Machinima as a Teaching and Learning Tool

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Teachers are generally a creative and resourceful bunch, and though we do make use of commercially produced materials, we often customize them for our students.   Unusual, humorous, poignant and the relevant materials (pictures, artifacts, movies, stories) help us to … Continue reading

Value of Voice: Language Instruction in Virtual Environments

Learning a language is facilitated in a virtual environment with opportunities to use audio in a non-threatening venue, quickly change settings to encourage use of diverse vocabulary, and practice with native speakers from different geographic locations and accents.

The particular English Language class I observed took advantage of a traditional lecture and presentation board, using both the native tongue of the learners as well as the target language, English.  Students responded to questions in local chat providing the instructor an easy way to ascertain grasp of the topic.   One strategy that Alfonso Perfferle uses in his English for Spanish Speakers class on Second Life is to pair students and assign one member of the pair a note-card with questions associated with the topic or grammatical focus of the day.  Pairs of students then conduct a private voice call and practice speaking, using the note-card as a guide.  Text is available, as needed, for clarification.  The paired chat does not disturb other students and can be practiced and repeated in a trusting environment.  

Responses from students in local chat allows for quick formative evaluation.

In addition to the structured and more formal activity pictured here, this class of English Language learners logon from remote locations around the world to participate in "field trips" providing an opportunity to practice English in a variety of settings from shopping and restaurants to amusement parks and historic sites.  Time zones and physical locations are secondary factors in this particular classroom, the instructor is physically located in Miami, Florida while the majority of students are located in Spain.

Teaching Strategies for Using Voice and Text in the Virtual World

The Internet is a text-rich environment, smart phone technology and social networking facilitate the use of text,  in a virtual world instruction can be provided in either text or voice mode and each has pros and cons.  Shambles Guru provides a useful video describing the setup of voice in Second Life using Viewer 2.

Text allows you to think about what you are communicating, seeing the written word allows for some processing and editing prior to clicking the send button.  Text can also be saved and referred to at a later time, always beneficial.  Text is the preferred method to communicate when language translation is required and the appropriate communication with hearing impaired students. The downside of text is that it is difficult to simultaneously demonstrate while communicating in text.  Another potential drawback is “text speak” and typos.  Though typically understood there is potential for misunderstanding and it develops a habit of ignoring typos and using abbreviations.  A class participant must be able to read and follow instructions in text.  This has potential for problems depending on the audience and individual capabilities.  Responding to individual questions in IM texting can be confusing (not seeing the message, having too many message boxes open, blocking view of the screen due to message boxes).

Voice allows an instructor to deliver a message the way that an instructor delivers in a real life classroom setting, a clarification is immediate and intonation is clear.  The lack of visual cues requires an instructor to use other methods to engage students and to ensure the message was delivered.  Ideally the students are also using voice so that 2-way communication can take place.  This requires an etiquette system of watching the screen for who is speaking, listening to the spoken text and speaking at a specific pause, so as not to interrupt the speaker.  It requires that the communicators listen more carefully than they may do in a real life classroom.   The teacher must also be watchful of students as they are performing particular tasks in the virtual setting.  The teacher needs to continuously move the camera around and watch students to ensure that students are performing tasks as directed, providing appropriate verbal direction as needed.

The ideal strategy is to use both text and voice.  This addresses various learning styles and takes advantage of the pros of each method, minimizing the cons.  This can be done is several ways.  The instructor can:

  • provide  notecards with vital information, in text, to supplement the spoken instruction.
  • type main ideas as he/she speaks.
  • have an assistant or student type the text as he/she speaks.
  • take advantage of the back channel in local chat to address questions

Teachers should practice the strategies in order to become comfortable and adept at using them, ultimately selecting which is most appropriate.

Culture and Foreign Language, Virtually

Learning of foreign languages can be somewhat of a challenge in the United States, partially due to proximity to countries where another language is spoken, yet global perspectives are essential and better  addressed through a multi-lingual  and multi-cultural citizenry.  “According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a higher percentage of students are studying a foreign language than at any time in history.”  The Case for Foreign language Classes Education Week ( July 12, 2010).  Students need to become prepared to conduct business and compete in a global economy, our competitors across the globe are addressing it.

Foreign language instruction is an area that can be handled effectively through virtual environment experiences.  Foreign language teachers will tell you that practice in the native tongue with native speakers is a “best practice”.  In real life it often includes field trips, at the very least to a local restaurant or community,  students from affluent homes may participate in a trip abroad.

In a virtual environment, students can be placed in a variety of social situations, with native speakers, to practice newly acquired linguistic skills. There are instant translators available in virtual worlds that can translate written text to a limited degree, and/or students may turn on voice and actually practice speaking with individuals from another country.   Environments can be constructed to elicit the practice of particular vocabulary such as sporting, arts, cultural, or social events.  Students (through avatars) engaged in conversation and interaction will naturally acquire cultural lessons as well.

ESOL students could use the environment similarly.  A characteristic that encourages language practice for the second language learner is the ‘security’ of the avatar.  Students learning a foreign language may express a reluctance to speak, for fear of being made fun of.  An avatar representation offers some shielding from potential or perceived ridicule.

A virtual setting may very well be the most ‘natural’ setting we can provide, at a reasonable cost, for foreign language instruction.

Pixel Performances

How can performing in a virtual setting help aspiring musicians? Performing in a virtual setting includes characteristics of a

A "live" musical performance in the virtual world

real life performance as well as some unique qualities available only in a virtual world. A musician on Second Life told me it was more like being in a sound studio, missing are the auditory and visual cues that a real audience provides. In a virtual environment, you must ‘read’ your audience through chat. Setting up equipment so that you can see the computer screen while you perform allows a performer to be able to read the chat and thus respond to audience cues. Typically the audience will respond with applause and commentary, the commentary does not disrupt the performance and is typically a conversation about the performance (the lyrics, historical references, personal reflections). Another unique trait of entertaining an audience of avatars is that you can see all their names and additional ID tags providing the performer with a supply of information for personal interaction with the audience.

Technical aspects of performing online require some hardware setup as well as software to enable audio streaming. A basic requirement is a high quality microphone and a quality sound card. Some software is available online for free and some have an associated cost. Setting up to a streaming server and entering IP addresses are part of the setup. Then of course the performing avatar must develop their stage presence including attire, hair, appropriate instruments and animations. The ability to create supernatural effects to enhance a performance brings an additional magic to a virtual show that could be cost prohibitive or simply impossible in the real world.

A student who is interested in performance as a future career may be able to learn a great deal by performing in a virtual setting. There are the technical and studio aspects as well as the “live” aspects. The virtual stage can provide a feeling of “being there” without some of the barriers of physicality and on stage jitters that often accompany new performers. In a recent LA Times article, Thriving Music Scene, a musician who regularly performs inworld, and makes money doing so, states that “…the interactive experience that the virtual platform provides can actually surpass that of traditional live gigs.” Perhaps this venue can provide a “training stage” to help prepare future performers, something for our performing arts instructors/schools to consider.