Research & Impact
A better world through communication - Professor Mike Ingham discusses how he uses virtual reality to teach English
According to Mike Ingham, Associate Professor of Department of English, the study of English for many Hong Kong people serves a merely practical purpose. As the international language of business, English is viewed as little more than a useful tool for getting ahead in their careers.
Yet learning English offers more than just career advancement, says Prof Ingham. He sees it as contributing to improved communication across cultures and across borders. “Communication and the arts and humanities help us to understand other people’s points of view, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. Education is critically important for a better world.”
If anyone is qualified to comment on the importance of communication, either in one’s own language or another tongue, it is Prof Ingham. In addition to English, he also speaks French, German, Spanish, Italian, and basic Cantonese.
A virtual new world for English learners
Prof Ingham first came to Hong Kong in 1989 to study and work. He landed at Lingnan in 1999, when the English Department was just being established. Today, he teaches courses such as English in Popular Song, Literature and Adaptation, and Drama and Poetry.
As well as teaching, he is committed to Knowledge Transfer (KT), although unlike the hard sciences, in the humanities “knowledge transfer is connected with public and social communication,” he says.
One of his more intriguing KT projects is based on the Second Life platform, which enables students to participate in mini-performances through avatars on a virtual stage. “It’s a bit like watching an animated TV game,” says Prof Ingham. “But in this case, it’s more of a creative platform for crafting new virtual worlds.”
Prof Ingham thinks that Second Life might also be used to build bridges between Lingnan and the international community, through events such as virtual regional and international drama festivals. Instead of holding a drama festival on an actual stage, in this case the platform would be used to produce plays in a virtual theatre, allowing universities from around the world to take part.
Sharing stories and knowledge
In addition to its applications in dramatic performances, Prof Ingham believes that Second Life also presents exciting possibilities for Lingnan’s Service-Learning programmes. Working with Dr Constance Chan of the Office of Service-Learning and blended-learning consultant and technical advisor Brant Knutzen, he is planning to organise a programme that would enable students from Lingnan to fulfil their service-learning requirements by passing on their knowledge and stories of university life in a virtual setting to secondary students in the community.
The Second Life platform, he believes, could also be applied in other fields of knowledge, such as the social sciences or business, to facilitate the sharing of ideas in a collaborative and engaging context.
Another potential application would be to have students use the platform to create alternative endings or sequels to existing stories, similar to fan fiction. “In the arts and humanities, we have the real opportunity to nurture education in the sense that it comes from the students. Unlike in the old days when you would tell a student ‘here is the text, just go ahead and read it,’ this equalises things more. I like giving my students choices.”
For Prof Ingham, Second Life presents a chance to explore how narratives are adapted to different media, an area which he has examined in his research as well. In a new General Research Fund (GRF) project starting in January 2018, he will investigate the reception of broadcasts of Shakespeare’s plays in Hong Kong cinemas compared to their reception by audiences in the UK. Prof Ingham has also received GRF support for a project with his brother, a linguist, which examines how Shakespeare’s plays are interpreted by students, performers, and audiences, especially in terms of their archaic language and the problems Chinese students might have in understanding it.
He points out that students in Hong Kong today don’t always have the best English-language skills. “It’s a prerequisite to be able to speak clearly and write well,” he says. “You don’t want to graduate students who don’t have good language skills, so we need to ensure high standards.”
But the goal is not just to teach language skills, he adds. It’s also to enthuse students and make them want to enjoy using these skills. “That’s where the KT idea is valid,” says Prof Ingham.
Although he finds it sometimes takes an effort to build a good working rapport with his students, Prof Ingham sympathises with them and their worries about the future. “I like our students a lot. I think their self-image sometimes is a bit lower than that of students at the other universities, but they work harder because of that. In that respect they are better communicators than they realise.”