In my first research blog post for Immerse, I looked at research into teachers’ perceptions of using technology in their lessons in general and virtual reality and augmented reality more specifically. What are the challenges that hinder teachers in integrating technology into their lessons? What opportunities do teachers see in using VR or AR, and what would help them make the most of these technologies? Read the blog post here.
I’m very interested in using virtual reality environments for teaching ESP (English for Specific Purposes) or ESAP (English for Specific Academic Purposes). However, the problem is that it would take a lot of time, effort and cost to develop such course in a virtual world from scratch. This is one of the reasons, I believe, why even after so many years, there are still only a handful of language educators in virtual worlds.
My approach in the past, therefore, was to use existing places (in Second Life) to teach English, rather than buying land, learning to built and script, etc. This wasn’t and isn’t feasible for most teachers.
So, when I came across this video from Arizona State University on Linkedin a couple of weeks ago, I was really excited, not because of Hollywood, but because I think some of us educators might be able to piggyback on this kind of thing. For example, they want to use the world shown in the video to teach biology. Instead of reinventing the wheel, the language department could use the same world to teach EAP or ESAP. I assume that language departments around the world don’t have the budget to build immersive virtual environments such as this one just to teach an English for Biology, or Architecture, Medicine or History course. However, if a university can built virtual reality environments for certain subjects, we language teachers could use the same material or course content and create a language course and activities for that subject area. This would not only save money, time and effort, but it would help integrate the language learning with the international students’ subject courses and support them better.
As I also like project-based learning, I could imagine another type of collaboration between different departments and subject areas. Many universities now offer degrees in Virtual and Augmented Reality, and often students have to work on projects developing VR environments or apps as part of their portfolio for assessment. Some projects could be on building environments or apps for the language department. Or an interdisciplinary collaboration could bring VR development students together with EdTech and TESOL students (like I was) and have them work together on VR for language education projects – a win-win-win situation for the students from the two disciplines and the university.
(For more details about the ASU project, go here.)
Storytelling is probably as old as humans existence.* All good storytellers try to immerse their audience in their realistic or fantastic stories, bring their characters to life and generate emotions in their listeners by all kinds of means: simply using their voice, describing a scene, making accompanying sounds with any kinds of instruments available, dressing up, playing suitable tunes, showing images or films, and using all the other tricks of the storyteller’s trade.
Can we then agree that VR technology is simply a continuum of what has existed for a long time and just allows us to use another technique (or trick) to help us feel present – immersed – in a world that is not our current physical world? Perhaps there is one important difference, though: in an interactive VR environment or virtual world, we are not just told an immersive story, we can actively take part in it, which can contribute to the feeling of really experiencing something – even more, creating an experience – rather than just being a ‘consumer’ of a story. Imagine just watching a film versus being able to jump into a scene and interact with everything in it and thereby impacting on and changing the story!
If storytelling has such an important place in human existence and experience, and VR can help us make stories more immersive, experiential and participatory, we need to keep this in mind when using VR in education and planning lessons or immersive experiences that we hope will lead to better learning. If we could manage to convey our learning content as stories, that would be a great success. This is not a new idea, of course, but one that is particularly important when using VR technology, for which immersion is cited as one of the main raisons d’être.
When we take our learners to a location in an immersive VR app or virtual world so they feel more immersed, for example to a café to practise ordering food, and we tell our students, ’Today we will practise ordering food in a café’, we’d be taking away from the immersive experience. It’s the same as telling students in a physical classroom, ‘Today, we’re going to practise using modals for politeness’. How engaging is that? How much positive emotional engagement will this create?
Instead, we can in many cases pack the grammar point or functional language into a kind of story. So, for example, before the café lesson, tell a simple story: ‘Today is my birthday, so I’d like to take you all to a café […] Let’s go!’ You can make your story as short or as elaborate as you want. Depending on your context, the length of time available and how your course and lessons are set up, you could really go into it with more preparation before the VR session to raise expectations, increase motivation, and spark your learner’s imagination right from the start. You could show them a picture of the place you want to take them too. Tell them it’s one of your favourite places and why. Perhaps tell them what kind of foods and drinks they offer in that place, when it opened, what makes it special. Elicit from them what kind of foods and drinks they like, where they usually like to go to celebrate, etc.
Another example: Let’s say the lesson is about learning/reviewing the names of colours. How can you introduce this lesson better than saying, ’In this lesson, you will learn/review the names of colours’?
How about saying, ‘I’m planning a party. I want to decorate my room. Look, here are balloons. Which colour do you like best?’ Or ‘Give me the red ballon’, or ‘Where is the blue ballon?’, etc., depending on what language your learners already understand or can use. At the end, you can say, ‘Thank you for helping me decorate my room’ and ‘You’re all invited to my party’.
So, as you can see, making a lesson into a story does not need to be difficult or time-consuming. You don’t even have to change your lesson plan, just introduce it slightly differently and embed it in a simple story.
Of course, there is a lot more to storytelling. The best stories are those that are created and told by learners themselves. For some ideas for this, have a look at my blog post ‘Photography and storytelling lessons in virtual reality‘.
*If you want to learn more about the development of storytelling from cave paintings to VR technology, you might want to check out this free online course by the University of Lancaster, which has a unit on the history of VR.
As a (former) photographer, I love using images in language classes, so I really like the snapshot function in Second Life. You can download snapshots, or send them directly as email. This is like when you travel and send emails with updates to family and friends. Being able to do this while you’re still in the virtual world makes the experience feel more immerse than saving the snapshot and writing the email after leaving the virtual world. It is also a more authentic activity for many people now who like to take a snapshot with their smartphone when they are out and about and immediately share it via a messenger app or social media.
I used this functionality of SL a lot when teaching there. It gives learners the opportunity to share something they have experienced with their family and friends – just like they would if they were on a trip or holiday. Also, it gives them a real reason and motivates them to use the language as they do want to share what they have experienced – there is an emotional connection.
Even if the virtual world you use does not have a camera/snapshot function, learners can always take a screenshot (just beware of permissions and copyright issues, particularly if the images are to be shared publicly (I blogged about this in the past, but I’m not sure whether anything has changed in the meantime). I have to find out whether it is possible to take snapshots or screenshots in VRs when using a headset!
Using these snapshots in a story is another possibility. Learners can be asked to create and write stories. They can enhance their stories with snapshots they have taken. This could be made into a project-based activity by having groups of learners co-create and write a story and publish it as a blog post or even a simple ebook, which they can then share with others.
Another possibility for a project-based activity using VR snapshots is creating comics or cartoon stories, using one of the many comic creation tools that are available online. This was made with Canva.
(Images taken in the Village of Ahiru http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Ahiru/95/103/29)
Did you always want to know what Virtual Reality exactly is? Or you are not sure what the difference between AR, VR, MR and XR is? How old is VR do you think? Would you like to know about the history of it? Do you know in which industries VR is used and how it might develop in the future? What are the benefits of using VR? Can using VR be dangerous? What ethical implications could creating VR environments or apps have?
If you are interested in the answers to these question and more, and have a few spare hours, there are some good (free) short online courses you can take. Here are two to get you started:
1. The University of Lancaster Institute of Coding offers a two-week course on FutureLearn called Introduction to Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality. The course is very accessible and there is just enough information if you only have a couple of hours and want a brief introduction. But there are lots of extra links to articles, websites and even development tools if you want to dig a bit deeper. You can also take your time to reflect about the information and questions, and add comments to interact with other course participants. Some comments are really insightful or help you to look at things from a different perspective. You get a free digital upgrade too, and can download and share your certificate on Linkedin and elsewhere. The topics that are covered are:
- The fundamentals of XR (VR, AR and MR)
- The ethics surrounding the creation of XR applications
- Careers/pathways in and skills in XR
- The technologies and tools in creating XR projects
2. If you have access to Linkedin Learning (You need to have a Premium account or your institution subscribes to it, or you can sign up for a 30-day trial), you can take the course Virtual Reality Foundations by Craig Barr. The learning objectives are:
- What is virtual reality?
- Types of virtual reality
- Using virtual reality in business, filmmaking, AEC, and more
- Developing VR content
- The future of VR
The topics covered are similar to the one above, but it’s worth going through both courses as they look at things from different angles or provide different examples. From what I have seen, in the FutureLearn courses comments are generally more elaborate because you are frequently asked reflective questions. If you start on a specific start date, you also feel part of a learning community and not like just watching a series of video lecturers on your own as it often is with Linkedin Learning courses. Of course there is nothing to stop you from forming a community with like-minded people and working your way through a Linkedin course together and discussing the content as you go. Linkedin Learning allows you to download and share your certificate on your Linkedin profile and feed too.
So, what interests you in VR? What do you think of its potential? How would you like to use it?
It’s been eight years since I left the 3D virtual word of Second Life after a few years of experimenting with teaching English, co-creating the SLExperiments groups for teachers interested in language education in SL, and conducting teacher training!
A couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to go back. Daffodil was a bit cross with me for abandoning her, but we made up and are friends again. She still dresses much better than I, that hasn’t changed. But her movements have become a bit clumsy now and it takes her longer to do things, such as adjusting her camera view, rezzing an object, finding stuff in her inventory, etc. She lost her beautiful house at the seaside, too. Well actually, she’s still got the house and furniture in her inventory she said, but nowhere to set it up and settle. So, she was basically just sitting in a corner of a forest, where I had left her (OK, I do feel a bit guilty now…). She told me she kept all our teaching tools and objects, lesson notes, landmarks of interesting places…however, many of the locations don’t exist any longer. How sad is that? Well, she said when you live in a virtual world, you kinda get used to things appearing, being changed or moved, and then disappearing. That’s virtual life for you, she said… Well, it’s not much different in my world either I told her…at which point she took me to a place where she had the right to rez objects, and rolled out our favourite carpet with comfortable cushions, tea glasses and some (to my dismay virtual) food, and we sat down and told each other about our lives in the past eight years in our respective worlds…
When everyone was ‘Zooming’ in the past couple month since this ‘p’ thing has happened to the real world and schools, universities, businesses, and socialising moved online, my mind kept going back to my Second Life times. As a blended and online learning professional, I know you can have great teaching and learning experiences online, whether in synchronous sessions using video conferencing tools or asynchronously. However, when most of our lives move online, learners and teachers might benefit from a more immersed experience when working, learning or socialising. There are many more good reasons, but those are for other posts.
I told Daffodil that I was going to start exploring virtual reality for language learning and teaching purposes again, but that this time it wouldn’t just be in Second Life but also other worlds, and that I was planning to use VR headsets too. At which point she jumped up from her cushion and got all excited. ‘I have one, I have one’ she said, and started fiddling in her inventory. I was puzzled. ‘What do you mean you have one?’ – ‘I have a VR headset, wait…’, and there she took it out of her inventory and put it on. I didn’t know what to say. How could I explain to her that this didn’t make sense? ‘Look, you’re an avatar, you are already in a virtual word, you don’t need a VR headset to feel immersed in it.’ – ‘How do you know how I feel?’ she said, visibly hurt. Oh dear…I offended my avatar, and she was right too! Nobody had prepared me for this kind of situation, so I decided I’d best change the subject.
‘So, as I said, I’ll be visiting other worlds. You know, I found out there’re loads of them’ – “Great! I was getting bored here, I’ll come with you and we’ll explore them together, just as we did here back then! So when are we starting? What do you think shall I wear…comfortable clothes and shoes I guess? Right? Why aren’t you saying anything?’ – ‘Eh, I don’t think that’ll be possible. Unfortunately, avatar’s can’t just travel from one virtual world to another. I’d really love to take you with me. You know in some of the worlds they don’t even allow you to customise your avatar; you have to choose one they offer and you’re stuck with that look. Can you imagine? It’ll really be difficult for me to feel immersed in a world when I look like a robot or animal, and even worse, like a human but completely different from what I look like or would like to look like. I know there’re people who don’t mind this at all, but I do…So, really, I wish I could take you with me…Perhaps one day, one day it will be possible…’
There she was looking upset again…’Look, wherever I go, I’ll take notes and pictures and I’ll come back and report to you. How’s that? I might even try to rent a plot of land here where you can set up your lovely house again, hm, hm?’– ‘Now, that’s an offer! Then, I’d allow you to stay and use the house too sometimes… and sometimes we could go on field trips again and attend conferences together, like in the old times!’ – ‘Yes! Absolutely. That’s how we’ll do it!’
And so both of us were happy and excited about phase two of our virtual reality for language education explorations!
Bring it on!
New teaching experience
I’ve taught ten and six-week EAP pre-sessional courses at UK universities since 2011. In 2020, I was supposed to be teaching my tenth course, but I wasn’t keen on travelling and mixing with so many people for extended periods in the classroom or staffroom. Fortunately, the course came to me 🙂 So instead of spending the summer in the UK, we rented a house with a fruit garden in a beautiful village hidden up in the mountains, but still close to home.
I always believed the pre-sessional courses could and should be taught in blended mode. Some universities have been offering all or parts of their courses in blended mode or (partially) online for a while now. This year all universities had to go online. I really enjoyed teaching the course online, and I can say it was the least stressful one ever. I co-wrote an article with Zoe Smith for The English Teaching Professional, reflecting on the the challenges and opportunities of online pre-sessionals.
New role as research manager
A couple of months ago, I decided to change directions in my work. I started digital authoring and editing back in 2013 and it’s been really a rewarding and interesting seven years in which I’ve learned new skills and found a new community of wonderful people: editors, writers and publishers. When content and copy editing, I found it really interesting to go through a complete course and see how it was built, designed and what the writers created. I like editorial work, even style guides and spreadsheets up to a point! I even sometimes experience some kind of flow when copyediting…Yeah, I know what you’re thinking 😀
But I felt I needed a change, or rather something in addition to what I had been doing. I felt I wasn’t creating anything and I wasn’t making much use of what I had spent years learning and experimenting with. I missed being involved in the planning and development of a blended or online course, doing research, exploring new things and writing about them.
As nearly all teaching and learning had gone online this year, one thing I noticed was often missing in online courses was the social element. Lessons also quickly start to feel the same in a video conferencing environment, and role-plays don’t work as well as in a face-to-face setting. So I started exploring how these things could be done better online. Which is exactly why I had started experimenting with language teaching in a 3D virtual world more than a decade ago. I started reading up on the latest developments in the field of virtual reality and building new connections on Linkedin with people working in this field. And this is how I met my lovely colleagues from Immerse. Their enthusiasm was so contagious that I had to join them when they asked me whether I’d like to work for them as a Research Manager. The good thing is that my role with them allows me to follow my interests in VR: read about research, meet researchers and other people who are doing great work in VR, facilitate research and help disseminate knowledge gained about language learning and teaching in VR.
I still accept editing jobs because the skills set an editor needs, such as paying attention to detail, are useful in any job, and as I said, it gives me insight into how others design courses and write content. I also hope I can do some teaching too, because whether you are developing courses, writing lesson plans or doing research into teaching and learning, having recent experience as a teacher gives you invaluable insights.
I’m really looking forward to what 2021 will bring in terms of work and new experiences.