Language Learning in Wonderland

Today’s guest blog post is from Dr. Michael Gardner of the Digital Lifestyles Centre in the School of Computer Science & Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex in the UK. Dr. Gardner and his colleagues are one of the earliest adopters of Wonderland. You may recall his work on the MiRTLE project to create a mixed-reality teaching and learning environment. In today’s article, Dr. Gardner describes a new language learning project his team is working on in conjunction with their Department of Language and Linguistics.

The SIMiLLE project at the University of Essex has just completed a formative evaluation of a virtual world designed to support second language (L2)  learners. This is based on the use of the Project Wonderland platform. We are currently using Wonderland version 0.5, Preview2.

The following video demonstrates the formative evaluation trial that was completed in December 2009.

Here, the group of language learners log into the SIMiLLE virtual world and are split into pairs. Their task is to explore the world and organise a visit to London. To do this they must visit various sites in the virtual world including a train station, and they can also make use of in-world tools such as shared web browser and notepads.

The participants were five student volunteers recruited from the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Essex. All participants were speakers of English as a foreign language at upper intermediate level. The participants’ mother tongue included Arabic, Turkish, and Thai. All participants were computer literate, but none of them had any experience using 3D virtual world environments.

The tasks were designed following a needs analysis procedure in consultation with the various stakeholders including language tutors and students of English as a foreign language. As a result, the role-play task was based on a real life scenario which students in the UK would probably encounter on a regular basis. As part of the evaluation we will be looking at the practicality and acceptability of the platform, the authenticity of the experience, the language learning potential, and the overall impact on the teaching and learning processes. In relation to the core objective of providing participants with opportunities for L2 development, the task did provide learners with opportunities to practise listening, speaking, reading and writing in the L2. They also engaged in negotiation of meaning; they had opportunities to pose questions, make requests, ask for information, clarification, and practice functions such as agreeing and disagreeing.

The participants reported that it was easy to interact in SIMiLLE and they identified the following characteristics as contributing to a positive experience:

  • The training documents were useful and helpful in enabling independent use of the world.
  • SIMiLLE has the potential to help students learn about UK cultural aspects.
  • The role-play task simulates real-life activities and can, therefore, prepare them for their stay in the UK.
  • The environment has potential to simulate real places.
  • They found the opportunity to use in-world applications such as sticky notes and Web browser motivating and potentially useful.
  • They also considered the ‘sharing’ of those applications an asset to promote interaction.
  • The use of avatars might help ‘shy’ students to interact more freely than in a face-to-face situations.
  • The use of avatars can help individuals to ‘explore different identities’.

The results from this formative stage are being used to refine the world and design a longer trial in conjunction with the International Academy at the University of Essex.

The SIMiLLE project is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee in the UK.

Dr. Michael Gardner

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