Nergiz Kern on Language Teaching in Second Life

English language teacher Nergiz Kern takes TEFL.net behind the scenes of her Second Life.

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
Nergiz Kern

Nergiz Kern

Tara: Before you take us behind the scenes of Second Life (SL) can you tell us briefly about your TEFL background in real life (RL).

Nergiz: I have always been interested in languages but it was only when I met a brilliant English teacher in the US and a Brazilian lady who had her own language school that I became interested in teaching languages. Soon after, in 2000, I had the opportunity to work at a language school in Brazil and loved the experience. Back in Germany, I started working as a freelancer mostly in-company and taught general, business and technical English. Since moving back to Turkey two years ago, I have been exploring teaching online and in Second Life extensively. I have given some courses and have also done some teacher training in and about SL. I did the CELTA in 2003 and the DELTA in 2007 and am now planning to do an MA in Educational Technology and TESOL.

Tara: It’s amazing how a few people can have such an impact on the direction of a person’s career. Was there a particular person who first introduced you to the use of Second Life in language teaching?

Nergiz: It was in the first half of 2007 when there was a lot of hype about Second Life in the media. One of my technical English classes had heard about it too and wanted to talk about SL. They brought a Wikipedia article to class and we read and talked about SL and its potential for business, education and entertainment. I remember jokingly telling them that one day I would teach in SL. What intrigued me about SL most was its immersive character and that students could find other speakers of English to practise their language skills with. Most of my students only spoke English with me. I thought that the game-like character and the idea of being able to communicate with other people might be a motivating factor to get them started in SL.

Tara: So in a sense the students brought SL to you. How brave of them! Anything related to SL can be intimidating for people who have not stepped into a virtual world. Take us back to your first few experiences as a Resident. What can newbies expect?

Nergiz: I started my journey alone and it was very frustrating and disappointing at times. My computer was too slow, SL seemed to be empty and searching for educational content or places was a tedious task. I signed up for the SLED list (SL Educators List) but didn’t understand what they were all talking about, was overwhelmed by the mass of posts and signed off again. Now, SLED is one of my most valuable sources of information about SL and virtual worlds. Once I met like-minded language teachers and we started exploring SL together, it was much more fun and it motivated me to learn new skills to be able to share it with my colleagues.

I think it is much easier to get started with SL now. There are many generous educators and educational groups who offer help to newbie (language) teachers and there are many more resources like tutorials, tips, and articles about educational uses of SL online and in SL. Many of these existed before too but they were difficult to find.

Tara: I think it’s helpful for new users to know that others had difficulty in the beginning, but stuck it out and are now promoting it and teaching others how to use it. In your opinion what are the top three reasons for using SL as a language teaching tool?

SL Avatar: Daffodil Fargis

SL Avatar: Daffodil Fargis

Nergiz: Hm, only three? For many people, 3D environments are immersive; they are a great place to find people to practise one’s language skills; therefore, great for informal learning. They can also enhance distance education because they give one a sense of presence and provide an opportunity to meet synchronously and do things together like going on field trips, participating in events or doing project work. Let me add that I have come to see SL as an environment rather than a tool and in this environment there are different tools that we can use when teaching just like in real life.

Tara: In your blog, Teaching in Second Life: Reflections of a Language Teacher, you say that your intention is to lead by example. What form of assistance can an educator expect to find in your posts?

Nergiz: I started blogging about my experience when I was planning and conducting my first SL course. It was mainly meant to help me reflect about the lessons but I thought it could equally benefit other teachers who were interested in SL as a teaching environment. I was also hoping for comments and feedback on my lesson plans and my post-lesson evaluation so that I could improve. So, what you can find there are some lesson plans, pre and post-lesson reflections, student feedback, and snapshots of some lessons. There are also tips for classroom management, tools descriptions and some reports about my other activities in SL, all of which have to do with education.

Tara: What other opportunities are out there for teachers who want to learn the SL ropes?

Nergiz: There are many educators groups in Second Life that teachers can join like ISTE and Real Life Educators in Second Life or DEN. For language teachers there is SLExperiments. We have regular weekly meetings in SL in EduNation, a group of three islands that belong to Gavin Dudeney who provides free resources to teachers. There is also the VWLL (Virtual Worlds & Language Learning) group. This community started with the 6-week session for language teachers that three colleagues of mine and I planned and moderated as part of the TESOL EVO (English Village Online).

Tara: Besides looking into the eyes of your students is there anything you cannot do in SL that you would do in a real life classroom?

Nergiz: I would say what is lacking most is more accurate gestures and facial expressions, which we so often use in class, especially with beginners. Good text tools are also missing. With the standard tools it is not possible to highlight text, use different font sizes, etc. There are other things that don’t work that well in SL and that is why I usually use a combination of web 2.0 tools and online resources to make up for it. I don’t see a point in restricting myself or the learners to one tool or environment when there are so many out there that can complement each other.

Tara: Besides flying, what is the best thing that you can do in SL that you cannot do in a real classroom?

Nergiz: First, let me share my concern of comparing SL to “real” classrooms. I assume with real you mean a physical classroom because to me my “classrooms” or places that I use to teach in SL are as real as any other classrooms online or physical. Then, I think we have to be very careful what we compare SL with because only if we know what exactly we are comparing can we make judgments about the value of a tool in those circumstances. The outcome will be different when I compare SL or other virtual worlds to an online 2D virtual classroom or to a physical classroom. My evaluation will also differ when comparing the use of SL in a monolingual class in a non-English speaking country to a mixed nationality class in an English-speaking country.

Having said that there are some things you can do in SL that are difficult, impracticable or too expensive to do in RL, such as changing appearance quickly, which can make it more interesting to talk about appearance and is not limited to what the learners are wearing in class. Instead of looking at pictures of let’s say the Seven World Wonders, learners and the teacher can visit them together, climb up the pyramids or walk into a tomb to discover its secrets, visit different countries, museums, galleries, shops, take snapshots or buy stuff and bring them back to class to talk about them. Instead of imagining being in a room looking at a picture, learners can walk into and around a room, interact with the objects, for example: sit on a couch, watch a film, grab a cup of coffee, move the furniture, redecorate the house, and describe what they are doing. You can also drag all kinds of “realia” out of your pocket (inventory) whenever you need something–even whole planes, cars and houses or unusual objects that not every teacher has at home to bring to class. You can change their colour, texture, size, etc to elicit certain language. You can meet people from all around the world and work on projects with them for almost no cost at all. SL also offers multiple communication channels making it possible to give feedback to students without putting them on the spot or interrupting their presentation. I could go on…

Tara: Are language teachers actually earning money in SL?

Nergiz: Some are some aren’t.

Tara: What is your response to skeptics who think that Second Life is a game?

Nergiz: I would first ask them why this makes them skeptical. I think there has been plenty of research now showing that learning by gaming can be effective. Then, I would tell them that although SL has a game-like character and you can play games in it, it is not a game. There are no set rules, no pre-defined tasks, no high score or even content for that matter.

Tara: What is your best piece of advice for a teacher who sees this interview and is intrigued by the idea of teaching in a virtual world.

Nergiz: Find educators, if possible in your field, who are already in SL and who can help you with the first steps. You can join a group of educators, if possible in your own field (e.g. SLExperiments for language teachers, a group that I co-founded with two colleagues. We meet every Friday in SL ). Participate in events which are mostly offered for free (conferences, workshops, discussion round tables, etc) to acquaint yourself with the possibilities and befriend colleagues. If possible, observe lessons, or even better–try learning a new language or improving your language skills by taking classes in-world. Finally, socialize in SL! Other SLers might differ with me here, but I think in order to really understand SL, or other 3D virtual worlds, you have to engage with the environment and the people there. After all, there are real people behind the avatars who pursue real interests. Some like meeting people, others like building, scripting, designing clothes or playing music. Yet others come together to “fight for” or promote a common cause. Engaging with these people will not only help you understand virtual worlds better but also give you a list of friends who are not educators but who you can invite as a guest to your lessons.

Learn more about Language Teaching in SL:

  • SLExperiments wiki
  • Nergiz’s First Steps in SL
  • Follow Nergiz on Twitter
  • “Starting a Second Life” by Nergiz Kern; ETp magazine, Issue 61, March 2009

Next month’s TEFL Guest: Gavin Dudeney of EduNation

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
July 2009 | Filed under Interviews
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.