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Virtual worlds transforming teaching of French, career education

December 03, 2015

Virtual worlds constructed at Earlham College are changing the way students learn French and from each other.

Now in its second year, an interdisciplinary faculty-student research project has resulted in the creation of a 3D environment complete with a supermarket, a music and clothing store, an art museum, and a medieval town.

“Our work helps students engage with learning French in a different way, and almost all of the students expressed appreciation for that,” says Aletha Stahl, Professor of French and Francophone Studies.

“But the key impact has been on the students who learned to build the world,” she says. “They have acquired concrete skills in building a 3D digital environment and learned much about the various pieces and people they need to interface for everything to work. They have also learned much about effective language pedagogy, language learning standards, and student engagement and a bit about assessment of learning.”

Stahl, Professor of Business Nonprofit Management Becky Jestice and Associate Library Director Amy Bryant have collaborated with several students for this research. Jestice has expertise with virtual worlds, Stahl comes from a background of language acquisition and pedagogy, and Bryant has previous user and teaching experience building virtual worlds.

Stahl, Jestice and Bryant are implementing some of their virtual world activities in six French class sessions this fall, but faculty from across the curriculum are considering ways to incorporate virtual worlds into their teaching. That includes how virtual worlds can help students prepare for job interviews or navigate topics related to psychology. 

The Dean’s Humanities Fund and a Mellon Collaborative Inquiry Grant for work in upcoming semesters is funding the project.

Mishel Mussali ‘14, a Sociology and Anthropology major, notes that “we all had very different skills and this allowed us to bring a wide variety of ideas to our work. I love the fact that this project brought computer science and humanities together.”

While research on virtual worlds is not uncommon in higher education, Stahl says Earlham is one of a few places where undergraduate students are engaged with this particular kind of in-depth work.

Much like faculty involved, students have come to this project with a unique academic interest. Computer Science Major Tugii Baigalmaa ‘17 was responsible for embedding avatar actions and sounds into the world and benefitted from learning about the open source Opensim platform while becoming familiar with how the world was represented by importing 3D models to the virtual world.

Liliana Guzman ‘16 used her interest in French and art in helping create the virtual spaces for French students in the classroom.

“I thought this would be a great opportunity because I would also be able to learn more about building and creating virtual learning spaces,” Guzman says.

Stahl says virtual worlds align with her interests in the politics of representation.

“Questions of embodiment are also important to me and I think that not enough has been theorized about what it means to share space, which becomes really interesting with a liberal arts environment and a virtual world,” Stahl says. “With language acquisition, this can be especially useful because students have the opportunity to embody something different in the virtual world.

“They have full control of their virtual world self, their Avatar, and can choose everything from hairstyle to skin color to clothing to gestures,” she says. “This may help students who are not so confident in themselves or in their language abilities.” 

Mussali agrees.

“As an Anthropology and Sociology student, I'm fascinated by the possibilities for analyzing the ways in which space shapes social interaction,” she says. “I'm also fascinated by learning languages and I learned a lot about a variety of French speaking countries and their cultural practices, music and art.”

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."

Laura Honsig '17 is a writing assistant for the Department of Marketing and Communications and the author of this story. Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at (765) 983-1256 and


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