James York, Tokyo Denki University, Computer Assisted Language Learning

February 24, 2017

Inspired by his experience with Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, James York, Assistant Professor at Tokyo Denki University, Japan, started a research project that involved the creation of a virtual language learning environment. Professor Ted O’Neill, IAFOR Director and Academic Governing Board Vice-President, speaks to him about this project, entitled Kotoba Miners, at The Asian Conference on Technology in the Classroom 2016.


Professor Ted O’Neill: I think one of the first things I learned about that you’ve been working on was something called Kotoba Miners. I know a bit about it but I can certainly stand to learn a lot more.

Professor James York: OK, Kotoba Miners. So, in case anyone doesn’t know, the word kotoba means “word” – so the idea is word mining. The project started initially from my interest in using games to learn languages. My own experience as a language learner started in about 2005 when I was playing Massively Multiplayer Online video games just for fun, and then I quit, and my friend said, would you like to play again with me? I said I’ll only do that if I can join a Japanese guild, because I wanted to be in a Japanese environment. So it was an excuse to play the game again.

Professor Ted O’Neill: Yeah, it’s a good way to justify spending a lot of time playing games.

Professor James York: Exactly. So my own language-learning experience was by joining a target-language-speaking guild and playing the game together. So my interest started from there and then I became a university teacher and I wanted to continue my research in – well, actually, I was looking for a research topic. I started university with a kind of vague idea of what I wanted to do. I thought about my own learning experiences and thought, right, games. I think they’re useful. So I started to look through all the different games that were out there and it was kind of hit and miss. My preliminary experiments with various games weren’t really going very well so, to cut a long story short, I looked at Massively Multiplayer Online games and actually rejected them.

Professor Ted O’Neill: Why did you reject them?

Professor James York: Because the students I was teaching – the low-level EFL students – the discourse within those games is quite complex. You have the quest texts which are extremely complex for a start, then you have the social contact interactions between other players, and it’s native speakers that you’re interacting with. And then you’ve got the GUI [graphical user interface] which is also extremely complex. So with all these cognitive loads on the low-level learners it’s just too much.

Professor Ted O’Neill: It’s hard enough to do that kind of social interaction in contexts that you’re familiar with, let alone with all these other layers.

Professor James York: So the level of difficulty of the technology was actually a withholding factor, and then I looked at social worlds, which are basically void of content. There’s no production company behind it, there’s no content actually made, so people make their own content. You’ll find a lot of schools have foreign-language areas in social worlds, but I rejected those as well. As a teacher the content creation was far too time-consuming. There’s – I’ll be talking about it later – but there’s wikis of how to create content and as an educator that was a kind of barrier for me. I didn’t want to go through all that that effort just to make some activities for my students.

Professor Ted O’Neill: If you’re spending 20 hours planning for a one-hour lesson you’re not going to really be doing much educating.

Professor James York: Yeah, so that was kind of the negative point to me about social worlds. And social worlds, again there’s quite an adult theme to them – I won’t touch on that – but essentially MMOs and then social worlds are the two predominant parts and I rejected both. At that time the game Minecraft came out, which is a brilliant game. It has the game element, the survival mode, but there’s a creative mode which crosses both borders. It’s not an MMO but it’s not a social world – it can kind of be both. It’s very fluid in how it can be used.

Professor Ted O’Neill: I guess the creative mode, maybe for people who haven’t actually seen the game – they could Google it – but in my image it kind of looks like a big world built out of Lego and stuff that you can build, but you can build things into it. It becomes quite interactive with people – it’s not just assembling kit.

Professor James York: Exactly – it’s a free, massive 3D world of Lego creation, essentially. So as an educator it was very easy to create activities and things very, very quickly. You could just get prototypes or just activities made. For students the GUI is very simple, the graphics are very simple, in that it’s not an MMO so you haven’t got hundreds of native speakers to interact with and it was a very easy tool. So the Kotoba Miners project came out of all of that – that’s the history of it. Kotoba Miners was a project that I started to teach English to Japanese students through a semester, and as part of that I invited native English speakers to come and help. So, you know the website Reddit – it’s a popular news website – I posted on there saying I’m looking for native English speakers to come and interact with my Japanese learners. How about that? And so they came…

Professor Ted O’Neill: …in their millions, from Reddit…

Professor James York: Not millions, but there was a substantial population of English speakers that would come and help out because they are interested in learning Japanese. So the idea to interact with Japanese learners was brilliant for them – it was kind of give and take. So what happened is that the semester finished, and all my Japanese students just stopped using the tool – stopped using Minecraft – and I had this population of English speakers that wanted to learn Japanese. So Kotoba Miners actually is a Japanese course for non-Japanese speakers. It’s for people that want to learn Japanese, and it’s an elementary course that I designed in the world of Minecraft. It was really successful – there were classrooms and activities and it was very interactive. I was happy with it.

Professor Ted O’Neill: It’s interesting how that relates to something we heard about in another presentation, where teachers were doing blogging with students, and this idea that they’re going to interact with each other and perhaps other people around the internet and then the term comes to an end and they’re gone. The students are just so busy. So these other people have far more motivation.

Professor James York: So this brings me to like a pretty key point in at least my own thinking of how technology should be utilized. For the Japanese students that were learning English – my general English classes – I don’t think that the virtual world was a useful tool.

Professor Ted O’Neill: Well…

Professor James York: It’s debatable, but still.

Professor Ted O’Neill: I think we can say it had its uses, but they were limited.

Professor James York: It had its uses, but the needs of the the guys that wanted to learn Japanese, there was much more of a need for the virtual world. Why? Because I had people from Finland, Australia, the US, the UK, all meeting in the virtual environment, when they wouldn’t have the opportunity to speak to people in Japanese in their own environment and so there’s a real need for it. And I think that’s one of the things that teachers that are interested in technology really need to consider: is that tool the perfect tool for the job that you want to do? In some cases, it’s not.

Professor Ted O’Neill: Not to keep calling back to other things, but something that Stephen Ryan was talking about this morning about unpredictability – we think we can predict what the needs are, but you can get surprised sometimes.

Professor James York: On the back of the Kotoba Miners project I’m doing a PhD, and so from this needs idea I started to think, well, if the communicative – no, not communicative – if the spoken performance between people online is better than offline then I can prove that there’s a need for virtual worlds within low-level EFL classrooms. So my research right now is looking at the spoken performance of my Japanese students doing face-to-face tasks versus online tasks – as a way to say, well, do we actually need this virtual world in a monolingual 30-plus student classroom or not? And if the the research shows that the online communication was more complex or accurate or fluent then there’s a bit of weight to say, well, actually virtual environments are pretty useful.

Professor Ted O’Neill: They have their benefits.

Professor James York: They have their benefits over face-to-face communication. Not just that – motivational characteristics of students as well. They might prefer to work in a virtual environment because kids are gamers nowadays right? Yeah, so it’s pretty interesting.

Professor Ted O’Neill: This work that you’re doing currently with Japanese EFL learners doing some tasks through an online environment – is that also Minecraft?

Professor James York: Yes it is, it’s the same environment.

Professor Ted O’Neill: If i understand correctly, in Minecraft you can create environments that are visual and three-dimensional to move around in, but also you can create logic or logical structures. So is that part of what you were having your Japanese EFL learners do?

Professor James York: OK, the logical part of it is called Redstone. It’s been used in different fields of education – for example, maths and science – because there are, like you said, you can make these very simple logic games and you can even model small computers if you go really deep with it. But I don’t personally use that in my classes. It’s fairly limited and there are just a massive amount of plugins that you can use to achieve higher-level logic. Basically you can make mini games within Minecraft itself via plugins. In other educational fields it has been utilized a lot.

Professor Ted O’Neill: Maybe that’s coming back to one of the issues you found in the MMOs – if you start layering on too many layers of complexity then you run into problems.

Professor James York: Absolutely – keep it simple.

Professor Ted O’Neill: Sounds good. Well, thank you very much for joining us.


Professor James York gave a Featured Presentation on “Language Learning in Virtual Worlds: Task Creation and Implementation” at The Asian Conference on Technology in the Classroom 2016 in Kobe, Japan.

James York

About James York

James York is an Assistant Professor at Tokyo Denki University, Japan, where he conducts research on the use of games in language learning contexts. He is also a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester in the UK. His PhD research is an investigation into the potential of virtual world tasks as a way to improve beginner learners’ oral proficiency. The aim of the study is to look for both quantitative and qualitative differences in output when learners complete similar online and offline tasks. The results, then, should help educators be aware of when employing virtual worlds as a domain for language learning. Additionally, he has started research on the application of analog games in the language classroom as part of a wider game-based curriculum. He is also the founder of Kotoba Miners, an online Japanese learning community that uses Minecraft as a domain for teaching.

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