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Virtual Reality for ESL Students

ESL students who wear 3D goggles and gloves enter the CAVE (see appendix) room that is a multi-person, room-sized virtual reality system consisting of three walls and a floor. As the language teacher starts the program, all students wear special lightweight glasses that allow them to be in a huge and well-organized Wal-Mart. They can hold any product and put it into their shopping cart by using lightweight gloves. As students shop around, they can talk with other students or ask for some help from a saleslady so that they can make the best choices by comparing products.  After that, they talk with a cashier to pay for their purchases. The teacher then stops the program and reviews the scenes with the students in the classroom.

Description of Virtual Reality

Rheingold (1991) defines virtual reality as an experience in which a person is surrounded by a three-dimensional computer-generated representation, and is able to move around in the virtual world and see it from different angles, to reach into it, grab it, and reshape it. Currently, virtual reality generally describes the technologies of head-mounted displays, boom-mounted displays and surround-screen projection-based displays. A head-mounted display consists of a pair of miniature displays positioned in goggles or in a helmet strapped to the user,s head so that each eye sees one display. A boom-mounted display is like a head-mounted goggle display but is suspended from an articulated arm and is held to the viewerís face with handles.

Moving Virtual Reality into Education

This technology, with real-time interactive control and user-centered perspective, is actively being used in health care for visualizing surgical processes, in architecture for visualizing large and small scale design processes, and in training pilots for visualizing virtual air fights. Nowadays, virtual reality is notable in education because of the userís interaction in virtual environment that can represent any three-dimensional world that is either real or abstract. The virtual worlds can be buildings, the human body, underwater, a cruise, space, a museum, a crime scene, a dinner party, and so on.

Many educators and researchers (Bricken, 1991, Cromby, Standen, & Brown, 1995.) support the view that virtual reality will afford opportunities to experience environments which, for reasons of time, distance, scale, and safety, would not otherwise be available to many young children, especially those with disabilities (Cromby et al., 1995). This technology will be used to explore, create, play and learn in virtual environments such as crossing roads, talking with strangers, or emergencies. With this technology, young children can visit places that would otherwise be impossible, impractical or too dangerous.

Language teacher can develop programs for realistic situational communication such as job interviews, restaurants, or international airports. Also student can cooperative in one preprogrammed virtual world or can be divided into different virtual worlds depending on the studentsí language levels.  Students will interact with classmates or animated characters in the setting with 3D goggles, gloves, or other devices that help seeing and acting in the virtual world. For example, in the interview situation, an interviewee (a language learner) will shake hand with an employee (a 3D animated character) in a meeting room and the employee will start with an interview or with chitchat in the target language.  If the students makes any mistake, they can review the scene and try again. Virtual reality will be helpful in overcoming obstacles of traditional language classrooms that highly rely on textbook and local resources in a limited time. Currently, we can find many sites that help users pick a free browser, visit virtual communities, build their own worlds, share with other users, and develop curriculums with virtual reality (see appendix).

Uses in the Language Classroom

The most unique and powerful characteristic of 3D virtual environments for language learning is that they afford a first-person form of experiential learning (Chee, 2001). Unfortunately, most schooling today is based upon third-person knowledge such as how students learn or what they learn about, without the opportunity to directly experience for themselves the thing that they seek to learn (Winn, 1993). It explains why the traditional language education based on textbooks was not so effective. The knowledge in the English textbooks is based on a third-personís knowledge, so it is not meaningful to language learners (Chee, 2001).

The qualitative outcomes of third-person versus first-person learning are very different. A preponderance of third-person learning has meant that student learning outcomes are usually shallow and retention rates are low (Singhal & Zyda, 1999; Chee, 2001). With virtual reality, students will put themselves in various realistic settings and learn the language by their experiences with autonomy or control over their learning experience. According to Fox, Furmanski, Nilan & Small (1994), because of the way in which the virtual environments are modeled and constructed, learners receives appropriate and immediate feedback. The feedback in the language learning encourages cognitive language learning by which students can judge whether they have taken appropriate or correct communication in the virtual world. Eventually the immediate feedbacks from the computer or other students increases motivation and interaction in the language classroom.

 Learner-directed communication and problem solving also foster a strong sense of ownership of the activity and its response. Because virtual environments for language learning lend themselves naturally to first-person learning (Chee, 2001), the virtual reality settings will usually be programmed on the use of simulation including the objectives of the language classroom, or the specific needs of learners (Singhal & Zyda, 1999).  ESL teachers can set up and save the environment depending on the studentsí need and this will facilitate learner-centered learning which emphasizes encouraging students to construct their own language knowledge. In short, virtual worlds are constructive environments in which learners can create, manipulate and edit any form of digital information with their own needs (Chee, 2001). Thus, virtual reality programming can develop important communication skills rather than just repitition and memorization. Virtual reality curricula may engage ESL students experientially in many possible situations. Students may participate in responsive environments in which they become engaged in full body-mind learning (Maule, 1991).

Impacts of Virtual Reality

There is certainly no substitute for actually communicating with native speakers of the target language in a real world. However, the time, money, technology and native speakers for real world language learning are not available for all language classrooms and language learners. Students generally learn the language from textbook explanations and examples. However, the increasing availability of computers and the Internet in classrooms give us a way that virtual reality may be a viable supplement to traditional textbook instruction. The students may learn languages more interactively, in less time, and with less expense than by visiting the country of the target language. Virtual reality systems may provide a less formal experience, but they may be fun and certainly more realistic than mere pictu

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