Second Life, ESL, Webheads, and Professional Development

October 14, 2006 at 5:55 pm (Uncategorized)

I’m writing now about the relationship between Second Life and Active Worlds. I remember Dave Winet and I using Active Worlds as far back as 1997. The reason I remember it was 1997 is that I had just moved to Abu Dhabi and I usd to be baffled by the environment because it appeared on my computer as a set of triangle coordinates. That was because the graphics load was not possible on my computer at my slow bandwidth at the time.

Eventually AW started to work for me and I remember the lady from Coterie who created the Scholastic schoolhouse in the Palace for the EFI taking us through a house she had constructed in Active Worlds replete with artwork, seeming not unlike in look and feel some of the buildings at Edunation. There has been at least one attempt at creating an ESL environment in Active Worlds by someone in Japan (the URLs no longer work, but there’s more information here: and Dongping Zheng, Robert Brewer, and Michael Young gave a presentation at ttp:// (on Sunday 16:00 if you want to zero in on it) on Quest Atlantis, which is an early version of Active Worlds licensed for education .

Dave Winet was heavily involved in the Palace back in the mid to late 90’s. He was signing students up for “3 D Classes” and those who expressed interest in that option he passed off to me or to Michael Coghlan and Maggi Doty who were conducting classes there just a couple of hours apart. It often happened that I would still be there when they appeared and that’s how we met and eventually formed a single class which we called Webheads. At some point in that era, after we had installed the HearMe plugin at our websites, Michael Coghlan and I met at AW and talked each other through flying lessons and soared about exploring the terrain from the air.

The Palace meanwhile was a compelling environment for those who SELF SELECTED to be there. We never conducted any serious research on why it was so compelling but we’ve given numerous presentations alluding to the fact,
and we’ve left extensive chat logs illustrated with screen shots from the Palace.

The reason the Palace was so successful for those who were drawn to it is that it was possible for people who met only online, and knew little more about each other than they had in common an interest in online social and educational environments, to communicate so many nuances of personality through interaction in that environment. It was possible to be creative. Even the kind of dialog webheads are engaging in now (I’m frustrated, HOW do I do this, ok I’m here, what now, what’s this for, this is cool, I just had an idea, here, try this …) … these are marvelous opportunities for truly communicative and authentic language interaction. That just doesn’t happen in many other environments you can conceive of, and often not even in face to face ones.

Second life carries over much of the idiosynchratic serendipity of the Palace and is an improvement over Active Worlds simply because it works better. Many of the limitations of Active Worlds have been addressed in Second Life. For example, in AW, unless you paid the fees, you could not make your avatar ‘cool’ – yours looked like everyone else’s and suggested a pecking order in that environment. I don’t know how much time I want to spend on it, but on my first visit there I gave my avatar a moustache, and Dudeney Ge’s looks very much like the man himself. Again, in working out that I could do that in the first place (right click on your avatar and select the appropriate option) there was language and interpersonal interaction between me and my scaffolder.

Now I can scaffold the next person. That person could be a teacher seeking professional development or a student hoping to learn my native language without my explicitly teaching it. This is very empowering for students, when what they learn today quickly positions them to scaffold tomorrow’s newbies. I’ve always liked John Higgins’s characterization of authentic language being anything linguistic not expressly created by a teacher for the purpose of teaching language. In my plenary in Cairo a few years back I debunked the notion of ‘teaching’ a language at all. I suggested that it was not possible to ‘teach’ a langauge . If I’m right, then for a language to be learned, there needs to be an environment that will nurture that learning.

I think that Second Life is one of those environments, or could be (it’s not automatic; Gavin and Nicky and Graham have done phenomenal work in putting some tools in place that might create that environment). AND in order for teachers to learn about these environments, they have to go to them and interact with one another. That’s what webheads has always been about.

For more information, there’s an intersting Wikipedia article here:

yours truly,
Webhead Link



  1. Educational Games Research » Five Video Games for ESL and Language Development said,

    […] long history of educational adaptation, and the idea of using the environment for ESL purposes was adopted early. Like many efforts with no external motivations however, some formal ESL initiatives have fizzled […]

  2. — Blog — Five Video Games for ESL and Language Development said,

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