Summary and review of the paper: Designing Oral Participation in Second Life – a comparative study of two language proficiency courses. M. Deutschmann, L. Panichi and J. Molka Danielson. ReCALL 21(2):206-226 (2009)

This paper outlines an action research project which focussed on an oral proficiency course for doctoral students, held in Second Life (SL) and conducted under the Kamiko Islands project (http://home.himolde.no/~molka/about-kamimo-islands.htm ). The research is a comparative study; the course was run for a first time in 2007, revised and then re-run the following year. The authors’ research focus is the changes in student participation with relation to changes in course design. Floor space, turn lengths and turn-taking are used to measure participation.  Learners were from different language backgrounds and groups were small in number (6-7 learners : 2-3 tutors). The focus was on the voice chat function in SL during two sessions; one in which students introduced themselves and the second in which they presented their doctoral research. An ecological perspective of language learning is adopted in the researchers’ analysis.

Findings from course 1:

-teacher presence was perceived as intimidating

-student preparation for use of a new medium was not adequate. Tutors were mistaken in their assumption that students were familiar with the affordances of SL.

-students encountered technical problems during the sessions

-the role-play model which researchers envisaged as suitable for the ‘game-like environment’ led participants to be bemused and embarrassed by the set-up.

Changes made to the course:

-test sessions run in SL before the course began

-communication using Skype whilst sessions were being run in order to reach students and give on-the-spot technical help

-teachers’ took a less central role and focussed on facilitating participation rather than directing performance. Students were given greater learner autonomy and managed the interactions themselves.

-the role-play model was abandoned in favour of a more authentic approach

-more elements of socialisation were included (e.g. course blog)

Changes in participation

– participants’ floor space increased by 15 minutes in course 2 during the introductions session and by 26 minutes in the presentations session

-teacher talking time was reduced by 48% in course 2 during the introductions session and in the presentation session the tutors only accounted for 28% of the floor space whereas teachers’ talk was dominant in the presentation session, course 1. Possibly explained by the fact they were giving the instructions.

Weaknesses of research:

The research design does not account for the different participants in course 1 and 2. Therefore, we can question the validity of comparative results. Perhaps the students had different attitudes towards English? towards online learning? different levels of  IT literacy? different levels of language? In course 2, the authors explain that there was a naturally stronger meaning focus because the participants had research interests in common. How did this affect group dynamics?

What can I learn from this action research project which may be important to my own research?

– technical and social initiations into a complex environment are factors which need to be worked into course design

– authenticity appears to be a primary issue in task design. Indeed, the importance of the learning environment reflecting participants’ own personal interests is suggested