Margherita Berti, PhD Candidate in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona.
Molly Godwin-Jones: Please tell us a little about yourself.
Margherita Berti: I am a PhD Candidate in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching and Educational Technology at the University of Arizona. I am originally from Bergamo, Italy and I moved to the United States in 2015 for an MA in Linguistics/TESL. I am interested in exploring how technology can be used in foreign language courses to support learning and engagement.
Molly Godwin-Jones: How do you use VR in your classroom? What inspired you to try VR?
Margherita Berti: I first learned about VR during my MA in a Computer-Assisted Language Learning course (CALL). When I arrived at the University of Arizona in 2017, I started exploring VR tools at the Library’s iSpace, now called CATalyst Studios, a space aimed at connecting people and technology. The dedicated VR room and the Friday Tech Talks made me reflect on how these cutting-edge technologies could be used in foreign language courses, including the elementary and intermediate Italian classes I was teaching. After finding some 360 VR videos on YouTube and thanks to a grant provided by the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona, I was inspired to record my own videos and produce content for teaching Italian culture from a new perspective. In language teaching, I think we are so used to the textbook that we forget about the many interactive and multimodal resources available online. 360 VR videos especially have a lot of potential for language and culture learning since students are given the freedom to look around an environment and choose what is important to them, thus creating a personalized learning experience. I have used the videos that I recorded in Bergamo and Milan along with Google Cardboard to help students think about Italian stereotypes and reflect on how Italian speakers might or might not interact differently as compared to English speakers in the United States.
Molly Godwin-Jones: What has been particularly successful in your use of VR with students?
Margherita Berti: I think a successful outcome of using VR with Italian students has been seeing the change in how they understood Italy and the Italian culture. Since these students are based in Tucson, they do not have much exposure to Italian speakers and their practices, and they mostly hear about Italy on the news and from their instructors. The possibility to immerse students in authentic environments and reflecting about what they previously believed about Italy has been particularly rewarding. For example, before seeing a street in Florence in VR students expected to see “art everywhere.” This is an interesting statement which could come from how Italy is portrayed in the news. After being immersed in the street in Florence, students were surprised by the “lack of art and music.” The class discussions following the viewings helped students frame their stereotypes and develop new understandings of the studied culture and language.
Molly Godwin-Jones: Have you encountered any challenges using VR in the classroom?
Margherita Berti: Yes, I think there are still many challenges related to the use of VR in the classroom. First, the cost. High-quality VR is still expensive for the learning setting and for this reason I chose to use Google Cardboard, a simple and affordable headset that paired with a smartphone can provide VR experiences. The quality of Google Cardboard is not the highest and for this reason it should only be used briefly – I recommend keeping the viewing under two minutes. Another problem is accessibility. If choosing to use Google Cardboard, students should own a smartphone that allows them to download apps (e.g., YouTube) to view the 360 VR videos. Although most students own a smartphone today, we cannot take that for granted and we need to make sure that each one of our students has access to mobile devices for participating in the VR experiences. Students with visual impairments might also experience difficulties in using VR and Google Cardboard due to the limited features of such head-mounted display. One last last challenge worth mentioning is the lack of empirical research in the area of language education showing that VR is an effective tool. I hope to somehow address this deficit with my dissertation work.
Molly Godwin-Jones: Do you have any advice for instructors who want to try using VR with students?
Margherita Berti: Yes, talk to people! Reach out to other educators and researchers who are exploring VR for language learning. Send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are interested in an informal chat! It is by talking to other scholars and teachers that I am improving my work and fostering the use of this technology with language learners. I also think it is important to keep the pedagogical objectives in mind and not just use VR for the sake of it. For my dissertation, I am training educators on how to use VR purposefully for the teaching of culture, and once I finish collecting data in Fall 2020 I will share the training modules with other language teachers.
Molly Godwin-Jones: You’ve done quite a lot of work with VR, could you please tell us about some of your recent projects, such as Italian Open Education?
Margherita Berti: Italian Open Education (https://www.italianopeneducation.com/) was born to connect the Open Education Movement with VR teaching resources. The idea was to create a website offering a collection of open licensed and free-to-use 360 VR videos for Italian learners and language educators, while also aiming at enhancing and improving current language textbooks with innovative pedagogical materials and researched practices. What comes to mind when I think about my Italian Open Education project is an article written by Rossomondo and Lord (2018), titled “The World Is Not Flat, So Why Are Our Textbooks?.” In this piece the authors claim that the time has come for the next generation of language teaching materials, and future pedagogical resources should capitalize on digital delivery while encouraging students to question their assumptions, think more deeply, and use language creatively. That is what I am trying to do with Italian Open Education and in my dissertation. The objective is not to emulate current practices, but rather, the goal is to provide a new approach for engaging students with culture. In VR, students are no longer confined to specific information chosen by the teacher or to predefined content; instead, they can question their understanding and think more deeply about language users and their cultures.