Teaching Languages in Virtual Reality: Tips and Tools for Getting Started

by Tricia Thrasher, Ph.D., Research Manager at Immerse

 

In 2018, I had the opportunity to put on a virtual reality (VR) headset for the first time. I was pursuing a Ph.D. in French and Second Language Acquisition and had enrolled in a seminar focused on technology and language learning. 

We visited the VR lab on campus and tried out various VR apps, including one specifically for language learning called ImmerseMe. I vividly remember putting on an Oculus Rift headset and being fully immersed in a real French boulangerie where I could order a croissant from an AI baker. My mind was truly blown, and I immediately started envisioning all the ways I could use this technology in my own language classroom. 

That moment set me on a 4-year-long path of teaching in and conducting research on VR and language learning. My experiences have been extensive, ranging from having students view 360° videos using Google Cardboard to documenting how students’ heart rates fluctuate in response to interacting with others in fully immersive VR environments. I was and still am truly passionate about identifying VR’s shortcomings and pushing its pedagogical potential to the max.

That said, these experiences have highlighted the benefits and challenges of using VR for educational purposes. VR is powerful and able to fully immerse students in a low-stakes, realistic environment where they can practice a second language without ever leaving their bedroom. However, using VR in the classroom takes proper planning and care and should not be used just because it is “fun.” Here are five things to consider if you’re thinking about adding VR to your teaching toolbox but aren’t sure where to start. I’ll also highlight some of my favorite VR language learning apps at the end of this article!

1. Is VR the right option for you? 

The first question I ask teachers who want to start using VR is: Why? I am a strong supporter of VR in the language classroom, but I do not think educators should use it just because. For one, it is expensive. Also, training students and teachers to use it properly takes time and resources. 

Therefore, I caution educators to think about what exactly they are hoping to accomplish with their students. Technology is just a tool, and it is important that its affordances — or properties — align with your pedagogical goals. Are you wanting students to virtually visit the target country? Create something together? Fantastic. Do you need VR for that? Or can you accomplish the same goals using other lower-tech devices? In short, the time and work you put into planning to use VR are worthwhile only if it adds real value to your classroom and assignments. 

2. What platform will help you accomplish your goals? 

Once you are set on VR, it is time to find the right platform. There are a variety of considerations. Are you limited to free platforms, or do you have funding to use a paid one? Would you like something open and social in nature so students can potentially meet others who speak the language they are learning, or do you prefer a completely private, controllable space for your class? Do you want students to interact with each other in real-time, or would you rather they practice their language skills asynchronously with an AI bot? 

The main thing to keep in mind is that the application needs to align with what you hope to achieve. For example, if I want students to give each other VR tours of a city in the target country, I will have them use Wander. But, if I want students to meet other users they can practice their language skills with, I might suggest the AltspaceVR Language Exchange or vTimeXR

3. What device should you use?

Next up, choosing your VR headset. The VR market is currently exploding, so the options are plentiful. 

To make the right choice, it is important to consider the quality of the headset required to accomplish your goals, the platform you have decided to use (some VR apps are only compatible with certain headsets), and cost. Higher-quality headsets that provide a fully immersive experience are more expensive, and for many educators, purchasing headsets of this quality for all students is simply not feasible. 

Also, VR headsets are constantly evolving, and you may not want to invest too much into headsets that will be obsolete two years from now. Personal anecdote – I sank a ton of grant money into a set of Oculus Go VR headsets only two years ago that are now almost obsolete. That said, I suggest hitting a sweet spot between quality and affordability. A good option currently is the Meta Quest 2. Also, consider how students could use the headsets in pairs or in groups so that you do not have to buy as many for your class.

4. What about training? 

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of training your students to use the VR headset and the application you have chosen. It’s a mistake to assume that because your students are generally tech-savvy, they will be able to just pick VR up and start using it without difficulty. 

VR is new for us all, and while some students will catch on quickly, make sure you invest proper time into training all of them. Otherwise, your time and efforts will be wasted, and students will end up frustrated by the technology and will not see the benefits of using it. Trust me, it hurts when you spend hours preparing a VR experience, and students report afterward that it was useless because they couldn’t work the technology. In short, incorporate more training time than you think you will actually need. Better safe than sorry!

5. How can you connect what students learn in VR to the real world?

Last but not least, it is important you consider how VR connects to other components of your course. Hyped though everyone is about the Metaverse, I personally think we still have a long way to go, and VR is best used in conjunction with other assignments. It helps students to see the relevance and benefits of using VR when it fits into their course logically and is not just a one-off experience. Also, linking what students do in the virtual world to assignments in real-life helps them to transfer the skills and knowledge beyond VR. 

My top ten go-to VR Apps 

Depending on what you want to do with your students, some VR apps may be more suitable than others. Here is a list of ten that I have used several times in my teaching and research. I hope these give you an idea of some options. However, there are constantly new apps created, so I encourage you to really dive into the app store and see what’s out there!

  1. Alcove: Originally created by the American Association of Retired People, Alcove is essentially a customizable virtual house where students can meet up, play games, and explore together. This app is free to download and is completely private, so you don’t have to worry about your students encountering strangers. I really like it because it includes a travel room where students can go on pre-loaded fully immersive tours of international locations together.
  2. AltspaceVR: AltspaceVR is an open, social application that is free to use on both desktop computers and VR headsets. However, if privacy is a concern, users can create private events or participate in weekly language exchanges to practice different languages they are learning! AltspaceVR is a great platform for students to collaborate virtually and to create private events where they can present and showcase their work.

  3. ImmerseMe: ImmerseMe was my gateway into VR, and their founder, Scott Cardwell, has done an incredible job incorporating real-life destinations into the app. In ImmerseMe, students can choose from a variety of scenarios in which they interact with AI computer bots in the target language. For example, depending on the proficiency level of your students, they can practice ordering at a café or having a debate with one of their friends. All of these scenarios were filmed at real-world locations using 360° cameras, so there is no lack of realism or culturally authentic spaces. Although the app is not free, ImmerseMe works with schools to offer bundle subscriptions, and it is a fantastic app for students to use independently.

  4. Immerse: Immerse is the first VR application that was designed specifically for synchronous language teaching and learning. It currently includes over 35 different locations (e.g., a restaurant, a doctor’s office) in which students can interact with each other and their teacher. Like ImmerseMe, Immerse also requires a paid subscription. Currently, students pay a monthly fee to take live language classes in Immerse’s interactive environments with expert language instructors. However, students who do not want to pay can still access the app’s social lounge, where they can practice with other language learners. They can also independently learn and review vocabulary in Immerse’s different environments. For this reason, I would suggest it to students as an additional opportunity for language practice outside of class time.

  5. MozillaHubs: MozillaHubs is an extremely convenient VR application for educators in that it is both free and available on a variety of devices (computers, phones, VR headsets, etc.). I have had issues at times with motion sickness and bandwidth when using it in VR, but I still think it has a lot of potential. Hubs includes many different pre-built scenes that you can choose from (e.g., a maze, a tropical island). You can also import 3D objects from their extensive database or images, documents, and PDFs of your own, making it easy to customize the spaces to fit your pedagogical needs. This feature also makes it a great space for students to do collaborative tasks where they build and create together.

  6. Spatial: Spatial currently promotes itself as “the Metaverse for Culture” and I would agree that this is quite accurate. In Spatial, users have created a variety of different spaces such as art galleries, replicas of Japanese streets and stores, and French coffee shops. It is free to use and accessible via desktop computers and VR, making it an ideal app if you would like your students to create exhibits, discuss artwork, or explore different locations together. Although it is a public platform, users all have a completely private home space that they can invite others to.

  7. vTimeXR: vTimeXR is a free social VR network that was specifically developed for users to be able to meet and converse. In the app, groups of 4 users at a time can meet in a variety of different locations (e.g., a Paris rooftop, a Japanese garden, etc.) to chat I have personally used it with students, and they have reported that they were more comfortable talking to their peers in vTimeXR than in a class and that being in the app’s immersive environments actually helped them think of ideas that furthered their group conversations.

  8. Wander: Wander is essentially Google Earth meets VR. Users can select any location in the world, travel to a 360° immersive version of it, and then walk around like they would on Google Street View. Students can also meet up in the app and walk around the different locations together in groups, making it possible for students to give each other tours in the target location or show exchange partners where they are from. The app costs $10 but I think it is well worth the investment.

  9. Games offered in different languages. There are also games available that students can play in a variety of languages. Two that I have personally played around with are Elixir (free) and Moss ($29.99). Depending on the game you go with, you have different possibilities of what could be done with students. For some ideas on how to use Elixir, I invite you to check out Dr. Edwige Simon’s recent FLTMag article!

  10. Meta Horizon Home: Not an app per se, but Meta’s new Horizon Home space has a lot of potential. Users can now invite others to their home spaces to hang out, watch movies together, and jump into other apps together. I am personally really excited about these new additions, because they help with some of the technological challenges that can accompany using VR. And, according to Meta, new features that allow you to customize home spaces, play games, etc. are coming, so I only imagine this space having more pedagogical potential later on. For more ideas on how to use this space, check out this article on Horizon Home

With the growing popularity of VR, I think most educators will have the opportunity to use it in their language classrooms! I hope this article gives you some useful tips for how to approach using VR for the first time.

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