Second language (L2) learning is a difficult task, fraught with a number of challenges. Difficulties can range from fear and anxiety, interference from one’s native language (L1), the kinds of learning opportunities that are available, and how to keep engaged with the task at hand. This list is definitely much longer, but we will use this as a jumping off point. However, if we are to consider language learning using the VR, then we should touch on the challenges of simply introducing some VR devices into a learning environment as well.
The biggest obstacle when considering VR in a language program is likely to be cost. VR is just too expensive. Hold that thought for a moment, and let’s dig into other issues. These issues can be numerous enough to warrant a list. Let’s give that a go:
Not enough content to justify a purchase
No leveling of content
No advantage to using a VR over other methods (other than fun)
Not useful as test preparation (ie. iELTS)
Supposing that we can satisfy some or all of the issues, then cost considerations and budgets can be assessed. Before simply “buying a device,” a thought about efficacy demands some exploration as to what you plan to do with the VR, and why.
The Benefits of VR
It is fairly well-established that the VR provides the following: an engaging, distraction-free environment that most students seem to enjoy. This has value, but I would submit that it is not quite enough to justify the purchase of a VR system. As with any resource, the content matters more than the device, or means of delivery. So what would justly prompt such a purchase? If you can do or achieve things in the VR that cannot be replicated elsewhere, that is a good point from which to start.
As noted above, the VR offers a distraction-free environment. It’s important to dig into this. The removal of distractors is of significant value for a few reasons: learning is not disrupted, continuity of message remains intact, and there is focused concentration on the task at hand.
This environment is also judgement-free. One of the factors interrupting learning can be fear and anxiety on the part of the learner. Removing moments of judgement, such as the fear of speaking in front of a class, worry about “saying something stupid” or concern about whether someone can “understand my English” is equally significant with regards to student affect. Even a dialogue with a well-intentioned instructor can lead to anxiety as there is always awareness that utterances will be judged and/or corrected (and rightly so). But using the VR for language learning has shown a 10X improvement in confidence in a recent study (Dr. Yuechun Jiang, Ph.D., Beijing Foreign Studies University, Oct 2019, unpublished).
More specifically to language learning, a VR environment sets a scene, and gives a learner a sense of time and place. This builds context, which of course is very important for language learning.
The Benefits of Veative VR
Beyond the general benefits of VR, there must still be more to warrant an investment. So what is it that can be uniquely achieved using the VR, which cannot be found in other ways?
Speaking requires either time with an instructor, or a native speaker. It is not something that can be done on one’s own… until now. The Veative VR offering includes voice recognition, ensuring that learners take an active role and produce language. This promotes the training of vocal muscles even when alone. The significance of this is that although most things can be studied on one’s own, such as vocabulary, grammar, listening, reading and writing, speaking stands alone in that it requires a partner or teacher. That barrier is now being removed.
Pathway to Fluency
As we come from education, and specifically from language education, we know that there is value in approach, and not simply throwing words at someone to learn. This is why we start with the basic sounds (phonemes), move to key words, simple sentences and on to conversations. This affords the learner an opportunity to start simple and build as they go. Of course, this is a self-paced, self-directed exercise so the learning path will be dependent on what the learner needs, and feels most comfortable with. There is no need to follow a pre-determined path, but chances for discovery along the way.
Nothing can kill enthusiasm quite like dry, boring texts which lack authenticity. The VR can offer up semi-real experiences, even in a virtual world. But to keep this fresh and to maintain engagement, there must be enough to do, and we have that covered as well. This is why there are 104 scenarios from coffee shop talk to taking a bus, a doctor’s office visit to checking into a hotel. There is variety in scenes (104), variety in participants (gender, race and age), and variety in tasks.
This VR series was primarily designed for college-aged second language (English) learners, who are not absolute beginners. False beginners and high beginners and beyond will find some use in this. The conversations are broken up into 4 broad levels:
These levels are defined by length of passage, grammatical complexity and lexical choices. The levels are meant as a guideline to help learners progress in difficulty and are not designed to adhere to certain standards.
At the moment, we have users as young as 15 and all ages beyond that. A determination of age-appropriateness needs to be made on an individual program basis.
Tests (iELTS and others)
We often get asked about whether this has value for test prep. The simple answer is that this was not designed for tests, but I wouldn’t say there is no value at all. iELTS for example is a 4 skills test. This VR series is good practice for general listening skills and the wealth of content contained within (approximately 10000 words, 1000 keywords & phrases, 400 specific vocabulary terms) allows for more exposure to the target language, in a variety of settings.
In addition, this series promotes and forces speaking. This is a wonderful precursor to the speaking component of a test like iELTS. We know that the path to fluency is pathed with more and more speaking opportunities, and anything that attends to that is a welcome addition to any learning environment.
At the beginning, we alluded to the issue of cost. VR devices come in a small variety of shapes and sizes, each with their own positives. There are basically two types: tethered to a PC (HTC Vive) and standalone (Oculus Go, EduPro).
A tethered device offers the most processing power (from a high-performance PC) and thus has the greatest immersive experience. This is the de facto choice for gamers and those looking for true immersion. Costs run in the area of about $3,000 US (device cost is less than $1,000, but a PC capable of running apps will be in the $2,000 range).
A standalone device does not require a PC, and is likewise much more convenient and portable. The immersiveness is very good and is all that is required for education. These devices are in the $300-400 US range, which allows for the purchase of more devices. This means that a number of students can partake, rather than just one.
For those that really don’t know about the VR, there is a 3rd option, which is a viewer and phone. A viewer is only about $10-20 US, but this requires a phone (which does all the work). The issue is the cost of the phone, and then the storage space available to house the lessons, and there is a lot of content to contend with!
The VR is not meant to replace a teacher, and can never do that. This VR ELL series was not created as a foundational English course, yet was made to enhance and support learning, and encourage further study by building confidence and preparedness for the situations and scenes that students may one day find themselves in. Building confidence by giving exposure to a variety of contexts, this series is a terrific addition to any language learning environment.
Most of this was with the Veative solution in mind, but the underlying point is that there is real benefit to using VR, and that finding and buying a device is not the key element to any purchase. The content must be the primary driver of any decision, and there must be a good, compelling reason to add this to your curriculum, or to a language resource centre.
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