The applications of Virtual Reality (VR) in education can create active experiences in increasingly immersive worlds and provide a safe environment for learners to test and practice situations otherwise stressful or, in some instances, dangerous.
As part of their training, future teachers (students-teachers) are sent out to schools to put into practice what they are learning and work side-by-side with a seeded teacher… who will observe the student-teacher, evaluate their performance and provide feedback to help them hone their craft. The students are also evaluated by their university supervisors. Since this experience takes place in a real classroom, with real students, it can easily become daunting, socially awkward, and very challenging.
In this context and working closely with a team from Concordia’s Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) unit from the Department of Education, we created a VR experience where students can prepare, in a safe and customized virtual environment, for their assessment interview with their mentor (either classroom teacher or university supervisor).
To dive deeper into the development of this experience and its background, we discussed with Dr. Teresa Hernandez Gonzalez, Undergraduate TESL Programs Director and Assistant Professor from the Department of Education at Concordia University and the progenitor of this project, as well as a few participants in the program.
What was the idea behind this project?
Teaching is a demanding profession. It is a “make or break” type of profession. Not anyone can be a teacher, despite what society tends to believe. It requires a type of attitude and mindset that, if you don’t have it, turns teaching into an impossible endeavour. This might explain the high rate of attrition among teachers. It is one of the most stressful professions and yet, I believe, one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable ones. And I think it is all about the mindset and the mental skills you put in place. However, developing those mental skills while teaching would be like asking a surgeon to develop their surgical skills while operating on real patients or a pilot practicing taking off with a plane full of passengers. With this VR project, we want to offer future teachers the opportunity to develop the mental skills that will allow them to enjoy this wonderful profession in an environment that is not threatening and where failing is only part of the game of getting better. It is about injecting a bit of playfulness, a bit of “let’s try this again,” into the process of becoming a good teacher.
“Let’s try this again” is also the name of this project. What is the story behind it?
We truly believe that the way to get better at something is to try again and again and reflect on what you are doing. Practice makes permanent, and reflection of practice makes perfect. We want to allow future teachers to practice over and over so they can reflect and feel they can do this. “Let’s try this again” is a way of saying: “You got this, we can do this, let’s just try one more time.” We also want to ensure that this is the teachers’ attitude towards their students and everyone around them. We are not going to do things perfectly all the time, we might never do them perfectly, but the joy is in the process of trying, imagining what we could do, just giving it a try, and then learning from it to try more times. There is always a new day, a new opportunity to say, “let’s try this again.” I am a strong believer in repair and not despair. And with each repair we attempt, if well done, we become more resilient and wiser, and thus we also enjoy our job as we become more competent, and thus our tasks are transformed into playful challenges.
How did the idea of using VR to help students reflect on their practice emerge?
It is heartbreaking to see a student-teacher dealing with a situation for which they are not well equipped, emotionally or mentally. Going back to the sink or swim idea, seeing them sink is not an easy feeling when you know they could swim if given the opportunity to learn, little by little, just with more attempts, in a safe environment.
My father worked for the air forces in Spain, teaching soldiers how to pilot planes with a simulator. I remember being a kid and getting into one of those simulators. I also read about programs for surgeons, and nurses, who practice their skills in VR environments. The idea of practicing in a safe environment, as an education, seems essential to me. So, I thought, is there any way we can create a safe learning environment for our teacher education program at Concordia University? Can we allow teachers to explore and test their thinking in a safe environment? Can we make it fun? That’s what play is all about: testing the skills that are later used for real-life challenges in a secure environment.
How did you perceive VR before working with it? What were some of your misconceptions?
Some of the misconceptions I had were linked to the devices. I think there is still a lot to be improved in that area. For VR to be truly immersive, I think we should be able to forget we are wearing a device over our eyes. It is exciting to be part of this exploration, witnessing how technology is evolving. At the same time, imagination is powerful. I used to play with shoe boxes as racing cars for my dolls. Is it the realism that we need in VR or honing our ability to be immersed in fantasy? Tons of questions to explore still. It’s all fascinating!
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered working with VR, and how did you overcome them?
The major challenge for me was the amount of time and effort required for each aspect to be designed and developed. I am sure that as technology evolves, it will be easier and less time-consuming, but the amount of work and time it requires now is considerable. We want things to happen quickly these days. However, the process of creating an excellent immersive experience has also to embrace the iterative process of learning. Nothing exceptional comes from “quick and fast.”
What are some differences you saw working with VR compared to other formats?
The most crucial argument for using VR is related to the immersive nature. Accumulating experience creates memories and the automatization of processes. Despite the education they get in their university programs, new teachers tend to teach the way they were taught themselves. This is because once they face the stressful situation of a real classroom, they don’t reach for the knowledge acquired at the university, their brain reaches for the memories stored from previous experiences as a student, and they replicate that. Therefore, creating immersive experiences that can be stored as memories helps new teachers activate those memories when teaching in a real classroom.
What do you think people misunderstand the most about working in VR?
I think people approach VR from one of the extremes. They either believe it is nothing like reality and are surprised by how immersive and believable the experience feels, or they expect a completely realistic experience and are disappointed by the still far from real-life feeling. It is something in between, still powerful enough to create memories and help in learning in a safe environment.
What role do you think VR could play in research work? How is it similar or different from other tools?
We need to use VR in research as another way to avoid testing on humans. It gives us the control to select variables and manipulate them to test outcomes but without putting any humans at risk. One of the issues of education research is the “ecological validity.” Studies in labs are not transferable to the reality of a classroom, but the variables in a real classroom cannot be controlled to produce robust conclusions. I can’t wait to see that happening in the field of teacher education. As VR keeps evolving, adding Artificial Intelligence to it, for example, will allow us to use VR for research purposes in unprecedented ways.
What has been the response from the students so far?
The response has been very positive. They have told us that they remembered the VR experience when faced with a similar situation in their actual practice, which was our primary objective. As we keep creating more scenarios, we will be able to see what’s most effective in preparing our teachers for the profession’s challenges.
What other applications of VR do you see at the University?
Training faculty for teaching, for instance. Imagine taking a course on how to talk to a colleague in a department meeting, or on how to discuss complex issues with a student, or discuss the workload in group work between students. If you can imagine the situation and the struggle that it entails, you can train anyone to face it and deal with it in the best way. Then, the memories will allow you to react automatically when faced with that specific situation.
What would be your advice to other professors who may be thinking about using VR in their teaching?
I would recommend having a clear idea of the learning outcomes. We should be careful not to use VR as an entertainment tool. In education, we want to compete with everything else trying to get our students’ attention and be as flashy and appealing as social media or other technological applications. And I think this is a mistake. We must stay strong regarding our pedagogical underpinnings, starting with the learning goals. It is possible that our learning goals may be better attained otherwise. Let’s use VR for what other tools/techniques fall short, not just to entertain our students.
Do you have any fun VR anecdotes to share?
We had some laughs talking about the appearance of the avatars… the names to be given to the characters, and the dialogues. We have a great team working together on this, and laughs are part of the process. It has been a very enjoyable process, and we look forward to more laughs along the way!