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Multi-User Virtual Environment Platforms for English as a Second Language Education: a Literature Review


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A draft of a literature review I'm working on.

Interest in the use of online virtual worlds for education continues to grow, but the research literature to date is composed largely of small-scale case studies. This review interprets the results of these studies in order to answer questions about competing virtual world technologies. Questions considered include whether there are clear advantages common to all virtual world technologies; whether some programs work better than others; whether students respond better to massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) or to non-game MUVEs; and whether the literature is sufficient to define a set of best practices for working with virtual worlds. This review focuses on English as a Second Language (ESL) education using virtual worlds in order to minimize problems of content alignment, but supplementary materials on other educational uses of virtual world technology are included for background and to fill gaps in the literature.

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Multi-User Virtual Environment Platforms for English as a Second Language Education: a Literature Review

  1. 1. Literature Review: Multi-User Virtual Environment Platforms for English as a Second Language Education<br />Max Lieberman<br />University of Arizona South<br />Abstract<br />Interest in the use of online virtual worlds for education continues to grow, but the research literature to date is composed largely of small-scale case studies. This review interprets the results of these studies in order to answer questions about competing virtual world technologies. Questions considered include whether there are clear advantages common to all virtual world technologies; whether some programs work better than others; whether students respond better to massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) or to non-game MUVEs; and whether the literature is sufficient to define a set of best practices for working with virtual worlds. This review focuses on English as a Second Language (ESL) education using virtual worlds in order to minimize problems of content alignment, but supplementary materials on other educational uses of virtual world technology are included for background and to fill gaps in the literature.<br />Introduction<br />The past several years have seen a swift increase in scholarship on the use of online virtual worlds for learning. Studies have been conducted with all manner of multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs), from commercial games like World of Warcraft to dedicated educational platforms to commercial non-game platforms like Second Life. Much of this research has been conducted in the form of small-scale case studies, and the results from such studies bear significant similarities. Authors cite challenges including technological learning curves, software and hardware costs and the difficulty of aligning virtual world content with established curricula; at the same time, they note that the technology is promising and at least somewhat effective for teaching. <br />However, few authors so far have compared competing virtual world technologies to each other. Are there clear advantages common to all virtual world technologies, or do some programs work better than others? Do students respond better to massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) or to non-game MUVEs? Is the existing literature sufficient to propose a set of best practices that span multiple virtual world technologies? This literature review attempts to answer these questions by comparing case studies of online English as a Second Language (ESL) education conducted using a variety of online virtual world technologies. <br />ESL courses were selected as the primary focus of this comparison in order to minimize the significance of content alignment as a variable in evaluating the strengths of the software by ensuring an " apples to apples" comparison. Although content alignment and compatibility with course design are critical for teachers planning to use virtual world software in their courses, these factors have the potential to act as confounding variables. Content alignment is less of an obstacle for ESL courses, since English can be written and spoken by students and other online actors on any technological platform. Ultimately, the literature on the use of virtual worlds in ESL education is insufficient to answer the questions posed, however. Other sources will therefore also be used in this review for background on pedagogical theory and technology.<br />The Literature<br />This review encompasses four published ESL case studies, as well as the available information on one unpublished study (in the form of a newspaper article). A 1986 study on ESL education using a single-player simulation game called Yellow River Kingdom was included for historical comparison, and a modern paper that elaborates on the instructional theory behind this study was included for background. Two of the modern studies used the non-game virtual world Second Life, while one each used the non-game virtual world Active Worlds Educational Universe and the massively multiplayer video game World of Warcraft. Three additional publications were included to provide more background information about the Second Life platform and its uses, since the extant ESL research provided little information about germane issues like technical requirements, user experience and learning curves. A paper comparing Active Worlds to a now-defunct competing platform was included to provide additional information about Active Worlds for the same reason. <br />The studies included in this review encompass vastly different student populations, geographical locations and research methodologies. Sarsar's World of Warcraft study focuses on out-of-school playing habits, whereas other studies focus on an in-school ESL curriculum. Subjects range from 13-year old 7th graders in one study (Hansson, 2005) to middle-aged graduate students in another (Deutschmann & Panichi, 2009). Two studies were conducted locally—the World of Warcraft study at a high school in the United Arab Emirates (Sarsar, 2008), the Active Worlds ESL study at a middle school in Denmark. Both ESL Second Life studies were globe-spanning, however, one taking place solely in a virtual classroom with participating graduate students from around the world and the other a classroom-and-online collaboration between college students and a few graduate students in the United States and China (Wang, Song, Stone & Yan, 2009).<br />Some authors cited pedagogical theory as background to their research. Hansson's (2005) Active Worlds study is founded primarily on Vygotsky's socio-cultural theory of learning, as adapted to a partly virtual, partly classroom-based context. Hansson ties Vygotsky's ideas of culturally situated learning to the technique of language immersion, arguing that " collaboration and verbal exchange is a prerequisite for motivation, learning and development of proficiency in English" (p. 65). With regard to the Vygotskian zone of proximal development, Hansson's course design allowed teachers to present students with increasingly complex tasks in both the classroom and the Active Worlds environment. Schneider and Zheng (Waters, 2007) were likewise attracted to the social context and immersive nature of online virtual worlds, although they preferred to use World of Warcraft, arguing that games are " inherently motivating" (Active Learners section, para. 6). Deutschmann and Panichi (2009) are also concerned with social constructivist theory, as it provides both a justification for online learning in general and a context for the subject of their study, which focuses on how students in a virtual space can communicate without traditional " back-channel" (p. 314) methods like body language. Sarsar (2008) introduces a questionnaire-based study on World of Warcraft by discussing the divide between multimodal literacy activities like gaming, which tend to take place out of school, and the " basic" (p. 3) literacy activities of the school day.<br />Other authors were less concerned with theory and more with conditions in their field or institution. Wang et al. (2009) are quite pragmatic in outlining the rationale for their collaborative research, which included groups at both Georgia State University in the United States and Yantai University in China. Wang et al. were interested in three things: strengthening international research relationships, improving the integration of technology into Yantai's English language instruction, and improving the general quality of educational technology research by testing a new, more flexible research design. Wang et al. do not include any formal evaluation of their results, which were still being analyzed as of the publication of their research design.<br />The experience of Jones (1986), who conducted the oldest study included in this review, suggests that integrating technology without a plan is unlikely to produce positive results. Jones' first case study, in which she observed a group of ESL learners as they played the strategy game Yellow River Kingdom, was not a success. Rather than prompting complex language formulations such as comparisons, speculation about future events and reasoned argument, student speech took the form mostly of " one word interjections…and reading from the screen" (p. 183). Jones' study was not without a theoretical foundation—her ideas about how computer simulations can generate " language that would be appropriate to the corresponding 'real-life' situation" of an expert in a given profession (p. 181) closely mirrors modern thinking about so-called " epistemic games," (Shaffer, Halverson, Squire & Gee, 2005, p. 7) which can enable players to " develop the situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, shared values, and ways of thinking of important communities of practice" (p. 7). A second run-through, in which Jones modified her methodology to include a role-playing session, proved much more fruitful. Jones ultimately concluded that the social interaction and unfamiliar setting of the role-play led to " much richer and more differentiated" language (1998, p. 185) than the simulation-only experiment, but that the reward of viewing the game's ostensibly accurate simulation after making decisions away from the game was highly motivating for students.<br />Second Life<br />Second Life is one of the most popular non-game 3D multi-user virtual environments in the world. Although free to most users, Second Life is in fact a commercial endeavor. Linden Labs, the company behind the virtual world, makes money by selling virtual land in Second Life (in reality, server space) and a virtual currency that can be used within Second Life to purchase virtual items and services (Atkinson, 2008). Like many virtual worlds, Second Life supports numerous modes of communication, including text chat and instant messaging (Landsberger, 2007) as well as asynchronous messages and voice chat (Warburton, 2009).<br />Second Life has been used extensively in both educational research and educational practice (Warburton, 2009; Baker, Wentz & Woods, 2009) for several reasons. As a platform Second Life is capable of supporting not only traditional pedagogical modes such as lectures and discussions, but also experimental learning experiences that would be difficult or impossible to achieve in real life, such as complex scientific or historical simulations with which users can interact directly (Warburton, 2009). Video, 3D animation, sound and still images are also supported (Deutschmann & Panichi, 2009). Baker, Wentz and Woods (2009) write that Second Life can also be used as a setting for sociological or psychological research, since its roughly 50,000 concurrent users regularly partake in all manner of activities, ranging from attending virtual events or performances to interacting socially to engaging in virtual sex or other potentially " inappropriate" behavior (Landsberger, 2007). The fact that Linden Labs actively recruits educational institutions to Second Life through discounted rates on land (Baker, Wentz & Woods, 2009) and aggressive public relations also contributes to the program's status as the virtual world of choice for higher education (Warburton, 2009).<br />It is difficult to objectively assess Second Life using the studies included in this review. As has already been mentioned, Wang et al. (2009) have not yet published the results of their study, only the methodology. Deutschmann and Panichi (2009) report that they and their students were able to adapt their behavior to appropriately signal engagement in verbal and text conversations within Second Life, which is certainly a successful result given that this was the focus of their study. Deutschmann and Panichi (2009) speculate that because Second Life " offers a certain degree of anyonymity," it may have helped to lower anxiety levels for their students (p. 312). However, Deutschmann and Panichi (2009) also found Second Life rife with technical issues, including one case in which voice chat did not function; ironically, these problems " helped to cement the group" by creating a sense of camaraderie (p. 319). <br />Warburton (2009) quotes one educator who claims that " [t]here's always someone who has a problem" with the voice chat function in Second Life, suggesting that this is a persistent issue with Linden Labs' technology (p. 422). Warburton (2009) reviewed sources including newsgroup messages, blog posts and academic literature to construct a taxonomy of potential barriers to the effective use of Second Life in education. In addition to technical issues, Warburton (2009) cited problems of identity (confusion, lack of accountability) and culture (unfamiliar, isolating, unrestricted) as significant problems with the platform. Baker et al. (2009) also warn of " technological glitches," (p. 61) as well as the significant time investment required to learn the Second Life interface and the potential financial investment required to purchase a computer on which the Second Life client program will run.<br />World of Warcraft<br />The popular MMOG World of Warcraft (hereafter WoW) offers language teachers many of the same advantages as Second Life. As a 3D environment populated by players from all over the world, WoW functions as a virtual social environment in which " total immersion" (Waters, 2007, para. 6) in English is possible for non-native speakers. Players in WoW can communicate via text chat or simple in-game animations, and third-party voice chat programs are easily run alongside the game client (Waters, 2007). Additionally, the game is populated by thousands of non-player characters, many of whom respond to player interactions with pages of written dialogue designed to send players off on various in-game tasks, or " quests" (Sarsar, 2008, p. 8; Waters, 2007, para. 6). Players may communicate about these quests, or about other aspects of the game or world—as Sarsar (2008) notes, WoW is " built to facilitate extensive in-game socializing" (p. 9).<br />Schneider and Zheng, who conducted research on ESL education through gameplay between students in China and the US (Walker, 2007), found that WoW had significant advantages as an educational tool. WoW led to great improvements in conversational English among the Chinese students, a fact that Schneider attributes to their engagement in the game (Walker, 2007). However, another researcher interviewed for Walker's (2007) story noted that MMOGs like WoW could be too confusing for students who have little experience with either English or online games. Sarsar (2008) likewise remarks on both positive and negative aspects of her students' at-home play of WoW, although it should be kept in mind that Sarsar's data is self-reported by students. Sarsar's (2008) students reported not only improved English skills, but also strong relationships with players from around the world and improved computer skills. Sarsar (2008) further argues that students may not be consciously aware of all that they are learning through gameplay. The negative results of WoW play, as reported by Sarsar's (2008) students, are linked to the game's compelling nature: it can engender " addictive behaviors" (p. 10), leading to consequences such as poor academic achievement, damaged eyesight and a decline in the quality of real-world relationships.<br />Ultimately, one survey study of a convenience sample (Sarsar, 2008) and one news article about MMOG research do not provide enough information to judge the educational potential, or potential disadvantages, of WoW. Neither source mentions such significant factors as technical requirements for playing WoW (the game is not particularly graphics-intensive relative to other 3D games, but not all computers can run it), the learning curve for non-gamer students, or the cost to maintain a subscription to the game, which is $15 US per month.<br />Active Worlds<br />Active Worlds, specifically the aptly-named, education-focused Active Worlds Educational Universe, is a virtual world platform similar in many ways to Second Life. Active Worlds supports text chat, and contains a built-in web browser that can be used to communicate information about the virtual world to the user (Dickey, 2005). Voice chat has been added since Dickey (2005) evaluated the program, but this feature was not present for Hansson's (2005) study. Like Second Life, Active Worlds allows users to create content within the world viewer, and sound, animation, still pictures and textures are all supported (Dickey, 2005). Unlike Second Life, however, users " have little control over their avatar's body" (Dickey, 2005, p. 127)—avatars are limited to a few pre-made options, and users cannot pick up items or otherwise manipulate an in-world inventory unless the world designer has chosen to mimic this feature through the clever use of the program's web browser.<br />Hansson's (2005) study was conducted using a virtual world called D-tale, which exists within the Active Worlds for Educational Universe network. Twenty 7th grade students participated in the study, which incorporated several related learning units: composing fantasy stories in English; adapting those stories to the world of D-tale and the Active Worlds software; chatting with fellow students and teacher-controlled avatars in D-tale; blogging about their experiences in the virtual world; and answering reading comprehension questions about other students' stories (Hansson, 2005). Hansson (2005) was more than pleased with the impact of this study on his students, whose mastery of formal and informal English was improved by their exposure to multiple forms of written English (conversational, compositional) and by reflection on their own writing and that of others. <br />Hansson (2005) does not focus on technical issues in his study, and so we are left with only Dickey's (2005) evaluation of the technology and its potential for education. Dickey (2005) concludes that Active Worlds is appropriate for use in situations calling for " larger-scale environments in which community building and support is of primary importance" (p. 135). However, Dickey's (2005) evaluation is by her own admission " neither comprehensive nor exhaustive" (p. 135), nor does it include the more popular Second Life platform, once more leaving us with more questions than answers.<br />Analysis and Suggestions for Further Research<br />The case studies included in this literature review suggest that all of the platforms examined—Second Life, Active Worlds Educational Universe and World of Warcraft—can support effective ESL instruction with the proper implementation and oversight. That the evidence appears strongest for Second Life is not necessarily meaningful, since Second Life has been studied more extensively than either of the other virtual worlds mentioned. Active Worlds is based on aging technology, and offers no clear pedagogical advantages over the very similar Second Life, but a direct comparison between these two platforms, such as Dickey (2005) undertook when she compared Active Worlds to the defunct Adobe Atmosphere platform, is called for before educators could be dissuaded from considering Active Worlds for future use. World of Warcraft appears to hold great potential for ESL education by dint of its nature as an excellent (and thus compelling) video game, but the studies that examined WoW as an ESL platform were either methodologically weak or reported in a journalistic rather than academic format. <br />Unfortunately, each of the case studies in this review is limited in scope, and the degree to which the results of these studies are generalizable cannot yet be determined. Furthermore, the interests of the researchers tended to be focused on the subject of their study, for which the chosen technology was only a conduit or setting. Substantive questions of interest to this reviewer, such as issues of technical reliability, cost and difficulty to learn, were rarely mentioned in the studies at any length, if at all. <br />As for the question of establishing a set of best practices for the use of virtual worlds to teach ESL, individual researchers did make some suggestions. Common themes included the motivating nature of engagement with a shared narrative (Hansson, 2005; Sarsar, 2008); the relief from anxiety offered by partial anonymity (Hansson, 2005; Wang, Song, Stone & Yan, 2009); the importance of anticipating technical hiccups (Deutschmann & Panichi, 2009; Baker, Wentz & Woods, 2009); and the notion that the technology itself is less important than the way that the relevant content is organized and presented to students (Hansson, 2005; Jones, 1986). Though here too, the fundamentally limited nature of these studies makes the generalizability of these findings suspect.<br />Further research is called for in this area, and two types of research in particular would do the most to improve the scope and caliber of the extant literature. Firstly, there is a need for case studies on a broader scale and with a more cohesive methodology. Wang et al. allude to the weakness of the methodologies of some of their fellow researchers' studies in laying out the justification for their own research; they are correct. Many authors spent a great deal of time explaining the theoretical underpinnings of education in virtual spaces, but did not pay as close attention to laying out precisely how their studies progressed. If, as suggested above, it is how (rather than which) technology is used that truly matters, then methodology is of paramount importance in interpreting study results. Secondly, and perhaps paradoxically, there is a need for more studies like that conducted by Dickey (2005), in that they focus on the technology itself, as well as the ways it can be applied. The extant literature gives no clues as to which platforms are most costly, which most prone to technical failure, which the simplest or most difficult to learn. MUVEs and MMOGs are fascinating technologies that seem to hold great potential for education—certainly most researchers believe so—yet at present, the answers to too many questions remain out of reach. <br />References<br />Atkinson, T. (2008). Myths and Realities. TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning. 52 (5), 26-29.<br />Baker, S., Wentz, R., & Woods, M. (2009). Using Virtual Worlds in Education: Second Life as an Educational Tool. Teaching of Psychology. 36 (1), 59-64.Bottom of Form<br />Deutschmann, M., & Panichi, L. (2009). Talking into Empty Space? Signalling Involvement in a Virtual Language Classroom in Second Life. Language Awareness. 18 (3-4), 310-328. <br />Dickey, M. D. (2005). Brave New (Interactive) Worlds: A Review of the Design Affordances and Constraints of Two 3D Virtual Worlds as Interactive Learning Environments. Interactive Learning Environments. 13 (1-2), 121-137.<br />Hansson, T. (2005). English as a Second Language on a Virtual Platform--Tradition and Innovation in a New Medium. Computer Assisted Language Learning. 18 (1-2), 63-79.<br />Jones, G. (1986). Computer Simulations in Language Teaching--The KINGDOM Experiment. System. 14 (2), 179-86.<br />Landsberger, J. (2007). An Interview with Jeremy Koester. TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning. 51 (4), 6-8.<br />Sarsar, N. M. (2008). What Children Can Learn from MMORPGs. Retrieved from<br />Shaffer, D. W., Squire, K. R., Halverson, R., & Gee, J. P. (2005). Video Games and the Future of Learning. WCER working paper no. 2005-4. Wisconsin Center for Education Research.<br />Wang, C. X., Song, H., Stone, D. E., & Yan, Q. (2009). Integrating Second Life into an EFL Program in China: Research Collaboration across the Continents. TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning. 53 (6), 14-19. <br />Warburton, S. (2009). Second Life in Higher Education: Assessing the Potential for and the Barriers to Deploying Virtual Worlds in Learning and Teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology. 40 (3), 414-426.<br />Waters, J. K. (2007). On a Quest for English. T.H.E. Journal. 34 (10), 27-28, 30, 32.<br />