Language teachers and universities turn to new ways of online learning.

ONLINE learning is more than a website these days. With more digital forms of communication come new ways of learning.

Heather Havishambling has lived in Finland for eight years and has been volunteering in cyberspace. In addition to using websites like VerbalPlanet, Livemocha, and Busuu to connect students to teachers and other learners, she hosts language lessons up to five times a week, some of them in Second Life, a virtual world where people interact however they want.

“Certainly online learning is vastly more productive than simply reading a textbook, because one gets almost instant feedback,” said Havishambling. “Skype is a nice way to teach or learn over voice one person to one person, but it’s not ideal. Second Life lends itself very well to language teaching over voice: one can have a virtual classroom with ten students who can hear and speak, and have a sense of community via avatars.”

Second Life, a free three-dimensional world that users can build themselves, gives opportunities for interaction via digital selves called avatars. For example, users could work together to decorate a virtual house, or tour the cyber-version of real locations.

“One can go on little study tours of the world,” said Havishambling. “Take a look around virtual London, for example!” The simulation mimics real scenarios, which allow for more organic conversation to happen between participants.

It’s not only enthusiastic amateurs who are using Second Life, however. Aalto University has had a digital property in Second Life since 2010. Users can visit, take a look around, and interact with others. Members of the university can also use the space as a digital meeting room for a course or a research group.

The Laurea, Diacona, and Turku Universities of Applied Sciences also have their own spaces in Second Life for various uses.

Havishambling pointed out that teleporting to class makes it easier to attend, and the other users make it harder to skip class. “One tends to dislike letting down one’s friends,” said Havishambling.

Improved technology allows people to hear, see, and interact via video chat. This carries lessons to the next level, which can jump off the (simulated) page.

“One can put on a slide-show, show Youtube videos or other multimedia, and give out notes,” said Havishambling. “It’s my belief that the potential of Second Life or something similar will really take off in the next few years.”