Over the last year, we have all learned a lot about using technology to engage and interact with others. Educators have learned, survived, and thrived using a variety of online tools. From collaborative office suites that allow for interactive project work to the ubiquitous Zoom classroom, teachers have figured out ways to keep bringing language education to students no matter where in the world they are. As we prepare for a future that incorporates more functional technology, there is no better time to begin using immersive virtual reality (VR) technology for language education. Using VR provides numerous opportunities for language educators to support all the needs of language learners. From initial introduction to concepts to creative fluent production with peers, the VR classroom is perfect for language learning.
360 VR Versus Immersive Virtual Reality
There are different types of VR currently available, ranging from extremely inexpensive to impressively unaffordable. However, just like computers and smartphones, there are a range of VR devices that are accessible, affordable, and easy to use—making them a good fit for classroom educators. Last year, I wrote about practical applications using inexpensive off-the-shelf 360 VR, which (unlike full immersive and interactive VR) provides great opportunities for receptive experiences.
Much like a doctor observing patients through a one-way mirror, 360 VR allows the user to explore as an unnoticed observer: watching, listening, and learning, but unable to interact with the environment around them. On the other hand, fully immersive virtual reality is best for active experiences. With immersive virtual reality users can fly on the back of a dragon, climb the tallest mountain, or simply high-five their friends because they feel fully present inside the virtual space.
Fully immersive VR uses a VR headset device, also known as a VR head-mounted display. This helmet-like device features a viewing interface that lets the user see and experience the digital world projected around them. Most VR headsets incorporate a full sound system that allows the user to experience ambient sound in various locations, enhancing the sense of being present in a new space. VR headsets also incorporate microphones, making it easy to talk to others or use voice controls to navigate the platform. Finally, VR headsets come with handheld controllers. They look and feel in some ways like divided game controllers, freeing the hands to move independently. The controllers allow the user to access joysticks, buttons, triggers, and grips, engaging with virtual objects and others in the virtual space.
From playing ultimate frisbee in zero gravity to watching a movie with friends next to a campfire, interactive and immersive virtual reality creates entirely new ways to engage with others.2, 3 In a future that will incorporate more modalities of teaching—including hybrid and blended learning—immersive virtual reality creates new opportunities for improved connectedness, social interaction, and conversation.
Immerse VR for language learning (while still quite new to some teachers) is rapidly growing in adoption and use. A small but growing body of research indicates that VR can have an immediate impact on language learning, retention, motivation, and anxiety. Several studies provide some early evidence for the efficacy of using immersive VR for language learning.
In a study involving 213 students of English as a foreign language in Japan, learners working with game-based simulation VR demonstrated better long-term control over vocabulary words compared to students in the control group (Franciosi, Yagi, Tomoshige, and Ye, 2015). Learners working with VR also indicated that they had more fun learning, felt more comfortable practicing, and used more of their vocabulary in VR compared to working with traditional exercises (Alfadil, 2020). A study from Taiwan with 448 students indicated that those engaging with VR learning “improved their phonological, morphological, grammar, and syntax knowledge, and virtual world learning assisted in the development of a more complex and higher level of thinking” (Chen, 2016). Research with 274 students at a technical university in Taiwan showed that VR learning had a significant impact on student self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation and lowered student test anxiety (Chen and Hus, 2020). Finally, in a recent action research study with students from Japan developing presentation skills, VR learning had a demonstrable impact on student anxiety and confidence (Saito, 2021). One participant in the study said, “Because of the virtual world, it is easier to immerse yourself in a created situation. That helps us speak confidently.”
Selecting the Right Applications
Immersive VR offers many exciting opportunities. However, as with any new technology, educators must consider their interests and those of their learners, their level of comfort with technology, and the amount of time they have available for exploration and world development. There are hundreds of different applications available for gaming, social interaction, world building, and learning. For teachers who want to customize and fully design their virtual experiences, there will be a significant time commitment for development. Several social and chat apps allow users to create custom scenes and locations, which may be of interest for educators who enjoy coding. Off-the-shelf apps are a great option to save time—if they provide the appropriate features for collaboration, classroom management, and language practice. Prebuilt apps require less development but may vary in level of control and functionality, requiring some investigation before use. Applications designed specifically for facilitated synchronous learning will also vary in functionality, collaboration support, and customizability.
When selecting a VR application, educators should consider:
- What does this application do that I cannot currently do with my online classroom?
- How does this application improve or enhance the teaching and learning experience?
- What changes and adjustments will I need to make to my lesson to ensure it is a productive learning experience?
- How will the application provide new and exciting extensions of my current learning experiences?
Practice and Conversation in VR: Considerations and Outcomes
Virtual reality is a natural substitute for the face-to-face classroom, making the job of importing a lesson plan a straightforward process. Many of the pedagogical methods and practices from the classroom will translate well into virtual reality (Davila, 2020), allowing educators to use a variety of instructional strategies that promote communication and interactions. Learners can accomplish everything in VR, from role-play to speaking onstage to debate; one of the most exciting things about immersive VR is its social and interactive component.
When planning a lesson for VR, consider the objectives to achieve. Plan for presentation and practice activities that will help students successfully use language by the end of the lesson, and consider which virtual applications offer appropriate environments for success. Productive activities like surveys, interviews, mingle activities, role-plays, presentations, and debates are all appropriate for virtual reality learning. When selecting VR applications, consider productive needs and check to ensure the application’s features, environment, and audio tools are functional for those needs.
Take time to consider pair and group noise management—like when planning a face-to-face lesson. Many VR applications use proximal audio, meaning that moving closer to (or farther away from) others will have the same effect as it would in real life. In a physical class, we consider proximity to create isolated working groups, spacing groups far enough away from each other to work peacefully—although everyone will hear the lively background chatter. Educators should consider some of the same classroom mechanics for pairing and grouping learners when teaching in virtual reality. Review the size and space available in a virtual location to ensure high levels of interaction with reasonable sound clarity are possible.
Of course, educators using VR have new ways to manage the volume in VR learning experiences. Depending on the immersive VR application selected for learning, one can mute students or place students in private pairs, where only the teacher can listen in. While teachers can use social or gaming apps for interactive practice, audio control will vary. Applications specifically designed for immersive VR learning will offer more facilitation tools to teachers, allowing for easy classroom management with the click of a few buttons. Teachers who are exploring immersive virtual spaces should take time to learn more about the control mechanics and audio features to ensure that their group and pair activities are easy to optimize. Authentic contexts can help develop a more accurate understanding of skills and concepts (Abdallah, 2015). In VR, teachers can leverage the situated immersive contexts to support learners. Virtual reality spaces can redefine what it means to learn English when teachers and learners explore contexts.
Situated contexts support self-efficacy by allowing learners to create strategies to manage real-world challenges. VR applications designed specifically to support facilitated language instruction will have many well-crafted locations (or scenes) with common contextual environments for language practice. The imaginative potential creates entirely new possibilities for language educators to engage and inspire learners.
The potential social benefits of VR cannot be overstated. In the last year, multiple sectors have begun to explore collaborative, interactive, communicative virtual reality to help people connect, restore a sense of community, and foster collaboration and interaction (Howcroft, 2020; PWC, 2020). For language educators, immersive virtual reality creates unique opportunities to support collaboration, interaction, and fluency development.
Educators have demonstrated unparalleled levels of creativity over the past year as they continued to teach under the strains of a global pandemic. The coming year will only test teachers’ strengths further as the world comes to terms with the size and shape of a new normal. A return to normal does not mean leaving technology behind. Thanks to the advances in virtual reality technology, teachers can educate students in a fully virtual environment, using pedologically sound lesson plans and research-informed practices.
Initial studies into the efficacy of virtual reality learning are promising and merit further investigation.
Learners are showing signs of improved confidence and ability when using VR. The adding of contexts and situations not normally available in the classroom gives teachers opportunities to prepare students for using language in a variety of contexts—beyond the classroom and into the real world, no matter what it looks like.
References available at www.languagemagazine.com/references-davila-vr.
Sara Davila is the head of efficacy and learning for Immerse. Sara is a learning and language acquisition expert with over 20 years of experience in instructional design, teacher development, and 21st-century pedagogy. At Immerse, Sara brings research and practice together to develop next-generation learning experiences in virtual reality.