Peer-Review Publications

Zheng, D., Bischoff, M, & Gilliland, B. (2015). Vocabulary learning in massively multiplayer online games: Context and action before words. Educational Technology Research & Development. 63(5), 771-790 (DOI) 10.1007/s11423-015- 9387-4 (Access to the article in ETR&D)

Drawing on ecological and dialogical perspectives on language and cognition, this exploratory case study examines how vocabulary learning occurs during a quest-play mediated in English between a Japanese undergraduate student and a native speaker of English. Understanding embodiment as coaction between the player-avatar and player– player relations (Zheng and Newgarden 2012; Zheng et al. 2012), as situative embodiment in a perceptually and narratively rich context (Barab et al. in Sci Educ 91:750–782, 2007), and as a dialogical achievement (Zheng and Newgarden 2012; Zheng et al. 2012), this research provides an alternative explanation of how players embodied in their avatars appropriated semiotic resources imbued in World of Warcraft (WOW). Two hours of co- quest play provided instances of vocabulary learning unique to the WOW environment and co-play. Through iterative multimodal analysis, vocabulary learning became salient as we analyzed both chat and avatar action data and provided a thick description and dynamic process of co-play. Using the eco-dialogical model, we display how language learning as appropriation of resources and as result of eco-dialogical embodiment.

Newgarden, K., Zheng, D., & Liu, M. (2015). An Eco-dialogical study of second language learners’ World of Warcraft (WoW) gameplay. Language Sciences. 48, 22-41. (.PDF)

This exploratory research proceeds from the perspective that language is ecological and dialogical. We examined variables derived from eco-dialogical coding of an episode of World of Warcraft play involving three English learners. According to the Eco-dialogical model (Zheng, 2012), second language (L2) learners need to learn to take skilled linguistic action (Cowley, 2013), a process of realizing the values of physical, sociocultural and dialogical affordances in the environment. We employed Multinomial Logistic Regression to determine which of our variables were predictors for three types of values realizing; namely, way- finding orienting to sociocultural norms and synergized values realizing of both wayfinding and orientation to sociocultural norms. The model we developed suggested that when communicative projects collectively entailed players’ a) verbalizing with synchronized avatar action, b) attending to game rules and c) coordinating in anticipation of good future prospects, players were more likely to realize both values realizing types synergistically. In other words, players’ skilled linguistic action of prospective coordination, combined with multimodal languaging and constrained by WoW game rules, together, were more likely to lead to dual values realizing. This finding suggests that dual values realizing evokes con- nections between real-time first-order physical movements and multimodal languaging with situation transcending practices (Linell, 2009) which are second-order rules, and other sociocultural and linguistic norms. Coupling this finding with our Eco-dialogical unit of analysis, communicative projects, we suggest that these language learners developed co- agency. We conclude that our model should be tested in future studies that seek to illuminate the contribution of a new Eco-dialogical understanding of L2 learning and the potential for learners to have high quality languaging experiences in multiplayer 3D game environments and other social semiotically rich contexts.

Zheng, D., Newgarden, K. and Young, M. F. (2012). Multimodal analysis of language learning in World of Warcraft Play: Languaging as values-realizing. ReCALL. 24(3), 339-360. (.PDF)

Applying Communicative Project theory (Linell, 2009), we identify and distinguish between the different coordination and language activities that emerged during an episode of World of Warcraft (WoW) gameplay involving English Language learners (ELLs). We further investigate ELLs’ coordinations between killing and caring, self and others, in which language and action arise. Using multimodal analysis, we found: 1) a diverse tapestry of communicative activities unlikely to match what would be found in a classroom environment; 2) that the values realizing involved in killing (a typical action in WoW) demonstrates a strong covariate tie with caring; and 3) that players’ values realizing is multi-layered, heterarchical and dynamic at a given time and space of situated interaction. We conclude by making suggestions for 1) the design of learning environments based on affordances for coaction and rich communicative activities and 2) the reconceiving of language learning as skilled linguistic action (Cowley, in press) grounded in situated learning and participation in intercultural, technology-mediated L2 networks.

Zheng, D. (2012). Caring in the dynamics of design and languaging: Exploring second language learning in Virtual Spaces. Language Sciences, 34, 543-558. (.PDF)

This study provides concrete evidence of ecological, dialogical views of languaging within
the dynamics of coordination and cooperation in a virtual world. Beginning level second
language learners of Chinese engaged in cooperative activities designed to provide them
opportunities to refine linguistic actions by way of caring for others, for the world, and
for themselves. Increased target language use in highly-aligned co-ordinations was traced
in the non-linear design of problem-solving spaces by looking at how meaning making and
values-realizing trajectories were co-developed with semiotic resources and sociocultural
material artifacts in goal-directed activities. More significantly, the non-linear design gives
rise to two new problem spaces: coordinating problems and emergent problems, both of
which promoted caring and individualized values-realization. Consequently, learners’
diverse identity development occurs in connection with localized values-realization and
through sociohistorical experiences. Reciprocally, this development allows language learners
to discover and create new affordances in coordinating their thoughts, feelings, actions,
and values with others in an ongoing cycle of problem solving.

Zheng, D. & Newgarden, K. (2012). Rethinking language learning: Virtual World as a catalyst for change. The International Journal of Learning and Media, 3(2), 13-36. (.PDF)

Second language teachers, especially English as a second language (ESL) teachers, are probably the avant-garde of educators in realizing the potential of virtual worlds for educational use. Undoubtedly, multi-user virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online role-playing games can provide a set of affordances for language learning and teaching, such as opportunities for repeated practice, interaction, feedback, and socialization in situ. These are not only crucial factors for language development, but also are the main factors that sustain a community of practice, which in turn cultivates language use by engaging a community Discourse (Gee, 1999; Lave and Wenger, 1991). Gee’s big D discourses encompass language plus other elements (action, interaction, values, beliefs, symbols, objects, tools, and places) combined in such a way that others recognize a fellow participant as a particular type of who (identity) engaged in a particular type of what (activity) here and now. As we investigated how people learn, we identified with Ecological Psychology and sociocultural perspectives and find that they provide a framework for understanding how virtual worlds can be a powerful technology, affording meaning-making, emergent identity formation and negotiation for action. Ideally, we want to see a future in which the aforementioned opportunities for learning are visible and manifested in the (inter)actions and behaviors of avatar-embodied learners/players in Second Life. When this goal is realized, we will be able to confidently advocate that well-designed (design of the environment with an integrated curriculum) virtual environments have the power to transform the way we teach and learn. By examining the current practices of language teaching schools/centers/islands in Second Life, we hope to provide a “think piece” that will arouse further discussion of good design and practices of teaching.

Cowley, S. & Zheng, D. (2011). The turning of the tide: Rethinking language, mind and world [Review article of Linell, P. (2009), Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically: Interactional and contextual theories of human sense-making]. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 6(02) (.PDF)

Cognitive and generative linguistics may lie at the high water mark of a tradition.
They are the culmination of a train of linguistic thought that arose in ancient Greece
when language was reduced to parts that could be analysed as constructions, words,
propositions, and/or meanings. Human agents came to be seen as being caused to say
things about the world in which they live. The environment was separated from the
mind or body which, in this tradition, became the ‘‘seat’’ of language (and languageuse).
Of course, such theories appear in many guises. For example, while generativists
take a Cartesian view that separates a mind/brain from what is external, cognitive
linguists often follow Hume in placing a human body in an environment. In spite of
their differences, however, the views are united in their individualism.
Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically (hereafter Rethinking) provides
an alternative to all such traditions. By taking an ecological approach, Per Linell
provides a platform that offers much to both theorists and language teachers. His
general thesis is that dialogue can be used as the basis for reshaping the human
sciences. By setting out this goal, Rethinking connects philosophy with empirical
studies in the social, cognitive, and behavioural sciences. Traditional focus on
discourse, words, and grammar or what we dub yang linguistics can now be balanced
by their yin counterpart.1 This is needed, Linell argues, because sense-making
prompts dialogue, mind, and selves to arise from social and collective living. As
we act, feel, and think dialogically, sociodialogue constrains what we can (and
cannot) do.

In terms of Sun Wu’s Strategies of Defence, our foe is neither Cartesian nor
Humean traditions but, rather, how experience of literacy and silent thinking tempts
us to ascribe minds to individual brains. Given what Linell (2005) calls written
language bias, these become stores of determinate items that constitute language systems. In the yang linguistics tradition, an individual (or mind/brain) is said to
‘‘possess’’ language. The dialogical perspective shows how turning to yin allows us to
avoid such metaphors. Rather, the focus turns to a ‘‘meta-theoretical framework’’
(22) in which we acknowledge the never-ending process of human becoming.

Martin, V. S., Sherlock, L., & Zheng, D. (2010). Emotional Values of Inventory Items in World of Warcraft. In S. Dikkers, C. Steinkuhler, K. Squire, and E. Zimmerman (Eds.), Real-Time Research: An Experiment in Design. Pittsburg: ETC Press. (.PDF)

As part of the Games+Learning+Society (GLS) Conference 4.0 in July 2008, we took part in a Real Time Research Activity. As a team decision, we chose a set of cards made up of constructivism/situated cognition, ethnography, interview and survey, and World of Warcraft (WOW). Within this general framework, we brainstormed what topics each of us was interested in looking into. Among the five original researchers, four of us had advanced at least one character to level 70 (the maximum character level at the time of our study) in WOW. One of the authors has studied (inter)actions in the virtual worlds Second Life and Quest Atlantis for over 6 years. One topic that stood out in particular was the underlying human characteristics that keep gamers engaged, either combating or working tightly together in guilds. The ecological psychological concept of “meaning making” and “value-realizing” in human activities appeared to be sufficient and satisfying to dissipate our puzzle (Gibson, 1979; Reed, 1996), specifically, Reed’s account of collective appropriation of affordances, Hodges and Baron’s (1992) account of values as multiple, heterarchical and dynamical constraints on actions and interactions, Hodges and Lindhiem’s (2006) account of carrying as value-realizing activity, and Hodges’ (2007) account of caring to go on in conversing. Grounding our thinking in ecological terms, we shared our experiences in WOW and virtual worlds in terms of our emotional engagement, things we carry in our packs, people we have the most interaction with, and so on. One of the members mentioned he carried a worthless item, a cracked bill, in his pack because his character’s first name was Bill. So we began to discuss what people might carry in their packs, which held personal value to them but had little functional value in the game (i.e., those items not directly related to the dominant terms of progress in WOW via gameplay, such as combat, active quest items, profession advancement, or in-game profiteering via selling to other players).

Zheng, D., Young, M. F., Wagner, M., & Brewer, B. (2009). Negotiation for action: English language learning in game-based virtual worlds. The Modern Language Journal, 93(4), 489-511. (.PDF)

This study analyzed the chat logs and other artifacts of Quest Atlantis (QA) users, and proposes the concept of Negotiation for Action (NfA) to explain how interaction, specifically, avatar-based collaboration between Native English Speakers and Non-Native English Speakers in QA, provided resources for English language acquisition. Iterative multi-layered analysis revealed several affordances of QA for language acquisition at different levels. Activities that related to QA, such as co-questing , discussion of technical procedures, and chatting syntax of QA, promoted the longest Mean Length Utterance (MLU) counted in words. Co-questing also afforded collaboration and shared meaning making, which in turn afforded language pick-up. We further found that co-questing afforded a higher level of meaning making enacted in collaboration through goal-directed (avatar-based) behavior when users had to coordinate their actions in virtual space. This is consistent with our theory that meaning emerges when language is used to coordinate actions in-the-moment.

Zheng, D., Young, M. F., Brewer, B., & Wagner, M. (2009). Attitude and self-efficacy change: English language learning in virtual worlds. The Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium Journal, 27(1), 205-231. (.PDF | ZhengEtAl2009_AppendixD)

This study explored affective factors in learning English as a foreign language in a 3D game-like virtual world, Quest Atlantis (QA). Through communication tools (e.g., chat, bulletin board, telegrams, and email), 3D avatars, and 2D web page navigation tools in virtual space, Non-Native English Speakers (NNES) co-solved online content-related problem quests with native English speakers (NES). The QA group rated themselves higher than the non-QA group in self-efficacy toward advanced use of English, attitude toward English, and self-efficacy toward E-communication. These findings suggest that virtual worlds may provide a space for English Language Learners (ELLs) in the United States and other countries to increase confidence and comfort, and overcome cultural barriers for learning English.

Zheng, D., & Young, M. F. (2006). Comparing instructional methods for teaching technology in education to preservice teachers using logistic regression. In S. Barab, K. Hay, & D. Hickey (Eds.), Proceedings of the 7th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (873 – 879). Bloomington, Indiana: International Society of the Learning Sciences. (.PDF)

This analysis was completed in the context of an ongoing design project for a junior level course (Technology in Education) in the teacher preparation program in a large New England public university. We implemented a design for Fall 2003 comparing two types of instruction: problem–based learner-centered learning cycles (PBLC) and didactic direct instruction (DI), both of which reflected our previous research findings concerning best instructional practices. Analysis of Logistic Regression identified a model that differentiated the PBLC and DI approaches in areas of preservice teachers’ perceived knowledge of technology integration and technology competencies, and revealed that preservice teachers reporting more favorable computer use and more knowledge of e-portfolio development are more likely to be in the PBLC approach.

Young, M. F., Schrader, P. G., & Zheng, D. (2006, April 1). MMOGs as learning environments: An ecological journey into Quest Atlantis and Sims Online. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 2(4). (.PDF)

Yes, video games are mainly for play and fun. But video games are educative as well as interesting and engaging—something that we all hope that more classrooms could be. Many of today’s students spend more time playing video games than they do watching television, reading books, or watching films. Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs)—long and surprisingly complex gaming environments that normally require over forty hours to get beyond novice levels (Squire 2004)—represent the latest development in the history of video game technology (Exhibit 1). Success in a MMOG requires developing new literacies, understanding intricate and intersecting rule sets, thinking creatively within constraints, collaborating with other participants towards shared goals, and perhaps most importantly, taking on new identities as players (via their avatars) inhabit game spaces (Gee 2003). Such properties offer significant potential for educational contexts, as indicated by the emergence of MMOGs specifically designed to enable student interactions and centered on instructional topics (e.g., Quest Atlantis, AquaMoose 3D, and RiverCity). In order for instructors, researchers, and designers to understand and develop the educational potential of MMOGs fully, it becomes necessary to situate these games within a theoretical framework that fully defines the distinctive cognitive and learning processes that they promote in their participants. Towards this end, and in accordance with previous research (Young 2004), we propose that certain key concepts of ecological psychology offer the most useful theoretical foundation for the continued study and implementation of MMOGs in educational settings. In this article we offer an overview of such concepts, and we then apply them to certain features of two MMOGs—a commercial MMOG (The Sims Online) and an educational MMOG (Quest Atlantis)—in order to illustrate their respective qualities as learning environments.

Schrader, P. G., Zheng, D., & Young, M. F. (2006, February 1). Teacher’s perception of video games: MMOGs and the future of preservice teacher education. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 2(3). (.PDF)

No doubt, the ills of American education (e.g., falling achievement levels, declining literacy rates, substandard math and science competency) made visible through high-stakes testing, international comparisons (Gisburg et al. 2005), and school accountability will continue to put pressure on educators to adopt the latest technology for instruction and to upgrade their curriculum and pedagogy based on contemporary learning theory. Meanwhile, theorists who press at the edges of these trends not only argue that we have still not incorporated enough technology into our classrooms to make a difference (Cuban 2000) but also believe that we have not yet moved away from an 18th century notion of what it means to be educated (Schank 2004).

In this context, we agree with others (e.g., Innovate Vol. 1, #6, 2005) that video games, in particular the genre of massively multi-player online games (MMOGs) such as Everquest and World of Warcraft, will emerge as a component of the revision of education in general and the updating of teacher education specifically. However, in order for the pedagogical use of MMOGs to become widespread, it seems logical that the perceptions of educators will need to recognize the full potential of such games as tools for teaching and learning. In this article, we evaluate preservice teachers’ perceptions pertaining to the integration and use of video games for educational purposes.

Zheng, D. (2004). Learning and reflecting through Quest Atlantis: A multi-national 3D gaming environment for English language learning. In F. Malpica, F. Welsch, & A. Tremante (Eds.), Proceedings of the International Conference on Education and Information Systems: Technologies and Applications (pp. 209-212). Orlando, Florida. (.PDF)

This pilot study takes teaching and learning English as a foreign language (EFL) into a gaming environment. Students fundamentally engaged in a mythological context in a 3D online virtual space called Quest Atlantis. Such an environment was in sharp contrast with how English is taught in a typical Chinese classroom in Mainland China. Preliminary findings reveal that co-questing is promising for improving English language proficiencies. Co-questing allowed EFL learners to extend the chat tool (affordance) to achieve their goal of collaboration and therefore improve English language proficiency. Discussion on co-questing and feedback is supported with the ecological psychological perspective of how people learn.

Forthcoming articles

Zheng, D., Cowley, S., & Hu, Y. (in revision) Learning from Abduction: The power of open- ended learning environments.  Submitted to The Modern Language Journal.

[Abstract] This research addresses the confluence of interactivity and learning in a virtual world. Learners of English from China and learners of Chinese from the USA were engaging in exolingual interaction while decorating a virtual living room in China World within Atlantis Remixed multi-user virtual environments.  Grounded in ecological psychology and distributed view of language where language learning is traced to dynamic flow between first-order languaging and second-order language, human feeling and acting is not reduced to drawing on individual function. Using cognitive event analysis that traces pivotal moments and actions within a broader holistic context and flow of activity, we investigated, in a single episode, the rise-and-use of opportunities for learning, as players coordinated to construe situations, identify problems and probe for solutions, attributed to the action potential of the open-ended virtual environment. We found learners act as caretakers who draw on manipulative abduction and are “forced” to make sense of events by way of translanguaging. Learning occurs as players create affordances, coact and think creatively. We suggest the education of language learning focus on dynamics of open-ended environments, rather than individual-based dichotomies.

Keywords: values realizing, abduction, first-order languaging, translanguaging, caring, open-ended learning environments,

Zheng, D., Bischoff, M, & Gilliland, B (minor revision submitted). Vocabulary learning in massively multiplayer online games: Context and action before words. Educational Technology Research & Development.


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