As a child I learned Africans at primary school level in South Africa where my father was posted for 3 years. After our return to Australia I learned Latin and French at primary school. I continued with my French to HSC (VCE) level and also studied 2 years of Indonesian up to the end of Year 9. Unfortunately I did not retain much of any of these languages as I progressed towards adult life.
I began learning Mandarin Chinese as an adult learner at the age of 24 years old in a weekend school run by the Chinese Association of Victoria. In 1984 I went to China as a self-funded student to learn Chinese under the auspices of the Australia China Council. From 1984 to 1989 I studied at Nanjing University, Fudan University and Beijing Language and Culture University. While in China I married a local girl and we had our first child together in Nanjing. Throughout our married life (25 years to date) we have maintained Mandarin as our main language at home, supplemented where necessary with English. Both our daughters, who have essentially grown up in Australia, speak and understand Mandarin (to differing levels), their knowledge of Chinese characters is getting stronger and stronger. We attempt to maintain and improve their Mandarin Chinese communication skills by speaking to them in Mandarin at home and by ensuring reasonably regular visits to China to see their grandparents and other relatives who do not speak English.
I have also used Mandarin extensively throughout my working career from 1987 onwards. While in Shanghai in 1987-88 I held a part-time position at the Australian Consulate General in the visa section where I was required to deal with local enquiries and visa applications in Mandarin. In 1988-89 I did part-time work as a trainee interpreter to the then Australian Ambassador for a period of 7-8 months. After returning to Australia in 1989 I was employed by a government-owned corporation that had extensive dealings with China, and from 1989 to 1997 I used Mandarin extensively in my work, initially in an administrative capacity in Australia and subsequently (for approximately four years) as a project manager both in Australia and in China. In this latter period, much of my work involved marketing and technical and commercial negotiations in China, all of which was carried out in Mandarin Chinese (spoken and written).
My teaching experience began while studying at Nanjing University. Due to a lack of finances I took up a position teaching spoken English to undergraduate and adult students at the university for a period of one year. Subsequently while working in industry back in Australia I took up a sessional position at RMIT teaching Mandarin evening classes in 1995. Since 1997 I have been teaching Mandarin Chinese at tertiary and TAFE level at both Monash University and RMIT. I also taught English/Chinese/English translation and translation theory at tertiary (post-graduate and TAFE) level for a number of years.
I first investigated the possibility of utilising virtual worlds for Chinese language and culture learning in 2005. After initially putting the idea aside for a couple of years, in 2007 I revisited the idea and began developing a virtual learning environment and the associated curriculum and pedagogy in the virtual world of Second Life. In 2008 I established a Chinese-themed virtual city in Second Life dedicated to the learning of Chinese language and culture and have been using this environment in my undergraduate classes since then. Near 1000 students have undertaken lessons in our virtual city which is called Chinese Island. In addition to the actual virtual environment and infrastructure itself, a system of sophisticated non-character players (NPCs) tailor-made for interactive engagement with Chinese language learners as part of set piece task-based lessons and in a less formal asynchronous mode have been developed and used extensively in our lessons. The NPCs also play other important roles in the lessons on Chinese Island including facilitating the management of large numbers of students in each lesson and acting as gatekeepers for different stages of the set tasks. The environment, the interactive artifacts and content within the environment and the associated pedagogy, curriculum and lesson design are under ongoing and constant development based on experience gained and new lessons learned every time a class is held on the island, feedback from learners and analysis of the logs of learner interaction with the non-player characters that inhabit the environment. I have also developed an pilot Arabic language and culture virtual environment based on family life in Cairo.
At the same time as developing Chinese Island I have also worked on a number of ways of integrating the Web 2.0 learning management system Moodle with our learning activities in Second Life. In addition to providing a important portal for classroom management, the transmission of key information about the lessons on Chinese Island and the implementation of more conventional assessment such as online quizzes, a certain amount of experimentation has been undertaken using a mashup called Sloodle, which is an interface between Second Life and Moodle developed by a group of open source programmers from around the world that enables assessment done in Second Life to be recorded directly on Moodle, among other things. Further development of viable and valid assessment models for the environment, both formative and summative, is ongoing.
On the assessment side, I took part in an ALTC project on Web 2.0 assessment run out of Melbourne University in 2010 and 2011, and have together with another colleague at Monash of published a paper on the results of our investigation into formal assessment in the context of our lessons in Second Life. I have also jointly published research papers on self-efficacy, cognitive skills and foreign language anxiety all based on data gathered from our ongoing lessons in Second Life.
In addition, I am also undertaking a PhD degree which is looking at various aspects of language and culture learning within virtual world environments.