April 30, 2021

Student-centered learning on Zoom & in VR: what's the difference?

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Student-centered learning has been the gold standard in language instruction for the last few decades. But when classes shifted online in early 2020, this began to change. Teachers and educators quickly realized that platforms such as Zoom or Google Hangouts had not been designed with educational instruction in mind. 

There was an enormous effort to adapt pre-existing courses to a digital format. But instructors found that common classroom processes like role plays and group work happen in a different way online. What’s more, they require a lot more planning time. 

Now, many teachers are back in the classroom. But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Digital learning is here to stay. That means educators need to figure out a way of delivering a more student-centered experience. 

So, how does teaching in virtual reality (VR) compare to teaching online? You might be surprised to learn that teaching in VR actually has much more in common with teaching in person, even though you’re technically teaching in a digital space. 

Let’s take a look at some classroom practices that are common in student-centered learning, and see how they work in VR and one Zoom. 

1. Low teacher talking time 

A key element of the student-centered approach to language learning is low teacher talking time. When teachers reduce the amount of time they’re speaking in class, it creates opportunities for learners to speak - and to learn from speaking. 

On Zoom: 

Zoom isn’t designed for an educational context. It is designed to put one speaker in the spotlight. This often becomes the default class style, increasing teacher talk, and reducing time for student-to-student interaction. 

When teaching group classes, teachers often find themselves talking to muted students. The physical act of unmuting the microphone can be a barrier for students speaking out in a natural way. On top of this, some learners suffer from shyness online. A reticence to speak is also quite possibly because the space in which students are learning is not ideal -  especially if they are studying in quiet spaces like closets and bathrooms.

In VR: 

In the virtual reality classroom, teachers and students are transported to learning environments in which they can easily engage with one another. Everyone present is entirely immersed in the new reality. This reduces the friction created by inadequate learning environments.

Further, as teachers are present with students, many of the same instructional methods that reduce teacher talk time allow a much smoother transition to interactive pair and group work  (think the use of modeling, TPR, and instruction cards, for example). 

Some VR learning scenarios actually require less teacher talking time than in the classroom, never mind Zoom. For example, if you are setting up a role play in a fast food restaurant, your students are already placed in context. And rather than handing out cards, you can assign roles and scripts to students using virtual watches with the push of a button. 

Activities are also far more intuitive. This means less instruction is needed to set the scene. And, when necessary, in Immerse VR there is an option to mute the students when giving instruction, so you don’t have to repeat yourself. 

2. Presentation, practice and production

The PPP approach is a mainstay of language teaching, and one of the most accessible ways to structure a communicative focused lesson plan. The teacher presents the new language point, and the students practice this new language with assistance. 

Production is the next stage in which students use the new language with minimal input from the teacher. This creates a space for teachers to step back and observe visual evidence of progress and fluency. 

On Zoom: 

Presentation isn’t a problem on Zoom. In fact, that’s what the platform was designed to do best. However, when it comes to practice and production, things become more challenging. It’s difficult to create the time for every student to speak on Zoom. 

On top of this, when they work in breakout rooms, monitoring becomes an issue - who knows what’s going on in there?! 

From a performance observation standpoint, it creates real challenges because there is no way to really know if you are observing actual performance, or just witnessing a staged and practiced interaction, which while useful, does little to help learners internalize the language for future use. 

In VR: 

In VR, practice and production is much more natural - and similar to the physical classroom experience. Your students are able to practice their speaking in a more spontaneous way, and you can monitor more easily. 

What’s more, there are some features specifically designed to provide scaffolding to your learners during practice and production. For example, the prompt tool allows you to send a custom prompt to all your students or an individual, without interrupting the flow of their speech or disrupting a conversation. 

3. Pair and group work

Peer-to-peer learning is an important component of language teaching. It provides crucial opportunities for students to produce new language and practice their speaking skills. Pair and group work are a central part of classroom teaching - so how do they compare on Zoom and in VR? 

In Zoom:

Pair and group work is possible on Zoom thanks to the breakout rooms function. However, it’s nowhere near as efficient as classroom group work. Students are often left to their own devices when they are working in breakout rooms. You need to trust students to work in groups effectively, as you pop in and out of different rooms. 

You can encourage focus by assigning roles such as notetaker, manager, etc. However, this amount of clarification and review necessary often increases instruction time and decreases time for learner to learner engagement. 

Once your group activity is done, closing rooms down takes a minute. Often learners will also often dilly-dally in their breakout room, using up more class time. 

In VR: 

There are lots of options when it comes to group work in Immerse VR. You can split your students into teams, regardless of where people are in the real world. The audio options allow students to sound as they would in real life, i.e. noise diminishes with distance. 

Of course, as learners are all communicating through an online platform, things can get noisy, just like in the real classroom. This is where the magic of VR can really make you feel as if you are back at school, listening to students talking with partners at opposite ends of a table. 

However, unlike real life, in VR when things get too noisy, you can place your groups in a cone of silence. You can enter and check-in on learners, and observe without intruding while also balancing the distraction by cutting out sound from other groups engaged in work. This gives back the space necessary for critical diagnostic observation that allows educators to provide informed support to learners. 

4. Class presentations

Presentations are a great way for students to practice all four language skills and build their speaking confidence. They provide an opportunity for students to share what they’ve learned with their peers, and deepen their understanding of a topic by getting feedback and answering questions. 

On Zoom: 

Presentations work on Zoom, as we have noted. And, because of the many challenges of Zoom, and the constant number of hours we are all spending on the application, there are times when presentations from students are just naturally less engaging than they are in person. 

It's harder to interrupt and ask questions, or give positive feedback and encouragement through a smile, a wave to keep going, or by encouraging cheers or applause. These aspects of social and emotional support which can help students stay engaged, and feel confident when presenting, are entirely eliminated in zoom. Students are missing a lot without the non-verbal feedback - smiles, nods - that happens when they’re in a physical classroom space. 

In VR: 

Presenting in VR, however, allows you to put your students on a stage, give learners the microphone, and support their confidence just as we would in the classroom. A wave, applause, and even an encouraging hand to keep going, are all easily accessible to the teacher. Your avatar can perform animations of common gestures to encourage students. So you can give the presenting student a thumbs up! And it’s easy to engage the rest of the class with the Rally tool, which positions students in front of things you want them to pay attention to. 

Further presenting in VR emboldens students who previously might have struggled with their confidence when it comes to public speaking. In fact, in a small study with Japanese students learning presentation skills in VR, speaking through the avatar had a significant impact on lowering learner anxiety, which encouraged students to speak more freely and comfortably in VR than they thought possible. 

5. Managing behavior

Classroom management can be challenging even for experienced teachers, particularly when it comes to younger students. Often, behavioral problems come from trivial things like arguments over students sitting together, preferences for pair work, giggling and throwing things, the noise level rising. And of course mobile phones are a constant distraction. 

So what happens when learning moves online?

On Zoom: 

Students are apart, so you don’t have the usual fidgeting and chatting that is part of the classroom environment. But it can be harder to get students to focus. They can look at their phones, or open other browsers, or message one another privately - or worse in the public chat!  

And, as many teachers will tell you, you can’t see what they’re doing off screen - or if they’re really paying attention at all. 

In VR:

Immerse puts all your students in the same room virtually, so you have all the benefits of them being together. VR headsets mean that they can’t look at their phones and the novelty of the virtual reality environment means that it’s easy to keep them engaged and excited. 

Additionally, as the VR Teacher, your avatar is a visual reminder to the students that the teacher is always around. This allows some of the common classroom management techniques for pair and group work to be incorporated into your lesson. 

Listen in on a team and notice a lot of L1 use? Move your physical avatar closer to the group that has gone off track, and just like in the classroom, learners will move back to the assignment. This is phenomenally useful, and really formalizes the sense of teaching in front of the students again. Being able to transport basic classroom techniques into a virtual setting is one of the best parts of teaching in VR. 

Read more

You can learn more about how language teaching works in a VR classroom. Watch some sample videos of classes and read about the learning outcomes when students take part in VR learning. 

Sara Davila
Sara Davila is the Head of Efficacy and Learning for Immerse. Based in Chicago, Sara Davila is an expert on English-language learning, twenty-first century pedagogies, and teacher-training best practices. Author of numerous articles and speaker at countless conferences, Sara’s expertise spans the globe.

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