Wednesday, 16 October 2019 09:58

ImmerseMe: Using Virtual Reality to Learn Languages

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If you make a tour at pages about education and education technology you will find out that in 2019 Virtual Reality remains one of its biggest trends. Of course most of the applications currently available are about foreign language learning.

I recently came across a new application that aims to enhance their learning through a virtual discussion process between the student - user and the VR system. This application is ImmerseMe, which as its name suggests expects to immerse the student into a virtual world by simulating everyday conversations in foreign languages. . The question is, can it stand out from the rest of VR applications?

ImmerseMe is an application launched as a crowd funding project by Scot Cardwell based in Auckland, New Zealand.

 

Structure

ImmerseMe offers a learning package of 9 different languages. In addition to English, French, Spanish, German and Chinese for which demand is obviously higher, there are scenarios for Greek, Italian, Indonesian and Japanese.

Once the language is selected, the user is faced with a series of learning scenarios of that particular foreign language. Each scenario is essentially the transfer of a 360-degree scene to the user's screen. Those scenes are numerous. For example, the user may decide to buy a loaf of bread at the local bakery, order a beer at a bar, book a hotel room, buy a t-shirt or simply give advice to a friend who wants to buy a new cell phone. In total, according to the creators, there are 3000 scenarios available, a very impressive number.

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After identifying the scenario of interest, the student is then asked to choose the language’s level (beginner, advanced, intermediate). Undoubtedly this option gives an extra degree of personalization to the specific needs of the user based on one’s level.

At the next step, the user is presented with the transcript of the discussion that will follow, some vocabulary and grammar footnotes, and most importantly the user has to pick the type of lesson that would like to view. There are 4 types of lesson. Those include Pronunciation, Dictation, Translation and finally Immersion.

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  • In the first case (Pronunciation), the user listens to the questions of the virtual interlocutor, and then is asked to provide the answers that appear on the screen, giving the user the opportunity to hear them, if needed, before answering. This feature is particularly useful as one of the key issues for foreign language learners is the difficulty of pronouncing words, due to lack of knowledge or just because of shyness.
  • In the Dictation type of lesson the conversation is repeated but this time without having the text appear on the screen and the user is asked to type the sentences that he or she has just listened. This function undoubtedly enhances the student's listening ability.
  • The Translation part could not be parsed due to the lack of translation into a language that I can communicate. I think it’s currently available only in Chinese.
  • Finally, the 4th type of lesson, Immersion puts the student in a dialogue process in which the answers are not written as in the Pronunciation part, but instead the user is invited to answer as he thinks fit based on what he/she has learned in the previous lesson types.

What needs improvement is the fact that neither Spelling nor Immersion provide any Help option for the learner. In other words, if the user gets stuck at some point, he/she has to go to the previous step and check the transcript by oneself and then go back and start the activity from scratch without being able to resume at the stopping point.

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Theoretical aspects, educational dynamic

I was really impressed by the multitude of scenarios available and the fact that those scenarios, unlike what can be made from similar genre applications such as Google's tour creator, contain the element of pseudo-interaction with the virtual environment.

By pseudo-interaction I mean the interaction that the user may have with the virtual world, which is predefined in specific cases, through which the user can choose the one that suits him. Even so, the path is predetermined, without allowing for substantial freedom of choice, such as in computer games.

The scenarios that are available in the application and which the user is required to complete are in line with the theory of authentic learning. The reason for this is their relevance to the real world, as realistic simulations of events. For example, visiting a museum and buying an entrance ticket is a real-world event, not something unrelated to it as the student is very likely to have experienced such a need in his life. In this way, linking theory and practice will lead to increased student motivation to engage in the subject.

At the same time, another element that reinforces the idea that this particular application falls within the scope of authentic learning is that the learner is given the opportunity to see by himself / herself one’s progress through the progress bars that are present in the scenes, giving the learner the opportunity to self-control one’s level, while at the same time the non-forced linearity of his choices enhances autonomy and self-regulation.

Immerse.me can be used as a support tool when learning foreign languages ​​mainly outside the classroom. The student in his / her own space and time can complete the scenarios that interest him / her in order to assist his / her auditory, oral and vocabulary abilities. Students who suffer from a lack of confidence in the use of language can interact with virtual characters in pre-created scripts to stimulate their knowledge before using it with a boosted confidence later in the classroom or even real world.

On the other hand I would like to see more gamification elements and maybe some kind of a reward system for the student. Such a practice would undoubtedly enhance the user’s return to the system as it would maintain one’s interest for a longer period of time.

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Technical aspects / requirements

Immerse.me required no need for an installation, just a username and a password. During the trial period that I used the app, immerse.me was accessible by a web browser for all devices, ranging from PCs to mobile devices. Unfortunately the version for VR headsets is not ready, which has not allowed me to have a more comprehensive view of how it works. Of course according to the developers this will be possible by the end of the year for Cardboard, Vive, Rift and GearVR.

If you want to try ImmerseMe you have to fill in the form here

Verdict

I enjoyed immerse.me. Although like many other applications, deals with the subject of learning foreign languages ​​through Virtual Reality, it has some elements that make it stand out. It definitely needs improvement, especially in its visual arts and educational design to enhance the user-interface and user-friendliness. But overall it is well made and easy to use.

In my opinion, ImmerseMe can be used by students who already possess the basics of the language of interest, as it is not a language learning tool from scratch, but rather a tool to support and enhance existing knowledge and to develop specific skills.

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