Is immersive tech the future of language learning?

Ben Davies, Project Manager for English at Babbel, discusses how tech can provide ideal new techniques for teaching languages

In our ‘digitally literate’ world, immersive technology is fast becoming the new way to absorb content. Spanning podcasts, virtual reality, artificial reality, and even video and e-books, the tools that teachers have at their disposal now far exceed the traditional textbook.

We often think of technology as a way to make life easier for us. Immersive technology in particular is designed to be engaging, and therefore can have the potential to improve the effectiveness of ‘traditional’ methods of education.  

One benefit of immersive technology over these traditional methods is the confidence that it can give students. In my work as a language teacher, I have experienced how students need to be confident in their abilities before speaking to a teacher, let alone a native speaker. Immersive technology offers a powerful solution. Research being undertaken by Monash University shows that immersive technology allows students to practice their language skills online, in an environment that provides them with the space to make mistakes without embarrassment, as many times as they want, without the fear of being ridiculed or judged. When used as a precursor, support, or supplement to activities such as classroom roleplays and ‘real world’ conversations, technology like apps or podcasts is perfect for increasing students’ confidence in the topic they are learning. 

In multiplayer VR platforms such as Second Life, which has expanded its offering to allow organisations such as schools develop immersive learning environments, students are also encouraged to interact with each other in a virtual world. This in turn promotes engagement with the activity or subject, and encourages students to explore the theme between themselves, thereby harvesting curiosity around the topic. 

For language learning in particular, immersive learning tools are an invaluable resource. Through ongoing practice in a ‘safe space,’ students can significantly enhance their skills, whether that be reading, writing, or speaking. In any subject, talking about the lesson – in real-life or via an online platform – with someone else, can give the learner a different perspective of a topic, and encourage them to explore it further. 

Through immersive technology we can encourage engagement in a topic, learner personalisation of the material, heightened confidence in practice, and contextualisation of what students are learning and why.

Beyond these benefits, immersive technology also exposes students to a wider range of information beyond grammar and vocabulary that will peak their interest. By contextualising learning in virtual life, we offer learners a situation in which they can hear what they have learnt in an authentic setting, and absorb more cultural references than they might in traditional classroom activities. 

There are, of course, some considerations to be acknowledged in bringing immersive technology into the classroom. On the surface, technology might seem a counterintuitive way to help a class engage with the lesson. It’s a story we have all heard before; students who are presented with the freedom of a ‘computer lesson’ or an iPad become easily distracted and no longer listen to the teacher. 

However, it is worth noting that immersive technology can push teachers to view this sort of behaviour in a different light. Encouraging students to sit on their hands and only adhere to the steps set out by the teacher is stifling their curiosity and creativity. We should shift our perspective and see the difference between a student checking their emails and becoming distracted, and a student who is exploring a related theme and furthering their learning. Immersive technology offers an opportunity for students to explore the topics they are interested in, helping them to remember relevant words and constructions with greater ease.  

A further consideration of this technology is that it will change the relationship between the teacher and the student. When using immersive resources, the teacher must be digitally literate. If they’re able to use the chosen technology successfully, it will enhance the way that they work with their students, rather than detract from that bond they have with them. It will inspire teachers to become ‘guides’ rather than ‘instructors’ and, excitingly, create a more authentic learning experience for the students in which the subject matter is aligned with their interests and motivations.   

Through immersive technology we can encourage engagement in a topic, learner personalisation of the material, heightened confidence in practice, and contextualisation of what students are learning and why. Reaching far beyond the benefits of ‘traditional’ teaching methods, immersive technology can successfully be brought into the classroom to the benefit of both teachers and students. In the long-term, it could even change the way in which we view education as a whole; turning it from something necessary, to something self-driven and to be enjoyed at every turn. 

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