Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Language Learning in Virtual Reality Environments: Past, Present, and Future

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Language Learning in Virtual Reality Environments: Past, Present, and Future

Article excerpt


The recent rapid advances in and popularity of wireless communication and multimedia environments have resulted in language learning in a virtual reality (VR) environment [a so-called virtual learning environment (VLE)] receiving considerable attention in the past few years. In the early stage, VR generally involved only small representations of content area or domains designed to "bridge the gap between reality and abstract knowledge by the discovery method" (Lee, 1999, p. 72). In order to create such environments, the systems were commonly theme-based and comprised a full integration of artificial intelligence and a wide variety of social communication tools. Because of its features, VR was quickly introduced to promote authentic and immersive learning environments.

VR tools nowadays are a far cry from early two-dimensional (2D) text-based online VR environments, such as multiuser domains (MUDs) and MUD, object oriented (MOO), to which multiple users can be connected at the same time. Current VLEs have evolved to be more sophisticated and interactive with a high degree of visual appeal, allowing a wide range of interlocutors to communicate, cooperate, and compete through customized three-dimensional (3D) virtual spaces and avatars. Currently there are several VR tools in the market; Sykes et al. (2008) categorized VR based on its original design purposes into three types: open social virtualities, massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), and synthetic immersive environments (SIEs). Open social virtualities, such as Second Life (SL), OpenSimulator, and Active Worlds (AW), allow the users to immerse themselves in a wide variety of social contexts, participating in individual and group activities, and letting them create and trade virtual properties and services with one another. MMOGs, such as World of Warcraft (WoW), emphasize more role-playing functions, and involve hundreds or even thousands of players cooperating and competing with each other simultaneously based on their selected race, class, or profession. However, Sykes et al. (2008) considered that the above two types of VR were originally developed for commercial and business use. In contrast, an SIE emphasizes its educational objectives by carefully incorporating pedagogy into the immersive spaces. Regardless of the original purposes for which VLEs were designed, researchers in the computer-assisted language learning (CALL) field have tried to employ pedagogical principles and practices that are innovative and theoretically grounded to understand the pedagogical values of VLEs in language learning.

Given the above background on how VR emerged and has been categorized, it is useful to define VR so as to reflect its development as a state-of-the-art technology. Based on a thorough review of the definitions proposed by other researchers, Smart et al. (2007) offered the following core definition of VR: a system that aims to bring simulated real-life experiences, providing topography, movement, and physics that offer the illusion of being there.

Review of VR and simulation research

Several journal articles conducting meta-analysis have attempted to identify the characteristics and challenges of VR in technology-enhanced learning research. Lee (1999) analyzed 19 studies to determine the effectiveness of computer-simulated environments by investigating the relationship between 2 forms (i.e., pure and hybrid) and 2 modes of instructions (i.e., presentation and practice). That study revealed that within either the presentation or practice mode, hybrid simulation (which has expository instructional features) is much more effective than pure simulation (which does not integrate any specific directions and explanations). Schwienhorst (2002) examined the state of VR in second-language (L2) acquisition with the aim of identifying the common problems encountered and the role of VR in CALL research. Researchers in the 1990s seemed to agree that VR can promote constructivist activities and learner engagement (i. …

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