Learning Language As a Game: Talks with the Creators of SNOWBALLS

Globalization increasingly infiltrates the world of higher education. Technology has heightened the speed at which we can communicate and collaborate, fostering a worldwide academic environment heretofore unseen. That brings along with it a set of challenges, not the least of which is the barrier established by highly technical foreign language terms. A pair of University of Tokyo educators has come up with an innovative solution to that problem - they've invited their students to play a game.

By Eric Garneau


To respond to their students' technical English vocabulary needs, Dr. Jorg Entzinger and Professor Kumiko Morimura are developing SNOWBALLS (Self-Navigation Web-Based Literacy Learning System), an OpenCourseWare (OCW) platform that turns vocabulary education into a game. Students can design avatars, win points and compete against friends while mastering technical terms in another language. SNOWBALLS' development has been aided by seminars of students, who work together with educators to make it the best open-learning platform it can be.

Q. Where did the idea for SNOWBALLS come from? Particularly, what inspired you to make it a game?

A. Our students at the University of Tokyo are relatively strong in English grammar, but they often miss technical English vocabulary. That became a problem. UT plans to increase the number of lectures taught in English to 70% by 2020, and in the globalized world our students will have to collaborate with researchers and businesses abroad. We created SNOWBALLS to help students fill that vocabulary gap, since this is something that's difficult to do in the other lectures and programs currently offered at the UT.

Since every student has and needs different vocabulary, providing a fixed course did not seem to be the best option. Additionally, we wouldn't have sufficient staff to teach such courses to all our undergraduate students. E-learning provides students with a tool to learn at their own speed, at their own level and at times that are convenient for them. However, using a computer program or website to build vocabulary is generally a boring exercise, and students will give up quickly. Our motto is that learning English should be a fun experience. We therefore sat together with a group of students to discuss what style of e-learning platform would be suitable, what kind of features could be added to raise student motivation and in what style the teaching materials should be written and presented to be most effective.

Interactivity is one of the main points that popped up in the discussions with and among our students. No one likes to just read a lot by himself. Reading or learning something, doing a game or quiz, chatting with friends about it, playing a quiz battle against them and seeing immediate results is a much more engaging way of working on your language skills. Therefore, we added these various ways of user-computer and user-user interaction, as well as a direct reward for correct answers or winning games, next to more detailed statistical feedback on one's performance. Additionally, we recognized the possible power of social aspects, such as challenging friends to a battle game to try and outperform them in rankings or discussing with others in the forum.

Q. How long has this project been in development?

A. Development started in 2009. In the winter semester we opened a seminar-style course where several students participated in brainstorming and exploring possibilities for an e-learning system to teach vocabulary. In the middle of that semester, the students presented a Flash application that showed their ideas, including a fast-paced quiz game. In the latter half of the semester a company with a background in e-learning (ICOM) joined the class discussions and made the current implementation of the SNOWBALLS platform based on the students' original ideas. The students, in turn, tried the prototype systems in class to improve and refine them.

We're currently still in the developing phase. Most of the desired platform features have been implemented, but there's still some testing and bug-fixing going on. We're also working to translate the interface from Japanese to English, and we're creating things like user manuals, help files and a quick-start guide based on the students' experiences. One of the main issues now is to increase the amount of content available on SNOWBALLS, and we hope to have at least one complete module by the end of summer, so we can run a test case with a large number of students in the winter semester.

Q. What kind of response have you gotten to the project so far, both from educators and potential users?

A. Most of the response from educators is very positive. They see that our system is more than an interactive textbook with questions like most existing e-learning systems. All kinds of teachers, from the university level to elementary schools, have shown interest in the platform and asked us to open the system as soon as possible because they'd like to use it.

Some question whether the game style is really needed for university students. However, SNOWBALLS does contain pages with textbook content, trial questions and final tests that can be done without involving the game elements (one will accumulate points anyway, but that's not the real objective of studying).

As for the potential users, every semester the students in the seminar-style course evaluate the system we have, suggest some changes to improve its practicality and come up with new ideas or desired features. Although some of the students also prefer the plain text-practice-test style, most of them enjoy one or several of the additional features.

Q. Are students generally enthusiastic about helping to shape the design of the project?

A. We see a very steep curve in our seminar course every semester. In the beginning the students aren't sure what to do with the relative freedom we give them. In the first few weeks, however, they quickly learn to analyze their own education and think about what motivates them and what makes them lose attention or quit. Then they have to step into the teacher's shoes and think about how to strengthen learner motivation and prevent people from giving up halfway.

By the end of the course, the students are proud of their contributions to the system and its educational content, and most of them start to identify with the project as a whole. Every semester we ask some students to become a teaching assistant (TA) for the next semester, and if time allows them, they never reject. In their role as a TA they contribute to discussions and ensure the continuity of development. They feel like an 'older brother' in the classes.

Q. Briefly, what do you see as open-sourced learning's benefit to education?

A. With lots of resources available, either within or outside the university, the main thing to teach students will not be specific knowledge, but the skills to individually acquire any knowledge in an efficient way. Open-sourced learning can help students focus on their personal interests or reinforce their particular weak points individually. Teachers should help students discover their talents, help them reflect on their strong and weak points, analyze their needs for the future and guide them towards useful and reliable information.

With SNOWBALLS we hope to make a platform where students can study what they need, when they need it, in a way that keeps them motivated. We hope to adapt existing OCW to feature on the SNOWBALLS platform, as well as to create original content to be opened to the OCW community.

In our current seminar-style course, the students create original content for the SNOWBALLS platform based on their own needs and interests. We promote the use of varied sources when creating this content and make students aware of copyright/IP issues, reliability of sources, the need to cross-check information before publishing, etc. We believe that this practice combines all the above ideas, from teaching skills and responsibility to using open-sourced information and creating OCW.

Interested in OCW? What's your favorite project? Vote in our OCW People's Choice Awards.

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