When things are going well, institutions are slow to change. Student numbers on EAP (English for Academic Purposes) pre-sessional courses in the UK have been increasing steadily over the past decade that I have been teaching EAP. So there was no incentive to change. As a blended- and online-learning professional, I was keen on developing or at least teaching a blended course, which is why I used to check which universities offer online or blended options for their pre-sessional courses. It was only a handful in the UK before 2020.
Now that many universities were forced to take that step and have developed online pre-sessional courses, they will continue to offer this option even after travel restrictions are lifted, and this makes perfect sense – not only because they have now invested in this, but also because there are many benefits to an online pre-sessional course. Online pre-sessional are here to stay, so let’s work on how to improve them.
In this post, I will focus on how the students’ academic study and social experience can be enhanced by adding a virtual reality component to the EAP course – whether online or face-to-face.
The social programme
As Zoe Smith and I stated in this article sharing our online pre-sessional experiences in 2020, the social component in our courses was either completely missing, wasn’t sufficient, or was not used much by the students. The social programme is an essential part of the pre-sessional courses and contributes to student success in many ways. Students not only make friends before they start their main courses, it helps them settle in, learn about the local culture and practise non-academic English while going on field trips and playing games together, or shopping, opening bank accounts and using public transport.
Presentation and seminar discussion lesson
Learning how to present online and participate in online discussions with video conferencing tools are great transferable skills. However, students also need to learn how to present and hold seminar discussions in a physical settings because this is what they will have to do at the university and also at work. We need to prepare them for both.
Remembering individual lessons
The same video conferencing screen for each lesson makes it difficult to remember any particular lesson, which is not very helpful when we want to remember what we have learned.
In a long and intensive course, online or in the physical classroom, motivation and interest can flag after a couple of weeks because everything can start to feel repetitive.
How to enhance the online pre-sessional experience with virtual reality
Let’s see how we can address the above challenges by taking our EAP students into an immersive virtual reality environment.
Immersive, shared social experiences
In virtual reality, learners are immersed in the environment and the language, and have shared experiences with their classmates as they would in the physical world when visiting the target country. They can sit around a campfire and tell each other stories, go on field trips, watch a video together, visit a restaurant or go shopping. Being in the same environment or scene can increase the feeling of togetherness, which is difficult to achieve with video conferencing where we can see each participant in their own environment, even if they change the background.
Realistic presentation and seminar discussions
Presenting in front of an audience on a stage with the slide screen behind them in an immersive environment is as close as one can get to really being in a physical room with other people and presenting in front of them.
Similarly, sitting around a table in a meeting room or in a debate room with an audience and slide screens on the walls, students will feel much more present in the situation.
For students who are particularly shy, or if students want to practice more in their own time, there is also the option of practising with NPCs (non-playing characters), or chatbots. There are apps that focus solely on this, and with the development of generative AI, such as ChatGPT, these apps provide more natural interactions with their chatbots. They could, for example, be prompted to ask the presenter questions and even follow-up questions. Integration of such tools should always be done very thoughtfully, though.
Memorable lessons through experiences
When learning can be anchored to an experience, we will remember it much better. Imagine having to do a role-play looking at squares with faces on a screen versus choosing a suitable avatar for the role, being in a scene related to it and actually moving with your physical body to interact with the other students and objects.
Increasing motivation and engagement
Taking students into an immersive virtual reality and doing different types of collaborative and communicative activities with them that are not possible in traditional online learning can increase student motivation and engagement.
In short, social interactions, realistic environments and simulations, embodied learning and motivational tasks and experiences unlock VR benefits for learning that we can make use of to improve online pre-sessional EAP courses.
Prepare students for their study abroad and the face-to-face experience
Students can practise the whole experience of arriving and settling in in the target location in realistic and interactive scenes, from arriving at the airport, checking in at their hotel or student hall, registering at the school, opening a bank account, going shopping for food and other essentials for the first time, and so on. This can reduce stress, anxiety and the cognitive load that students can experience when arriving and settling in the target country and attending an intensive academic course at the same time.
if not all students have access to a VR headset?
Not long ago, only few people owned a smartphone, but we started using them in the classroom even with one per class or one per group. Now I can’t remember any student in the last couple of years who did not have one. VR headset ownership is growing and some owners are eager to use it for learning English too. *Immerse receives request from potential students every day. Why deprive them of an improved learning experience? Like with all technology, in the beginning, schools might want to start small and perhaps offer online immersive EAP courses to those who already have a VR headset.
What we can learn from these initial steps will benefit more students in the future. We can now try out what works best and be ready for when virtual reality technology will be as wide-spread and readily available as smartphones. Already, virtual reality is used for business meetings, conferences and workplace training in an increasing number of companies, so using it in education will prepare our students for the future workplace as well and thus give them an edge in the job market.
if teachers don’t know how to teach in VR?
Teachers will need to learn to teach with and in virtual reality, just like they had to learn to teach with technology in the classroom and learn to teach online. Recent developments in VR technology, more widely and cheaply available standalone headset make facilitating VR English lessons easier. It is also a skill that will be listed in job ads soon.
I saw the job ad belowon the BALEAP website, the first one I know of that listed VR/AR skills as desirable for an EAP teacher. We will see more of these.
I’m sure we will hear more ‘but what ifs’, and that’s fine. We can even all join into asking more ‘but what ifs’ and finding answers to them. This is how we improve, how our courses and our teaching improves.
This is not a detailed description of what a virtual reality EAP course could look like, but initial ideas to bring virtual reality to the attention of university language departments and prompt enough curiosity for them to start experimenting with this technology if they haven’t already 🙂
Some forward-thinking universities can see the benefits of VR/AR and have started exploring how to leverage this technology for their courses.
Now, I am curious which universities will be among the first to include virtual reality in their courses to improve their students’ pre-sessional EAP experience.