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Learning English in 3d

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Learning English in 3d
 HK PolyU virtual campus; Hong Kong Polytechnic University

 

Learning English in 3d

Ho Lap Kwan, Lawrence; The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


Abstract–This argumentative essay considers language learning in virtual environments, debating the extent to which Second Life could help undergraduate students in Hong Kong universities improve their English language skills. Focusing on the precept that the digital space is a fluid platform which simulates the physical space, the author infuses personal experience during an English Language Centre subject exploration of Second Life in a writing practise session to investigate this issue.


In the 21st century, the internet is becoming more popular, and one of the most important parts in people’s lives, as can be seen through such social networks as Facebook, Instagram, WeChat and Twitter; and online collaboration platforms like Google Docs and Dropbox. To stay ahead of  the technology, educators have been trying to integrate the internet into teaching and learning process; and as such, it has been suggested that using virtual worlds, like Second Life (SL), can help students in Hong Kong universities improve their English language skills. The virtual world is an online computer platform that simulates the reality, where users can build, create avatars and chat with other people just like in a real world. Users can control their avatar to do different kinds of things and communicate through the platform with other online users connected to the platform. The whole virtual world is made up of a number of cities, and users can create cities and build facilities within them.

Regarding using Second Life for educational purposes, Mayrath, Traphagan, Heikes and Trivedi  [1] emphasised that although Second Life is not developed for education specifically,  it provides a “highly graphical 3D virtual environment and tools that allows for creativity and flexibility in instructional design,” thus educators can make use of the functionalities to create activities including, but not limited to, problem-based learning environments, inquiry-based learning situations, simulation activities, and role plays [1]. It also has a rich set of APIs and libraries specifically made for educators [2]. By transforming these learning activities from paper works to computer platforms, students’ interest in participation, motivation and engagement would be increased. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) started to build a virtual campus in Second Life in 2007, and many of its departments have joined this experiment to set up virtual classrooms to support student activities [3]. Thus, with support from the first-hand experience of using Second Life during a writing practice class session in a HKPU English for University Studies course, the following essay is going to i) discuss the different sides supporting and opposing the idea of using virtual worlds to learn English in higher education, and ii) provide some suggestions on whether this can be beneficial to students or not.

Using virtual worlds can enhance students’ communication skills by increased communication with foreigners. Based on the technical aspects of the Second Life platform and software, there are adequate functionalities in the viewer for users to text and voice chat in real time. Students can enhance their English communication skills by participating in conversations with other users, or join activities held in different virtual places. The main idea is to provide more chances for students to chat and communicate with people in English, regardless of the media is spoken or written. Since quite a large portion of Second Life users  are from the western countries [4], students in Hong Kong would have to chat with foreigners in English, as well as read all the materials such as notices and texts created by the other users. From the hands on experience of one fellow student trying to chat with a foreigner, it is possibly quite easy to find a person to talk to in Second Life, as seen in the following example:

[21:11] M: hi
[21:12] j: hi
[21:12] j: where are u from
[21:12] M: US
[21:12] j: i come from hk
[21:12] j: there is a lot of us user
[21:12] M: i dont know many lol
[21:13] j: whats your hobby?
[21:13] j: by the way
[21:14] M: it depends on my mood
[21:14] j: im a year1 university student
[21:14] j: just spending time on this game for language purpose
[21:14] M: nice
[21:15] j: its compulsory-.-
[21:15] j: are u studying in university
[21:16] M: nope
[21:17] j: as you can see
[21:17] j: my english is not good
[21:17] M: its fine
[21:17] M: my spanish is horrible….but i wont let you see
[21:17] M: lol

[21:18] j: it is rare chance to chat with foreigner.
[21:18] M: most spanish right now
[21:19] M: people can hear you on voice
[21:19] M: lol

 Therefore, students can have more chance to practice language skills in the international environment through using the virtual world platform.

Apart from the increased choices for communication, another reason that SL is a better environment for learning English is the anonymity of the platform. People are not necessarily known to each other, and need not to speak face to face with any kind of webcam or speak directly with voice. Students nowadays tends to feel more comfortable typing in front of the screen instead of talking to real faces, as they are not confident enough when using English, and might feel embarrassed when they cannot express themselves precisely with the language. However, using text chat can encourage students who are shy to talk with others in the real world to try to communicate with text in a private environment, avoiding  pressure and embarrassment. Although texting and chatting through an electronic cable is not the perfect way to practice social skills, it can still enhance the language skills itself and provide encouragement to shy students.

However, communication problems within the SL platform due to user generated spamming and advertising [5] may affect the effectiveness of learning. According to some of the students’ responses during the EUS writing practise session, a noticeable portion of students could not successfully communicate with other users in the SL. Some records show that the chat rooms are usually filled with spam messages, either configured by the creator of the region or location to generate automatically when users arrive or leave a place, or sent by users during chat as emoticons, “gestures” or product advertising:

[21:20] Teleport completed from kowloon (25,150,57)
[21:21] Dance Island landing zone whispers: ……..    58!!  Trance, Dance, House, Techno DeeJays.
[21:21] Dance Island landing zone whispers: ……..    For the main stage … follow the arrows on the floor
[21:25] D: •••╬╬◐◐◐  ╬╬◐◐◐  ╬╬◐◐◐ •••
[21:25] D: •••╬╬◐◐◐  ╬╬◐◐◐  ╬╬◐◐◐ •••
[21:26] Sק: welcome back m
[21:26] D:                        _–^–^–__
[21:26] D:                         ( @ @ )
[21:26] D:     ______ oOOo-(_)-oOOo ______
[21:26] D:    _____________Oooo.________
[21:26] D:       .oooO           (         )
[21:26] D:      (         )              )     /
[21:26] D:        \     (               ( _ /
[21:26] D:           \ _ )             (°_-)
[21:26] D:                   LOVE THE SOUNDS
[21:26] D: ·!¦[·d[-_-]b· Ɠσ Ɗل Ɠσ!! ·d[-_-]b·]¦!
[21:27] D: – -¤– ^^]  Ѽ℮ﺎﻳϾƠӍƠ Ѽ℮ϾҜ!!!  [^^ –¤- –
[21:27] D: M
[21:27] Sק:  ((( 回 )))  ϓσυ’ɾє Ʀσςҟιη İȶ, Ɗ⌡❢  ((( 回 )))
[21:27] szc: How to dance?
[21:27] D: click on the floor
[21:27] B Resident: ♫♪ d[-_-]b ♬♩              ★
[21:27] B Resident: ★ωαяиιиg★
[21:27] B Resident: ★ḋј øυτ øƒ сøṉτɾøl★
[21:27] B Resident: ★ṃαṉαģεṃεṉτ ṉøτ ɾεṡρøṉṡïвlε★
[21:27] B Resident: ★ғor тнe earтнqυaĸιng vιвeѕ★
[21:27] B Resident: ★ωнιℓє уσυ αяє нєяє★
[21:27] B Resident:  ♫♪ d[-_-]b ♬♩
[21:27] Sק: ~* HELL YES I’M ADDICTED *~
[21:27] Sק: ~* AND I LOVE IT *~
[21:27] Sק: ♋。◕‿◕。  Electro……  P~~~ Sluuurpppzz  。◕‿◕。♋
[21:28] D: ▀▄▀▄▀▄▀▄gσ gσ gσ gσ dj ▄▀▄▀▄▀▄▀
[21:28] D:      ▀▄▀▄▀▄gσ gσ gσ gσ dj ▄▀▄▀▄▀
[21:28] K****Cats – Nicky: http://k****cats.biz
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It should be noted that sometimes students can hardly establish and maintain a conversation. This means that the effectiveness of learning English through text chatting in Second Life may be affected. Additionally, from the results captured during the EUS class session, many non-student users might not be willing to respond to people from other places, perhaps because they know the Hong Kong student is chatting with them for educational purpose or maybe they were simply doing other things [6]. This type of reaction might cause students to become annoyed or distracted, and thus cannot utilize the virtual platform fully to achieve learn a language.

Although using virtual worlds can encourage and increase the chance for students to communicate with foreigners through the platform, possible lack of motivation or teacher guidance. During the EUS writing practise session, students were observed sitting in groups around tables in SL. While the virtual world learning suggests collaborating using the social communication functions within the platform [6], students  additionally tended to talk only with each other. Reasons may include the lack of virtual world users to communicate with, and as mentioned before, not many students could maintain a conversation. Another possible reason may be that the students were not given a specific task to perform [7] which requires collaboration; thus, they ended up “hanging around” with classmates, commenting about the platform itself, or exploring SL instead of really using it to communicate.To conclude, learning English with online virtual world platforms has both positive and negative effects, mainly focused on the flexibility of the platform, communication between students and foreign users, user made interference, and teacher guidance. It is possible for the virtual world to become a good learning resource; however, some results show that this learning method may not be that beneficial and effective as expected. The virtual world, while distinct from the online game (the former being socially-oriented, the latter being goal-oriented) shares the user-inhibiting “addictive” characteristic which affects both mental and physical health of the students. As the virtual world platform is as large as a social network on the internet, students might forget about learning while going around exploring in the virtual world. While people may get addicted to a game because of not reaching the goal, the addiction of a virtual world platform like Second Life may come from the curiosity of the places and facilities provided by the platform or built by other users.

In my opinion, using virtual worlds for learning foundational tertiary level English is still in an experimental stage, and may need a prolonged period for setting up learning resources in the platform and testing for effectiveness of learning outcomes for the students. At least more revisions and adjustments are needed before this learning method can actually be carried out in large scale on Hong Kong students. Moreover, according to my own brief interaction in Second Life during the in-class writing practise session, there were some adult places and age-restricted materials, which are not part of any kind of educational materials, available to the users. It is just a simple click to change the user’s age to whatever he or she wants, and preventing others from creating inappropriate materials in the publicly available space is almost unavoidable. Introducing such virtual word platforms to students who are not savvy enough might indirectly encourage them in browsing inappropriate materials. Regarding a learning platform, such regions should be carefully categorized and separated by some kind of access rules. This is another factor that is worth considering before a large-scale promotion of virtual world language learning is carried out.

 

References

  1. M. C. Mayrath, T. Traphagan, E. J. Heikes and A. Trivedi, “Instructional design best practices for Second Life: A case study from a college-level English course,” Interactive Learning Environments, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 125-142, 2011.
  2. “Second Life Education/Resources,” Linden Research, 18 September 2014. [Online]. Available: http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Second_Life_Education/Resources. [Accessed 30 June 2015].
  3. L. Li, D. Wong, D. A. F. Gui and G. Au Yeung, “Collaborative Learning in the Virtual English Class: A Hong Kong Case Study,” Collaborative Learning in the Virtual English Class, p. 344, 2013.
  4. A. Morgan, “Second Life Resident Survey Results (Part 1),” Planet Postmoderna LLC, 22 August 2014. [Online]. Available: http://planet-postmoderna.com/2014/08/22/second-life-resident-survey-results-part-1/. [Accessed 29 July 2015].
  5. “Second Life Wiki,” Linden Research, Inc., [Online]. Available: http://wiki.secondlife.com/. [Accessed 6 November 2013].
  6. P. Michels, “Universities Use Second Life to Teach Complex Concepts,” 25 February 2008. [Online]. Available: http://www.govtech.com/education/Universities-Use-Second-Life-to-Teach.html. [Accessed 6 November 2013].
  7. L. Nicosia, “Adolescent Literature and Second Life: Teaching Young Adult Texts in the Digital World,” 2008. Available: https://newlits.wikispaces.com/Adolescent+Literature+and+Second+Life. [Accessed 6 November 2013].

 

 

PROFILE PICTURE

BIO

Lawrence Ho Lap Kwan is a Computer Science student of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. His interest in information technology has led to extensive experience in desktop and web application development. He has served as a committee member of the Information Services Committee of the HK PolyU Student Union (HKPUSU) and has research interests in content-based image retrieval and cloud computing platforms. Besides programming, he also likes photography, drawing and handcrafting.

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