A group of Chinese friends travels to the United States in search of an abducted alien. Their quest takes them on a road trip across the country, where they talk to local people for clues to its whereabouts. The fate of the universe may hang in the balance-and you can help.

But never mind aliens. The real goal of this adventure is to learn English.

This quest is the premise of an innovative, online learning game that Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley, California, is developing with the support of more than $2.6 million from the Hewlett Foundation. Perhaps the first language instruction course to be based on the same role-playing software used in computer games, this program offers a new model for language instruction in the digital age, one that makes learning effortless-even fun.

“Gaming can produce a highly vivid and mentally stimulating experience for the user, and we’re hoping to explore more of its possibilities in a teaching context,” says Tim Nign, creative director for the game’s design. Dubbed The Forgotten World: Zuka Awakens, the program will initially target middle school students, aged twelve to fourteen, and cover roughly two years of formal classroom curricula.

The single-user computer game combines the effectiveness of speech recognition technology, social networking tools, and narrative storytelling. Although players do not compete against each other, users in different locations can practice their language skills together and interact as a learning community. The game’s developers hope that the continuous feedback the user receives, as well as the self-paced progress, will make this an ideal instructional tool. And with the software to be available via the Web at no cost to the user, students all over the world will be able to take advantage of The Forgotten World. The current version teaches English to Chinese speakers, but its developers hope eventually to move on to other languages. Plans are underway for a version geared toward Spanish speakers, targeting both middle school and high school students.

 This initiative also aims to encourage global collaboration in the development of language learning tools and systems that can be shared without cost. An international partnership of organizations and individuals-including Coastline’s team, MIT’s Education Arcade, and language and technology experts in both China and the United States-is exploring the best narrative, pedagogical, and technological techniques to meet students’ needs.

The development of this gaming technology is part of the Hewlett Foundation’s broader effort to bring innovative educational content to the Internet. The Foundation’s Open Educational Resources Initiative makes online content and tools available to anyone with the desire to learn or teach. To date, the Foundation has spent $80 million to make such resources available worldwide, from funding MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, which has published virtually all MIT courses on the program’s Web site, to support for African Virtual University, which provides digital and printable material to train teachers in sub-Saharan Africa.

“This game will benefit educators, students, and independent learners alike by making the tools to learn a new language more broadly available than ever,” says Catherine Casserly, director of the Open Educational Resources Initiative.
Still a prototype, The Forgotten World is scheduled to be unveiled by December 2008, when its creators plan to release twelve episodes-a full year of language instruction. They anticipate having a prototype of the Spanish version by the end of the year.

Education Made Fun

More and more, educators are realizing that game-based approaches have a unique ability to engage students in the learning process.

“This is a dramatic departure from the way that language education has been approached in the past,” says Phoenix Wang, former program officer for the Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program who worked on the project and now is a consultant to the Foundation. “Here we’re leveraging students’ interest in computer games as a way to get them excited about learning a language.”

While most English language curricula in China focus on reading and writing, The Forgotten World goes beyond that, allowing users to practice speaking and listening to English. Equipped with speech recognition technology, the online system challenges players to articulate specific sentences or phrases using correct pronunciation in order to advance to the next level. Students must demonstrate their new language skills to succeed in the game, a huge incentive to learn.

The software also will come equipped with various social networking tools that especially appeal to young people. For instance, players can participate in online chat, contribute to the game’s blog or wiki, and share video and other multimedia content with other users. “It’s like the MySpace for language learning,” says Wang. This particular aspect of the online system will expand the game into the social realm and provide yet another opportunity for students to practice their newly acquired language skills.

In addition to the traditional American English that typically is taught in Chinese schools, the game will give players the opportunity to experience the cultural idioms, slang, and regional dialects commonly heard in the United States. The goal is to give Chinese students a realistic sense of how English is spoken in everyday contexts and help them learn to use the language appropriately in various situations.

Plans to Distribute the Game Broadly

Once the game episodes are ready for release, they will be placed on the project’s Web site, where schools can download them for free. The Coastline team also plans to distribute the game in CD-ROM format to middle schools in China and the United States, along with student workbooks and teacher guides. Distribution within China will be handled by the National Center for Education Technology, a division of the Ministry of Education. Beginning in September 2009, Coastline will work with the Chinese Ministry of Education and the U.S. Department of Education to assess teacher usage and student performance.

Dan Jones, executive dean at Coastline Community College and leader of the initiative, says the goal is to reach a million students. And he sees this as just the beginning.

“If the experience in China and the United States is positive, the use of games and speech recognition for learning will rapidly expand,” Jones predicts. “Systems that combine natural language recognition with 3-D gaming and expert systems will be the next giant step.”