How can we use Virtual Reality to teach English?

Paul Driver

Following on from What is virtual reality?, the second article in our virtual reality series looks at how the technology can be used in language teaching classrooms.  With 25 years of ELT experience, Paul Driver’s research interests span across many fields, exploring the roles of technology, virtual reality, game design, play, and embodied cognition.

Building on the familiar

Incorporating new technologies into our teaching practice does not mean we need to reinvent the pedagogic wheel. The learning principles that underpin many of the tasks, activities and approaches we commonly use today can be improved, extended or even transformed through the considered and informed use of new tools such as virtual reality. In this post, we’ll look at two ways in which VR might be used to achieve this.

Role play

You’re a taxi driver, go! You’re checking in at the airport, go! You’re in a restaurant and you’re not happy with your meal, go! Whether you like them or not, role plays have long been a staple of the ELT classroom. The idea that imaginary situations are good for practising functional language is sound.  It’s a tried and tested way to subvert the four walls of the classroom and create different contexts for communication. When students step out of their own identities to ‘become’ a different person, or, through the power of imagination, teleport themselves to a different place, the learning experience can be enriched.

This sounds great, and fits well with the communicative approach to language teaching (and, more broadly, with constructivism), but good role plays do take a significant amount of time and effort for teachers to prepare, and unbridled, contagious enthusiasm to motivate students and keep them engaged.

Virtual reality, with its ability to instantly, utterly convincingly, create context by teleporting a whole class of students anywhere in the world (or space or imaginary places) can firmly situate language. Not only can classroom walls fade into the background, but the barriers between distance learners and those physically present in the classroom can also disappear, as students’ digital selves interact with each other and even with virtual characters that can maintain eye contact and communicate in natural language. These affordances have far-reaching implications for lesson design that go well beyond traditional role-play scenarios.

Unfortunately, while many people are working on developing platforms for social interaction within VR, such as Facebook Spaces, the tools for achieving this at scale are still quite primitive and impractical to implement for most teachers. For this reason, while the level of interaction and communication required for virtual reality role plays is technically possible, it remains an exciting but tantalizingly out-of-reach option in the short term. It’s not all bad news though, as there are less ambitious but far more accessible ways to use virtual reality with your students.

Field trips

Field trips are great for language learners. They expose learners to different, authentic environments where they can learn new language in context and practice communicating in a more unstructured way that is exciting, memorable, multisensory and integrated with subject content.

Again, this type of activity sits comfortably with the simple premise of the communicative approach: that language is best learned by using it to communicate meaningfully (rather than just through explicit grammar and vocabulary instruction).  But rich experiential learning activities are not trivial to plan. They can be expensive, require written consent from parents and are often logistically convoluted and fraught with safeguarding concerns. This is why teachers often resort to just showing students pictures or short video clips of these exciting places.

When basic virtual reality became accessible to classroom teachers (thanks mostly to Google’s Cardboard initiative), the most obvious idea for its first application was to use it to take students on virtual field trips. Google Expeditions, a free mobile app designed to work with Google’s cardboard headsets, invites us to “Imagine exploring coral reefs or the surface of Mars in an afternoon. With Expeditions, teachers can take students on immersive, virtual journeys.”

This, of course, requires every student to be wearing a headset in order to join the virtual tour. As Google’s product is made of actual cardboard, they are inexpensive to purchase a class set. However, these headsets do not contain any technology beyond the lenses. They require a fairly sophisticated smartphone to power these experiences and a classroom set of these is not an insignificant cost. For this reason, many schools adopt the bring your own device approach, while maintaining a small number of standby devices to avoid excluding students without them.

Google Expeditions uses immersive 360-degree images to build each explorable scene.  Each expedition contains multiple scenes complete with guiding notes and questions for the teacher to ask students.

Unlike many VR experiences, which can be isolating for the student wearing the headset, Expeditions allows the whole class to join in. The teacher, using a tablet instead of wearing a headset, can see all of the students in class, while simultaneously monitoring where they are looking in the digital space of the simulation. She or he can even click on a point in the virtual environment that will draw a circle around a point of interest in the virtual world so that attention can be focused on what is being explained or described.

In my view, it is the (admittedly limited) ability for students to continue interacting with the teacher while they are collectively immersed in virtual spaces that sets Expeditions apart from the many VR tour videos that can be found online and experienced in isolation.

My next post will explore some of the engaging virtual reality content that is readily available to try out. Moving beyond the consumption of ready-made content, I will then take you on a tour of the tools you can use to get your digital hands dirty and create your own bespoke VR content to use with students in (or out) of the classroom.

Find out more about virtual reality by reading Paul’s first post – What is virtual reality?, and see how a teacher has been inspired to put VR into practice, with Lulwa Bordcosh’s post Using virtual reality in the ESL classroom.

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