Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) was recently awarded a $549,458 grant from the National Science Foundation. The project, entitled “Exploring the Virtual World of Contextualized English Language Acquisition,” will help English as a Second Language (ESL) students practice and expand their English skills in a low-pressure virtual setting.
STCC submitted the proposal as part of a partnership with WonderBuilders, Inc., a virtual world development company that includes some of the original developers of the open source Open Wonderland virtual reality software that will be used for this project. Nicole Yankelovich and Jonathan Kaplan of WonderBuilders, Inc. will assist faculty Jill Mendez and Mary Beth Ogulewicz in developing a unique 3-D virtual world model of the STCC campus which students will use to interact with other students, staff, and faculty. Users will be able to set in-program appointments with staff in key offices, such as financial aid and the registrar’s office, and practice conversation skills with fellow students in virtual lounges. Objectives from each of the four levels of ESL classes at STCC will be incorporated into the program to guide English language development and prepare users for college placement tests.
Springfield is one of the most diverse cities in the Commonwealth. Thirteen percent of students in the Springfield Public Schools system are designated as Limited English Proficient, and 304 students were enrolled in the ESL program at STCC in the fall of 2010. The demand for ESL services underlines the need for an innovative, effective way to reach students and challenge them to develop English skills that are useful in real world settings.
“An obstacle for ESL students is the technological divide,” says Mary Beth Ogulewicz, the co-Principal Investigator on this project. “Virtual reality integration in the classroom seeks to engage learners with technology and motivate earlier adoption of computer skills to bridge that gap.” In addition to providing ESL students with access to cutting edge technologies like Open Wonderland, the project also aims to increase English listening and speaking skills, boost the non-native speaker’s confidence, and provide a smooth transition into campus life and an eventual career.
This grant provides funding for a three year project, which includes the development and evaluation of the program. Initial testing of the software will begin during the spring of 2012, with a full pilot course planned for the 2012 fall semester. Resulting data from the pilot will be among the first of its kind and serve as the catalyst for the adoption of virtual ESL learning by other programs around the country. As the project nears completion, the National Center for Information & Communications Technologies (ICT), which is hosted at STCC, will disseminate the lessons learned to its network of educators. STCC faculty Mendez and Ogulewicz and WonderBuilders, Inc. CEO Yankelovich will also present the findings at selected conferences.