Sramana: What did you learn from your initial Second Life education experiment?
Shiv Rajendran: We learned a few things. First, having 3-D objects around students made the experience more real for them. In a traditional classroom setting, teachers spend a lot of time creating context. They ask the students to imagine that they are in a train station and that they need to go to platform 1. Students have to imagine that they are in that world by role-playing. It was not all that engaging. In our experiment, the students actually went to the train station. A teacher could take them to platform 1 and have students act as ticket agents and passengers. Students had to make their avatars complete these tasks and if they were successful they would find a train. If they were not successful they would find themselves somewhere else.
Sramana: After you had this experience and you picked up on context-specific training as an effective tool, what was your next step? What was the company going to do?
Shiv Rajendran: One of the key insights we obtained from the experiments was that it could be much, much better. Although we could produce an effective class in the virtual world it was not something that could take the person from knowing zero to fluency in a matter of weeks. We realized that we needed to experiment with a lot of other learning methodologies as well. This could potentially make learning a lot more powerful.
Fortunately, David was able to get funding from friends and family, so we decided to set up a company and expand upon our experiment. We brought in a lot of teachers and students. We recruited 500 students from 50 countries to learn English free. We started experimenting with methodologies, and we looked at pretty much everything you could image. We looked at game-based social interaction to traditional teaching and some completely crazy things. We wanted to know what would work, what would not work, and what would help students learn faster.
Neither David nor I came from an educational background. Much of the traditions that existed in the education space did not constrain our thinking. We were completely free to do what we liked. We experimented with adaptive algorithms to push people down the right learning path. We got rid of the timetable and allowed people to drop in at any time and receive their lesson.
In the early days we thought we could take content that existed in text books and CD ROMs and adapt it to this virtual world. What we found with our test students was that none of the material there actually matched student needs. That material taught language in a sequential manner and focused on very specific things. Most people we encountered had a basic level of English, and they wanted to learn English to perform a specific task. We had someone who wanted to learn how to sell products in China, so he wanted to learn English around trade negotiation, and to be able to understand English with a Chinese accent. He was not interested in all the other stuff. We had a lot of customers like that, so we produced original content for these people to match their specific needs.