It seems undeniable that virtual reality is a natural fit for educating and developing the skills of both children and adults in a multitude of disciplines.


The technology combines immersion and embodiment in an easy, safe and engaging way. VR education has the capacity to simulate realistic environments and create specific training scenarios. Our experience is with Dynamic Spanish, a virtual reality language learning system where we aim to optimise learning using a wide variety of the methods mentioned in this article.


Virtual reality has only recently broken through into the mainstream, mainly thanks to advancements in technology and the success of Oculus’ crowdfunding campaign. It has, however, been around for decades, and various institutions have been investing in the technology and the development of VR training environments for many years.


A number of VR educational projects and studies have been selected to share with you in this article, but this is not a literature survey. Rather, this piece aims to summarise the key positive learnings from these studies and relate them specifically to VR language learning and Dynamic Spanish.

The panic and fear of making mistakes when having to speak a foreign language can be overwhelming for many people. It may even cause students to lose interest or give up learning entirely.


We believe overcoming the panic and fear of speaking Spanish is the biggest hurdle for a language learner. Dynamic Spanish provides a safe space to fail giving students the opportunity to improve by making errors and overcoming the anxiety around failure.


“Failing and persevering after failure to make continued improvements, is a necessary part of the learning experience […] If highly able children have never experienced this […] it is understandable that an anxiety around failure can occur.  This anxiety can be paralysing […]” [1]


“VR also provides an opportunity for training, therapy, or simulation in situations where repeated practice and a safe space to fail are present. This can be useful as spaces for therapy for students with disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder, or social anxiety. The virtual environment allows students control over their learning in a consequence-free, explorative manner, through which they become empowered and more engaged.” [2]


“VR applications such as VR Language Learning and Public Speaking VR, give students a way to practice public speaking without fear of serious consequences from their mistakes. VR allows for practice in environments that are highly immersive and closely parallel real-world situations.” [2]


The VR element of Dynamic Spanish is a 360 video environment consisting of two main elements: classroom learning and scenario practise. Not everyone can make the time or find a suitable, affordable Spanish class in their local area. Many of these classes also suffer because they don’t offer enough authentic practise. We use our classroom environment to teach students and reinforce the learning through authentic encounters with native speakers.


The results and observations below are promising and show the potential benefit for Spanish students to improve their exam results using Dynamic Spanish’s virtual learning environments.


“One study which did compare immersive VR with traditional lectures covering a similar content for teaching Physics, found that for both Junior High and University level education, post-test results were significantly higher following VR use than following the lectures.” [3]


“Students often find classroom-based learning to be irrelevant; there is a disconnect between content learned in textbooks and authentic practice in the ‘real-world’. […] Virtual reality can provide an environment for situated learning that is relatively easy to access. Through the increased relevance and situated nature of virtual worlds, students can learn academic content in contexts that increase the potential for learning.” [2]


At Dynamic Spanish we use environments to engage the student in an active manner. Eye contact and verbal cues drive the student to respond. This engagement with the student helps solidify the material and keeps them motivated throughout the experience.


The ability to pause, rewind, and repeat a social or professional interaction, is something we’ve all dreamt of doing at various times. In our VR language learning environments, it is possible. This feature means Dynamic Spanish can be undertaken at your pace, ensuring you get the most out of your time and energy.


High pressure situations requiring you to use your new language are going to occur. We give our students practise at this to avoid the embarrassment of nerves and stumbling over your words during a “real life” encounter.


“Virtual reality motivates students. It requires interaction and encourages active participation rather than passivity […] One major advantage of using virtual reality to teach objectives is that it is highly motivating. An investigation […] found students had a favourable attitude towards virtual reality in the educational process. VR requires interaction. The participant who interacts with the virtual environment is encouraged to continue interacting by seeing the results immediately.” [4]


“Virtual reality allows the learner to proceed through an experience during a broad time period not fixed by a regular class schedule, at their own pace.” [4]


“Whilst we acknowledge that a simulation is only a representation of real-life, there are features that can enhance real-life experience. For example, a simulation can provide authentic and relevant scenarios, make use of pressure situations that tap users’ emotions and force them to act, they provide a sense of unrestricted options and they can be replayed.” [5]


VR provides a platform for non-verbal communication to be used in the teaching process, similar to real life teaching experiences. Non-verbal communication includes body language, eye contact, and other behaviors perceived either consciously or unconsciously.


VR is a unique medium in which to express this type of non-verbal communication, particularly in relation to the power of eye contact. This is an experience most regular VR users are familiar with, but is not considered relevant by many non-VR users.


Virtual reality language learning provides the facility for meaningful eye contact to help build students' confidence and avoid embarrassment. It also familiarises students with speaking to another in a foreign language. 


“[There is] a strong relationship among the quality, amount and the method of using non-verbal communication by teachers while teaching. Based on the findings of the studies reviewed, it was found that the more the teachers used verbal and non-verbal communication, the more efficacious their education and the students’ academic progress were […] emotive, team work, supportive, imaginative, purposive, and balanced communication using speech, body, and pictures all have been effective in students’ learning and academic success.”


“Non-verbal communication is highly reliable in the communication process… it is recommended that attention to non-verbal communication skills can make a positive change in the future of a student’s life.” [6]


“One aspect of non-verbal communication is the use of eyes to convey messages. The eyes are powerful for both the teacher and the learner in language learning […] this factor, according the result of this study, can lead to effective language learning.” [7]


“Yuzer (2007:1) maintains that virtual eye contact between the student and the lecturer and among students in the virtual learning and teaching situation increases student attention, improves retention rates, promotes community-building among students and stimulates nonverbal communication and social relationships among all the participants in a distance learning.“


“Cobb (2009:251) found that social presence (of which virtual eye contact formed an important part) was a major influential component in the quality of online learning. In contrast, Barak and Lapidot-Lefler (2011:436) emphasize that being online on the computer without a facility for eye contact with another fails to supply the valuable information which can only be provided by direct eye contact. The information supplied by direct eye contact includes admonition, confidence, confusion, embarrassment, honesty, pleading, security and trust (Barak & Lapidot-Lefler, 2011:436).” [8]


VR is a new tool for education that is becoming more accessible to students due to its decreased cost and increased availability.


VR education experiences motivate students with their novelty and active participation in environments. This can be especially useful for students who are learning on their own or who have typically struggled with language learning in school and other more formal settings.


The ability to redo classes and VR language learning experiences creates a great pacing for students of all levels. This sustained practise of verbal skills will drive performance.


For language learning, it will help students become comfortable making mistakes when speaking to other people with the use of non-verbal communication such as eye contact. It will lower the anxiety one feels when speaking to people in a foreign language by providing effective training scenarios.


VR has shown efficacy in training people, however the studies are still small in number, and the evidence is limited. As the technology becomes more common, we suspect that education will be one of the key areas to be improved by this technology.

References

[1] Supporting Inclusive Practice and Ensuring Opportunity is Equal for All, Third edition, Edited by Gianna Knowles, Section 5 – Jenny Fogarty, Page 78.
[2] Virtual reality in education: a tool for learning in the experience age, Elliot Hu-Au and Joey J. Lee
[3] Experimental Comparison of Virtual Reality with Traditional Teaching Methods for Teaching Radioactivity, Joanna K. Crosier, Sue V.. G. Cobb, John R. Wilson
[4] Reasons to Use Virtual Reality in Education and Training Courses and a Model to Determine When to Use Virtual Reality, Veronica S. Pantelidis
[5] Ferry, B., Kervin, L., Turbill, J., Cambourne, B., Hedberg, J., Jonassen, D., & Puglisi, S. (2004). The design of an on-line classroom simulation to enhance the decision making skills of beginning teachers. Australian Association for Research in Education. Retrieved July 16, 2009, from http://www.aare.edu.au/04pap/fer04656.pdf
[6] The impact of the teachers’ non-verbal communication on success in teaching, Fatemeh Bambaeeroo and Nasrin Shokrpour
[7] The Impact of Eye-contact between Teacher and Student on L2 Learning, Leila Barati
[8] The role of eye contact in promoting effective learning in natural science in the secondary school, Leonora Patricia Volmink, http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/20279/dissertation_volmink_lp.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y