Have you heard about the metaverse or virtual reality? ‘Silly question’ you will say. ‘I can’t hear it anymore! Why should I care about cartoon worlds, avatars, digital fashion, and cryptocurrency as a language teacher?’ Or perhaps you actually have been wondering whether it might have some relevance for you and your students? In this article, I will talk about the metaverse, virtual reality (VR), and their implications for the future of language learning, as well as what you can do to prepare to teach in these environments.
Having taught languages and trained teachers in a virtual world more than a decade ago, I firmly believe in the potential of immersive VR language learning. I hope I can make you curious about the potential of virtual reality for the future of language learning by providing you with reasons why language teachers shouldn’t dismiss the metaverse.
What is the metaverse?
Firstly, let’s look at what it is not! The metaverse is not the same as VR. VR is just one way – the most immersive way – of experiencing or accessing the metaverse.
The shortest definition of the metaverse that is at the same the clearest and doesn’t need explaining is:
‘the future internet’.(Avi Bar-Zeev in Koetsier, 2021)
There are more detailed, jargon-filled ones too, like this one:
“The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”(Mathew Balls, 2021))
To give a practical example of what a ‘spatial’ internet application could look like, think of students who currently go to the library website instead of going to the physical library. In the metaverse, instead of going to the website, they might walk (their avatars) into a virtual 3D library and go to the desk to ask the librarian for help. In fact, this was an option for some university libraries more than a decade ago. Librarians have been at the forefront of using 3D virtual worlds, specifically Second Life, a virtual world that was popular with educators a decade ago. It is sometimes regarded as an early example of a metaverse. There are few libraries left in virtual worlds today, for various reasons, but they have done pioneering work.
Why the metaverse is important for the future of language learning
The metaverse will take time to fully implement, maybe a decade, maybe longer. It is also not going to be built by one company, no matter how big they are and what they call themselves. However some of the technology already exists. Games and virtual worlds aside, Meta (formerly Facebook) teamed up with Zoom to allow participants to join a call as avatars or real people, and Microsoft has integrated Mesh into Teams. These are the very tools that helped everyone get through lockdown for teaching, learning, working, and socialising. It might look silly and a bit forced, like they were trying hard to use VR as it’s cool now. But these are big companies with a vision – whether we agree with their vision or not, we use their tools, and they will have an impact on how we teach and learn languages in the future.
Virtual meetings and workplace training in VR
Virtual and augmented reality (AR) are used in business, workplace training, as well as education, for example, training for surgeons or soft-skills training for managers. Companies like Accenture and Bank of America are providing their new employees with VR headsets for onboarding. Some companies even have VR offices only.
Here are a range of VR activities courtesy of Immerse.
More and more training and meetings will take place in a 3D space, which means that future employees will be expected to have VR skills, just like they are expected to have digital skills today. Job requirements will soon include VR. In fact, they already do. I saw the first job ad for a university EAP teacher asking for the ability to use VR/AR/MR/AI for pedagogical purposes.
Pedagogical benefits of VR for language learning
There are purely pedagogical reasons for using VR for language learning too, of course. Good language courses already include the 4Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication) and other life skills. However, it is becoming increasingly challenging to include all this in a relatively traditional language lesson, whether face-to-face or online.
The future of language learning needs to be more contextualised, more active, more experiential, more task-based and problem-solving based. All of this can be more easily and effectively achieved in an immersive, interactive 3D environment where we can feel co-presence – the feeling that we are together in the same space, and where we can do things together physically to create experiences and learning that are memorable. For example, learners can walk around in a virtual kitchen to see what food items are available, come up with a recipe and cook it together by collecting the ingredients they need, chopping them up and placing them in a pot to cook.
When using VR headsets (or HMDs = head-mounted display) to access a virtual world, learners use their physical bodies to gesture and interact in VR. The following video shows the person moving their body and how this translates to the action in VR:
Many teachers and schools who previously dismissed online teaching found themselves in a difficult place when schools went into lockdown. Let’s be better prepared for the next iteration of the internet.
Will everybody need to wear a headset to use the metaverse for language learning in the future?
Headset VR can feel more immersive and interactive because we can use our own body to interact with the world and other users. VR headsets will become ever lighter, more portable, easier to use and even more affordable. However, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to have access and be able to use a VR headset. There are accessibility and diversity issues to keep in mind too.
The metaverse will be accessible via different devices. Today, virtual worlds are accessed mostly through desktop, tablet or even phones. Only a small percentage use VR headsets. Immerse, the virtual world for language learning in the metaverse, has a headset VR app as well as a desktop app.
What can I do next?
To prepare yourself, read more about the affordances of virtual reality and how we can use VR for language learning in a pedagogically sound way, and find out about apps and content you can use. You can start with these resources I’ve been collecting.
Start slowly and keep it simple. There is no need to immediately invest in headsets or a full class set – work with what you have and build up with experience. If you do decide to use fully immersive VR, you can rent headsets for the pilot course.
Experiment, reflect and share your learnings with the teaching community. My original SLExperiments blog with my lesson plans and reflections starting in 2008 still exists, and a lot of that informs what I do today. It has been cited in academic works, and has even inspired edtech entrepreneurs to create VR language learning apps more than a decade later.
I have also developed ideas and concept that I wouldn’t have been able to trial myself, such as my framework for VR hybrid teaching. But because I have shared them publicly, they were taken up and piloted by others. So documenting and sharing your experiences is definitely worth it.
Ball, M. (2021, Jun 29). Framework for the Metaverse. MatthewBall.vc. https://www.matthewball.vc/all/forwardtothemetaverseprimer
Koetsier, J. (Hosts). (2021, October 6). What is the metaverse? (No. 204) [Audio podcast episode]. TechFirst. https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/what-is-the-metaverse/id1489519341?i=1000537690626
Koetsier, J. (Hosts). (2021, October 13). What is the metaverse? (No. 204) [Audio podcast episode]. TechFirst. https://johnkoetsier.com/what-is-the-metaverse/