Posts Tagged ‘VR’

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

Book_coverIn my last post, I looked at shortcomings in edtech research, mostly from outside the world of ELT. I made a series of recommendations of ways in which such research could become more useful. In this post, I look at two very recent collections of ELT edtech research. The first of these is Digital Innovations and Research in Language Learning, edited by Mavridi and Saumell, and published this February by the Learning Technologies SIG of IATEFL. I’ll refer to it here as DIRLL. It’s available free to IATEFL LT SIG members, and can be bought for $10.97 as an ebook on Amazon (US). The second is the most recent edition (February 2020) of the Language Learning & Technology journal, which is open access and available here. I’ll refer to it here as LLTJ.

In both of these collections, the focus is not on ‘technology per se, but rather issues related to language learning and language teaching, and how they are affected or enhanced by the use of digital technologies’. However, they are very different kinds of publication. Nobody involved in the production of DIRLL got paid in any way (to the best of my knowledge) and, in keeping with its provenance from a teachers’ association, has ‘a focus on the practitioner as teacher-researcher’. Almost all of the contributing authors are university-based, but they are typically involved more in language teaching than in research. With one exception (a grant from the EU), their work was unfunded.

The triannual LLTJ is funded by two American universities and published by the University of Hawaii Press. The editors and associate editors are well-known scholars in their fields. The journal’s impact factor is high, close to the impact factor of the paywalled reCALL (published by the University of Cambridge), which is the highest-ranking journal in the field of CALL. The contributing authors are all university-based, many with a string of published articles (in prestige journals), chapters or books behind them. At least six of the studies were funded by national grant-awarding bodies.

I should begin by making clear that there was much in both collections that I found interesting. However, it was not usually the research itself that I found informative, but the literature review that preceded it. Two of the chapters in DIRLL were not really research, anyway. One was the development of a template for evaluating ICT-mediated tasks in CLIL, another was an advocacy of comics as a resource for language teaching. Both of these were new, useful and interesting to me. LLTJ included a valuable literature review of research into VR in FL learning (but no actual new research). With some exceptions in both collections, though, I felt that I would have been better off curtailing my reading after the reviews. Admittedly, there wouldn’t be much in the way of literature reviews if there were no previous research to report …

It was no surprise to see the learners who were the subjects of this research were overwhelmingly university students. In fact, only one article (about a high-school project in Israel, reported in DIRLL) was not about university students. The research areas focused on reflected this bias towards tertiary contexts: online academic reading skills, academic writing, online reflective practices in teacher training programmes, etc.

In a couple of cases, the selection of experimental subjects seemed plain bizarre. Why, if you want to find out about the extent to which Moodle use can help EAP students become better academic readers (in DIRLL), would you investigate this with a small volunteer cohort of postgraduate students of linguistics, with previous experience of using Moodle and experience of teaching? Is a less representative sample imaginable? Why, if you want to investigate the learning potential of the English File Pronunciation app (reported in LLTJ), which is clearly most appropriate for A1 – B1 levels, would you do this with a group of C1-level undergraduates following a course in phonetics as part of an English Studies programme?

More problematic, in my view, was the small sample size in many of the research projects. The Israeli virtual high school project (DIRLL), previously referred to, started out with only 11 students, but 7 dropped out, primarily, it seems, because of institutional incompetence: ‘the project was probably doomed […] to failure from the start’, according to the author. Interesting as this was as an account of how not to set up a project of this kind, it is simply impossible to draw any conclusions from 4 students about the potential of a VLE for ‘interaction, focus and self-paced learning’. The questionnaire investigating experience of and attitudes towards VR (in DIRLL) was completed by only 7 (out of 36 possible) students and 7 (out of 70+ possible) teachers. As the author acknowledges, ‘no great claims can be made’, but then goes on to note the generally ‘positive attitudes to VR’. Perhaps those who did not volunteer had different attitudes? We will never know. The study of motivational videos in tertiary education (DIRLL) started off with 15 subjects, but 5 did not complete the necessary tasks. The research into L1 use in videoconferencing (LLTJ) started off with 10 experimental subjects, all with the same L1 and similar cultural backgrounds, but there was no data available from 4 of them (because they never switched into L1). The author claims that the paper demonstrates ‘how L1 is used by language learners in videoconferencing as a social semiotic resource to support social presence’ – something which, after reading the literature review, we already knew. But the paper also demonstrates quite clearly how L1 is not used by language learners in videoconferencing as a social semiotic resource to support social presence. In all these cases, it is the participants who did not complete or the potential participants who did not want to take part that have the greatest interest for me.

Unsurprisingly, the LLTJ articles had larger sample sizes than those in DIRLL, but in both collections the length of the research was limited. The production of one motivational video (DIRLL) does not really allow us to draw any conclusions about the development of students’ critical thinking skills. Two four-week interventions do not really seem long enough to me to discover anything about learner autonomy and Moodle (DIRLL). An experiment looking at different feedback modes needs more than two written assignments to reach any conclusions about student preferences (LLTJ).

More research might well be needed to compensate for the short-term projects with small sample sizes, but I’m not convinced that this is always the case. Lacking sufficient information about the content of the technologically-mediated tools being used, I was often unable to reach any conclusions. A gamified Twitter environment was developed in one project (DIRLL), using principles derived from contemporary literature on gamification. The authors concluded that the game design ‘failed to generate interaction among students’, but without knowing a lot more about the specific details of the activity, it is impossible to say whether the problem was the principles or the particular instantiation of those principles. Another project, looking at the development of pronunciation materials for online learning (LLTJ), came to the conclusion that online pronunciation training was helpful – better than none at all. Claims are then made about the value of the method used (called ‘innovative Cued Pronunciation Readings’), but this is not compared to any other method / materials, and only a very small selection of these materials are illustrated. Basically, the reader of this research has no choice but to take things on trust. The study looking at the use of Alexa to help listening comprehension and speaking fluency (LLTJ) cannot really tell us anything about IPAs unless we know more about the particular way that Alexa is being used. Here, it seems that the students were using Alexa in an interactive storytelling exercise, but so little information is given about the exercise itself that I didn’t actually learn anything at all. The author’s own conclusion is that the results, such as they are, need to be treated with caution. Nevertheless, he adds ‘the current study illustrates that IPAs may have some value to foreign language learners’.

This brings me onto my final gripe. To be told that IPAs like Alexa may have some value to foreign language learners is to be told something that I already know. This wasn’t the only time this happened during my reading of these collections. I appreciate that research cannot always tell us something new and interesting, but a little more often would be nice. I ‘learnt’ that goal-setting plays an important role in motivation and that gamification can boost short-term motivation. I ‘learnt’ that reflective journals can take a long time for teachers to look at, and that reflective video journals are also very time-consuming. I ‘learnt’ that peer feedback can be very useful. I ‘learnt’ from two papers that intercultural difficulties may be exacerbated by online communication. I ‘learnt’ that text-to-speech software is pretty good these days. I ‘learnt’ that multimodal literacy can, most frequently, be divided up into visual and auditory forms.

With the exception of a piece about online safety issues (DIRLL), I did not once encounter anything which hinted that there may be problems in using technology. No mention of the use to which student data might be put. No mention of the costs involved (except for the observation that many students would not be happy to spend money on the English File Pronunciation app) or the cost-effectiveness of digital ‘solutions’. No consideration of the institutional (or other) pressures (or the reasons behind them) that may be applied to encourage teachers to ‘leverage’ edtech. No suggestion that a zero-tech option might actually be preferable. In both collections, the language used is invariably positive, or, at least, technology is associated with positive things: uncovering the possibilities, promoting autonomy, etc. Even if the focus of these publications is not on technology per se (although I think this claim doesn’t really stand up to close examination), it’s a little disingenuous to claim (as LLTJ does) that the interest is in how language learning and language teaching is ‘affected or enhanced by the use of digital technologies’. The reality is that the overwhelming interest is in potential enhancements, not potential negative effects.

I have deliberately not mentioned any names in referring to the articles I have discussed. I would, though, like to take my hat off to the editors of DIRLL, Sophia Mavridi and Vicky Saumell, for attempting to do something a little different. I think that Alicia Artusi and Graham Stanley’s article (DIRLL) about CPD for ‘remote’ teachers was very good and should interest the huge number of teachers working online. Chryssa Themelis and Julie-Ann Sime have kindled my interest in the potential of comics as a learning resource (DIRLL). Yu-Ju Lan’s article about VR (LLTJ) is surely the most up-to-date, go-to article on this topic. There were other pieces, or parts of pieces, that I liked, too. But, to me, it’s clear that ‘more research is needed’ … much less than (1) better and more critical research, and (2) more digestible summaries of research.