Integrating environmental education into language lessons using virtual reality
Reading through this special issue on VR/AR* and language learning, you will know by now that virtual reality has features that can benefit language learning when used appropriately. The same features are also effective in other types of education, such as environmental education.
What makes language instruction so interesting for me – as both a learner and teacher – is that we can discuss all kinds of topics in our classes. In recent years, environmental topics have become a popular topic in education and are included in educational curricula. Research shows that language teachers are willing to integrate these topics into their lessons (Gürsoy and Sağlam, 2011). The number of language teachers joining groups such as ELT Footprint and teachers creating specific courses and materials for environment-based language lessons confirm this and show that this has indeed become important in language education.
However, often there will only be one unit on the environment in a coursebook, and learners cannot relate to the issues or images presented because they are typically far removed from their own reality (think polar bear or tropical island). This is not merely a motivational problem; when we cannot relate to something, we also do not feel empathy. But without empathy, we do not change our behavior (Muller Queiroz et al., 2018). Given the current state of the environment, it would be a shame to use environmental topics only as a backdrop for language learning instead of using them as an opportunity to raise awareness, generate empathy, and help our learners take action. VR can help us with this.
VR and Environmental Education
Muller Queiroz et al. (2018) reviewed 619 papers on VR and climate change engagement and came to the conclusion that fully immersive virtual environments have a positive impact on engagement with climate change. However, effective environmental education needs three components to have any real impact: (1) raise awareness or understanding of the issues, (2) engage emotions (empathy), and (3) lead to action (behavioral change).
Most environmental education is good at making us aware and helping us understand issues. Fewer are good at engaging emotions and generating empathy long term, and even fewer lead to any behavior change, simply because we cannot relate to what we have seen.
With VR, we can be immersed in places we cannot easily visit and experience things in the first person rather than watching images or videos from the outside. We are immersed into a situation rather than being mere observers. We can interact with others, objects, and the environment. This helps us feel more present and makes the experience more real, and thus more relatable or personal. For example, instead of looking at images of a coral reef or watching a video of divers, learners can be the divers (Picture 1), swim around the coral reef together with the fish and take photos and perhaps even virtual samples without damaging the actual corals.
Research confirms this. Using specific VR apps, people can experience environmental issues ‘in person’ as if they were really there and can, in some cases, interact with the environment and objects. This can increase understanding, inquisitiveness, and empathy and can lead to action or behavioral changes (Markowitz et el., 2018; Muller Queiroz et al., 2018; Nelson et al., 2020).
For instance, in an app that was developed at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, participants were asked to cut a virtual tree with a virtual saw. The result of the study showed that “people who were immersed in a three-dimensional virtual forest and told to saw through a towering sequoia until it crashed in front of them later used less paper in the real world than people who only imagined what it’s like to cut down a tree” (Ahn, 2011).
Integrating VR Environmental Education into Language Learning
With the knowledge that VR can help with raising awareness, generating empathy, and encouraging action, let’s look at how we can use VR in our language classes.
Creating a lesson that successfully blends language teaching and VR-based environmental education requires attention to the pedagogy of both types of learning. First, there is the decision as to what type of scene to immerse the learners in. Immersing them in environmental disaster scenes, such as forest fires, their house being flooded, or in a refugee camp with starving children around them, can generate empathy but also eco-anxiety. On the other hand, if we show them the beauty of nature, it can generate awe, happiness, and hope, which can lead to wanting to protect the environment, but it might be too subtle for some learners to lead to any kind of action. Which kind of content to use will depend on who your students are and what you know about them. You could vary the content or offer choices. It is also important to prepare your learners for the experience and then follow up with reflections and discussions so you can address any issues that arise.
Second, you must decide the best approach to using environmental content to support language learning. Language educators have developed frameworks that integrate these two areas. Mete (2018) based her framework on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, which encourages critical reading and thinking skills. She provides an example of how to apply this framework in a reading-skills lesson based on a text about an ecological problem, with a set of questions for each level of the taxonomy: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. These could be easily adapted and applied to a VR experience with environmental content.
Ceri Jones and Katherine Bilsborough’s (2021) suggestion to create can-do statements for environment-based language lessons mapped onto the CEFR Framework is another approach that can help you ensure both eco-literacy and language learning objectives are met in your lessons. They provide the following examples, which are adapted from a sustainability literacy framework:
‘An ecoliterate language student can…
- understand and explain the concept of sustainability and give concrete examples
- identify and describe potential local sustainability issues
- outline actionable solutions to address local issues of unsustainability
- describe the connections and relationships within a local ecosystem
- express appreciation of the natural world in their immediate surroundings
- advocate for protection/conservation of local ecosystems/species
When creating a lesson tying these can-do statements to specific language activities, it is important to keep in mind that not all language skills should be practiced within the virtual environment itself. Currently, VR is best suited for speaking and listening skills development, somewhat for reading, but less so for writing. However, all language skills can be integrated into the lesson by using a blended learning approach. For example, learners can read a text on an environmental topic prior to the VR experience, practice speaking and listening inside the virtual environment, do a language and grammar-focused activity following the VR experience, and then complete a writing task as homework.
Issues to Be Aware of Before Using Environmental VR Apps in Class
Before providing examples of apps you can use, I would like to draw your attention to some issues that might arise when using VR headsets and apps.
- Some scenes or apps can cause dizziness or nausea. ▶︎ It can help to start with shorter VR sessions first. You can also ask learners to sit during an experience so they cannot fall if they suddenly feel dizzy.
- Some students might not feel comfortable putting on a headset for various reasons, or you might not have a complete class set of headsets. ▶︎ Many apps can be accessed on a computer or even a tablet. It’s also possible to live cast the in-headset experience onto a TV screen or projector for the other learners.
- Some students might not believe in climate simulations or specific solutions that might be presented. ▶︎ Don’t present environmental issues as ‘true’; instead, ask about feelings and have open discussions.
- Some immersive VR experiences can trigger fear and phobias. ▶︎ It is better not to surprise learners. Inform them about the content beforehand. Tell them to close their eyes and/or remove the headset immediately if they feel uncomfortable.
Suggested Apps and Activities
Most of the suggested apps are available on different platforms and are free. They can be used to substitute or extend the coursebook unit on the environment. Some of them are also suitable for longer project-based lessons and can be combined with in-class and out-of-class work. Some apps, such as Open Brush and Wander, use very little or no language. These can be used to teach different language points, at different levels and for different languages.
Most are appropriate for different age groups too. They can be used with the whole class, in small groups, or individually, so you can adapt them to your own context.
Open Brush is a free virtual reality painting app that allows you to paint three-dimensionally, which means learners can paint trees they can actually walk around, a garden to sit in, etc. Learners can save and share their work with others in many different ways (GIFs, videos), which allows the drawings to be used for different activities.
Some activities you can do:
- Learners can paint their favorite nature scene or animal, then share an image or video with their peers and talk about why they have painted it, why this is important to them, etc.
- Learners read a nature scene description (e.g. from their coursebook), then draw it and compare it. This could also be a pair activity to practice listening and speaking skills, where one learner reads the description, and the other draws it.
- Instead of finding pictures online for an environmental poster activity or story writing, they can paint their own, then take pictures and use them.
- They can also record a video of their scene, walking around it, explaining and describing it, or saying why they painted this scene – depending on the language objective, then they can watch each other’s videos and comment on them.
Wander is an app based on Google Earth and Street View. It’s a good alternative now that Google Expedition is no longer available.
- Places can be visited as a group.
- Visit national parks, city parks, botanical gardens, zoos, etc., anywhere in the world.
- Visit places that came up in a unit in the coursebook.
- Prepare visits to a place of environmental significance and take classmates there and tell them about it.
- In your ‘home’, discuss issues around the visited places (solutions to existing problems; how to protect areas of natural beauty, etc.). The discussion can be tied to the language objectives of the unit in the coursebook.
- Travel back in time in your city (Picture 2) to see and describe environmental changes (for example, fewer green areas, new construction sites, but perhaps also rehabilitated areas). This could be used to practice comparatives (e.g. it was greener, now it’s …) or ‘used to be’ (e.g. There used to be an old factory here, now they put a park there).
Wander costs $10. I bought it with the $10 credit that was included when I bought my Quest 2 headset. It may not be worth buying if you are going to use it only once or twice, but I can imagine teaching many different lessons with different activities to practice different language points and skills using Wander, such as the examples above.
Pollinator Park has to be one of the most visually appealing and useful educational apps I have come across (Pictures 3 and 4). It’s available for VR headsets, desktop VR, and web browsers, and comes in EN, FR, DE, NL, ES, and MNE. Classroom materials and lesson plans, and ideas, including for extended project work, are also available. It’s based on the following story:
‘Europe 2050 – Following a cascade of ecological crises, our world has been deprived of pollinating insects, healthy ecosystems, and wealthy flora. Amidst this dystopian landscape lies a lavish green beacon of hope: Dr. Beatrice Kukac’s Pollinator Park, a safe haven for pollinators and an eye-opener for its visitors.’
This experience lends itself very well to project work or can at least be completed over the course of several days or lessons. It is one of the few VR apps that can be used for reading lessons as it has a written story (Beatrice’s diary entries) and learners can unlock passages at different stages by completing certain tasks. The stories can be read in the app but are available on the website too.
- Teachers can plan follow-up language-focused tasks using the diary entries.
- Other post-experience activities could be debates on the topic or poster presentations using the extra resources provided by the app.
- Learners can also come up with their own stories and write their own diary entries, either individually or in pairs or small groups.
Sea Level Rise
In the Sea Level Rise simulation, learners can see the impact of sea level rise on coastal cities (Picture 5) and try out different solutions. This lends itself very well to working on intermediate or advanced speaking skills, such as turn-taking, negotiation, agreeing and disagreeing, describing, persuading, etc. Learners can
- take on different roles, such as citizens, city planners, scientists and city authorities, and find a solution for future flooding disasters in their city.
- discuss the different solutions that are presented and choose the best.
- write a letter or email to authorities convincing them of what you think is the best solution as a follow-up activity.
‘This is Climate Change’ is a set of four short immersive videos on different environmental topics that are available on the Within app on VR headsets, desktop, and tablet (Picture 6). There are many nature and environment-related 360-degree videos on Youtube. You could find one that is related to a coursebook unit or to an environmental issue in your region, and learners could watch with Google cardboard or a VR headset using the Youtube VR app.
You can use the videos for the same kind of activities you would with regular videos, with the difference that learners will usually react much more profoundly and will be motivated to engage more in any activities based on them. Because learners are immersed in the scene, you can also have them:
- describe orally what they are seeing and how it makes them feel while they are experiencing it or how they felt after the experience.
- describe their experience to a friend or family member in writing (e.g. Recently, I went on a trip to…)
What If You Do Not Have Any Device At All?
If you do not have any headsets, computers, or tablets for your classes, why not read an article (find some here) that explains how VR can be used to create empathy towards climate change action and have a discussion around it (Picture 7)? Some of your students might own a VR headset or might have experienced VR, and this can lead to all kinds of other questions to explore.
I hope I was able to inspire you to integrate environmental topics in your language lessons and use VR to make these issues more relatable, interesting, and even fun while at the same time helping your learners practice and improve their language skills.
Have you already incorporated environment-related topics into your lessons? Can you imagine using VR, and perhaps one of the suggested apps above to teach such topics in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments!
You can find further resources on virtual reality for environmental education on my website.
Ahn, S.J. (2011). Embodied Experiences In Immersive Virtual Environments: Effects On Pro-Environmental Attitude And Behavior https://stanfordvr.com/mm/2011/ahn-embodied-experiences.pdf
Erdem Mete, D. (2018). Incorporating Environmental Education in English Language Teaching through Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Selçuk Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Dergisi. https://doi.org/10.21497/sefad.514847
Gürsoy, Esim & Sağlam, Gülderen T. (2011). “ELT Teacher Trainees’ Attitudes Towards Environmental Education and Their Tendency to Use It in the Language Classroom”. Journal of International Education Research 7(4): 47-52.
Jones, C. and Bilsborough, K. (2021). #ELTCanDoEco. ELT Footprint. https://eltfootprint.org/eltcandoeco/
Markowitz, D. M., Laha, R., Perone, B. P., Pea, R. D., & Bailenson, J. N. (2018). Immersive Virtual Reality Field Trips Facilitate Learning About Climate Change. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2364.https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02364
Muller Queiroz, A. C.; Kamarainen, A.; Preston, N. & Da Silva Leme, M. I. (2018). Immersive Virtual Environments and Climate Change Engagement. https://doi.org/10.3217/978-3-85125-609-3-27
Nelson, K. M., Anggraini, E., & Schlüter, A. (2020). Virtual reality as a tool for environmental conservation and fundraising. PLOS ONE, 15(4), e0223631. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223631
*Originally published in the Foreign Language Teaching Magazine (FLTMAG) on 19 October, 2022.