May 17, 2021

"Teaching in VR is a Blast": A Review of Immerse from a British Educator

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This blog post was written by David Read, the Academic Director for Technology Enhanced Language Learning at the University of Sheffield, and was originally published on Medium.

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The last class I taught started off in a Wizard’s Castle with my students wielding wands and big floppy hats while we chatted about Harry Potter and different film genres. After a while we transported between a desert island, a zoo, a bustling city centre and a coffee shop to discuss film settings and locations. We finished off the lesson in a cosy little theatre where one by one the students got on stage and gave a short presentation on a film they really loved.

A virtual reality scene in a small theatre with a teacher presenting to a group of students
Students giving a presentation in VR

This was an English as a foreign language lesson, the students were young Japanese adults and the whole thing took place in Virtual Reality using software by a company called Immerse…and it was the most fun I’ve had teaching — and I think the students had learning — for quite some time.

Now, how does all this work? The students are wearing VR headsets in their homes and are experiencing everything as a fully immersive 360 degree experience. They can do this standing up and sitting down. In each of their hands is a special controller they can use to pick up objects, use hand gestures or interact with various games around the virtual space.

As for me, the teacher, I’m not in VR. It would be difficult to do all the typical teacher stuff — make notes on students performance, consult my lesson plan etc — if I was. Instead I interact with students via software on my computer. It looks — and acts — a bit like a computer game and I use the keyboard and mouse to navigate around the environment, switch locations, set up lesson activities and manage my lesson plan. If I wish, I can switch between different avatars to suit the location we are in, so a uniformed official at airport customs or a name-badged employee in the fast food restaurant.

Virtual reality teaching software interface showing different locations
The teacher software lets me switch easily between locations

My avatar can perform some basic gestures such as waving, clapping and encouraging and during a lesson I can pull up a whiteboard if I want to do some impromptu language work or correction. If I want something more structured, there are presentation screens dotted around a variety of locations to display slides or YouTube videos.

A virtual reality wizarding classroom scene with cauldrons and potions
The presentation board lets me show Youtube videos or a Google Slide deck

There’s a useful menu for managing students, so I can put them into teams or groups and set it so that the groups can’t hear each other. I can also bring all the students to one spot if I need to tell them something, completely mute them or disable their ability to interact with objects. It’s all rather clever and well designed.

I was worried that the whole thing was going to feel, well, a little bit silly. I mean I’m forty-nine for god’s sake, and here I am digitally decked out as a hot dog — yes, that is one of the costumes you can wear — navigating my pixel self round a fake castle and using a bow and arrow to shoot at targets to bring up discussion questions.

But somehow it works. Not perfectly or seamlessly but the experience has a beguiling sense of immersion about it that students seem to love. One of the things they mentioned when I chatted to them after the lesson was the freedom to speak that communicating from behind an avatar gives them. This was particularly true when we asked them to stand up and give a presentation in front of the others. This is normally an anxiety-inducing experience even in your first language. But doing it from a virtual persona seemed to reduce that anxiety.

A virtual reality lesson set at a beach resort with students in front of a teacher
This lesson took place in a hotel resort

Now of course this may all be down to the novelty factor, all this is new for both the students and the teachers so we’re still discovering what you can do. Whether this will wear off once we’ve exhausted all the most interesting locations I don’t know. But I suspect not..

You see, some of you might have thought ‘hey, haven’t we been here before? Doesn’t this sound a bit like Second Life?’ Back in the 2000s, this virtual world where people interacted via their avatars promised all kinds of educational possibilities, and schools and universities rushed to buy up virtual land and run digital conferences.

I remember taking a training course to ‘teach’ in Second Life and convincing a private student to have some lessons there, but it was a clunky experience and the software really wasn’t designed to support real teaching. I’d often spend hours preparing for a 45-minute lesson, working out how to generate particular objects or uploading content for my student to see.

And then Second Life’s popularity plummeted, seemingly replaced by the lure of the almighty mobile phone. Will education in VR go the same way? In my opinion, no, and that’s because VR has a couple of things going for it.

One, VR is building momentum towards much wider adoption than Second Life ever did. Until recently VR has been a niche technology, only taken up by the usual early adopters. It was hampered initially by its high cost and a rather convoluted set up that sometimes involved redesigning your living space to accommodate various peripherals that would make it work. Also, to have a half-decent experience, you needed to be physically connected by cable to a pretty powerful computer or laptop.

But in 2019, Oculus released the Quest headset and in 2020 they followed it up with the Quest 2. These devices are relatively cheap ($299–399), incredibly easy to use and, most importantly, are completely wireless, which means you don’t need to be attached to any other device to use them. This makes it much easier to transport and to demonstrate to other people. Oculus are doing for the VR market what the iPhone did for smartphones back in 2007. Not the first, definitely not the most powerful, but certainly the easiest to use.

And the Quest 2 particularly has been selling boatloads. For the first few months of its release it was almost impossible to find in shops or online and sold out almost immediately when it came in. It has certainly sold millions of units and appeals to a wide demographic, from the very young to the very old.

And the second reason why I think VR has the edge over something like Second Life is that the eco-system is app driven in the same way that mobile phones are. In fact the Quest headsets are basically Android mobile phones in headset form. This means that apps can be developed for specific use cases, such as language learning, gaming or business and they will be developed with their users in mind.

Headsets are going to get cheaper, lighter and more powerful and the experience for students will improve along with it. We’re not quite in Ready Player One territory just yet, but some of the experiences you can have in VR are impressively immersive. And for language learning, the possibilities are tremendous. Imagine creating realistic scenarios for students where it genuinely feels like you are really there in a coffee shop or a museum and interacting with the world and the people around you.

For the last few years I’ve felt somewhat jaded about the language classroom and how much it can really help students. But these initial experiences in VR have made me optimistic for a future where languages can be learnt in fully interactive and immersive environments.

Christian Rowe
Christian Rowe is the Chief Revenue Officer at Immerse. He loves unearthing new ways to help people grow, educating markets about new possibilities, and leveraging cutting-edge technology to help make human transformation possible.

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