The Virtual Challenge

Here’s the thing…pretty much everyone in the modern world has years of experience of learning successfully in a classroom. Even if I think back to my worst teachers (and there were numerous):

  • Tommy “the dog”, my Leaving Certificate Maths teacher who decided we didn’t need to cover the entire curriculum before our life-changing exam date.
  • Miss Kennedy, my French teacher whose approach to teaching could be summed up by the sentence “there’s a page, do it!”
  • Mr Highland, poor Mr Highland, who carried on teaching us business studies while we bounced a tennis ball off the blackboard

But again, here’s the thing, even in those classes, I learnt. I was successful. I passed those exams because at the end of the day, learners for the most part are gonna learn if they want to. It’s hard to actually stop them.

So when it comes to choosing an English language course many prospective students arrive at their decision safe in the knowledge that they can learn in a classroom as they have previously done so. In general, they didn’t really investigate online learning options and so learning English online (outside of 1:1 lessons and gamified learning apps like DuoLingo) never really took off. That was until April 2020 when the old world ended and a brave new technological age of learning began.

With the arrival of COVID, students and teachers all over the world were forced to move online almost over night and experienced teachers had to learn entirely new skills. The internet was awash with blogs, training sessions and videos on the importance of keeping cameras on, which platform to choose, what online whiteboard apps were the best. Suddenly words like synchronous and asynchronous became part of our everyday vernacular. I watched in our schools as students and teachers grew in confidence in online platforms but also in their own ability to learn and teach online.

So what now? Well, now a whole new world has been opened up for both teachers and students. Many of the major English language schools like mine now offer online lessons as a product in its own right. It’s not a stopgap until the world rights itself, it’s a viable English language product. It is now entirely possible to learn online and thanks to COVID (not a sentence I often say, I promise you), thousands of students have first-hand evidence of learning successfully in an online classroom. When it comes time for them to choose their next English language course, it might not be in a physical classroom, it might very well be a flatscreen school they choose.

But where does that leave Virtual Reality?

Well, the challenge here is that not as many people have any real experience of learning successfully in Virtual Reality and so are more likely to avoid it. They don’t currently have that prior knowledge that makes VR a viable option for them. But will that always be the case? Will online and face-to-face lessons remain the only options for our students?

For me, the answer is a firm no. Apps like Immerse, Engage and Remio are already quite advanced, providing teachers with a range of classroom management tools that mirror and in some cases expand on the classroom experience. There has already been a lot of research carried out into how VR can lower the affective filter and provide a more immersive classroom. There is a lot more research being done into retention on VR versus flatscreen and in the classroom. 2021 has seen a rise in the sales of Oculus headsets and everywhere we turn we hear about Meta and the future. Accenture, a Fortune Global 500 company, recently purchased 60,000 Oculus headsets to help train their employees. It feels like this might be the beginning of a move to VR and with a number of English language schools already flirting with the technology, including EC launching an entirely VR course in January 2022, we may soon have more and more students with first-hand evidence of learning successfully in a truly virtual classroom…let’s hope so.

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