My son has an infatuation with Minecraft and watching Minecraft videos on YouTube. Some may find it strange that a parent let their child spend so much time watching YouTube videos, but they have been an important supplemental source of authentic English for our children.
Trying to raise bilingual children in Japan is challenging, so we try and find authentic sources of English wherever we can. However, we are careful to make sure they are watching safe Youtube channels. A great Minecraft related channel for kids is Joseph Garrett‘s channel featuring an orange cat named Stampy.
Minecraft is a sandbox game, meaning players have a lot of control over the environment. In Minecraft, players and can freely build structures and make up their own games. It provides a lot of room for creativity. Think Legos, but digital.
The First Person View (FPV) aspect of Minecraft, inspired me to try and connect students telecollaboratively using Minecraft as a virtual classroom. I thought that at the very least, learners from different countries could collaboratively build structures using English as their lingua franca. In fact, I spent nearly 6 months in preparation to teach such a course using a modification to the software created for teachers called MinecraftEdu.
Not only does MinecraftEdu offer great LMS style features, there is also a thriving community of educators surrounding it who share the worlds they create. There are over 100 worlds free to use in the MinecraftEdu world library. There are also a number of great mods available through MinecraftEdu which add interesting features such as support for teaching computer programming (computercraftedu), and quantum physics (qcraft).
Unfortunately my university’s computer center refused to open what is commonly referred to as the Minecraft Port (port 25565) through their server firewall, listing some very generic “security” concerns. This sent my research to simmer indefinitely on the back burner.
Recently, however, I have been using a private server to host minecraft interaction between my 7-year-old son here in Japan, and his friends in the United States. Collaborating with other parents, we use Skype (video off) as our Voice over IP to engage our children in telecollaborative Minecraft play.
My son also plays Minecraft with his grandmother in the United States. Yes, that’s right, I said grandmother! Another grandson (U.S. based) had already installed Minecraft on her computer at home, and so it wasn’t too difficult to set up an account so she could try it out. She is highly motivated to figure it out, so that she can interact with her grandchildren in Japan. As Christmas approached this year, and grandma was feeling particularly detached from her grandchildren, we organized a special 2-hour Minecraft play session.
My son is not the only one who can play. His 4-year-old sister also interacts with grandma using the keyboard and mouse to move her avatar through a virtual world. Here they are playing hide-and-seek.
As you can see in the video, they are using English to communicate. Playing Minecraft telecollaboratively has increased our children’s pool of English speaking play partners, helped them keep in touch with friends who have moved away, and even allowed them to spend time over the holidays with grandma.
The kids have a lot of fun keeping in touch with family overseas using Minecraft. It’s become so much a thing in our house that we plan on making some customized “skins” for our Minecraft avatars so that they better represent grandma and the grandkids during their digital play. My son is happy with a zombie avatar, but for grandma, we may need something special.
According to David Crystal[1. Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. DOI 10.5785/20-1-80], a British linguist, nearly 3 out of 4 English users are “non-natives”. From a sociolinguistic perspective this means that English is no longer the language of the few, but the lingua franca of the many[2. Canagarajah, S. (2014). In search of a new paradigm for teaching English as an international language. TESOL Journal, 5(4), 767-785. DOI 10.1002/tesj.166] [3. Jenkins, J. & Leung, C. (2013). English as a Lingua Franca. The Companion to Language Assessment IV, 13(95), 1605–1616. DOI 10.1002/9781118411360.wbcla047] [4. Ke, I. C., & Cahyani, H. (2014). Learning to become users of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF): How ELF online communication affects Taiwanese learners’ beliefs of English. System, 46, 28-38. DOI 10.1016/j.system.2014.07.008]. Mutual ownership of English as a lingua franca comes with the shared responsibility of intercultural communication[5. Houghton, S. (2009). The role of intercultural communicative competence in the development of world Englishes and lingua francas. 3L: The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies, 15, 70-95. Retreived from http://journalarticle.ukm.my/1051/1/5-Stephanie_Houghton.pdf] [6. Hülmbauer, C., Böhringer, H., & Seidlhofer, B. (2008). Introducing English as a lingua franca (ELF): Precursor and partner in intercultural communication. Synergies Europe, 3, 25-36. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/download/30870560/hulmbauer.pdf]; however, this can be particularly challenging for those from a homogeneous society like Japan[7. Neulip, J. W., Chaudoir, M., & McCroskey, J. C. (2001). A cross-cultural comparison of ethnocentrism among Japanese and United States college students. Communication Research Reports, 18(2), 137-146. DOI 10.1080/08824090109384791]. And yet, the Japanese Ministry of Education[8. MEXT. (2010, June 21). The Concept of Global Human Resource Development Focusing on the East Asian Region. Retrieved from http://www.mext.go.jp/english/highered/1303540.htm] has decided that exchanges between Japanese students and East Asian students are vital to Japan’s future. Therefore, finding ways to increase Japanese students’ intercultural experience is paramount.
Social Learning Benefits Learning Performance
Social learning offers the potential to increase learning performance[9. Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press. DOI 10.2307/3340496] [10. Bruffee, K. A. (1999). Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore, MD. Johns Hopkins University Press.] [11. Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., & Suthers, D. (2014). Computer-supported collaborative learning: An historical perspective. Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences, 2014, 479-500. DOI 10.1017/cbo9781139519526.029]. One interdependent learning model emphasises its importance, specifically in cases of computer supported collaborative learning.
Social media seems to offer the most accessible platform for distance social learning. However, according to Kreijins et al.[12. Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P., Jochems, W. (2003). Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research. Computers in Human Behavior, 19(3), 335-353. DOI 10.1016/s0747-5632(02)00057-2], we should not rely on the platform to instigate communication.
The Thoeory: Digital Sojourn
Digital Sojourn is an idea that has been on my mind ever since reading Michael Byram’s[13. Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.] description of the sojourner, and the way one develops through prolonged interaction with another culture. The goal of digital sojourn is to engage learners in a deep enough level of interaction that they can develop interculturally. To do this, three methods are combined: (1) interdependence, (2) multimodal communcation, and (3) reflection as part of the experience.
The Experiment: An Eight-Week Facebook Exchange
In order to test out this method, I solicited the help of a teacher / researcher from Taiwan named Brent Kelsen. We first met through Research Gate <researchgate.net>.
After a few Skype chats, we decided to engage our students in 8 weeks of intercultural exchange using Facebook. For our initial pilot study we placed the students into Facebook groups which had on average 4 Taiwanese students and 4 Japanese students in each group.
Each week these students shared digital artifacts on topics such as food, music, movies and anime, tourists destinations, and the like. We also made sure to include a few weeks of free choice topics at the end.
As teachers we were concerned about whether students would participate, so we modeled the interaction ourselves each week by posting our own content.
In addition to sharing digital artifacts, students in Japan also engaged in weekly classroom based reflections on the exchange. They discussed the value of the exchange and what they hoped to get out of it, and how they could best engage the Taiwanese students in the exchange. At the end of the term, they also gave presentations in class concerning what they learned from the exchange and how it had helped them grow.
In order to measure intercultural development, I gave my students a questionnaire designed to measure intercultural sensitivity once before the exchange and once again after the exchange. The instrument I used was Chen and Starosta’s[14. Chen, G. M., & Starosta, W. J. (2000). The development and validation of the intercultural sensitivity scale. Human Communication, 3, 1-15. Retreived from digitalcommons.uri.edu] Intercultural Sensitivity Scale, a 24-item self-report questionnaire measuring 5 factors of intercultural sensitivity.
The Results: An Increase in Respect for Cultural Differences
Results showed a marked increase in respect for intercultural differences among participants (M diff = 1.6, SD = 1.2) over control (M diff = 0.1, SD = 2.5) with the conditions (t(52) = 2.73, p < .01, d = 0.7).
** = p < .01
I used a tool called Netvizz[15. Rieder, B. (2013). Studying Facebook via data extraction: the Netvizz application. In WebSci ’13 Proceedings of the 5th Annual ACM Web Science Conference (pp. 346-355). New York: ACM. DOI 10.1145/2464464.2464475] to “scrape” the Facebook posts and found that a total of 15,014 words were exchanged (including about a 15% contribution by teachers). Participants also supported their communication through paralinguistic means by sharing 94 photographs and 77 videos. Here is a wordle made from the 15,014 words exchanged by participants which highlights the most frequently used vocabulary by enlarging it in proportion to the others.
According to the results of the Intercultural Sensitivity questionnaire, participants learned to respect cultural differences. It was good to see that even when the exchange was not a physical one, intercultural development could be supported through the mixed methodology of digital sojourn. I feel that classroom reflections were the most interesting part of the exchange, as I was able to see how students grew through the process. With that in mind, I will close with a reflection from one of the student participants in this exchange.
I wanted to see Japan objectively, so I asked the question, “What images of Japan do Taiwanese have?” According to them, they think Japan is a traditional, innovative, and high quality country because of old structures, culture, nature, economy, and technology. However, some people hate Japan due to historical problems. This fact made me a little depressed, but one of the Taiwanese students mentioned that these problems can be resolved by communication and respect. I was amazed at his words and admired his thoughts, and then I realized that such exchange between younger generations are crucial to deepen mutual understanding. Therefore, I’ll find opportunities that bring me to exchange with foreign people again, and make efforts toward mutual comprehension.