Augmenting Learning: The Role of VR in Education

Future of learning

There’s an interesting debate going on about what’s the best way to learn a language. No doubt, the increasing dependence on technology has also contributed to this debate. In a world where EdTech is leading the way in education, the question to ask is – how can we use it to better our language teaching-learning experiences?

For many, the answer lies in Virtual Reality (VR).

What is VR?

As the name denotes, VR is a simulated experience that either augment reality or creates a whole new world. Considering all the excitement and buzz that surrounds it, it is the “next big thing” in the technosphere. On the one hand, the concept of a simulated reality is mind-boggling. It breaks the laws of physics and geography and opens up infinite possibilities. You want to experience what it is like to sip hot chocolate in Antarctica or Narnia? VR is your passport. Plus, you can experience it from the comfort of your own home. Most importantly, it is a far more engaging way to interact with new information. On the other hand, VR probably requires more time to be a fully organised piece of technology as the hardware required for all the grand ideas are not quite ready or are exorbitantly priced.M.

The growing range of options and its different prices indicate the different levels of experience one can have, staring with a blurry Pokémon you notice while playing Pokémon Go all the way till a truly enchanting, immersive experience that can transform lives. As of today, when we think of VR, we think of one of the two things: 360-degree video and computer-generated spaces. The 360-degree video is essentially a two-dimensional media displayed on a sphere, giving the impression that you are inside the scene. Computer-generated VR goes beyond viewing. Your brain starts believing that you are part of a different experience (think of the Matrix, you guys). It is where you are part of another world and actually interacts with its elements.

Language Learning and VR

Since social distancing is the order of the day, it is highly likely that educators will turn to VR to improve student engagement and learning experiences. Oculus Quest 2, a standalone VR headset is one of the more affordable models in the market today. With access to VR increasing every day, it can be a perfect tool for digital language teaching.

Teaching/learning a language is certainly not simple. Gone are the traditional methods where students were expected to memorise the rules of grammar and learn by translation. Immersion is the way to go. As a learner, you pick up a new language faster by simply immersing yourself in that culture. Talking to the cabbie or any local speaker of the language gives you a better grasp of it, than rote learning of its rules. Moreover, it allows a learner to choose a topic he/she is interested in which directly translates to increased retention.

This is the opportunity that we can explore to the fullest using VR. Using a VR headset, you can experience three-dimensional virtual worlds and actually interact, through multiple senses, with the environment around you. If you are a learner of Spanish, you can find yourself in one of the cozy coffee shops in Barcelona, ordering your el cafe or el agua. You can then turn around and strike a conversation with the people around you. You can essentially experience role-plays and field trips from the comfort of your couch. Google Expeditions is one of the apps you can use. And, since the whole experience is virtual, it removes the biggest stumbling block of language learning – embarrassment. Nobody is going to remember your mistakes, except for the computer.

Feasibility of a VR-centric education

VR provides great ideas and amazing opportunities, for sure. How feasible is it, really? Would it replace traditional classrooms? Let’s see…

The success of a teacher is in getting the student involved in the learning experience, discuss challenges with his/her peers and, overall, be excited about the learning process. A young learner might be more excited in practicing a new language with her peer than with an adult. VR enhances this process by allowing face-to-face interactions without any geographical barriers. For the teachers, it opens up possibilities of assigning more dynamic tasks that facilitate better learning. It also gives teachers complete control over the classroom, where they can decide on areas of focus, break students up into teams and help students based on their individual requirements, all at the push of a button. This is the basis upon which Immerse, a virtual language learning platform was built.

However, there have been arguments from more traditional educators that suggest that VR experiences can increase distractions and reduce learning potential. This is not completely true. Firstly, distractions are highly subjective. Secondly, a research report by Dr Anna Queiroz, a post-doctoral researcher at the Lemann Center at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, states that “the students using VR showed a higher increase in self-efficacy than students using just the computer.” With the excitement that surrounds VR, students consider difficult tasks as levels to be won rather than be intimidated by them. Dr. Queiroz’s study also showed that such immersive experiences improve retention and conceptual understanding.

While there are overarching advantages of using VR in language learning, we must not forget its limited availability in the real world. As a nascent industry, there is not enough content for us to become VR-centric. Secondly, learners who get acclimated to VR learning methods can be unresponsive to traditional methods, which can disrupt classroom balance. Lastly, let us not forget that accessibility to the latest technology is a huge privilege that can widen socio-economic gaps between different groups of people.

The future of learning

Education, like any other industry, thrives on innovation. The pandemic has also forced us to rapidly alter the ways we used to do things. With schools being closed, digital learning is the order of the day. It is highly likely that it will continue to be that way, even after the pandemic. In such a scenario, it would be a grave mistake to ignore a tool like VR that is unique, dynamic, and scalable. It will certainly boost the remote learning experience. In a post-pandemic world, a balance between good old-fashioned classroom debates and the magic of VR would be the way to go.

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