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Virtual Japantown

Virtual reality reveals new possibilities for remote learning

With her campus closed, this Japanese-language professor took her students on an immersive, experiential field trip in Second Life.

May 14, 2020

By Cory Phare

Two weeks ago, Koko Moore led a group of Metropolitan State University of Denver students through an enveloping Japanese landscape. They visited a monkey hot springs and farmhouse in a classic countryside, then navigated an urban environment replete with subway stations, laundromats and a fish market.

The modern-languages faculty member wasn’t flouting COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, though – she was conducting her Intermediate Japanese Level 1 course in a fully virtual environment. And though the innovative project was launched in response to COVID-19 campus closures, it ended up being much more than a stopgap for those involved.

The idea to try virtual reality originated with her students, Moore said.

“After looking into it, I decided, ‘OK, let’s try it,” she said.

She chose Second Life, a virtual-world platform launched in 2003, to begin the project. Over the next three weeks, she worked with her husband (who teaches information security on the platform) to construct a Little Japantown, mashing up urban and rural elements with recognizable tourist destinations. Moore, who grew up in Japan and returns frequently to visit her parents, noted specific contemporary environmental details later inserted into the virtual world.


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Since the upcoming section of her class was slated to cover street directions, the immersive environment was a perfect fit for a simulated scavenger hunt.

Students navigated personalized avatars throughout the environment, following directions in Japanese to locate seven red-and-white festival stalls Moore had placed throughout. They would then bring specific items back to a centralized school-classroom headquarters to complete the task.

"Students were so savvy - they were able to successfully work together to navigate everything," Moore said. The simulated world contained elements such as a Japanese inn, meditative waterfall, and even a chance to drink sake in a traditional farmhouse.
"Students were so savvy - they were able to successfully work together to navigate everything," Moore said. The simulated world contained elements such as a Japanese inn, meditative waterfall, and even a chance to drink sake in a traditional farmhouse.

For Aya O'Rourke, who plans to use her linguistics major and Japanese minor to teach overseas after graduation, the exercise was also an opportunity to head up a team given an unforeseen constraint.

“I had to take a leadership role, coordinating part of my team who was on voice chat with another member who wasn’t (on chat) to guide us through the street directions,” she said. “It was definitely a productive experience – I feel like there’s certain things you can only do in a setting like this; plus, it was also a lot of fun.”

Building such an immersive experience holds a lot of pedagogical potential, said Andrew Bonham. The professor and department chair of the University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry had visited Japan several times and enrolled in the class out of personal interest. He became inspired to incorporate more interactive elements into his own “very visual discipline.”


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“I love seeing faculty members thinking outside of the box to solve the challenges we’re grappling with,” he said. “This is the kind of teaching innovation that helps us all as a community of learners get outside our comfort zones.”

For Moore’s class, that involved parlaying a disruptive experience into a new world for students – one that the faculty member, who has also previously connected with students from the University's Anthropology Department while back in her home country, spared no detail in reimagining.

Student teams traversed the different virtual landscapes as part of a scavenger hunt, returning to a centralized digital classroom. At the end of the project, Moore had students gather in the town square, where she adjusted the daylight to nightfall and the class gathered to watch a fireworks display.
Student teams traversed the different virtual landscapes as part of a scavenger hunt, returning to a centralized digital classroom. At the end of the project, Moore had students gather in the town square, where she adjusted the daylight to nightfall and the class gathered to watch a fireworks display.

“This was the closest I’ve seen to the real thing,” Bonham said. “There’s a whole reality to explore, with sights and signs and people, all the way down to the ads you’d actually see on the street.

“Plus, after doing this, you can confidently say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can navigate a city in Japanese now’ – that’s an amazing experience.”

At the end of the project, the group went to a festival area within the town plaza, where they could play virtual drums and dance to music before nightfall ushered in a simulated fireworks display for the onlookers.

“It’s fun to be able to show Japanese culture in a way I haven’t been able to before,” Moore said. “Students are in the world and can look around with a more vivid experience than they’d otherwise have. It’s almost like you’re there.”


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