Can an Online Game Crack the Code to Language Learning?

| November 10, 2011 | 22 Comments
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Practomime.com

By Nathan Maton

What can possibly get kids excited to learn a dead language? This was the challenge for Latin teacher Kevin Ballestrini.

Ideally, he could take the entire class to Rome and walk them through the ruins, where they could practice speaking the language while learning the history. He found a way to do it — at least in the virtual world.

Ballestrini has turned his introductory Latin class at Connecticut’s Norwich Free Academy into an alternate reality. The students’ job: to save the world by joining a shadowy organization on a quest to find the Lapis Saeculōrum that was part of an Ancient Roman society.

“Mr. Bal told us this isn’t school anymore,” says 10th-grader Caroline Scheck. “He told us, ‘You’re on a mission to save the world.’ Naturally, we all thought he was crazy.  He even asked, ‘Who thinks I’m crazy?’ and a few of us raised our hands.”

“I took Spanish for four years and I don’t think I’ve learned as much as I have in that class as I have in just two months.”

But there’s a method to the madness. “It’s a mix of a role-playing game and an alternate reality game,” Ballestrini says. Students play the role of Romans in a reconstruction of ancient Pompeii (or ancient Rome) and have to learn to think, act, create and write like a Roman in order to win the game. And those are the same goals of any introductory Latin course.

Using an online portal, student teams direct their character in Latin to find mysterious inscriptions on stones and solve mysteries. Then they can see how other teams’ characters responded to the prompts. Much of the action takes place in the “TSTT-interface – a sophisticated simulation cleverly disguised as an Internet forum. Each night, the students receive, in a forum post that pretends to be a “TSTT immersion session,” a new piece of the narrative and a prompt to which their team’s Roman must respond.

“Each individual student is responsible for his or her contribution so the group product is never anything that affects their grades,” Ballestrini says. “I give experience points for completing tasks instead of grades, and then when it’s time to report grades, the student and I have a conversation about their progress and decide the right grade.”

In its second year, the game is now being run in 30 classrooms across the country and can be done with as little tech as pen and paper or as fully tech integrated as mobile phones and a full Web site. Ballistrini is excited to see the game expanding beyond just his classroom. He’s started a company with his research partner Roger Travis to capture this new style of learning through engaging games.

But most importantly, his students are loving it, too.

“Latin is my favorite class,” said Peter Liang, a 9th grader in Ballestrini’s class.  “I look forward to it every day. The class is funny because some missions, you have to go back in time and create a battle scene. It’s so much better than learning from a book! We go on a Web site and get to use Latin every day. And not just for 60 minutes in class. We have to think of sentence structures and the online opportunity.”

Another student observes a huge difference in how the game format has helped her learn this obsolete language. “I took Spanish for four years and I don’t think I’ve learned as much as I have in that class as I have in just two months,” said Caroline Scheck. “I can write sentences because we’re using it like we’re writing a story. As a child, you’d learn Latin by people speaking to you in sentences. You know how sometimes in languages you just learn words and then later on you use sentences? This time, we’re just learning it as if someone was speaking to us.”

“Rather than coming into class with their homework done entirely wrong, I’m catching the misconceptions well in advance, and have a better understanding of what they’re understanding.”

Apart from student engagement, Ballestrini believes this class structure accomplishes a few other important objectives: It matches the exact curriculum goals, teaches students to flex their online skills, and it alerts him to potential problems in students’ learning process. The students who are excelling mentor the struggling students, as together they figure out the correct Latin text that will control the character.

What’s more, Ballestrini feels he gets to know his students better.

“Each night, I get to see insights into their thinking in ways I’ve never been able to see before,” he says. “It allows me some great affordances where I can jump in at 7:30 at night and say, ‘You’re on track,’ or, ‘There’s a conceptual problem and let’s take a look at why.’ So rather than coming into class with their homework done entirely wrong, I’m catching the misconceptions well in advance, I’m doing work I feel is more productive and have a better understanding of what they’re understanding.”

Is his experiment a success? It may be too early to tell, but it will be interesting to see if the game successfully transfers to the other 30 courses.

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  • Andrew Burnett

    What a FANTASTIC way to engage a technologically savvy generation in a classical education!

  • Andrew Burnett

    What a FANTASTIC way to engage a technologically savvy generation in a classical education!

  • http://www.gamesforlanguage.com Ulrike Rettig

    Aside from the great idea of teaching Latin with a game that creates a virtual world, the following sentence caught my attention: “..we’re just learning it as if someone was speaking to us.” So much of foreign language in this country is being taught as drills or lists of words and phrases, which puts language out of context. Language needs to be learned in a meaningful context. Latin too! Good luck with this project! 

  • http://www.gamesforlanguage.com Ulrike Rettig

    Aside from the great idea of teaching Latin with a game that creates a virtual world, the following sentence caught my attention: “..we’re just learning it as if someone was speaking to us.” So much of foreign language in this country is being taught as drills or lists of words and phrases, which puts language out of context. Language needs to be learned in a meaningful context. Latin too! Good luck with this project! 

  • http://twitter.com/AxonDigitalArts Axon Digital Arts

    This is amazing – what a clever way to teach sentence structure and vocabulary. Now, how can we apply that kind of thinking to other kinds of subjects? :)

    • Stephen Slota

      Thank you for the positive feedback!

      We (The Pericles Group, LLC) actually have several other subject areas coming down the pipeline, including one for high school life science/biology called Operation BIOME. The underlying principle of matching learning and game objectives is what makes it possible to do this with with any content, and we’re very excited to share those materials with kids and educators very soon.

      More information is available at our website http://www.practomime.com — feel free to contact us with any questions!

    • Stephen Slota

      Thank you for the positive feedback!

      We (The Pericles Group, LLC) actually have several other subject areas coming down the pipeline, including one for high school life science/biology called Operation BIOME. The underlying principle of matching learning and game objectives is what makes it possible to do this with with any content, and we’re very excited to share those materials with kids and educators very soon.

      More information is available at our website http://www.practomime.com — feel free to contact us with any questions!

  • anon

    ALL learning proceeds smoother when kept in context. This is why home and unschooling are so successful, because it’s a natural process; the children aren’t removed from the world, placed in an institution, fed random bits of data that can be measured on a subsequent test. I hope this project is successful so more children are free to learn, naturally.

  • anon

    ALL learning proceeds smoother when kept in context. This is why home and unschooling are so successful, because it’s a natural process; the children aren’t removed from the world, placed in an institution, fed random bits of data that can be measured on a subsequent test. I hope this project is successful so more children are free to learn, naturally.

  • Bryan

    $cost?

    • http://www.practomime.com Kevin Ballestrini

      Hi Bryan, thank you for asking the cost question. We expect to be able to offer Operation LAPIS at the cost of $10 per student per year.
      In response to quite a few emails that we’ve received in the last couple of days, we put together a short presentation that shows more of the components and how it all fits together: http://prezi.com/drzu_dnju_do/this-is-practomime/ 

      Thank you for all the positive comments so far!

      • Claudia

        Anything down the road for French?

      • Claudia

        Anything down the road for French?

        • Jbryant

          Anthing in the works for a Spanish program as well? This sounds like a fantastic resource. I’ve been a student of languages for a long time and teaching Spanish for two years. I would love to see this as a resource for multiple languages!

          • Suzi Bourke

            Native Tongue are bringing out a Spanish app next week (Feb 13)

        • Jbryant

          Anthing in the works for a Spanish program as well? This sounds like a fantastic resource. I’ve been a student of languages for a long time and teaching Spanish for two years. I would love to see this as a resource for multiple languages!

      • Cwang

        Anything for Mandarin Chinese? If not, I’d love to get involved in developing one!

        • Suzi Bourke

          Have a look at Mandarin Madness made by compnay called Native Tongue.

      • Cwang

        Anything for Mandarin Chinese? If not, I’d love to get involved in developing one!

    • bob

      Probably less than it costs to maintain NCLB.

  • http://www.thenewagesource.com/ Metaphysical Store

    Thank you for an extra good writing. What are the local people can get in such a perfect way to write the details? I have a presentation next week, and I look around this information and facts. 

  • Lol Nope

    No, this is not even a game. Games are meant to be FUN. This is not a game so stop calling it one.