Since March 2020, the online learning world has been developing and progressing very quickly. Just as students and teachers adapted and became accustomed to online lessons using communication tools like MS Teams or Zoom, the Virtual Reality world moved from science fiction to real life!
At EC we do not believe that online learning is a stop-gap, it’s not something we are playing with while we wait for the world to right itself. Online learning is here to stay and VR adds to the online experience. Students can get the fully immersive feel of an international classroom from the comfort of their own home…this has been made possible by Virtual Reality and our English language VR programme, Simmula.
What is it like?
This is perhaps the hardest question to answer as it is definitely something you have to experience. Every person that slips on the goggles is transported to another world, one that defies description; but picture this.
You slip on the Oculus goggles and for a moment the world around you goes pitch black. Suddenly you are in an expansive Moroccan style living room, you turn your head and look around you; everywhere you look there are cushions and chairs for lounging in. It feels like you could lounge in them. A menu appears before you and reach out to choose your EC lessons; you put in a 4-digit code and are immediately teleported to your lessons.
You appear in a futuristic bus station where you teacher is waiting for you. She waves at you and you wave back. Your avatar is waving as you wave. All around you your classmates are teleporting into the room. You greet them with a wave or a hi-five. One of your classmates walks past you, and it feels like they are actually that close to you. Then they stand on your left, and speak into your left ear – just like real life.
Your teacher beckons you closer and you all stand around her. A whiteboard appears next to you and she explains the plan for the lesson. As she is talking the aims and objectives for your lesson appear on the whiteboard. It’s time to learn. First stop is the city centre where we will learn the names of buildings, how to describe where a building is and how to give and understand directions; after practicing the language, it’s off to our classroom where we can sit around a table together and our teacher will give us feedback on how well we did in the lesson.
In a VR lesson, your teacher can take you to a range of different scenes depending on the needs of the lesson. You can visit a kitchen to learn about describing recipes and processes, you can learn to order food in a café or a restaurant, you can take the stage in a comedy club and tell stories or make presentations to your classmates. Or, you can sit around and watch a video on a big screen and discuss it. As a teacher, I can put you into groups for discussion, I can make a whiteboard appear anywhere, I can send you private messages on your virtual wristwatches. I can do virtually anything I can do in a physical classroom…and in some cases, even more.
What research tells us about learning in Virtual Reality?
This question was first and foremost on our minds when we began to develop our VR courses. A lot of research has been carried out into the VR experience and it is clear that learners in a VR classroom are focused on their learning environment and have less inhibition. There is so much less for them to worry about. They don’t have to even consider how they look or where they are studying; they can’t be distracted by their phone or by what’s going on outside the window because there is no phone and there is no window. Yes, there are distractions within the VR world (be it a coffee cup that you can drink from or a dart that you can throw) but they are part of the scene and therefore add to your learning objective as opposed to taking away from it. Each distraction can be turned into a learning opportunity.
What we don’t have yet is research into progress. We don’t have the answer to the question do students progress more in a VR classroom, a physical classroom or a flatscreen classroom? But this is research that EC is currently working on.
So, can students learn effectively in Virtual Reality?
The answer to this is a firm yes. When writing a VR curriculum it is important to use VR for what it does best is activate language, promote conversation, encourage collaboration and build communication skills. In a virtual world, it might not make sense to do a long reading text with comprehension questions; long grammar presentations are not effective; and students working on gapfill exercises will not make full use of the platform; you have to keep in mind that currently students cannot take notes during the learning process, but this may change as the technology is moving forward all the time.
Initially this might seem limiting, but actually there are many benefits. In a VR classroom, much like in their real lives, learners have to draw on their own resources to participate in a conversation. They cannot nip over to their notes and read something aloud, they must actually activate the language within. While they cannot take notes, their teacher can feed them language via their wristwatches or display it around the room. Teachers can use the same wristwatches to send private feedback on the conversation. Students can use the room and the environment to facilitate their conversation, pointing to objects and asking their peers to help them with language, just like in their real lives.
There are so many possibilities with Simmula from conversation skills to more focused presentation or meeting skills. You could prepare yourself for a holiday by learning transactional conversations for hotels and restaurants. You could prepare yourself for a university course like engineering or international relations. There’s so much we can do, and here at EC we’re looking forward to exploring them all with you.