The Case for Qualitative Research Into Language Learning in Virtual Worlds

The Case for Qualitative Research Into Language Learning in Virtual Worlds

Luisa Panichi (University of Pisa, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2591-3.ch003


This chapter reviews some of the most common research approaches used in investigating language learning and teaching in virtual worlds. In particular, the author makes the case for qualitative research approaches to the investigation of language learning and teaching in virtual worlds. The highly representational and immersive nature of online environments such as virtual worlds demands that researchers pay specific attention to the quality of teacher and learner experience and to individual reactions to the visual and kinesthetic stimuli of the environment. The chapter discusses some of the advantages of qualitative practitioner research in relation to the specific nature of virtual world contexts for language learning.
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Virtual worlds are generally understood within the recent computer assisted language learning (CALL) literature as 3D computer renderings and have been a recognised platform for language learning and teaching for nearly 20 years, in particular within the context of synchronous computer mediated communication (CMC) often also referred to as CMCL (computer mediated communication in language learning and teaching). The main affordances for language learning and teaching are generally considered to be the use of avatars for student-teacher and student-student synchronous interactions and the rich visual environment which can be tailored to recreate infinite contexts for language learning scenarios and simulations. Without doubt, the potential for interaction with objects and educational artefacts - in addition to avatar movement within the virtual space - have made virtual worlds particularly appealing to educators and users who place value on immersiveness in online education. Recent technological developments in the field also include the use of virtual reality headsets such as Google Oculus which have the potential to impact on the perception of immersiveness in ways that are yet to be investigated. Though initial in-world (i.e., in the virtual world platform) communication among teachers and learners was limited to text-based chat, the addition and adoption of voice-chat undoubtedly made virtual world platforms increasingly attractive for language education within CALL. Last but not least, while the body of virtual world research literature within CMCL generally focuses on language learning in formal educational contexts, often as part of formalized online language exchanges between two or more educational institutions, one also needs to bear in mind that virtual worlds are also used within the context of informal and incidental language learning which has been documented in particular in online 3D gaming platforms such as World of Warcraft and massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) in general.

The aim of this chapter is two-fold. Firstly, it aims to provide an up-to-date overview of the virtual world research literature within CALL, in particular in terms of the research foci and the methodological approaches adopted by researchers to date. In addition, it is a first attempt to discuss the rationale for many of the research decisions that have created the predominantly qualitative research landscape that emerges from the review itself. In particular, this chapter aims to provide a discussion not only of what we have done as a virtual world research community but also of the why. Indeed, research decisions do not come from nowhere. Thus, this chapter is an attempt to “go behind the scenes” of virtual research within CALL in order to provide our community with greater insight and critical awareness into what has been achieved so far and why qualitative research continues to be a valid research option. In addition, this chapter is an attempt to clarify our contribution to the CALL research landscape not only in terms of our output (i.e., our research outcomes) but also in terms of our input – who we are and what we bring to the research context as researchers. In the tradition of qualitative research, this chapter is an attempt to include ourselves - the research community - as an integral part of both the research landscape and findings. Finally, this attempt at making sense of what we have done as a virtual world research community in CALL over the last 15 years can also be understood as a way of opening up our thinking as a community to wider scrutiny and debate in the interest of the validity of our research on the one hand, and future research decisions and directions on the other. This need to be “making sense” is also echoed in a recent review of the CALL landscape by Blin. She writes (2019):

CALL research is no longer only about searching for and studying applications of the computer in language teaching and learning. It is also about making sense of the way we inhabit digital spaces through language, about making sense of the way we construct and expose our digital identity in different languages. It is also about the way we communicate and make meaning across multiple spaces, time, and cultures. It is about understanding and critically engaging with different world views. (Blin, 2019, p. 4)

Key Terms in this Chapter

Qualitative Research: Research that focuses on understanding phenomena via in-depth detailed descriptive and observational analysis. In qualitative research, the researcher recognizes herself as being an integral part of the research context.

Interaction: In virtual world CALL research, interaction is understood as learner verbal and non-verbal activity in the platform.

Immersive: When talking about virtual worlds in language learning, we say that the experience is “immersive” when you feel like you are part of the environment.

In-World: This expression is used largely by users of virtual worlds to refer to the act of being in the virtual world platform through the use of an avatar. If you are in the platform you are “in-world”, i.e., in the virtual world.

Practitioner Research: Research that is carried out by teachers when investigating their own practice and the context of their teaching.

Quantitative Research: Research that attempts to measure phenomena and that will generally include large data sets so that any statistical information that is produced can be considered predictive of phenomena in identical contexts.

Participation: In virtual world CALL research, participation is a broader notion than interaction and can be understood as learner target language use and intentional and contextualised nonverbal activity in support of learning.

Virtual Worlds: Nowadays, these are mostly three-dimensional computer simulation platforms which users can access via an avatar. These platforms may be used to interact with other people such as Second Life™ or for online gaming with other players such as World of Warcraft.

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