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Metaverse and language learning: Preparing for an immersive future

By Nergiz Kern

Have you heard about the metaverse? ‘Silly question’ you will say. ‘I can’t hear it anymore!’ Instead, you might be asking: ‘Why should I care about cartoon worlds, avatars, digital fashion, and cryptocurrency as a language teacher?’ Or perhaps you actually have been wondering whether it might have some relevance for you and your students? In this blog post, I’d like to talk more about the metaverse, virtual reality (VR), and their implications for ELT as well as what you can do to prepare.  


Image Credit: Pixabay

As someone who taught languages and trained teachers in a virtual world a decade ago already and firmly believes in the potential of immersive virtual environments for language learning, I hope I can at least make you more curious about the potential of virtual reality for language learning, and provide you with reasons why language teachers shouldn’t dismiss the metaverse easily.

What is the metaverse? 

Firstly, let’s look at what it is not! The metaverse is not the same as VR. VR is just one way – the most immersive way – of experiencing or accessing the metaverse. The shortest definition of the metaverse from Avi Bar-Zeev (2021) is at the same the clearest and doesn’t need explaining:

‘the future internet’

There are more detailed, jargon-filled ones too, like this one by Mathew Balls (2021):

“The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”

To give a practical example of what a ‘spatial’ internet application could look like, think of students who currently go to the library website instead of going to the physical library. In the metaverse, instead of going to the website, they might walk (their avatars) into a virtual 3D library and go to the desk to ask the librarian for help. In fact, this was an option for some university libraries more than a decade ago. Librarians have been at the forefront of using 3D virtual worlds, specifically Second Life, a virtual world that was popular with educators a decade ago. It is sometimes regarded as an early example of a metaverse. There are few libraries left in virtual worlds today, for various reasons, but they have done pioneering work. 

A Second Life Library 

Why you cannot ignore the metaverse 

The metaverse will take time to fully implement, maybe a decade, maybe longer. It is also not going to be built by one company, no matter how big they are and what they call themselves. However some of the technology already exists and is being used. Games and virtual worlds aside, Meta (formerly Facebook) teamed up with Zoom to allow participants to join a call as avatars or real people, and Microsoft Mesh is integrated into Teams. These are the very tools that helped everyone get through lockdown teaching, learning, working, and socialising. It might look silly and a bit forced, like they were trying hard to use VR as it’s cool now. But these are big companies with a vision – whether we agree with their vision or not, we use their tools. 

Virtual and augmented reality (AR) are being used in business, workplace training, as well as education, for example, training for surgeons or soft-skills training for managers. Companies like Accenture and Bank of America are providing their new employees with VR headsets for onboarding. Some companies even have VR offices only.

Here are a range of VR activities courtesy of Immerse.

More and more training and meetings will take place in a 3D space, which means that future employees will be expected to have VR skills, just like they are expected to have digital skills today. Job requirements will soon include VR, and they in fact do. I even saw the first job ad for a university EAP teacher asking for the ability to use VR/AR/MR/AI for pedagogical purposes.

If we want to prepare our students for the workplace of the future, we need to engage with these new ways of communicating, collaborating and learning, and integrate them in our language lessons.

An art studio where learners can describe art, shapes and colours, and draw images moving their arms and hands in real life
Image Credit: Immerse

For a detailed, 15-minute demo of the lesson above, see the video at the end of the post.

If the metaverse is the next iteration of the internet, ignoring it would mean ignoring the internet. 

There are purely pedagogical reasons for using VR too, of course. Good language courses already include the 4Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication) and other life skills. However, it is becoming increasingly challenging to include all this in a relatively traditional language lesson, whether face-to-face or online. We need to use new ways of teaching that are more contextualised, more active, more experiential, more task-based and problem-solving based.

All of this can be more easily and effectively achieved in an immersive, interactive 3D environment where we can feel co-presence – the feeling that we are together in the same space, and where we can do things together physically to create experiences and learning that are memorable. For example, learners can walk around a kitchen to see what food items are available, come up with a recipe and cook it together by collecting the ingredients they need, chopping them up and placing them in a pot to cook. Here’s a detailed lesson plan for a kitchen scenario.

A professional Kitchen where learners can move around, grab food items and kitchen utensils and cook
Image credit: Immerse

In fully immersive VR, using VR goggles (or HMDs = head-mounted display), learners use their physical bodies to gesture and interact in VR. The following video shows the person moving their body and how this translates to the action in VR:

Interactions in VR

Many teachers and schools who previously dismissed online teaching found themselves in a difficult place when schools went into lockdown. Let’s be better prepared for the next iteration of the internet.

Will everybody need to wear a headset to use the internet and teach and learn?

Fully immersive VR can feel more immersive and interactive, and VR headsets will become ever lighter, more portable, easier to use and even more affordable. However, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to have access and be able to use a VR headset. There are accessibility and diversity issues to keep in mind as well.

The metaverse will be accessible via different devices. Immerse, the virtual world for language learning in the metaverse for example, has a fully immersive VR and a desktop VR version.

What can I do next?

To prepare yourself, read more about the affordances of virtual reality and how we can use VR for language learning in a pedagogically sound way, and find out about apps and content you can use. You can start with these resources I’ve been collecting, or watch some VR demo lessons to get a better idea of what it looks like to teach and learn a language in immersive VR. 

Start slowly and keep it simple. There is no need to immediately invest in headsets or a full class set – work with what you have and build up with experience. If you do decide to use fully immersive VR, you can rent headsets for the pilot course. Reflect and share your experiences with the teaching community. My original blog with my lesson plans and reflections starting in 2008 still exists, and a lot of that informs what I do today. 

If you are interested in research in this field, at Immerse, we conduct internal and external research with our research partners worldwide and share findings, such as on VR hybrid teaching, remote teaching and learner anxiety. And why not get involved in research yourself and shape the future of language learning and teaching? Get in touch if your institution is interested in a research partnership.

A teacher demo of the VR platform, Immerse.
About the Author

Nergiz Kern is Head of Research at Immerse, the first social VR platform purpose-built for immersive language teaching and learning in the metaverse. She is an EdTech and TESOL professional who specialises in virtual reality for language learning, with her first steps in virtual reality taken in 2008. She has taught, trained teachers and ‘lived’ in virtual reality, where learning is active, immersive, experiential and social. You can follow her on Linkedin or visi her own website for VR for language learning resources: nergizkern.com.

References

Ball, M. (2021, Jun 29). Framework for the Metaverse. MatthewBall.vc. https://www.matthewball.vc/all/forwardtothemetaverseprimer

Koetsier, J. (Hosts). (2021, October 6). What is the metaverse? (No. 204) [Audio podcast episode]. TechFirst. 

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