objects following instructions; this practised the names of shapes, colours, prepositions of location, and how to give instructions. We had a guest speaker for the students to interview. I also set up flags of different countries along the street to practise country and nationality names. We sat together in my living room to talk about our trips and to tell stories that the students had written in groups (using realia that I had placed on tables). And finally, we had a graduation party with virtual food and drinks, games, an exhibition of what students had built for homework, lots of laughter and chat in English, and, of course, framed certificates of participation.
You can find detailed downloadable lesson plans, post-lesson evaluations, student feedback, tips and pictures taken during the lessons on my blog: https://slexperiments.nergizkern.com/.
The students didn’t have to pay for this course, but I asked them to fill out feedback forms after each lesson and at the end of the course. This student feedback was immensely helpful for me in planning future sessions and finding out what works and what doesn’t. I was amazed how well they were able to reflect on their learning in the lessons (most came from rather traditional educational backgrounds). All felt that their English had improved and 60 per cent thought that SL lessons were better than RL ones. Eighty per cent said they would participate in another SL English course, with the remaining 20 per cent saying that they didn’t know whether they would or not. There was no one who said they would not participate again.
This was a wonderful experience for me and I am excited about the possibilities virtual worlds have to offer. The class was for me as real as in RL and the students said they felt like a real class, too. I was very happy to see that they also met outside class and talked with other in English. The sessions were exhausting at times and we had a few problems (time lag, crashes, etc) but nothing that affected the lesson too much. After all, things can go wrong in RL classes, too! However, people are usually more critical of new tools and see mostly what is lacking rather than what they can add to our teaching practice.
Can you survive as a teacher without SL? Sure, you can; at least for a while and maybe if you teach in an English-speaking country where your students can immerse themselves in the language by stepping out of the door. However, if you are in a non-English-speaking country or have distance students, SL can add a lot to your teaching.
SL also offers many opportunities for students to practise their English informally outside class time. They can visit different places and immerse themselves in the language without leaving their homes. This is a huge advantage for those who cannot study abroad, for financial or other reasons. It gives distance students a feeling of presence and really belonging to a group. SL may be a good tool to get shy students more active as it is their avatars speaking or writing in English and not them. It also offers something for different types of learners.
Teachers do not need to offer complete lessons in SL. In the course of face-to-face classes, they can pop into SL for short sessions, project work, an interview, to demonstrate something or to take a field trip. This can even be done as a whole class with one computer and an interactive whiteboard. Teachers who do not want to or cannot use SL in class, can still set homework (providing all the students have access to it) asking them to interview people about something, do some research and write a report about places they visited or do SL quests and scavenger hunts.
It is predicted that all the internet will be three-dimensional in the near future. So teachers and their students who use SL are picking up a real-life skill.
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I will certainly continue teaching in SL or other virtual worlds and can only encourage other teachers to do so, too. Please contact me if you have questions or need help to get started.
This article was first published in English Teaching Professional, Issue 61 March 2009.