SLanguages Conference 2008

Over the weekend I managed to spend some hours taking in the SLanguages Conference 2008 on EduNation in Second Life. I had attended seminars and meetings in Second Life, but this was the first conference I have managed to get to in the online virtual world. I was impressed by the sentiment of those sessions I attended, and the seriousness of the tone that the conference often managed to project. Among the presenters there were four universities represented at SLanguages 2008, Murdoch University of Western Australia, The Charles University, Prague, Penn State, Michigan State, a few smaller collages and the rest were private consultancy, business training or language providers.
SLanguages 2008 ran all night on Friday 23rd May and Saturday 24th, so as to maximise the potential of the many time zones in Second Life usage (which runs on PST). This was even thought many of the organisers are based in European zones.
My introduction to SLanguages 2008 was the ‘mingle’, a strange importation into the SL world of the pre-conference meeting, drinks and so on. It does not really work so well in a virtual world were newbies are trying to work out how to dress themselves and sit down (not often encountered at academic conferences). I would have like to have seen smaller groups doing peer introductions or Q&As on the software. We had a DJ and some avatars were even dancing:

My avatar seems somehow preoccupied as the conference participants attempt to introduce themselves.

The first session I attended had an audience of 88 avatars. Iffaf Khan a teacher from The Language Lab took us through her experiences in teaching online conversational languages at a school working entirely in Second Life. Iffaf’s presentation was fairly good although the lag created by the numbers attending effected the presentation. Key points I noted from the at times rambling presentation were the importance of clear benchmarks for students, choose your participants (difficult in a non-commercial college situation) and the problems experienced by The Language Lab in regards to high levels of student number attrition.

Clicking on avatars and looking for links and interesting groups was a major activity at SLanguages 2008. Last year the first Slanguages 2007 had five presenters (??) and forty participants. This year it had three hundred registered participants and nineteen presenters. Next year is sure to be larger.

Dudeney Ge or Gavin Dudeney (one of the organisers of the event) was the presenter I listened to next. Teaching Tools for Second Life Language Education provided information on some of the tools Gavin recommends after two years of working in distance education using among other things Second Life. There were lots of freebies at Gavin’s presentation, with him giving out a box of PowerPoint screens, HUDs (Head Up Device), Instant Meeting Circles and other useful objects for delivering education in Second Life.

The final session I attended was by Dongping Zheng or MinnSU Koga in Second Life. MinnSU teaches at the Confucious Institute at Michigan State University teaching Chinese language. MinnSu spoke about Quest Design in Second Life Chinese School. I was very impressed by MinnSU’s quotes from her own students regarding their impressions of learning in Second Life. I took screenshots of two of the slides from the presentation:

I would have liked to have attended more of the SLanguages 2008 sessions but the times they were held and the state of health in my own family (a sick child) I could not. I did meet one avatar who told me he was getting time off work to attend the conference. As a means to cutting down on air travel and a way of bringing people together the format adopted by SLanguages 2008 was effective and inspiring. As a way of developing the critical and functional aspects of education in Second Life it remains a ‘preaching to the converted’ scenario. There were basic building classes at the conference and many relative newbies indicate that the use of virtual worlds in education is spreading but it is the students that need to be exposed to such situations. I have found the broad range of technicities (the ways in which our tastes, preferences, affinities and aptitudes towards technology shape and inform our identity) in a classroom is often as much of a hindrance to the utilisation of technology such as virtual worlds as any perceived reluctance on the part of administration or teachers themselves. I am not sure Slanguages is going to change this, but it may just help.
The people running it hinted that lots of archive content from SLanguages 2008 will be put up on the website soon. I look forward to it and to next year’s conference.