Tag Archives: virtual

DIY Virtual Language Lab?

ipad typewriter

I heard a story on NPR the other morning that got me thinking about hackers.  Not the type that break into computer systems to steal credit card numbers, but the kind that like to take existing technologies and repurpose them.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be surprised to learn I consider myself to be a bit of a hacker by this latter definition.

Hackerspaces have opened up in cities across the U.S. and around the world.  Think of these as clubs where like-minded people can share tools and expertise in order to collaborate as well as further their own projects.  Here in Columbus, Ohio, we have the Idea Foundry.  I haven’t been there yet, but the range of projects and classes on the website are intriguing.

So, what is the ESL equivalent?  And, a related question is, could Language Labs serve the same purpose?  I’ve taught in programs that do and don’t have language labs.  And the current trend I’m seeing in our program is that almost every student brings a laptop from home or buys one when she gets here.  Although I know this is a reflection of the demographics of our specific population and is certainly not the case for all ESL students, technology is becoming more and more prevalent.  Could a distributed model of a language lab (i.e. each student has one computer, so the lab is wherever the students are) be a good model?

I’ve always been a big proponent of exploiting Course Management Systems (CMSs) that make it easy for teachers to post supplemental materials online for students to access.  Taken a step further, materials could be made available in a way that students could access them and use them individually in a language-lab-like way.  The difference would be that instead of a whole class marching to a lab to sit together for an hour, students could access “the lab” from the library, a coffee shop, or their own home.  And the motivated ones could do so for more than the prescribed time.

Would this be better for students?  I think it depends on what resources are made available to students and how they are instructed to use them.  Finding some level-appropriate reading would be helpful.  Working through an online workbook might also be useful.  But do those options really allow a student to explore, be creative and become hackers with the language?  Perhaps a bigger question is, have ESL resources really moved forward along with other advances in technology (internet compatibility, web 2.0, connecting users to other users)?  Some of the resources I’ve posted on this blog have potential, but overall, I’m not sure that educational technologies have taken full advantage of these advances.

How would you design your own virtual language lab if each of your students had a computer?  How would you create an environment in which students learn by exploring the language?  Share your ideas in the comments below.

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Quality Matters in Online Learning

a computer screen is reflected in a child's eye

The first course I taught online was in a TEFL Certificate program in 2003 or 2004.  The learning curve for me was steep.  But, the more I taught online, the more I learned: discussions have to be required or they just won’t happen, scheduling needs to be clear because interaction might occur asynchronously and literally 24 hours per day, students might (incorrectly) expect their instructor to be available around the clock, and technical problems have the potential to be extremely disruptive.

Now, years later, as online and distance education classes have become so much more common and as management systems (CMSs) and personal learning environments (PLEs) have become integrated into most college classes that meet face-to-face, I have been searching for a collection of best practices for online and hybrid classes.

I started by asking folks at the Digital Union at Ohio State for some guidance.  Rob and Joni suggested I look into Quality Matters (QM), an organization dedicated to promoting and improving the quality of online education.  (In fact, Joni discusses QM in much more detail in a post on the Digital Union blog.)

One of the most beneficial things that Quality Matters has done is to develop a rubric for evaluating online courses.  Our ESL program does not have any classes that are completely online, however as we offer more and more content online, the rubric can serve as a good guide for implementing our CMS components effectively.

I should also add that, in addition to the publishing the rubric and references to the research it is based on, Quality Matters also uses the rubric as the basis for a peer-review process for online courses as well as professional development and training in effective online course design.  To pass a QM review, an online course must include all of the essential 3-point standards and achieve an overall score of 72 points or more.  In fact, the rubric contains several points that I would argue are important in traditional classroom based courses as well (i.e. 1.5 – Students are asked to introduce themselves to the class.)

I’m not sure what other guidelines are out there (if you do, please leave a comment) but Quality Matters seems to be a good foundation for evaluating online courses and course components.

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Augmented Reality Games

augmented reality on iphone

Virtually like the real world.

I’ve been thinking about digital games for language learning quite a bit lately and a number of questions have come up, the biggest of which is:  Why are so many educational games so lame?  I love the idea of learning through play, but many educational games fail to move past drill-and-kill exercises.  When you compare this to commercially available immersive games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto, there is a remarkable gap.

For a while, I thought Second Life held some potential because that virtual environment could be designed and built specifically for a given topic.  But building in Second Life (at least to me) proved to be extremely time-intensive and I didn’t feel like the results were worth the energy I had to invest.

The notion of augmented reality has also been floating around in my subconscious for a while, but it never really stuck; it’s really cool, but how could I work with it?  All of these things coalesced for me today after sitting through a couple of presentations at CALICO.

Julie Sykes, who developed an immersive gaming environment focused on Spanish pragmatics called Croquelandia, has been working on a mobile place-based murder / mystery game for learning Spanish in an historic  neighborhood near the University of New Mexico campus.  The iPod / iPhone-based game, called Mentira, is built on the ARIS platform, which makes it very easy to cut and paste text and other media files into a branching story line to create the game.  To progress through the story, students have to input clues from the real environment (the street address of the old church, for example) to unlock parts of the story.  (An alternative would be to use GPS to unlock the story when students actually visited the location, but this would require iPhones and exclude iPod Touches.)

I was most amazed by the forehead-slappingly simple concept that we don’t need to create a virtual world for students to interact with because there is a pretty robust world right outside the classroom for them to interact with.  And finding a target language-rich environment is even easier if the target language is English (at least for me).

It’s soon to be a cliche (if it isn’t already) but being able to take a computer into the real world so easily is going to be a game changer.  Think of botany students looking up plants on their smartphones.  It’s been said that there are no more arguments about baseball statistics in sportsbars because it’s too easy to get the answers to that information.  Information is literally at our finger tips.  But I digress.

The user experience within a place-based game like Mentira, if well designed, can compete with big commercial games because it can be specifically tailored right down to the details of a given neighborhood.  Instead of taking time to create dazzling multi-media experiences, educators can really focus on the content.  And, being text-based, lowers the barrier even further.  Julie reported that her students were eager to contribute to the story and some had plans to use ARIS to create their own games.  Enabling students to become game-producers, not just players — in their target language — is astounding to me.

I’m not sure that a game that sends students into the real world will be able to lower their affective filters or allow them to have multiple repeat experiences if they want to practice in the same way as a relatively low-risk virtual environment might.  But a game could be designed to be played several times with different outcomes.  There is also a potential risk in sending students out into the world, depending on where they are sent (clearly this is not the time to recreate Grand Theft Auto) but the risk could certainly be minimized.  It’s also important to respect the real residents of the real world into which students are sent.  Having them congregate on someone’s front lawn to solve a mystery likely would not be appreciated.  Julie reported that some residents were eager to talk about their neighborhood with her students and even seemed flattered that their neighborhood was chosen.  This is the ideal to strive for.

Unfortunately, ARIS just updated it’s app and as of today there are only four ARIS games available.  Several others, including Mentira were built on a previous version which means it will take some work to get the game moved onto the new platform.  I will update this post if / when it becomes available.  In the meantime, we have to make due with this trailer which can be downloaded from the ARIS Games website.  The trailer serves as the introduction to the game and does a nice job setting the tone for the game.  Unfortunately, it just makes me want to play the game even more.

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Second Life Pilot

Students interacting in Second Life.Students interacting in Second Life.
Students interacting in Second Life.
Students interacting in Second Life.
Students interacting in Second Life.
Students interacting in Second Life.

Students interacting in Second Life.

Another project I’m working on is using Second Life (SL) for teaching ESL. I’m participating in a pilot project here at Ohio State to look at how SL can be used in teaching. Today was the first time I had three brave students working together in this virtual world. Initial reactions were very positive — we’re meeting again on Monday! If all goes well, I will teach an elective class for four weeks this fall. Click to enlarge the pictures.

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