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Engaging young language learners with Web2.0 technologies April 23, 2010

Posted by teachandreflect in Uncategorized.
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This is the third and final summary piece I’ll be writing for my secondary studies teaching unit, Enhanced Learning in Professional Contexts. It will be more narrative and reflective than my previous efforts, largely because I’ve found the process of investigating emerging trends in ICT-enhanced language learning just as fascinating as the content.

The process began with me eschewing traditional, scholarly research methodology for a colourful, adrenaline-pumping Web2.0 quest for cutting-edge language learning ideas and resources. Hoping to capitalise on the positive collaborative, social and authentic aspects of learning languages in this environment, I was particularly seeking innovative ideas to engage otherwise unmotivated adolescent language students. This was on the proviso that the learning methods were, following on from Australian Scholar Kathryn Moyle’s recent work, cost-free and based on web2.0 technologies. Ultimately, I found imaginative uses of popular games, and avatars in Facebook and twitter to be leading the way in this domain. I also found myself challenging my assumptions about my newfound research approach.

My research adventure began slowly – almost an entire day wasted bumbling around in scholarly journals seeking a departure point for my investigations. Despite the quality and intellectual rigour of the research I encountered, it appeared the scholarly discourse on ICT-enhanced language learning had stagnated around traditional concepts of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). For two decades now, commercial, CD-Rom-delivered CALL programs have been central in progressive approaches to language learning. However, lost in the labyrinth of scholarly search engines and article repositories housing this literature, I began to suspect that the once innovative vanguard of CALL scholars had since become CALL conservers, rather than adopters of new and more pedagogically powerful Web2.0 technologies.

I decided at this point that if I was genuinely searching for cutting edge, Web2.0-inspired learning ideas, then I needed to embrace the Web2.0 knowledge sharing realm. This would double as a practical examination of an idea I’d been contemplating for some time, regarding the vicarious learning potential of blogs as opposed to scholarly publications. Drawing on Bandura’s theories regarding self-efficacy, I’d been postulating that the immediacy and real-world application of well written, experiential blogs and wikis could have a much more rapid effect than scholarly literature on a teacher’s belief in their ability to perform similar or related educational tasks.

Instant results ensued. The next day was a “rich media” whirlwind of immediately useful blogs, wikis, slideshares, podcasts and vodcasts. An early success along this path included uncovering a student wikidot page – Web2.0 / Language Learning – operating in the same language pedagogy domain as I was. This was a clear example of the kind vicarious learning experience I had been imagining. Prior to encountering this wiki, I’d been somewhat unproductively dazzled by the abundance of useful resources out there. But Web2.0/Language Learning helped order my thinking and offered a fresh perspective apparently unburdened by traditional understandings of CALL. Combining Vygotskian social learning theory with Second Language Acquisition research conducted by Egbert et al, the author/s asserted that Web2.0-supported language learning offered authentic, collaborative, social and challenging experiences for students. The site also offered an eloquent, informative and unpretentious overview of modern uses of blogs, wikis, podcasting, social networking and virtual worlds for second language acquisition.

In addition to this wiki, I found further bearings from another Web2.0 hallmark, YouTube. The video introduction to freelanguages.org offered a similarly informative and articulate review of the types of freely available online language learning resources. These resources were invaluable and will now form part of my own learning and teaching toolbox. They ranged from flash card sites and specialised verb conjugators to formal lessons. Most of the products, however, assumed a pre-existing level of interest in language learning and essentially constituted online CALL programs with Web2.0 social networking sometimes ‘added on’.   

Beyond these products exists the emerging field of Machinima, along with ingenious uses of avatars on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Machinima, as described by one of its pioneer groups, Rooster Teeth, is simply the process of writing scripts and then using video games to act them out. Rooster Teeth’s own work grew out of their manipulation of the Artificial Intelligence online versions of The Sims – with entertaining results (See: The Sims Teach German). Rooster Teeth and other self-styled Machinima production teams have expanded into other games and platforms and the number of Facebook followers on their sites suggests the genre now has a committed following. The types of authentic, collaborative, social and challenging language learning experiences available in these environments is limited only by the imagination. Even before trying their hand at Machinima, young learners have the option of simply playing the game in their target language. Although challenging at first, the number of association-forming visual cues available to them makes this a feasible learning opportunity, as do efforts on the part of gaming developers to make playing instructions clear and direct. Games like The Sims are ideal for these types of rich learning tasks, as they unfold in a progressive manner and require the player to make discerning choices about the placement and application of every day items and tools. They also require the student to build their own characters, or avatars, which is a much more engaging way to learn vocabulary about physiology than the standard textbook approach. Incidentally, the use of avatars is central to emerging ideas for taking language interplay to social networking sites. Scholars working in this area argue that the creation of avatars and unique personas on foreign language social networking sites delivers (particularly advanced) students a level of authentic, intercultural language exchange and understanding unparalleled by anything other than in-country immersion.

Returning to the gaming environment and younger learners, and moving beyond the simple use of avatars, developing a foreign language Machinima might then become a higher order learning project. It is particularly appealing as an extended task into which several formative tasks and assessments can be built, perhaps over the course of a school term.Students might begin by preparing script ideas and storyboards, working either directly with, or translating into the target language, before building their animation in the gaming environment. Examples of language learning tasks of this nature are now starting to populate YouTube, as seen in Teenagers, a Machinima produced by Latin students using The Sims gaming architecture.

There appears to be unlimited potential for engaging otherwise unmotivated students with innovative use of Machinima, avatars and Social Networking sites in foreign language learning. Online gaming and social networking environments are already fun and familiar to students, and can be manipulated by teachers to offer rich and authentic collaborative learning experiences for students at different stages of second language acquisition. My research rollercoaster ride did not end with the landmark ‘discovery’ of foreign language Machinima and avatar usage, however. After initially seeing their potential and learning about the fundamentals, I lost far more time searching for feasible, real-world classroom applications than any of the hours ‘wasted’ on my initial forays into CALL literature. This experience reminded me of the value of cumulative knowledge derived from multiple sources in any field. I expect the rapid Web2.0-enabled dissemination and exchange of new knowledge will increasingly provide educators with useful resources and accessible know-how. But perhaps we should not be too eager to shun the considered findings and established practice of leaders in our given disciplines. Mastery of both research domains will produce a far more balanced and better informed educator!        


Free Language. Available at  http://freelanguage.org/ Accessed 10 April 2010.   

Krause K.L. Bochner, S, Duchesne, S. (2010) Educational Psychology for Learning and Teaching (3rd Edition) Cengage: Melbourne, Australia.

Moyle, K. (2010). Building Innovation: Learning with Technologies. Australian Council for Educational Research: Victoria, Australia.

Rooster Teeth. Available at http://roosterteeth.com/home.php Accessed 12 April 2010.

Teenagers (Latin Project) – A Sims 2 Machinima. Available at http://eclassics.ning.com/video/teenagers-latin-project-a Accessed 20 April 2010.

The Sims Teach German – Video Games for Foreign Language Learning Available at:  http://vodpod.com/watch/207344-the-sims-teach-german-video-games-for-foreign-language-learning Accessed 11 April 2010.

Web2.0 / Language Learning. Available at http://web20andlanguagelearning.wikidot.com/start-here Accessed 10 April 2010.



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