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Learning language with AI, virtual reality

Emilia Gracia leads a virtual reality lab for ASU Global Launch students to explore English

Seated ASU student experiencing virtual reality wearing a VR headset in a classroom.

Photo courtesy ASU Global Launch

January 03, 2024

Virtual reality occupies an important space in the world of gaming, but that is far from its only use. Because VR gives users the opportunity to immerse themselves in virtual worlds that imitate real life and communication with other humans (or machines) in those worlds, it can also be used to simulate real-life experiences, practices and communicative exchanges. These capabilities have made it a popular medium of educational technology in a variety of fields.

At Arizona State University, for example, VR is now used to teach subjects like biology and construction engineering. It has rarely, however, been used for foreign or second-language teaching and learning purposes.

A few educational technology companies, including ImmerseMe, have designed language learning software to be used in virtual reality environments, though they are not yet used in most foreign/second-language programs at universities. Emilia Gracia, a senior global educator at ASU Global Launch, which provides high-quality English study in person and online, and a PhD candidate in linguistics and applied linguistics, aims to change that.

Gracia recently conducted groundbreaking VR research that has the potential to revolutionize language education and empower international students. Her research focuses on the innovative use of virtual reality in teaching second-language pragmatics. Her motivation behind this research was multifaceted. She observed that international students at ASU Global Launch often grapple with self-consciousness when it comes to speaking with domestic students in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. These students need a safe space to practice English and refine their spoken English skills without the fear of negative social consequences.

Gracia's solution was to leverage the immersive capabilities of VR in a virtual reality lab. This approach allows them to experience the intricacies of social interactions integral to life at an American university like ASU.

To bring her vision to life, Gracia collaborated with Next Lab, which provided lab space, staff and equipment. ImmerseMe, a leading software company specializing in language-learning software, partnered with Gracia to provide the essential tools for this innovative teaching method. Instead of the traditional classroom setting, groups of students attended Gracia's virtual reality lab as part of their communication class curriculum. The results were incredibly positive, with students embracing the new experience and showing tangible improvements in their spoken communication skills.

People standing and talking at the front of a classrom of students.
Emilia Gracia, a senior global educator at ASU Global Launch, hopes to use virtual reality to give students a safe space to practice English and gain confidence in their communication abilities. Photo courtesy ASU Global Launch

"I am grateful to have had the opportunity to conduct my dissertation research by hosting VR lab sessions for our students to learn second-language pragmatics in an immersive environment, and I am optimistic about (ASU) Global Launch integrating this technology into our classes in the future and at scale," Gracia said.

Gracia presented on her research along with other ASU Global Launch educators, including Kaitlin Decker, Dilafruz Vosieva and Olena Tanchyk, at the 10th annual Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) conference held recently at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

The conference, hosted by the graduate student organization CALL Club, sought to examine the possibilities of using AI in teaching English. Each year, the conference attracts a diverse audience, including second-language teaching professionals, researchers, scholars and local graduate students from a variety of fields, including applied linguistics, foreign language instruction, bilingual education and teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).

Gracia, president of the CALL Club at ASU, organized the conference.

“Organizing is a lot of work, and it takes a village,” Gracia said. “We had a fantastic team of club members and volunteers to help us make this conference a success. I am grateful we were able to bring outstanding scholars from out of town and state to our local graduate student and professional community, giving them the opportunity to network and learn about the newest research in AI and VR.”

Topics and presentations were related to the emerging use of AI, like ChatGPT, in teaching and researching second-language acquisition. AI can help learners by tailoring learning experiences to individual needs and adapting to unique learning speeds over time. VR and other technologies that use AI were also discussed at length.

As for Gracia’s virtual reality lab project, ASU Global Launch was thrilled with its initial success and is actively exploring the possibility of incorporating VR technology into its curriculum on a more permanent basis in the future.

How to get involved with computer-assisted language learning (CALL):

Graduate students interested in the application of technology in foreign language teaching and research can apply to the Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) graduate certificate program. The program is open to any graduate student who would like to earn a 15-credit certificate to enhance their academic and professional profile by keeping up with the latest ways technology can aid language instruction.

Check out the CALL Club at ASU for professional development opportunities, research on what’s new with computer-assisted language learning, and ways technology can help educators in the classroom.

Written with contributions from Emilia Gracia, senior global educator at ASU Global Launch, and Chloé Martin-Bonneville, manager of marketing and communications at ASU Global Launch.

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