Can an Online Game Crack the Code to Language Learning?

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.”

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.

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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."

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.