VR – the next big thing in ELT

Posted: November 15, 2020 in ed tech, investment, solutionism, video
Tags: , , , , ,

The VR experience is nothing if it is not immersive, and in language learning, the value of immersion in VR is seen to be the way in which it can lead to what we might call ‘engagement’ or ‘flow’. Fully immersed in a VR world, learning can be maximized, or so the thinking goes (Lan, 2020; Chen & Hsu, 2020). ‘By blocking out visual and auditory distractions in the classroom, VR has the potential to help students deeply connect with the material’ (Gadelha, 2018). ‘There are no distracting classroom windows to stare out of when students are directly immersed into the topic they are investigating’ (Bonner & Reinders, 2018: 36). Such is the allure of immersion that it is no surprise to find the word in the names of VR language learning products like Immerse and ImmerseMe (although the nod to bilingual immersion progammes (such as those in Canada) is an added bonus).

There is, however, immersion and immersion. A common categorisation of VR is into:

  • non-immersive (e.g. a desktop game with a 2D screen and avatars)
  • semi-immersive (e.g. high-end arcade games and flight simulators with large projections)
  • fully immersive (e.g. with a head-mounted display, headphones, body sensors)

Taking things a little further is the possibility of directly inducing responses in the nervous system with molecular nanotechnology. We’re some way off that, but, fear not, people are working on it. At this point, it’s worth noting that this hierarchy of immersivity is driven by technological considerations: more tech = more immersion.

In ELT, the most common VR applications are currently at the low end of this scale. Probably the most talked about currently is the use of 3600 photography and a very simple headset like Google Cardboard, along with headphones, to take students on virtual field trips – anywhere from a museum or a Disney castle to a coral reef or outer space. See Raquel Ribeiro’s blog post for CUP for more ideas. Then, there are self-study packages, like Velawoods, which is a sort of combination of the SIMS with interaction made possible through speech recognition. The syllabus will be familiar to anyone used to using a contemporary coursebooks.

And, now, up a technological notch or two, is Immerse, which requires an Oculus headset. It appears to be a sort of Second Life where language learners can interact with each other and a trainer in a number of role plays, set in, for example, a garden barbecue, a pool bar, a conference or a deserted island. In addition to interacting with each other, students can interact with virtual objects, picking up darts and throw them at questions they want to focus on, for example. ‘Total physical engagement with the environment’ is how this is described by Immerse’s Chief Product Office. You can find out more in this promotional video.

Paul Driver has suggested that the evolution of VR can be ‘traced back through time as a constant struggle to create more immersive experiences. From the intricate scrolls of twelfth-century China, the huge panoramic paintings of the nineteenth century and early experiments in stereoscopic photography, to the promising but over-hyped 1990s arcade machines (which raised hopes and then dashed expectations for a whole generation), the history of virtual reality has been a meandering march forward, punctuated with long periods of stagnation’. Immerse may be fairly sophisticated as a VR language learning platform, but it has a long way to go as an immersive environment in comparison to games like Meeting Rembrandt: Master of Reality or Project VR Fishing. Its animations are crude and clunky, its scenarios short of detail.

But however ‘lifelike’ games like these are, their immersive potential is extremely limited if you have no interest in Rembrandt or fishing. VR is only as immersive as the intrinsic interest of (1) the ‘real world’ it is attempting to replicate, and (2) what you can do in it. The novelty factor may hold attention for a while, but not for long.

With simpler 3600 Google Cardboard versions of VR, you can’t actually do anything in the VR world besides watch, listen and marvel, so the intrinsic interest of the content is even more important. I quite like exploring the Okavango Delta, but I have no interest in rollercoasters or parachute jumps. But, to be immersed, I don’t actually need the 3600 experience at all, if the quality of the video is good enough. In many ways, I prefer an old-fashioned screen where my hands are not tied up with holding the phone into the Cardboard and the Cardboard to my nose.

3600 videos are usually short, and I can see how they can be used in a language class as a springboard for other work. But as a language learning tool, old-fashioned screens (with good content) may offer more potential than headsets (whether Cardboard or Oculus) because we can do other things (like communicate with other people, use a dictionary or take notes) at the same time.

VR technology in language learning cannot, therefore, (whatever its claims) generate immersion or engagement on its own. For the time being, it can, for some, captivate initial curiosity. For others, already used to high-end Oculus games, programmes like Immerse are more likely to generate a resounding ‘meh’. Engagement in learning is a highly complex phenomenon. Mercer and Dörnyei (2020: 102 ff.) argue that engaging learning materials must be designed for particular groups of learners (in terms of level and interests, for example) and they must get learners emotionally invested. Improvements in VR technology won’t really change anything.

VR is already well established and successful in some forms of education: military, healthcare and engineering, especially. Virtual reality is obviously a good place to learn how to defuse a bomb or carry out keyhole surgery. In other areas, such as soft skills training in corporate contexts, its use is growing, but its effectiveness is much less clear. In language learning, the purported advantages of VR (see, for example, Alizadeh, 2019, which has a useful bibliography, or Lloyd et al., 2017) are not convincing. There is no problem in language learning for which VR is the solution. This doesn’t mean that VR does not have a place in language learning / teaching. VR field trips may offer occasional moments of variety. Conversation in VR worlds like Facebook Spaces may be welcomed by some. And there will be markets for dedicated platforms like Velawoods, Mondly or Immerse.

Predictions about edtech are often thinly disguised attempts to accelerate a predicted future. Four years ago I went to a conference presentation by Saul Nassé, Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment. All the participants were given a Cambridge branded Google Cardboard. At the time, Nassé wrote the following:

The technology is only going to get better and cheaper. In two or three years it will be wireless and cost less than a smart phone. That’s the point when you’ll see whole classrooms equipped with VR. And I like to think we’ll find a way of Cambridge English content being used in those classrooms, with people learning English in a whole new way. It may have been a long time coming, but I think the VR revolution is now truly here to stay’.

The message was echoed in Lloyd et al (2017), all three of whom worked for Cambridge Assessment, and amplified in a series of blog posts and conference presentations around that time. Since then, it has all gone rather quiet. There are still people out there (including the investors who have just pumped $1.5 million into Immerse in Series A funding), who believe that VR will be the next big thing in language learning. But edtech investors have a long track record of turning a blind eye to history. VR, as Saul Nassé observed, ‘has been the next big thing for thirty years’. And maybe for the next thirty years, too.

REFERENCES

Alizadeh, M. (2019). Augmented/virtual reality promises for ELT practitioners. In Clements, P., Krause, A. & Bennett, P. (Eds.), Diversity and inclusion. Tokyo: JALT. https://jalt-publications.org/sites/default/files/pdf-article/jalt2018-pcp-048.pdf

Bonner, E., & Reinders, H. (2018). Augmented and virtual reality in the language classroom: Practical ideas. Teaching English with Technology, 18 (3), pp. 33-53. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1186392.pdf

Chen, Y. L. & Hsu, C. C. (2020). Self-regulated mobile game-based English learning in a virtual reality environment. Computers and Education, 154 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360131520301093?dgcid=rss_sd_all

Gadelha, R. (2018). Revolutionizing Education: The promise of virtual reality. Childhood Education, 94 (1), pp. 40-43. doi:10.1080/00094056.2018.1420362

Lan, Y. J. (2020). Immersion, interaction and experience-oriented learning: Bringing virtual reality into FL learning. Language Learning & Technology, 24(1), pp. 1–15. http://hdl.handle.net/10125/44704

Lloyd, A., Rogerson, S. & Stead, G. (2017). Imagining the potential for using Virtual Reality technologies in language learning. In Carrier, M., Damerow, R. M. & Bailey, K. M. (Eds.) Digital Language Learning and Teaching. New York: Routledge. pp. 222 – 234

Mercer, S. & Dörnyei, Z. (2020). Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Comments
  1. Taking the “12th century Chinese scrolls are an early form of VR” a step further, I wonder if we can classify writing itself as an early form of VR – using a technology (in this case script) to simulate verbal communication.

  2. ddeubel says:

    I’ve been hearing about the VR takeover since 2007 about. LOL. Why not open the classroom doors and get students out into the real world to learn language – that would be “immersive”. Second Life should be called Nine Lives.

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