From Buzzword to the Classroom – Exploring VR Gaming for Language Learning
Dr. Felix A. Kronenberg, Director of the Center for Language Teaching Advancement (CeLTA), and of the National Less Commonly Taught Languages Resource Center (NLRC), and Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics, Languages, and Cultures, Michigan State University.
Dr. Frederick Poole, Assistant Professor, MA in Foreign Language Teaching program (MAFLT), Michigan State University
VR – virtual reality – is currently one of the buzzwords in the field of education and language education in particular. In the 1990s and in the early 2000s, VR was mostly used to describe 3D environments experienced on desktop computers, such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. Recently, VR has become more associated with an experience that leverages a head mount display to allow the user a more realistic 360-degree view of the 3D world. These two VR definitions have been called low-immersion VR and high-immersion VR, respectively (Kaplan-Rakowski & Gruber, 2019). In this article, we will use VR as synonymous with high-immersion VR.
VR has seen a sharp rise in interest, as evidenced by several systematic reviews on VR in language learning studies in the past two years (e.g., Parmaxi, 2020; Pinto et al., 2021). In the field of Education, there is a rich body of research exploring how VR allows students to experience abstract concepts in more concrete ways. For example, one study explored how students’ understanding of cell biology is impacted when learners can actually see inside of cells (Johnston et al. 2018). In an informal exploration of VR, teachers leveraged the high context environment to allow students to compare volume in objects (Putman & Id-Deen, 2019). In language education, we are still exploring the affordances that VR has to offer language learners and teachers. Early studies have explored student perceptions of VR worlds (e.g., Kaplan-Rakowski & Wojdynski, 2018), how VR impacts vocabulary learning (e.g., Legault et al., 2019), and the influence of VR environments on student affect, like anxiety (e.g., York, et al. 2021). Many of these authors argue that VR is more engaging for learners, provides a highly contextualized environment that better supports transfer of learning to real-life use, and, in some cases, that the physical mobility offered by such VR experiences supports learning.
However, it is important to remember that while VR is one of those technologies that create a certain wow effect, it may also turn out to be a superficial gimmick that fizzles out once the initial excitement has abated. Not long ago, many universities invested large amounts of money in creating virtual representations of their campuses in Second Life, only for them to become virtual wastelands less than five years later. So, when we look at a new technology, such as VR, we must think about the relative advantage that the innovation might bring, keep the learning outcomes in mind, and consider how teachers may leverage the tool to improve teaching efficacy.
One noticeable trend in the application of VR for language education is the creation and exploration of VR environments that are incredibly limited in scope and application. Many of these VR environments are used in research studies as highly immersive flashcard systems (e.g., Legault et al., 2019). Such studies send the message that VR systems are no more than a novel tool to be used to inspire learners to spend a few more minutes looking over vocabulary words. Instead, we argue that there are already many VR applications available to language teachers that can be integrated into the classroom and designed around. Focusing on how teachers leverage VR in the classroom can lead to a set of practices that can be applied across VR experiences without needing to constantly create new VR worlds. This is an approach that has been argued for in the literature on games and language learning (York, Poole, & DeHaan, 2021) and can lead to both a better evaluation of the tool and potentially a more sustainable field of inquiry and practice with VR.
Thus, in this article, we set out to demonstrate what integrating a VR game into a university-level language classroom might look like. Specifically, we bring the game “Keep Talking, and Nobody Explodes” into a third-year German language course. In the next section, we briefly review how VR has been used for language learning and the affordances that it may offer the language classroom. Then we provide a detailed account of how we introduced the VR game and, more importantly, how the game was integrated into the classroom. Finally, we provide a summary of preliminary findings and feedback from the learners.
VR Use in Past Studies
As noted above, although VR is still quite new, there have been several reports and examples of VR being used for language teaching purposes. In fact, there have been three articles in The FLTMAG just in the last year. Ijiri (2022) described the design of a virtual Japanese world utilizing VR technologies and, subsequently, how she created five lesson plans to make use of VR affordances. In the article, Ijiri emphasizes the ability to move within VR environments as a key consideration for improving language learning. Much of her lesson plans focus on connecting physical action (e.g. bowing) with language use. In another article, Zimotti and Jiménez (2022) provide a detailed walkthrough on how they created VR videos for YouTube that could be experienced with a mobile-driven VR headset. They designed the VR experiences to support Spanish medical translators and, in doing so, emphasize that VR can support language learners by providing a realistic environment to practice without the associated stress and anxiety that comes with translating in real-time. Finally, in a more recent article, Simon (2022) provides a description of a rather new VR game called Elixir. Simon argues that the VR experience provides learners with an immersive and engaging environment that requires learners to comprehend commands to complete the experience. Additionally, Simon provides some examples of wrap-around activities that could be used with this experience to enhance learning that occurs during and after students explore the VR environment. These additional activities are key to integrating VR into the language classroom. As Crookall (2010) notes, “we will neglect debriefing at our peril. If we accept the basic idea that the real (solid, lasting, meaningful, and deeper) learning comes not from the game but from the debriefing, then we as gamers are shooting ourselves and our learners in the foot by neglecting the debriefing phase of the gaming process” (p. 907). We believe that sentiment should be applied to VR experiences.
All three of these papers highlight affordances that authors note with VR, particularly that the environment allows for mobility, a safe environment to practice language skills, and engaging experiences that can be leveraged via in-class activities. We took a similar approach when applying the game “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” to a German language classroom. “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” is a collaborative game usually played in pairs in which one partner is given a bomb to defuse, and the other partner is given a ‘guide’ to defuse the bomb. The guide serves as a manual for decoding a complex puzzle associated with the bomb and requires clear and precise communication (though not necessarily complicated) to solve the puzzle. This game can be played in low-immersion VR via one’s cell phone, computer, or iPad. It can also be played in high immersion VR in which one person wears a head mount display and can view the bomb while the other person is given a physical copy of the decoding manual outside of the VR world. “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” in VR has been used to explore how non-verbal communication is impacted in VR worlds (Wijk, 2019). L2 educators have also noted the value of this VR game. Dormer, Cacali, and Senna (2017) provide a description of the tool and argue that it is important to provide some support to learners before playing this game. We build on this early work and attempt to illustrate how to normalize the use of VR in language classrooms by integrating the game into classroom practices. In the next section, we provide a detailed walkthrough of the lesson setup and outcomes.
The asymmetrical multiplayer game has been embedded in a 3rd-year German course (fall 2019, fall 2021, fall 2022), which explores German media throughout history and includes intensive work with texts, films, images, advertising, news, social media, music, video games, and other forms of expression through media. Exploring VR adds a component to allow students to experience, compare, and reflect on different media, including emerging ones like VR. Even during the current semester, the majority of students indicated they had never experienced VR. While the novelty and the breaking up of the routine by going to the digital scholarship in the library are beneficial for student motivation, it is also the medium itself and its affordances that add to student learning. The activity is similar to an information gap activity, in which each interlocutor has pieces of information that the other(s) do not have. The VR activity adds a challenge in that nonverbal communication is very limited, and the person wearing the headset does not have access to other strategies, such as notetaking, consulting a dictionary, etc. All interpersonal communication is carried out by voice. For this class, students were only asked to play the first three-game modules and had only received preparations for these three. The sequence consists of three class sessions: a pre-task, during-task, and post-task session.
The pre-task session includes a general discussion and several polls about video games and VR in today’s media landscape and students’ lives, vocabulary pre-task practice, and a video review of the game with subsequent discussion. Individual game modules are played as a whole-class activity using PowerPoint slides of in-game screenshots. Students are asked to read relevant parts of the manual as homework. All activities are conducted in the target language. These pre-task activities were designed to first familiarize students with the game mechanics and procedures while also providing them with input that models the type of language that will be needed once they enter the game.
The class session takes place at the Digital Scholarship Lab at the MSU Library. Most students use Oculus/Meta Quest headsets, which allow for student pairs to spread out because they do not have cables. Students receive a short introduction and safety tips by a Digital Scholarship Lab staff member, then take turns playing as the diffuser with the VR headset and as the expert with the printed-out manual. Again, it’s important to emphasize that students had already played a non-VR version of the game before coming to the lab, and were acutely aware of the game rules and mechanics. This is important because students can focus on learning how to navigate the VR system without also having to learn how to play a new game.
During this session, students reflect on their gaming experiences and discuss what they experienced, felt, and learned in the target language. This is yet another opportunity to reinforce the newly learned and applied language structures associated with the game. While there is further work on reemphasizing new language forms, more importantly, there is also a discussion on the affordances and drawbacks of VR in particular and the metaverse in general. Students situate the medium in the spectrum of media and speculate on its future. It is a rich topic for discussion because it is a lived and shared experience and common exploration into a technology with yet undetermined future potential. Connecting the VR experience to a real-world issue like this not only provides an opportunity to develop digital literacies but also makes the activity more meaningful and relevant for learners.
This VR course sequence was tweaked and optimized based on student feedback and faculty and staff observations through multiple iterations. A short action-research survey showed that the activity was well received and that playing the game was enjoyable and not too difficult or frustrating. In future projects, we intend to more formally explore how the affordances of VR and the associated in-classroom activities support learning and engagement in VR activities.
After the 2019 semester, accessibility options were added to the course module. For some students, VR can be difficult or impossible to use. All students were given the choice in subsequent semesters to play the iPad version of the game. Furthermore, a test run in the pre-task session using PowerPoint slides of in-game screenshots and handouts were added to provide students with more scaffolding and information on what to expect. Students in the 2021 course benefitted from this extra preparation and were very quickly able to complete the first three game modules. In 2021, some students used the iPad version instead of the VR headset. We noticed their extensive use of nonlinguistic modes of communication which are unavailable when using the VR headset. We will continue to explore the implications that these non-verbal cues, or the lack thereof, have on the language learning process.
Language Learning Affordances
We noticed three relative advantages of VR that are associated with language learning specifically: visual isolation, immediate feedback, and singular focus. First, because one participant was visually isolated from the other while wearing the headset, they were forced to rely solely on their linguistic skills to complete the game. Essentially, the game functioned as a highly immersive information gap activity that pushed learners to leverage linguistic skills to complete the tasks. Secondly, learners received immediate feedback in the game when something was wrong. If they tried a particular combination of wires and it did not work, learners knew that they had communicated an idea wrong. This was a natural and less threatening way to trigger negotiation of meaning. Finally, the last benefit is what we call a singular focus. Because learners were transported into a new virtual environment without further distractions from the outside world, it is more likely that they are able to focus on the topic at hand. This is in contrast to learners at a desk who may notice something out the window, on their phone, or any number of other distractions. The VR headset helps learners focus their attention on the task at hand.
The ACTFL World-Readiness Standards for learning languages identify how languages can support learners in becoming global citizens. For this particular project, the VR system served a vital role in addressing the Connections standards, which state that “Learners build, reinforce, and expand their knowledge of other disciplines while using the language to develop critical thinking and to solve problems creatively” (ACTFL, 2017). One of the goals stated for this course was for learners to reflect on and critique a variety of media types. Thus, for this course, the VR system was not only a medium for learning but also the object of focus. By designing activities utilizing the VR system and then creating opportunities for students to reflect on and discuss the VR experience, students had the opportunity to leverage first-hand experiences with VR when discussing the role and value of VR today.
Course Goal Alignment
This project worked well in this particular class because it aligned with the main course goals and its focus on content in addition to language learning. One of the goals of the course was to “develop a good understanding of the breadth of media expression in German-speaking countries.” The activities associated with the sequence also prepared students to advance work toward two of the course’s eight can-do statements: “I can reflect on and critique a variety of different types of media by writing short essays and oral output of up to 3 minutes” and “I can document my understanding of connections between different media expressions and developments.”
And then there is the pure joy of having a class outside of the usual classroom, to meet in a new and exciting place on campus. It is a bonding experience that creates memories and positive connections in a space of possibility. And thus, the joint exploration into promising media futures is also a learning opportunity not only for students but also the instructor.
ACTFL (2017). World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. Accessed September 30, 2022, from https://www.actfl.org/resources/world-readiness-standards-learning-languages
Dormer, R., Cacali, E., & Senna, M. (2017). Having a Blast with a Computer-Mediated Information Gap Task: Keep Talking & Nobody Explodes in the EFL. Language Teacher, 41, 30-32.
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One thought on “From Buzzword to the Classroom – Exploring VR Gaming for Language Learning”
Thank you for the insightful article and for mentioning my case study about teaching language in VR. While I agree that VR certainly has a wow effect, I am not sure that “it may also turn out to be a superficial gimmick that fizzles out once the initial excitement has abated.”
Advances in high-speed internet, computing power, artificial intelligence, and high-resolution displays have made the possibility of a persistent and immersive simulated world experienced in the first person by a large group of simultaneous users more of a probability than a possibility. However, it might not be the same VR we know today with heavy and awkward headsets but more of a wearable.
Your research is vital to whether educators will develop a pedagogy for immersive learning or use this advanced technology is left to commercial players and industry associations.