Using Carleton Virtual for Language Learning at Carleton University
As described in a previous Pocket of Innovation, Carleton Virtual is an online virtual environment that resembles the physical Carleton University campus in Ottawa and was built to explore how the unique qualities of virtual environments can best enhance student learning.
About four years ago, Dr. Ali Arya, who had developed the Carleton Virtual environment, approached Peggy Hartwick, an Instructor in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies, to see if she would be interested in using virtual reality (VR) for language teaching. She responded to the challenge of creating a virtual learning experience, with Dr. Arya’s support, and offered it as an optional assignment to her English as a Second Language Academic (ESLA) students. The student response to the trial was very positive – they were more at ease with their oral skills, took the exercise seriously, enjoyed the change of pace, and reported a boost of excitement at learning in this new way. As Ms. Hartwick says; “I was hooked, fascinated by what the environment offered language learners.”
The Carleton Virtual campus includes buildings, with classrooms, meeting rooms, a gallery, and the library where student avatars are greeted by a librarian, an open area with screens for presentations, an archeological dig site, and a campfire with First Nations dancers. The movements of the avatars performing the First Nations dancers are modelled on videos of actual dancers. With funding from the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, new space in Carleton Virtual was created for the School of Linguistics and Language Studies, featuring resources particularly useful for language learning.
The virtual School of Linguistics and Language Studies building lobby contains representations of Canadian icons, such as a hockey player, Terry Fox, snow and ice, maple trees, and a beaver. In addition to classrooms, there are open areas and small rooms where groups can meet, with access to screens that can be used to search the web, reproduce students’ or the professor’s desktops, develop PowerPoint presentations, edit text, and view videos. In open meeting areas, voices are contained so that only those in the working group area can hear the discussion.
Students log in from home or from on-campus computer labs and communicate via real-time voice, gestures, and movements, using avatars they have chosen to represent them in the virtual world. Any document accessible on a computer can be uploaded to the screens; professors are not restricted to pre-selected resources and text, but can respond to evolving needs and interests. In many locations, dual screens are available so the students can work together on one screen, while using the other for research or communication. Private messages can be sent to correct a student’s pronunciation or grammar. In the classrooms, the professors control the screens; in the group areas, control is shared.
In one ESLA pilot course, the virtual space is used to introduce new students to Canadian culture and the Carleton campus, while providing an opportunity for oral language practice. In their first session in Carleton Virtual, the students spend 45 minutes getting used to their avatar, its movements and possibilities, and how to navigate the virtual environment. Activities for the next three sessions, of 1.5 hours each, include students choosing one of the Canadian icons in the virtual building, researching, and orally describing its significance. They also talk about icons from their own culture. They discuss other culturally related topics as food and transportation, describing Canadian practices and those in their own cultures. At the end, they reflect on and write about the experience and what they learned.
The virtual Linguistics and Language Studies building is now being used by professors teaching Russian and French, in addition to the ESLA courses.
In addition to the Carleton campus, the virtual world now includes a section of downtown Ottawa. Cafés, markets, store fronts, iconic buildings, outdoor displays, and even a graffiti board are all part of the environment. Students can use webcams to share their real faces, type, draw, edit, play, view YouTube videos, share files and media – all the while conversing about the tasks they are accomplishing. The market and window displays can be changed to extend opportunities for vocabulary development.
Three houses have also been constructed and their interiors can easily be modified to reflect student, family, and seniors’ housing, with different furniture, art, amenities, and even food. These can be the setting for role playing for ESLA students and applications for students from other departments. In one application, the virtual housing was designed to indicate various levels of disarray to facilitate learning how to assess and respond to dementia patients.
The virtual space, using Avayalive Engage as the platform, has been built by 3DVirtualCrafting (3DVC). In addition to constructing the environment, 3DVC provides analytics on attentiveness and participation over the duration of each session, highlighting reactions to collaborative functions such as polling and desktop sharing and location of activity. As these statistics are collected and reported in real time, professors can be sent a message indicating that attention to the class is diminishing.
Outcomes and Benefits
The virtual reality space can be used as part of classroom activities, but its most effective applications are with fully online activities. The students take more risks with their language usage when no one is looking at them; language usage is more spontaneous. The virtual environment offers facilities for research and collaboration so that interaction is also very directed and focused. Students emerge from the virtual environment with enhanced intellectual, language, technical, and group skills.
The virtual environment has no geographic limits, providing an opportunity for collaborative and engaging learning. The physical space can be visually rich, facilitating experiential learning as students interact with each other and the world around them.
Among student comments is that learning virtually was “an exciting and useful experience since I could practice language skills and could get some information about Canadian culture.” What faculty have noticed is that “there is more speaking activity in 3D environments”, “makes people come out of their comfort zone and make them less shy” and “fostered dynamic interaction, basically a buzz with the experience that was much more than simply its novelty.”
Challenges and Enhancements
As Ms. Hartwick expresses it, “Even the challenges generate opportunities for language production and practice.”
The technology, especially the sound quality, can create problems at times but the students seem to work through or ignore any blips in the software.
For faculty, the greatest challenge is the preparation time.
Funding has been allocated for the development of a fully online undergraduate course in Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies, which will include the use of the virtual environment for delivery. As VR is not yet accessible to students with visual or hearing impairments, the virtual reality components will be optional.
Nuket Nowlan, President of 3DVirtual Crafting, sees virtual field trips as “one of the great potentials of virtual environments through creating the past so that students can visit, such as the Underground Railway.”
In Winter 2014, Ms. Hartwick worked with two Carleton students learning how to teach English as a Second Language and eight English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students in a Turkish university in the virtual environment. One of the classes focused on the theme of poetry, with a discussion on metaphors, followed by small groups searching for examples of metaphors within the virtual space. In doing this, the students and instructors accessed the meeting rooms, search capacities, interaction through voice and typing, preparation of joint materials – using all the facilities available to them, while communicating in English. It is this issue of the capacities or affordances offered to language learners that has inspired Ms. Hartwick to pursue a PhD program in which she is focusing on language learning in virtual environments and specifically how learners interact with each other and the space.
For Further Information
English as a Second Language Academic
School of Linguistics and Language Studies