Materials design for Virtual Worlds

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to give a presentation on course and materials design for Second Life at the SLanguages 2007 virtual conference (June 23rd 2007) which took place on the Edunation Island in Second life. The conference itself was a fascinating event and the experience of presenting a conference paper within a virtual world to an audience of avatars was certainly a new and novel one for me.

I was asked to give this presentation because I have been working over the last few months on designing a Business English course for Second Life. As part of putting together the presentation I came up with a list of lessons I’ve learnt while going through the process of designing the course. The list is by no means finalised and I’m sure it will continue to grow and change as I learn more about developing materials for this world, but I thought I’d publish it here for anyone who is interested in designing their own materials for language teaching in SL.

For anyone who hasn’t already visited Second Life then you can download some instructions from here and see how it is done (1.3Mb pdf). Be warned though. To access SL you need to have a good broadband connection and quite a powerful computer. See system requirements

So here is my list of things to think about if you are trying to design teaching materials for Second Life. Feel free to leave comments.

Tips for language learning materials design in Second Life

1. Design outside the classroom box and into the computer game box
Think about the kinds of common computer game genre. They are really quite limited. The main ones are things like
  • Driving or flying games (Grand Prix racing etc)
  • Shooter games (Kill everything in sight etc.)
  • Sports type games ( Football, Golf etc.)
  • Strategy type games ( Zoo Tycoon, Hotel Tycoon etc.)
  • Sims type games (The Sims, Sims 2 Pets etc.)
Think about how these can be made collaborative and why students playing them might need to communicate. Admittedly, it’s much easier to produce these types of games if you have an island and a team of technicians to work on them for you. If you haven’t there are still plenty of things you can do using places and objects already built in world. If you get your students to go to Nissan Altima Island they can pick up there own car, which they can either use there or anywhere else to have a driving competition. On AOL Pointe they can get their own skateboard and a collection of tricks to do on it. There are numerous places to play just about any sport you can think of. Finding and learning how to use these objects and places could be a communicative task in itself.

2. Build in ownership of the environment
If you have your own Island why not build a student area of some kind. Somewhere they can post their own materials, pictures etc. or give them their own room to decorate.

3. Give students control of their learning / activities
When you design learning tasks like role-plays let students be themselves, don’t try too hard to orchestrate things like what they will do, where they will be or what they will say. Good role-play is like jazz improvisation, you provide a structure and students improvise within it.

4. Make learning and task goals clear to students
Sounds obvious, but when we know why they are doing things we often take it foregranted that students know. This often isn’t the case, so be sure to let your students know why you want them to do something and what you think they should be achieving.

5. Make sure that students get individualised feedback on their performance
Especially in virtual world activities where students are in reality quite isolated and really sitting at home on a computer alone, it’s very important that they get some feedback on their performance and know how they are doing. Keeping note cards at the ready while you are monitoring your students can be really handy for making notes to pass to them at the end of the lesson.

6. Maximise student to student interaction
Now that Second life is going to have voice communication for everyone, there is no excuse for the activities to be tutor led. Let the students work together. Be sure to explore the voice capabilities and look at how you can group and pair students for voice chat.

7. Breakdown texts into smaller chunks and make ‘input’ tasks collaborative.
SL isn’t a text driven environment and doesn’t really lend itself to reading long texts. It’s much better to divide your texts up by giving a small chunk to each student on a note card, and then get them to reconstruct the overall meaning collaboratively.

8. Make the activities engaging on a mental (cognitive), personal and a cultural level
SL offers us the opportunity to connect people from all around the world, so be sure that your tasks and activities draw on that international experience and exploit the unique experiences that each student brings from their culture.

9. Build the materials into the immediate SL environment
SL is a wonderfully rich graphic environment. Try to make sure your materials exploit that immediate environment. Get students doing things in different places and moving around. Don’t just try to recreate a classroom in SL, remember the most successful language learning that happens goes on outside the classroom.

10. Make tasks relevant to real life and real SL life
The borders between real life and SL are becoming increasingly blurred. Think about how virtual 3D worlds will become integrated into our everyday lives and the kinds of skills people will need to operate and communicate in them effectively.

11. Exploit the ‘authentic’ SL world
There are lots of interesting and novel things to do and places to go in SL, so why not exploit them and design activities around them? Get students to go out in groups and explore and create reports, plan trips and tours for each other, bring back experiences to share with other class members.

12. Exploit the SL user interface
The SL user interface is an incredibly useful tool and has lots of features that can be used creatively. The snapshot tool can help students to create magazine reports with wonderful graphics or a photo diary of their experiences. The movie tool can help students to create machinima. They can use it to create their own video interviews, advertisements, or record role plays or drama productions.

13. Train learners to exploit the SL user interface / develop good IT literacy / study skills.
The user interface can also be used more or less effectively as a study tool, to take notes make records or to share information. Make sure that you train students to use it effectively, so that it aids rather than obstructs their study.

14. Build in social interaction
Knowledge is socially constructed and language is a social function. Try to design social time and space into your course and your tasks.

15. Create and exploit information gaps
Make sure that you create the need to communicate within your tasks. Creating information gap type activities is relatively easy in SL as you have a lot of control about how and who you give information to.

16. Develop and exploit the students’ relationship to their avatar
The SL avatar that represents your student can become a vehicle for the expression of their personality. Think about how you can involve this relationship between student and avatar in your activities.

The Slanguage 2007 conference was sponsored by The consultants-e
Video and audio transcripts of the presentations can be found on the Edunation Island at:

If you are a teacher and you are interested in developing language teaching materials for Second Life or doing some language teaching there get in touch with The consultants-e as they are now running seminars and training sessions in SL.