Second Life is a online 3D virtual world. Users assume an online identity - an "avatar" - to represent themselves within the Second Life community. The avatar can walk, run and fly in the virtual world, and can also communicate with other avatars using chat and instant messaging. The recent addition of high-quality audio offers clear benefits for the language learner. What differentiates Second Life from earlier virtual worlds is the lifelike rendering, which makes for a more richly immersive experience. The high-quality graphics, endlessly customizable avatars, together with real-life background noise (birds, wind, crashing waves) accentuate one's sense of telepresence.
Virtual worlds are still very much on the periphery of online activity. However, tech consultancy firm Gartner predict that 80% of active internet users will have a virtual presence by 2011. For this reason, it's worth considering the educational possibilities of virtual environments, and many educational establishments, such as the Open University, Harvard, Edinburgh University, have invested significant resources in building educational islands in Second Life. Graham Stanley, who is involved in the British Council development in Teen Second Life, has suggested in a podcast that Second Life might be the prototype of Web 3.0: a fully immersive language-learning environment.
Language learning in Second Life is still fairly embryonic (which explains the paucity of research), but there is some research on language learning in earlier environments. A study into the language learning in Active Worlds by Peterson (2006) found that avatars created a heightened sense of telepresence, and facilitated learner interaction management during real-time CMC. He also highlights the facility to use non-verbal cues (such as waving) and to convey emotional states (such as happiness) as one of the advantages over text-based CMC. He found that use of avatars made the students feel more involved in the interaction, and the majority found it a stimulating and enjoyable experience.
One aspect that may hinder the progress of Second Life is the learning curve required to gain a sufficient level of familiarity with the software, and also that the software can be slow. Research conducted by Sanchez (2007) found that Second Life presented a very steep learning curve, with students initially finding the experience very frustrating. However, as graphics cards and broadband connections become more sophisticated, and pre-existing experience among learners becomes more commonplace, this is likely to become less of an issue.
Second Life can be used for language learning in the following ways:
1. As a source of authentic interaction with target language speakers.
Learners can interact with target language speakers in a variety of culturally relevant environments. For instance, learners can visit a virtual representation of Mexico, London or the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (see below) to find native speakers of Spanish, English and Italian respectively. The enhanced sense of presence breeds familiarity, and gives the the autonomous learner plenty of opportunities to communicate in a relaxed, informal setting. To date, I could find no dedicated venues for language exchange, but I'm sure it won't be long before this is available. However, it's remarkably easy to strike up a conversation with other avatars. The British Council has recently launched an isle in the teen version of Second Life, in which learners of English can practice with other teens. In an interview with SLNN (Basiat 2007), Graham Stanley of the British Council said, 'We have designed this project to be a 3D self access center, and something extra for those teenage students who can and want to access Second Life. It will also enable the British Council to reach an audience of "digital natives" that perhaps it hasn't been able to reach before, providing 'serious fun for teenagers'.'
2. A venue for language classes.
There are a number of commercial and non-commercial ventures offering language classes. One of the largest is Language Lab, an SL-only language school. They are currently offering English classes only, but plan to expand to other languages in 2008. Residents will meet for lessons in various venues around the island - hotels, bars, parks - and can engage in language-learning games, such as murder mysteries or karaoke. They have a number of interactive learning tools, such as a phonetics "carpet", in which you walk over the phonetic characters to hear the sound. I had an interesting conversation with one of the English teachers, in which she said that Second Life offered more creative possibilities: "You don't have to imagine a beach you can go there". She also pointed out that students felt more confident in a Second Life "classroom" than they would in a face-to-face class: 'Also people are not so shy when they are online […] With Japanese students for instance they don't care if they make a mistake, no one can see them'. An edited transcript of our conversation is available as an appendix.
3. A networking opportunity for educationalists
There are a number of venues for educationalists to network, learn and collaborate on language technology. EduNation, created by Consultants-E, has become a venue for Webheads, and there are a number of free seminars for educators wishing to learn more about the possibilities for language teaching in Second Life. Membership of special interest groups within Second Life offers the potential to collaborate and learn from peers, eg Real Life Education in Second Life, Educational Podcasting, Open Education in Second Life.
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