The learning of physical geography has taken on a new dimension for students at Ang Mo Kio Secondary School. This was made possible by teachers who partnered with an NIE researcher to bring Second Life into their classrooms.
Give a student a textbook and he or she may learn, but only as much as what the pages can hold. But immerse the same student in a virtual world and the learning possibilities become endless.
NIE Research Scientist Dr Kenneth Lim used to be a Geography teacher, and he is always thinking of ways to use technology to enhance teaching and learning. In 2009, he approached a group of teachers from Ang Mo Kio Secondary School with a research intervention (Find out more about Kenneth and his project in “Breathing a Second Life into Geography Teaching” in ReEd, Volume 2). Ever since then, they have been working closely.
“Kenneth approached us and had training sessions with a few of us for Second Life,” Mrs Habibah Ismail, Subject Head of Geography, says. “We then had a pilot study before embarking on the actual use of Second Life in the classroom.”
Second Life is an online virtual world, which allows users to create their own avatars and worlds. As part of the intervention, it was used in Geography lessons to let students explore different landforms.
This intervention eventually sparked the interest of 3 other schools that also joined in the collaboration.
“While they are presenting, we will ask why they chose to do something that way. It could be a mistake that they had made and these are teachable moments.
– Clara Lim on seizing teachable moments afforded by technology
Plan to Teach
To ensure that the use of Second Life was tailored specifically to meet the learning needs of the students, the team went through extensive preparation before every lesson.
“The execution of the lesson is not difficult, but to make it easy, you have to plan,” Habibah says. “We have to decide what the processes, stages and focus of the lessons are.”
Along with two other Geography teachers, they meet up regularly with Kenneth to discuss how they wish to teach a topic. “Kenneth considers us the experts in terms of content. That is very much left to us – how we want to fulfil our objectives through instruction, because we are the practitioners,” Habibah says. “But he oversees how we can match our goals with Second Life.”
Together, they would brainstorm how best to do it. For example, for the topic on rivers, they decided that they need a customized island in Second Life.
“The computer programmers crafted the island based on our specifications,” Ms Clara Lim, a Geography teacher explains. “We decided how we want the rivers to flow and what we want the students to see as they go through the river course.”
The teachers usually dedicate the first few lessons to just letting students explore the customized island. Their students get to experience a river in 3D, something which a textbook cannot provide. Once they have a strong grasp of the concept and process of forming an island, they will be presented with an empty plot of land where they have to create their own river system.
If you want [an intervention] to work, you need a team of experienced teachers and a consultant.
– Habibah Ismail on what is key in an intervention project
Second Life might sound fun and simple. However, using it takes a lot of work, for both teachers and their students.
“Initially, it was a bit hard,” Geography teacher Miss Jasvir Kaur shares. “Students are not used to their teachers not being the one in the classroom talking and giving instructions!”
To ease her students into the world of Second Life, her first lessons are spent giving clear instructions to her students or demonstrating how they should use Second Life. They are also given accompanying worksheets to complement the lesson.
Apart from providing a 3D experience for students, the teachers feel that that using Second Life also creates a conducive learning environment in the classroom where students are not as afraid to make mistakes.
They use a learning management system called Jungle Bites, which lets teachers freeze everyone’s computer screens at the same time to highlight a learning point.
The teachers also look out for learning points when students present their creations in Second Life. “While they are presenting, we will ask why they chose to do something that way,” Clara says. “It could be a mistake that they had made and these are teachable moments.”
“Somehow. the atmosphere is less tense,” she notes, and students become more receptive about learning from their mistakes.
Creating and Being Creative
The students themselves have some good things to say about Second Life.
“It helps us imagine!” says Rigel Bobis Sumbillo, a Secondary 3 student. “For example, our textbook doesn’t allow you to see the whole view of a mountain but Second Life allows that.”
Bevan Ng, a Secondary 2 student, says that being able to “see” better has enabled him to learn better. “I am a visual learner so when I see things, I can depict the scenes better so it is easier to learn coordinates and gradients,” he shares.
The students often surprise their teachers with what they come up with. They would model their creations after real ones, such as the Nile or the Mississippi River.
“I think it is very interesting for teachers to look at how they interpret their learning,” Habibah shares. “We can see both creation and creativity at work. Students can figure things out by themselves and it also encourages them to think hard!”
The intervention has also taught the teachers themselves to be more creative when planning their lessons. Clara feels that it has helped her become less stagnant when she is crafting her teaching materials.
But like their students, to create something successful, working hand in hand is a requirement. “If you want this to work, you need a team of experienced teachers and a consultant,” Habibah shares. The Geography teachers and Kenneth certainly make for a creative team!