Warburton's survey of the affordances of virtual worlds such as SL in language teaching and learning is an interesting one. Personally, it was nice to learn more about SL as I have been and, for the time being, will continue to be sceptical about it or any ither virtual worlds of this type for several reasons which I address on the go in this post.
I find Shroeder's (1996 in Warburton 2009) definition of a virtual world particularly clear especially for anyone new to the subject of virtual worlds like me. The key concepts (sense of being somewhere else and interaction) being fully in line with Lombard and Ditton's (2007) six definitions of presence (as social richness, realism, immersion, transportation, social actor within medium, and medium as social actor).
Warbuton's 'open-ended system that offers a number of freedoms to the player', I personally consider to be one of the main drawbacks to VEs like SL as there is an extra onus for the lay tutor: not only to ensure that course design is pedagogically sound, and this is part and parcel of teaching, but especially to ensure they possess the necessary skills to make use of the VE successfully, or in Warburton's words: 'the ability to create content and shape the virtual environment...' (Technical infrastructure p416). While Warburton argues this to be both an advantage and a barrier, I believe that this is dependent on the context in which SL or a VE along the same lines is introduced. For instance, were SL to be introduced in my current context of a private sector language school where most of the teaching is done F2F followed by a limited blended option, professional training and financial implications would automatically put the adoption of such a tool in dire straits while it seems to be healthily developing in the tertiary sector (op.cit. p418). He wisely points to the fact that educators often work with limited resources and this could not be more accurate an observation.
Now, as far as immersion and co-presence is concerned, I must agree that these two features are essential and I would even call them the salt and pepper of VEs like SL, especially nowadays (5 years later) when the 'crossing of physical, social and cultural barriers' (p419) is even easier thanks to technological advances adding to the sense of reality. It makes sense then that a combination of ego-centric and object-centric networks (p420) has led to SL's success. Again, although SL seems to be the VE to embrace, I need to argue that it would not be straightforward a process in my context as the barriers outnumber the affordances presented. In short, I would say that Warburton's (p422-3) categories of issues discussed would come in the following order in my own context under 2 main categories which I have called:
8. Scaffolding persistence and social discovery
From a more positive perspective and in an ideal private sector language school, I think that adopting SL could be successfully done if approached as follows:
From a logistic point of view:
- Survey the current IT state of affairs of the institution.
- Identify the gap between current and optimal IT requirements for a successful introduction of SL so that the equipment is able to support VE graphic and not only requirements.
- Prepare a feasibility plan to 'sell the idea' to management clearly showing how long term benefits outnumber short term liabilities.
- Assess the staff's IT skills and needs.
- Design training program to address the identified needs including program timetable and expected outcomes to be included in the feasibility study.
From a didactic point of view:
- Identify staff with strongest IT skills already in place and identify ways in which it can be integrated into the current syllabus so as to provide a clear link between the language work done in class and the work to be done in SL.
- Establish clear learning outcomes expected.
- Provide initial training to teachers so that this training can cascade to students in next stage.
- Closely monitor the initial stages of deployment to be able to assess and identify success in the early stages.
I would also argue that the above are in line with Warburton's (p425) final comments that only when we will be able to 'manage our virtual identities, improve our digital and cultural literacies, understand more fully the links between immersion, empathy and learning, and develop design skills that can be used productively to exploit virtual spaces' then we education moving to the virtual world will be possible.
Now, Milton (2013) argues that although exposure to the language in its native environment is the ideal situation and that this is axiomatic to language learning this is not the possible for all learners. Similarly, the exposure to language available in the traditional classroom is limited in terms of time and space: lesson length, repetitiveness and language being confined to a textbook. I personally found Milton's quote of Al-Saif's study (2011) on teacher talking time and how it reflects a highly teacher-centred classroom shocking as this also shows that there is a much deeper problem related to teaching methodology and awareness of how to deliver more s-centred lessons, but this is a completely different topic so I'll leave it there for now.
Of course one of the many features that make VE like SL so appealing is that they can recreate the real world e.g. virtual versions of London, Dublin and Athens are available along with all the different distinct characteristics that define those places in real life. Needless to say, this opens a world of opportunities for those who cannot go and learn the language there. However, Milton cautiously says (p3): 'The opportunity for the use of authentic language in meaningful tasks, [italics added by me] if these can be created in the VE, fits well with the tenets of TBL'. I believe the key to success here is right there in the creation of these tasks and I am sure many would agree that designing pedagogically sound tasks is easier said than done as a good understanding of these approaches along with that of social interactionist theory and competition theory and negotiation of meaning and modifying output respectively add to the exposure afforded by these environments (MacWhinney and Bates, 1989 and Long 1985, 1996 in Milton 2013).
I openly admitted from the beginning of this post that I am a little sceptical about the use of virtual worlds, but mainly because of the barriers posed by my current environment as these would make access to a virtual world like SL rather difficult. I think that projects like the European Vill@ge as mentioned by Milton (p4) would be the first step for a private sector language school like the one I work for, as it comes 'ready' with the necessary objects to get started thus addressing one of the argued issues above - IT skills which allow the creation of objects. However, the question that comes to mind is that of costs as it makes me think of Vill@ge as being the equivalent of a 'live' textbook with which one interacts with the difference that the 'content/lessons/units' are more flexible and determined by the students' through the guidance of the teacher. I also think that the future idea of introducing bots which work on the basis of the high predictability of functional language is great as this would reduce the workload by simplifying the logistics of interventions as humans would not have to be contacted to ensure they are available to interact with the students as suggested in the article.
The question now is though - how much learning takes place when in a VE? Milton offers quite a few pieces of evidence in terms of research quoting Shih and Yang 2008, and Sadler and Nurmukhamedov reported in Thorne, Black and Sykes 2009:9 and how their findings seem to indicate that 'high levels of interaction and negotiation of meaning' do happen in these VEs as well motivation benefitting from them (Kuriscak and Luke 2009), reduction of 'communicative inhibition' (Peterson 2010), and fluency development (Milton, Patrikakos, Antonopoulou, Papakostopoulou and Papatheodorou 2000 and Filipoupolitis 2005).
As far as lower level learners using SL is concerned, data from the Vill@ge (and also noted in Milton and Gabu 2000) suggests that the best type of interaction is typed (p6) as this allows them more time to process responses which in an oral exchange makes the event otherwise stilted.
In relation to the limitations listed by Milton (p7), transience and cost of technology seem to be ubiquitous to most contexts as I had already identified technology and cost as two of the three most immediate barriers to implementation in my own context. These two are followed in Milton's words by the 'nature of the environments' and how realistic they are even today pointing at features such as lip shape and the importance of these features which govern language, but I would say these could be easily accepted should the first two be available to the 'lay' language school.
Warburton, S., 2009. Second Life in higher education: Assessing the potential for and the barriers to deploying virtual worlds in learning and teaching. [Online] British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(3), pp.414–426. Last accessed 14 October 2014. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.00952.x
Milton, J. 2013. Second Language Acquisition via Second Life. C.A. Chapelle, ed. [Online] The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, pp.1-9. Last accessed on 24 December 2014. Available at http://moodle.nottingham.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=24802.