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Energizing Language Teaching and Learning with VR Games and AI Characters

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper
Roundtable presentation

Thursday, December 3, 11:15 am–12:00 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)
Presentation 3 of 3
Other presentations:
Technology Acceptance Model and Use of Twitter by Preservice Teacher Candidates
Preservice Teachers' Changing Perceptions on Mobile Phone Use in the Classroom

Dr. Paula MacDowell  
Quincy Wang  

This research analyzes the affordances and constraints of teaching language learning with a VR game that has AI-powered smart characters. We synthesize data collected from both students and teachers to report innovative strategies and best practices for using VR environments to enhance learning outcomes in diverse classroom contexts.

Audience: Teachers, Teacher education/higher ed faculty, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Topic: Augmented, mixed & virtual reality
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Language arts, STEM/STEAM
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Advocate for equitable access to educational technology, digital content and learning opportunities to meet the diverse needs of all students.
For Students:
Empowered Learner
  • Students articulate and set personal learning goals, develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve them and reflect on the learning process itself to improve learning outcomes.
For Education Leaders:
Empowering Leader
  • Support educators in using technology to advance learning that meets the diverse learning, cultural, and social-emotional needs of individual students.
Additional detail: Session recorded for video-on-demand, Graduate student

Proposal summary



VR has been widely introduced into the classrooms since the Oculus Rift prototype was created in 2010, and during the past five years the use of VR has been growing exponentially (Bonasio, 2019; Cooper et al., 2019; Lin, 2015). According to a recent statistics report, VR has reached over 171 million people by 2018 and VR in education has become a trendy topic (Liu, 2019). Although educators are often reluctant to react quickly to emerging trends, the issue of introducing VR in language learning can no longer be viewed as just another fad or passing phase. Its use in education must be examined, and the pedagogical benefits must be explored (Fowler, 2015; Lin & Lan, 2015; Samsung, 2018).

To enhance student learning, teachers have historically used a variety of experiential tools like field trips, guest speakers, and hands-on activities to create immersive and authentic learning experiences for students. These traditional activities can have constraints that include being cost-prohibitive, difficult to schedule, and not applicable to all students. Learning a language through VR application affords many opportunities for rich immersive practice; however, there is insufficient research to evaluate the design, implementation, and assessment of VR tools for specific language learning contexts (Schwienhorst, 2002; Shih & Yang, 2008). Most research to date has focused on conducting a meta-analysis of a VR tool and then applying the findings to an education subject in general. Building on the well-grounded research of Fowler (2015) and Lin & Lan (2015), our study puts VR to the test in a subject-specific classroom setting.



Before we installed the Argotian VR application on 35 Oculus Go headsets (figure 1), we paired, named, and labelled each individual headset with its controller, then we charged all headsets for approximately 3 hours. While waiting for the charge to be complete, we created an Oculus account and downloaded the Argotian application. We also compiled a detailed list of instructions and materials that teachers will need to get the headsets and controllers ready for use in their classrooms (figure 2).

For the research, we employed a mixed-method, repeated-measures approach to discover both teachers’ and students’ perceptions and experiences of learning language within a VR environment. We also examined the curricular and pedagogical implications of Argotian as a cognitive tool capable of adapting and responding to different learner needs. The guiding research question: To what extent can VR enable student-directed experiences that lead to authentic learning, language fluency, self-confidence, and increased classroom engagement?

Data was collected through surveys and group interviews with a total of 27 high school students and eight teachers (we hosted four separate research events). All participants were introduced to the VR learning pre-activities before the start of the first session. Next, they experienced one-hour group sessions to explore Argotian on the Oculus Go VR headset, followed by reflective conversations and post-activities with the researchers. For students, we provided two sessions (two weeks apart) for experiencing language learning in VR (figure 3), after which they completed an anonymous survey with open-ended and Likert-scale questions. Teachers provided anecdotal observations as well as questionnaire responses about the potential benefits and challenges of using Argotian VR in their classrooms to support learning.

Collectively, the participants identified what the VR experiences offered for their learning development: 1) challenging their critical thinking skills by questioning the ways they use and consume technologies, and 2) gaining both speaking and listening skills. From the student and teacher feedback collected (see the abbreviated analysis below), we find that the Argotian VR environment can be manipulated and controlled to address some of the limitations within traditional classroom settings for language learning.

Feedback from Students
Positive feedback from students followed their immersion into the game-based learning scenario. Our initial question was, “Can using Argotian VR boost your critical thinking?” Student A responded, “Yes, because you have to think about asking good questions, and you can work on your language speaking.” Student B analyzed their experience, “Yes, just like in an everyday situation, I could learn and think in different ways to get through it.” Student C concurred, “Yes, I believe so because it makes you try to think of good questions and makes you put the clues together to find out the storyline.” Student D agreed, “In some situations, yes, because a weak question gives me a weak response, so I automatically look for a stronger question.” These learners understand that it takes complex and creative thinking skills to be able to communicate with the AI characters in order to solve the quest. 85% of students indicated that the Argotian VR application boosts their critical thinking.

The majority of students responded affirmatively to the second question, “Do you think Argotian and VR would help you in learning a language?” Student E stated, “I think so because it simulates talking to other people helping you learn the language. They answer and talkback which can help you learn new words.” Student F contributed, “Yes because you need to communicate with the people to find clues and answers.” Student G reported, “Yes. I think it would help because it would get me to talk and listen more to the language and practice, but maybe it might be hard to solve the mystery if you don’t know the language.” 80% of the students surveyed agreed that an application like Argotian could be a fun and engaging way to learn a language authentically.

Feedback from Teachers
The teachers in the study also participated by observing their students engage in the VR application, to discern how it can benefit their language learning. To our first question (“Do you think it could be effective to implement Argotian VR sessions for language learning in the classroom?”) one teacher responded, “Yes, I think that Argotian and VR would be beneficial for English Language Learning (ELL) students. It would create a fun avenue for practicing English in a safe environment.” To our follow-up question, “What might be potential benefits or opportunities of using Argotian VR for teaching and learning in the classroom?”, an instructor answered, “Using Argotian VR in the classroom would be introducing a fun way of learning and using critical thinking skills.” Another teacher suggested the pedagogical approach of implementing an inquiry-based model that lets students play the VR game by themselves first; then the students would have to write down problems in asking questions. The teacher can give some sample questions for students’ reference. Alternatively, the students can check the sentence patterns of questions online. Then, have students to go back to the in-situated VR conversation with AI character again to see their learning outcomes.



The results of our research are encouraging; we feel more confident and enthusiastic about developing VR applications that bridge the gap between the real world and the classroom setting. The near-authentic learning environment created by VR increases students’ engagement during the learning process. As Shih and Young (2008) report, “the most effective way to learn a language is to participate in a community in which the target language is used to communicate in a real context” (p. 56). In such an environment, language learners are forced and encouraged to think and speak in the target language. In other words, they become “immersed in an input-rich, natural, and meaningful context in which the target language can be acquired spontaneously” (p. 57). By providing a feeling of “being there” and facilitating a real-time conversation with an AI character, VR makes language learning more personal, more engaging and more relevant and thus, providing a chance for a new pedagogical approach. Through numerous class observations and feedback collected from both students and teachers, we conclude that learning a language by implementing VR technology in a classroom can be safe, comfortable, and enjoyable. All students were highly engaged in practicing the target language in their self-controlled world.

Our study findings are valuable for educators, developers, and researchers who are interested in experimenting with VR technologies to enrich curriculum and energize classroom learning environments. At ISTE, we look forward to discussing how student engagement, critical thinking skills, and fluency can be enhanced by integrating VR as a tool in both language learning and teaching. As Cooper et al. (2019, p. 10) state, “the power and the possibilities of using VR in the classroom are endless, but people won’t truly see the value and understand it until they use this technology. Teachers need to adapt and lead innovation in the ways VR could potentially impact pedagogy.”



To reiterate, we found that VR immersion accelerates learning in classrooms and transforms educational experiences, including critical thinking, and developing a better understanding of how language works. We believe that the potential drawbacks of employing VR as a teaching tool in a language class must also be addressed so these problems can be overcome. The most obvious objection is the price: VR headsets might present a considerable expenditure for some school districts. These costs will be reduced over time as the technology becomes even more widespread and the prices of these sets will decrease significantly. School districts will also be able to bring down the cost of individual sets by purchasing them in bulk and getting an educational discount. Introducing VR into the teaching arsenal is likely to cause another significant problem: instructors requiring training on how to use this new tool. Enabling teachers to use VR in their classrooms as a part of teacher training will help to resolve this issue. Providing a practical VR curriculum and pedagogy resource to support teachers to implement VR technology in a classroom is also necessary. Further, there is insufficient research available on the usage of VR in education as compared to other educational technology topics; more in-depth studies of virtual learning environments are needed. Finally, VR is not meant to replace existing teaching methods, materials, and tools; rather, it is intended to be employed to supplement, complement and enhance them.



Bonasio, A. (2019). Immersive experiences in education: New places and spaces for learning. [White paper] Microsoft. Retrieved online:

Cooper, G., Park, H., Nasr, Z., Thong, L. P., & Johnson, R. (2019). Using virtual reality in the classroom: Preservice teachers’ perceptions of its use as a teaching and learning tool. Educational Media International, 56(1), 1–13.

Fowler, C. (2015). Virtual reality and learning: Where is the pedagogy? British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(2), 412–422.

Lin, T. J. & Lan, Y. J. (2015). Language learning in virtual reality environments: Past, present, and future. Educational Technology & Society, 18(4), 486–497.

Liu, S. (2019, August 9). The number of active virtual reality users worldwide from 2014 to 2018. Statista. Retrieved online:

Samsung. (2018). Teachers ready for virtual reality in education. Retrieved from https://

Schwienhorst, K. (2002). The state of VR: A meta-analysis of virtual reality tools in second language acquisition. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 15(3), 221–239.

Shih, Y.-C., & Yang, M.-T. (2008). A collaborative virtual environment for situated language learning using VEC3D. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 11(1), 56-68.

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Dr. Paula MacDowell, University of Saskatchewan

Paula MacDowell is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology and Design at the University of Saskatchewan. She is a researcher and developer of tools, communities, and methods that support innovation in addressing humanity’s challenges and opportunities, to achieve sustainable change with and for our communities. Paula studies the design of constructionist learning environments and works closely with teachers to integrate media and technology in the classroom for meaningful learning.

Quincy Wang, Simon Fraser University
Graduate student

Quincy Wang is a web & multimedia designer and master’s student in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on VR implementation in education and how it impacts teaching and learning. Combining 16 years of professional experience with web and multimedia design, digital technologies, and research knowledge in instructional design, she has accomplished award-winning digital portfolios in Canada.

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