MET:Language learning in Virtual Worlds
Why Use Virtual Worlds in Language Learning?
Increasingly, educators are dealing with student populations that are geographically distant from the school and from each other. Also, as new cohorts of students come into the teaching system, many of them have grown up, or are growing up, in online, digital contexts, rich with social media, collaboration and gaming. For both of these reasons, educators can look at virtual worlds as a possible teaching environment.
Virtual worlds also have an advantage in that they provide students with access to a much wider range of people, speaking many different languages. In public virtual worlds, students can find groups of people with whom they have an affinity, or an interest in common, and can have authentic, meaningful conversations that improve their learning.
Virtual worlds are not without problems for educators. Because of the open nature of public virtual worlds, students may come into contact with content and people that are not beneficial, or distract the students from the tasks which the instructors have set. Also, the technical aspects of the platforms can in and of themselves be barriers to both students and educators.
While there is not enough research in this area to definitively decide if virtual worlds are the solution to distance and attitude issues with students, there is evidence that they can be used effectively for teaching languages. The focus of much of the research in English is, for obvious reasons, on teaching English as a Second Language, and so most of the references in this article discuss this sub-set of language teaching, but there is interest in the technology in other language areas .
Educators who are interested in using virtual worlds for language, will find that the collaborative, interactive nature of communication in these environments can support good teaching. Virtual worlds provide a platform for both formal and informal communication, and this flexibility can provide advantages over a static classroom.
Virtual Worlds: A Definition
Types of Virtual Worlds (VWs)
VWs are often referred to as "grids", or "worlds", but we need a better definition if we are to evaluate their usefulness for language learning. For the purposes of language teaching, VWs are 3 Dimensional, web-based, network-based, simulated worlds. Users are represented in the shared virtual space by avatars that can move around, perform non-verbal gestures, and can, to a greater or lesser degree, be personalized to either reflect something about the user, or present a completely different persona. They provide real-time text chat, and some provide voice communication. Often, the objects found in the world are user-generated. Objects can have multiple properties and can provide content to users after an interaction.
"Network-based 3D simulations are viewed as arenas with potential for language learning, as they provide an engaging social context suitable for task-based interaction" 
Two kinds of VWs are used in language teaching: Public and Private.
Public VWs are open to anyone who signs up for a membership. Sometimes there are fees, but very often basic membership is free. In public VWs, educators cannot really control who or what their students interact with. There are advantages to this kind of grid:
- A wide range of individuals for students to interact with;
- Many spaces and contexts in which students can experience language;
- Public VWs often have larger, more stable environments and technology.
This is a very limited selection of the public VWs that are available to any educator. Membership, or basic accounts, are free, but you have to pay for the virtual "land" you need to create learning spaces. In some VWs, educators can take advantage of groups that already exist, and spaces designed for education, some of which are free, and some that are available at low cost.
- Second LifeTM Second Life is one of the oldest and largest of the VWs. Owned and operated by Linden Lab, it used to have discounts for educators, but has moved away from education as part of their business model in recent years.
- OpenSim OpenSim is a platform, originally based on a version of the Second Life code, but very much evolved. There are hundreds of OpenSim based grids, for many different purposes. OSgrid is the oldest and largest of the OpenSim grids.
- JokaydiaGRID An OpenSim grid for education and the arts.
Private grids are operated by a business or an institution solely for their employees or students. The access to the VW is controlled by the owners, and is restricted to members of that organization, or invited guests. Educators that utilize private VWs can control who has access to the learning environment, and who their students interact with. Educators also retain more control over the organization of the space, as other, non-student participants cannot create objects or areas that the students can find and explore.
One of the main technologies for creating private VWs is Wonderland.
- openwonderlandOpen Wonderland is a 100% Java open source toolkit for creating collaborative 3D virtual worlds.
- OpenSim OpenSim can be installed on private servers, or even run off a USB stick, to create a private VW.
- Sim-On-A-Stick This is a distribution of OpenSim that comes bundled with all the software you need to run a small VW on either a PC or a USB stick. There are "hacks" that allow you to connect SOAS worlds to other grids (hypergriding), but this is not officially supported.
Questions We Need to Ask About VWs in Education
VWs have many attractive characteristics for educators, but it is important to look at some of the problems associated with VWs as they strongly impact their usefulness for teaching Second Language Acquisition (SLA).
As with any digital technology, students and educators need to become familiar with the use of the software related to the VW before it can be considered useful as a learning tool. Often creating "tours" and tutorials can help students to acclimatize to the environment, and peer support can help student to feel more sure of themselves in the new space 
This can be partially managed through documents and videos, for the students to view and reference as they move into the virtual space. There are many generic tutorials for the various grids, most notably SecondLifeTM, in places like YouTube. Most of the major grids also have forums and wikis to support new users in becoming familiar with VWs. These are also particularly important for instructors to use. They need to have enough expertise to guide students through the learning curve, and minimize frustration.
Access and Accessibility
A significant issue for educators looking to use VWs in language teaching is access. Students need to have access to computers capable of running the VW viewer software, including fairly good graphics cards. Schools and institutions running private grids or VWs, need to have computers that can support the software, and the number of users enrolled in the various programs offered. For public grids, and private grids entered over the Internet, it is important to have high-speed Internet access.
The costs of these requirements mean that language teaching in VWs is out of reach for many students, and uneven access to the Internet in many countries make VWs difficult to access in some regions. This is especially the case in developing nations. The world average for Internet penetration in 2011 was only 32.8 users per 100 people. In Sub-Saharan Africa there were only 12.3 users per 100 people . While Internet penetration is increasing quickly, access continues to be an issue for online technology in many areas.
In some cases, language learning in VWs is used with students before they come to English-speaking countries for education. Differential access would make this a more difficult proposition, and could privilege students in higher-access areas. This is very relevant in the teaching of English, but is also an issue in teaching other languages.
The issue of access for students with disabilities is also something that educators need to take into consideration when evaluating VWs for teaching. Assistive technology can help, but relying on a world that is partially visual can exclude students with perceptual disabilities. There are some initiatives under way that would make VWs more accessible for students, most notably "Max" the virtual guide dog, but technologies like this are still not the standard. Depending on legislation where the school or institution is located, there may be legal issues in providing instruction in VWs. Some provinces in Canada, for example, require educational institutions to be accessible.
The Magic Bullet Problem
As with any new technology, or platform, there is a tendency to behave as if it is a magic bullet that will fix most of the current problems and create stunning new capabilities. Often this leads to an un-critical adoption of new platforms, or an overuse of a technology when other, more tested methods, or other new platforms would be as good. Second LifeTM is a good example.
Early on, Second LifeTM became the platform of choice for VW educators, and there was a great deal of interest. However, the owners of Second LifeTM changed their business model in 2010 and ended education discounts on virtual land. Educators had to very quickly change directions. Many of them moved to OpenSim grids, or VWs centred around education, but there was a great deal of upheaval in VW teaching and learning.. There is still a strong education community in Second LifeTM, but many schools and institutions have moved their operations elsewhere.
Second Language Acquisition (SLA)
Needs of Second Language Learners
In order to learn a second language (L2), learners need to become proficient in four areas of language. In a VWs they are represented in these ways: reading (interactions with objects and text chat), writing (text chat and object creation), speaking (voice chat), and listening (interactions with objects, voice chat). To achieve this, certain criteria have to be met. Gardner et al. (2011, p.7) identify the following conditions which must be present for L2 learning:
- Learners need to be exposed to the target language, i.e., comprehensible, rich, and varied input.
- Learners must have opportunities to produce the target language, e.g., comprehensible output.
- Learners need to be able to negotiate meaning and use the target language in a social, authentic context.
- Intercultural and pragmatic aspects have to be addressed in order to help L2 learners become competent L2 users since language is embedded in specific cultural and communication contexts
Do Virtual Worlds Meet the Needs?
- In public VWs students are exposed to a wide range of other users, other students and instructors. They have an opportunity to interact with native speakers, in many different contexts and on many topics. This can fulfil the need to be exposed to varied input in the target language. "Social software and [virtual worlds] offer great potential as they provide solutions to two basic demands in language teaching; that is, access to authentic rather than scripted or simplified teaching material, and exposure to real, communicative situations."(Arvanitis and Panagiotidis (2008, p.3)
- Through text and voice chat, students have opportunities to produce the target language in a variety of ways. This can be moderated by an instructor to ensure that the student is producing comprehensible output, but also the interactions with peers and other users will provide feedback to the student on the quality of their speech and writing.
- Peterson (2010, p.77) describes VWs as having opportunities to negotiate meaning with other users and students, in a social and authentic context.
- Gardner et al. (2011, p.10) write that VWs have the potential to realistically simulate real places. This can provide specific cultural contexts, and combined with instructor, and user, input, can fulfill some of the intercultural conditions required for L2 learning. "As such, they operate within a truly inter-cultural environment in which they can meet up with other avatars, native speakers of the target language, and engage with them in written and spoken communication in real-time."(Arvanitis and Panagiotidis (2008, p.4)
Teaching Methodologies that Work with VWs
The style of learning and teaching in VWs is consistent with constructivist pedagogy, as well as Problem-Based Learning, and Situated Learning Theory. Much of teaching in VWs is based on the social and collaborative interactions that are part of constructivist pedagogy . In discussing Vygotsky, and the relevance of his theory to language learning, Peterson writes: "Language acquisition is facilitated by participation in collaborative dialogue involving coconstruction of the TL. This form of interaction involving peer support (known as scaffolding) is linked to the notion of the zone of proximal development." Students in VWs will experience interactions with other students, and other users, that provide this collaboration and peer-support, through conversations mediated by the VW software.
Dogme is a language teaching philosophy and methodology based on the work of a school of film-making. It emphasizes real language use, conversation, very few lesson plans, no artificial props, and lets the students dictate what the content of the conversations will be .
You could probably argue that the VW is the ultimate artificial prop, and that this would disqualify these environments from being used by Dogme-style instructors, but one of the requirements of Dogme is that you should only teach content in the space where that content is relevant. To teach restaurant vocabulary and idioms, you must be in a restaurant. VWs offer instructors and students the chance to be in virtual restaurants (and libraries, theaters and shops), where the food may not be real, but the interactions certainly are. Shopping in a virtual world can be a very real experience if the VW has a functioning economy and currency, which many of them do.
Drawbacks of VWs for SLA
Clearly, there are characteristics of VWs that are not beneficial in the teaching of language. As with any new technology, there are positive and negative aspects, and in the case of VWs this is obviously true. These need to be more thoroughly investigated before it can be decided if VWs are really advantageous for students and instructors engaged in the teaching and learning of languages.
Duncan et al. (2012, disadvantages, para. 1) outline the following as drawbacks to teaching in VWs:
- Require High end computers and graphics cards
- Harder to monitor the educational process - lack of non-verbal cues, less control over activity
- Simulations - some learners may prefer a more realistic environment
- Additional context information is required. This can be distracting.
- First visit can be overwhelming, and can be a barrier to adoption of the platform
- Different social norms can make for misunderstandings, and less clear communication
Benefits of VWs for SLA
"The use of avatars actually facilitates communication and helps users to interact more fully. These advantages have to do with social and interactive learning, developing the users’ autonomy and role-playing ability"(Arvanitis and Panagiotidis, 2008, p.5)
VWs offer an number of activities and learning conditions that are beneficial in SLA (Duncan et al. (2012), Advantages, para. 1). They include:
- Higher order thinking
- Geographical diversity
- Less fear of speaking in public
- Group work
- Learner interaction
- Reading text chat can increase information processing
Some of the drawbacks from the previous section, can also be advantages, if the instructor is able to incorporate them.
- Additional context - this does give the instructor an opportunity to make the environment richer.
- Different social norms - in many worlds, it is perfectly acceptable to initiate conversation with a complete stranger. This means that students can experiment in their communication with a wider range of users.
Should Educators Use Virtual Worlds in Language Learning?
No technology, teaching methodology or pedagogical theory is without conflicts or difficulties. VWs are no different in this respect. The affordances of VWs do have the potential to expand and enhance the teaching of languages, through rich interactions with students, native speakers, and complex spaces. There will, no doubt, continue to be research done in these new environments, these frontiers of education, in all areas of teaching and learning. Early evidence, though, does point to instances of successful language teaching in VWs.
Factors to consider when deciding whether Virtual Worlds would benefit your language learners:
Commercial Language Schools and Spaces in VWs
- Language Learning in Second Life
- Digital Game-Based Learning
- Computer-Assisted Language Learning
- Integrating technology within a communicative approach to language teaching
- Constructivism, Learning, and Educational Technology
- Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development
- Collaborative Learning
- , Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Game-Based Learning. McGraw-Hill. Retrieved February 26, 2013 from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/prensky%20-%20ch1-digital%20game-based%20learning.pdf
- , Peterson, M. (2010). Computerized games and simulations in computer-assisted language learning: A meta-analysis of research. Simulation & Gaming, 41(1), 72-93.
- Duncan, I., Miller, A. and Jiang, S. (2012), A taxonomy of virtual worlds usage in education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43: 949–964. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01263.x
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- Arvanitis, P., & Panagiotidis, P. (2008). Language Learning in Virtual Worlds. Retrieved February 11, 2013 from http://www.frl.auth.gr/sites/congres/Interventions/FR/Arvanitis_Panagiotidis.pdf
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- Anderson, P.F. (2009). Max, the (Second Life) Guide Dog. Emerging Technologies Librarian. Retrieved March 1, 2013 from http://etechlib.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/max-the-guide-dog-in-second-life/
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Page originally authored by Annette Smith (2013)