Virtual reality and high-tech simulations breathe second life into language classes
Rutgers students can meet at a café in Paris to practice their French and those taking Italian can walk the winding medieval streets of Assisi and chat with passers-by – all without ever leaving the classroom.
Welcome to the virtual world of Rutgers’ Language Institute. The institute employs high-tech computer programs – with names like Second Life, BabelMOO, The Sims™ 2, and Photo Story – in its language labs to get students conversing creatively.
When the language labs were instituted at Rutgers in the 1960s, audiotapes were considered cutting edge, said Marion Yudow, director of the Language Institute. “When I started here in 1979, they still were using some of the old reel-to-reel tapes, Yudow said. “Now, as they say, it’s not your father’s language lab anymore. We have all this new technology at our fingertips.”
Instructors of French, German, Spanish, and Italian regularly come to language labs on the College Avenue and Douglass campuses to engage their students in exercises using computer programs.
Speaking another language in the virtual world seems to free most students from the inhibitions they may have in a classroom, according to Ursula Atkinson, senior program administrator at the Language Institute. “Most students are very comfortable with computers, and they seem to be more creative and relaxed when they are using these programs,” she said.
Exercises in Rutgers’ Babel MOO program (MOO stands for Multi-user Object Oriented domain), for example, give students specific tasks to complete. One possible scenario: Students are told they are chefs at a restaurant in a foreign country. They must choose the menu for the day, discuss what ingredients they need, and then go out into the virtual world to shop. The MOO is set up so that the students can discuss the task with each other by writing in the language being studied. The written dialogue is recorded and monitored by the instructor at the lab.
At a recent lab MOO session led by Myriam Alami, coordinator of the French language program, students were given a more esoteric subject to discuss. Alami assigned her French 132 students several statements about immigration; she then broke her class into discussion groups of four students each, who had to debate the statements in the MOO.
For 45 minutes, the students clicked away intently on their computer keyboards, while Alami monitored the written debates from her computer. “We are not as concerned with grammatical mistakes in this kind of exercise,” Alami said. “We want them to be spontaneous and communicate without inhibition.”
Alami agrees that her students are more creative when in computer mode. She said that their use of language is much more lively, not as rigid,, when they are online.
“It’s definitively more interesting when it’s interactive,” said Arthur Kutoroff, a first-year student in Alami’s class. Courtney Shaw, another first-year student, would like to see the MOO go one step further. “If we could somehow hook up with a class in France and have a debate, that would be really cool,” she said.
The language labs also have incorporated The Sims™ 2 strategic life simulation game into instruction for French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese. Students can play The Sims™ 2 game in their language, and instructors structure assignments around the game. In the lab, students can access one of several virtual scenes featuring Sims characters having an argument or taking a trip to the beach, for example. Students are then asked to write a script for the scene.
Last semester, the language lab experimented with Second Life, which provides a fully interactive virtual world online, Atkinson said. Second Life’s virtual landscape is made up of “islands” representing actual geographical places.
Karen Campbell, a Rutgers 2007 graduate now working at the Office of Instructional and Research Technology as a senior instructional designer, had helped introduce the Sims program to the language labs and went on to help create Rutgers University Island in Second Life.
The island contains areas where participants can give virtual presentations, participate in class projects, and travel to other islands. It also contains several university landmarks, including an area for virtual grease trucks, Campbell said.
Students using Second Life create an avatar, a virtual computer personality that can travel from island to island and interact with other avatars. They can give these avatars any features they wish. Atkinson recalled an older student who was initially reluctant to use Second Life, but who became quite at home in the program. Her avatar sported spiky gray hair and brightly colored midriff tops.
French students using Second Life visited the island of Paris 1900, and Italian students used the Assisi Island site. Students could converse with any French or Italian speaking avatars visiting the island and could encounter people from all over the physical world.
Students Grace Chung and Jenifer Park, in a report they wrote about using Second Life for Alami's French 131 course last semester, observed: “Now we know that Second Life is like reality. Second Life is maybe too virtual, but the people who control the avatars are very real and that makes it like reality.”