Immersive learning experience design for language learning in virtual reality

With an increase in interest in virtual reality for education and the developments around the metaverse, I get asked by publishing and teaching professionals what makes good learning experiences in VR and how to write lesson plans for immersive language learning in VR. I had the opportunity to talk about this at the IATEFL MaWSIG PCE 2023. Here is my written version of the most important steps for those who weren’t able to attend.

Nergiz Kern presenting at IATEFL MaWSIG PCE 2023

(Image courtesy of IATEFL MaWSIG)

What to consider when writing immersive language learning material

First of all, it is important to know that these tips are for classes that take place within a virtual world where the learners and the teacher can be in the same place and can do things together. This is often called multi-user VR or social VR. 

When educational technology moves from being just a tool to becoming the learning environment, we have to fundamentally rethink how we teach with this technology, and how we design pedagogically sound lessons for this environment.

Nergiz Kern

Here is what you need to do before even thinking about the specific content for a lesson.

1 Know why is VR good for language learning

Before you think about any content or activities, you need to first understand what research tells us about how virtual reality supports language learning. This will help you match appropriate language learning pedagogies with the benefits of immersive learning in VR. Pedagogy should not be an afterthought but an integral part of developing language lessons in VR. 

Fortunately, there is a lot of research now, but I’ll leave that for another article. For our purpose, it’s important to note that the two most important features of VR are immersion and interactivity. These features are why VR enables learners to have experiences that are more like physical situated experiences than traditional classroom or online lessons. 

This is why learning in VR can and should be active, social, and emotional. Learners can participate in field trips, collaborate on hands-on projects, and engage in contextualised role-plays and simulations. 

All of these experiences make language learning more authentic, motivational, fun, and memorable while also reducing anxiety. In this way, VR language lessons can help teachers achieve their goals to create more contextualised, active, experiential, task-based, and problem-solving based language learning experiences that are memorable and effective.

Suitable pedagogical approaches to achieve this are:

  • Situated learning
  • Task-based learning
  • Problem-based / project-based learning
  • Collaborative learning
  • Total physical response (TPR)
  • Active learning
  • Experiential learning
  • Game-based learning

2 Follow a framework to achieve high immersion

Immersion can be achieved through VR technology, for example the VR headset, as well as through engaging users mentally, similar to how you can get immersed in a good book or activity. This more expansive definition of immersion is important because it does not limit the immersion experience to a VR headset. There are many different frameworks that integrate the different types of immersion to achieve high levels of immersion.

Won et al.’s (2023) conceptual framework of design features for immersive educational VR builds on previous immersion frameworks. It is clear and concise, easy to understand and combines technological and pedagogical factors for immersive learning that can help us plan well-rounded, highly immersive VR lessons. Their framework includes four types of immersion: sensory, action, narrative and social. As you can see in the overview below, these elements play an important role in good language learning experience design too – whether in the classroom or online.

Enyedy & Yoon (2021) explain how these four types of immersion apply to headset VR as well as desktop VR. This is particularly important to those who cannot or do not want to use a VR headset. For example, learners can experience sensory immersion through customising their avatar, and actional immersion through moving their avatar to navigate through the virtual world. Narrative immersion is experienced through the whole story line that a virtual world, scene or lesson is based on. Opportunities for agency and choice (where to go, what activities to do) are also elements of narrative immersion. And finally, an experience that offers opportunities for meeting, chatting and doing things with other learners adds social immersion. All of this can be achieved in desktop VR through careful planning.

A design framework for immersive learning in virtual reality by Won et al. (2023)

3 Know the features and access options of the VR platform 

Course authors need to familiarise themselves with the type of activities that are possible on a digital platform, for example, multiple-choice questions, matching or true/false exercises, etc., as well as some other technical and non-technical features. The same is true for the VR platform that will be used for immersive language learning. Each VR platform is different. The activities that will be possible depend on these features as well as technical specifications, such as how the platform can be accessed (VR headset, desktop, web browser, operating system…), how many people (or avatars) can be in the same space, etc. Here are a few other features to consider:

  • Level of object interactivity
  • Possibility and level of avatar customisation
  • Availability of spatial (3D)
  • What kinds of scenes are available
  • Possibility of building or customising scenes
  • Availability of teaching tools (writing, screens, video or PDF embeds…)

3 Create a checklist to integrate all elements for a successful VR learning experience

Trying to keep all of the above in mind (the research, the right pedagogical approaches, the platform features, the technology used to attend classes, the framework we need to follow) besides the content and learning objectives when writing lessons can feel overwhelming.

Creating and following a checklist will help us design the right kind of learning activities without losing sight of any important elements for effective immersive language experiences.

The three areas that we need to include are: 

  • Lesson Objectives and Design: This is what you are already familiar with from writing for any other medium. We just need to make sure that the activities are in line with the pedagogical approaches that are suitable for VR (as discussed above).
  • VR Affordances: This draws from the VR immersion framework 
  • Tools and Materials: This is informed by the list of VR app or platform features 
An illustrative checklist for designing language learning experiences in VR
(Illustration of a checklist – not complete)

Now you are ready to write the lesson plans and materials.

4 Practise writing VR lessons

As with everything, creating effective lessons for VR takes time and practice. Here are a few steps you can take to become a good VR language learning materials writer:

  • Sign up for free accounts of VR platforms.
  • Learn to use them.
  • See what features they offer and make a list.
  • Take a coursebook unit or think of a typical activity, think how you would teach the same lesson in VR.
  • Look at your checklist. Did you include everything?
  • If you have a chance, teach trial lessons.
  • Join a community of practice.
  • Read my blog and VR learning resources and follow me on Linkedin.

As you can see, following all the steps above…

When creating immersive learning lessons, materials writers become learning experience designers in the truest sense.

Nergiz Kern

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