Pilot project uses VR simulations to help newcomers learn English

Would you be more confident in a job interview if you had the opportunity to practice first? For newcomers to Canada, the answer is often a resounding “yes”.

With the help of virtual reality (VR), a pilot project at the University of Toronto is helping newcomers to Canada learn English by giving them the chance to practice their skills in simulated scenarios such as job interviews, shopping or ordering food at a restaurant.

The approach has been shown to not only improve learners’ oral comprehension and skills, but also their confidence.

“In virtual reality, it’s more convenient to learn the language – it’s a very interesting experience,” says Bayan Alkailani, who is one of the students involved in the pilot project. “Learning it in a more fun and interactive way is very useful for improving language skills.”

Alkailani says the VR simulation helps her practice real-life scenarios like shopping, banking or ordering a coffee. “I think that’s what we need,” she said.

The three-year pilot project is funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the university. It was developed by the Department of Language Studies at U of T Mississauga in collaboration with the Syrian Canadian Foundation (SCF).

“They’re super motivated and we’re seeing an increase in self-confidence,” says Paul Alexanderthe deputy principal researcher of the project who oversees the technical elements related to virtual reality.

“This is a new iteration with technology,” adds Liz Coulsonassistant professor, teaching stream, in the department of linguistic studies and coordinator of the undergraduate program in educational sciences who supervises the research elements of the project.

The pilot project uses VR equipment to help newcomers learn English by giving them the chance to practice in simulated scenarios such as a job interview (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Coulson has been involved with language instruction at the University of Mississauga for the past five years through the department. But it was only this year that virtual reality and artificial intelligence were introduced into the lesson plan with the help of partnerships and collaborations.

The language program lasts eight weeks and takes place every Saturday at the University of Mississauga. This fall, the university is hosting two virtual reality classes per week. There are 12 students per class, but almost 50 students in total for the whole project. The courses are divided between standard language courses (without VR) and VR courses. During a three-hour class, teachers will teach a lesson before students use VR headsets in “role-play” segments with newly learned material.

The project uses Oculus Quest or Meta Quest headsets, which are standalone VR headsets capable of displaying different environments and settings.

“For the most part, all the students are beginners,” says Alexander.

For now, the project remains focused on refugee and newcomer populations. U of T Mississauga’s work with the Syrian Canadian Foundation began five years ago, which is when Coulson supported the initial language program prior to the implementation of virtual reality and of AI.

“I accepted it with all my heart because I think it’s such an important project,” says Coulson, who applauds the work done by the foundation. “It was their inspiration at the start and their partnership that led to all of this. It’s just an amazing team on that side.

The team includes Coulson, Alexander, Ji-young Shin, Ilan Danjouxa group of graduate teachers from the Education Studies program, teaching assistants and students from the U of T Mississauga, including two who went on to work with the foundation through the language studies program.

“It turned into job opportunities for many students,” says Coulson, noting that the department also works with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). “It’s really a family unit of people from UTM, OISE and the language studies department.”

Coulson and Alexander also monitor the educational effectiveness of using virtual reality to teach, highlighting the opportunities it offers beyond language studies.

The current program ends later this month and resumes in January.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *