There is probably no bigger game in education (or, indeed, in gaming) than Minecraft right now so I am very pleased to have James York as my first guest. I was especially interested to learn about his experiences of running language courses using the game as a virtual world for students from around the world to interact in. I was also keen to ask about his current research into the use of virtual worlds in language teaching. Read on for what I am sure you will agree are some fascinating insights...
The Quickfire Round
James York (Kotoba Miners): Although my father was a game developer when I was young (only a hobbiest really, but still…), and I’ve been surrounded with video game consoles and computers since a young age, I think the first game I remember playing is the Dizzy series.
DD: The first computer/console you owned
JY: We had a number of Atari computers when we were kids, and then an Amiga which we played on all the time. The first console we owned was a Sega Megadrive with Sonic the Hedgehog.
DD: Childhood memories of games at school
JY: Hmmm…. Computer games were never used at school. The games I remember playing at school would have to be playground games like British Bulldog or “kiss chase” Haha.
DD: The most recent game you played
JY: I played some Rocket League the other day. A friend recommended it to me. I had seen clips of it online and if you don’t know, it is essentially 3-a-side football played with remote controlled cars and a huge ball. I was skeptical about how fun it could be, but boy was I wrong…! It’s a fantastic multiplayer experience. Scoring a goal hits you with a sweet wave of fiero, and seeing pro players flying their cars through the air to nudge the ball into the back of the net is pretty fascinating to watch.
DD: Favourite game of all time
JY: Tough one. I’d probably say the most riveting and important gaming experience I have had was completing Final Fantasy VII when I was 13(ish?). Me and my brother would both rush home from school to be the first to play it and continue the story (the slower sibling forced to watch the progress playing out before him, controllerless.)
DD: Final Fantasy VII! For me, that was the first time I became engrossed by the story of a game. I remember at uni having 4 or 5 people crowd into my room in our hall of residence to watch me take on the final boss and conclude the story.
JY: Another game that I am partial too is of course Minecraft. We’ll talk about this later, but finding a virtual world and building a language learning community was incredibly meaningful and fulfilling.
JY: I think the Amiga 1200 was the machine that I spent the most time playing with. It had a plethora of good platformers, adventure, and shooting games.
DD: Standout gaming achievement
JY: Getting my cape in Minecraft
DD: The most addictive game you’ve played
JY: World of Warcraft by far. *shudders*
DD: Been there, James, been there.... Worst game you’ve ever played
JY: Sorry dad, but probably one of his early games.
DD: First game you used in class as a teacher
JY: Scribblenauts or an iOS escape the room game called Roooms (this is not a misspelling).
Games & Language Learning
JY: This is a going to be a long answer....
The main goal started out as:
Provide a safe, motivating, and immersive environment for my Japanese students to learn English. However, this goal flipped over the first six months of the project to being a place to teach Japanese to English-speakers now.
This does not mean that the original goal has completely disappeared—I still teach English to Japanese students on the server—but I now focus more of my efforts on teaching Japanese.
The server was initially set up with a few basic lesson ideas and activities to help my students learn English. It had no additional plug-ins and no security until a player from Finland offered to help me out. I gave him admin access soon after, and he is still with the project to this day. Next was to find English speakers to participate. I asked on the popular news website “Reddit” whether people would be willing to come onto our server once a week to help my Japanese students learn English. As part of this, I also mentioned that as my students’ level of English was fairly low, the experience would also be a good opportunity for them to practice Japanese. The results were very positive. Once a week, my students logged in and completed activities with English-speakers that came from Reddit. Once the course finished, my students stopped playing on the server, but the native English speakers continued. I was suddenly faced with a server of English speakers who were interested in learning Japanese. It was this experience that started my interest in teaching Japanese and led to the creation of Kotoba Miners.
DD: So the students stopped playing but the volunteers carried on! It’s great how the Japanese project emerged from the original one.
JY: Yep, this is exactly what happened :) The evolution of the Kotoba Miners project was quite bizarre, but still, very rewarding.
DD: What is a typical Japanese lesson in Minecraft like?
JY: I experimented with a few teaching styles. I started classes with the traditional PPP style - I present some new language, students practice it, then we would do a related activity that made them use it for more communicative purposes. But this felt like a waste of their time. Students could learn all the grammar and words needed for a class by themselves before class just by searching the internet for the relevant grammar. So, eventually we ended up with a kind of flipped classroom where I would tell students what grammar was coming up and they would read about it by themselves before coming to class.
We used TeamSpeak to communicate, as people were located all around the world. This was the most important tool of the class. The focus in class was on developing speaking skills, as this is one of the least focused skills for a language learner.
DD: How are the traditional roles of ‘teacher,’ ‘student,’ and ‘class’ changed by being in a virtual world environment? How are they the same?
JY: Pretty much the same actually. The people that I taught were generally adults who had been through some degree of formal education before, so they were expectant that the set up would be the same as their experiences. I would speak as the teacher, they would react and do activities.
DD: Science, maths, geography, ICT and now language learning - why do you think Minecraft in particular has been so successful in so many diverse educational contexts?
I’m actually surprised that it is used so much in the science and math domains. It seems very obvious to me that it is a great tool for language learning as people have to communicate to achieve things within the game, but for maths… I’m skeptical whether Minecraft offers anything over more traditional face-to-face teaching situations.
DD: Good point - I’ve never actually read those reports in detail. Perhaps I should to see if there is anything transformative actually happening with other subjects or not. I definitely agree with you about the collaboration creating a need to communicate, which in turn is a powerful driving force for language.
JY: As for language learning, I also think that there is a time and a place for the use of virtual environments to be used as a teaching tool. For instance, I had a classroom of students from all over the world (i.e. it was not physically possible to get them all in the same location at the same time), I think a virtual environment is a perfect tool to teach this kind of class. Another good example of virtual worlds being employed properly would be if you were to get students to converse or cooperate in some way with target language speakers (again, making sure there is a need for the use of a virtual world). What I do not think is a good idea is to use virtual worlds in a monolingual classroom where you have 20+ students log into the virtual world to do an activity. In this case, I would argue that there is probably more benefit from doing face-to-face “real world” activities. But this is only my opinion. I am currently undertaking research to look at the spoken performance of students as they perform activities in both computer-mediated and face-to-face environments.
DD: You are currently studying for an EdD. Can you share some of the research into virtual worlds that you have been doing with us?
JY: As mentioned above, my EdD is based on my observations of monolingual students doing tasks in virtual worlds over the last few years. Simple put, the research sees pairs of students undertake 3 task pairs, where there is a virtual world and offline version for each task pair. In total, they will do 3 online tasks, and 3 offline tasks. I will analyse their spoken discourse to see if there is a difference in output per mode of communication (online or offline). The hypothesis being that students speak more fluently when doing offline activities (but I am yet to prove this!).
DD: What do you say to people who dismiss DGBL as ‘superficial fun’?
JY: I actually learnt a great deal of Japanese when I played WoW back in 2005-6. I specifically joined a Japanese guild in order to “study-while-playing” and this was my first experience of the power of games as a teaching tool.
DD: I know many people who have cited WoW as the reason they started to improve their English again after years away from formal education. I also played in a Turkish guild for a while and it made for some intense reading & writing practice!
JY: I think the skeptics probably haven’t seen games being used properly. In other words, I am also painfully aware that some “educators” merely shoehorn games into their teaching context because they assume it will be fun to do so. Instead of researching how games may be used, or if there is an actual need, they jump on the EdTech wagon and just try to use something like Clash of Clans as a teaching tool…
DD: True - for every sceptic, there is an advocate praising the same ‘superficial fun’ element....
JY: There is an ongoing discussion regarding how games may be used in language learning contexts, including updated versions of traditional teaching methodologies for the digital generation. TBLT for example being reworked for digital/online contexts. Another very robust framework for the use of games can be seen in the works of Reinhardt and Sykes with their Explore, Examine and Extend sequence.
In summary then, games need to be considered carefully before being adopted in language learning or educational contexts. A rigorous framework for their use must also be considered in order to get the most out of their affordances for learning. No more blind advocation and utilisation, please!
DD: Amen to that! What’s your take on ‘educational games’? What would a good language learning game look like?
JY: Commercial Off The Shelf games (COTS) are the best way to go in my opinion. They are not designed specifically with “education” in mind, but they succeed in keeping students interested and entertained, they often have large budgets which means they are polished, well-narrated, and have a large following on the internet. With such a large culture around such COTS games, you are provided with a rich tapestry of material which can be shaped into any number of language learning activities based on your particular needs.
DD: What do you see as the future of DGBL in ELT (or in general)?
JY: I see it becoming much more mainstream as people become more aware of how games can be used in their teaching environments. Essentially, we need to use teaching materials that are relevant to the students. Right now, that means that we are researching and experimenting with ways to use games in the classroom because that is what a large portion of young people do in their free time.
The key take away for me then, is that games as a teaching tool must be carefully considered based on the interests of the students and your aims as a teacher.
DD: A key take away for any use of technology - or indeed any other resource we use in class! Thank you James for sharing your insights and good luck with the rest of your EDd.
James is also the founder of Kotoba Miners, an online Japanese learning community which uses Minecraft as a domain for teaching.