This Canadian pilot project is helping newcomers learn English through the power of VR

CBC Radio

Mouhamad Rachini · CBC Radio · Posted: Dec 07, 2022

Assimilating into Canada may be difficult for a lot of newcomers, especially those who speak little to no English. But a pilot project at the University of Toronto is trying to change that using virtual reality technology.

"Our main goal is to support newcomers in any way we can, and make their integration in Canada as smooth as possible," said Rayan Batlouni, who heads the study and is also a project manager at the Syrian Canadian Foundation.

"Language is the first step for both social and economic integration [into] any country," she told The Current.

The three-year pilot project is funded by the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. It has a budget of about $515,000, and was developed by the Syrian Canadian Foundation in conjunction with the University of Toronto Mississauga's language studies department.

The program uses simulated environments that mirror real-life situations to help newcomers become more familiar with — and more confident using — English terms and phrases in places like banks, grocery stores and job interviews. 

"They now know more about CV writing or resume writing, doing interviews, how to open a bank account, the difference between a credit card and a chequing card," Batlouni said.

The study started in December 2021 and runs eight weeks at a time until March 2024. By then, the project will have studied around 135 students.

This fall, the university held two VR classes per week. Teachers would teach a lesson,  then students would use VR headsets to role-play segments using the newly-learned material.

Anthony Faulkner, an instructor in the program, said one of the draws to using VR is it makes learning the material enjoyable.

"The desire to make it fun and make it engaging and allow students to learn about the world and themselves is a very special skill that I think VR explicitly provides," he said.

Speaking with more confidence

There is also an academic purpose for using VR technology in this project, said Batlouni.

"So in this program, we're trying to determine how effective is virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and how they're effective in teaching English as a second language for newcomers," she said. 

"And when I say effective, … did [the] language progress quicker than a standard class?"

The researchers are comparing students in standard language classes with those in the VR classes, all studying the same course material.

"But it's the activity or the mode of application of the activity that is different," she said. "So in the standard class, they're doing role play for the activity. While in the VR class, they are going into the virtual reality and the simulated environment and they are practising that activity."

She added that data is being collected from all classes, but the standard classes serve as their baseline data. 

When the program ends in March 2024, the researchers will compare the data they've collected to see whether VR has any significant impact on English learning.

Although Batlouni said it's too early to determine whether the data shows significant improvement in the VR classes compared to the regular classes, she did say that the researchers have been "very positively surprised" by some student interactions

"It was very interesting to see students that are shy in the regular class, to see them talk much more whenever they're utlizing the VR headset," she said.

I want to speak more, like, with confidence, more fluently, and get to know new people.-Baian Alkailani

One of those students is Baian Alkailani. She fled Syria in 2012 and came to Canada in 2017.

She found language to be one of the most difficult barriers preventing her from fully assimilating into her new country. 

"It was challenging because new language, new culture, new place for me," she said. "And this is the first time, like, I left my family and travelled abroad to a new country."

She believes this VR class will give her an opportunity to practise and improve her English speaking skills without feeling embarrassed or judged.

"I want to speak more, like, with confidence, more fluently, and get to know new people — and also, like, learn about the Canadian culture," she said.

A time and place for VR

But Jeremy Bailenson, a professor in Stanford University's department of communications who has taught a course about virtual reality since 2003, cautions that VR doesn't help teach every subject — especially not abstract subjects like science and math. 

"In fact, there's a lot of research that shows that the cognitive load of being in VR, if you're just doing abstract learning, interferes with learning because it's so overwhelming ...  that it's hard to attend and focus your energy on the learning content," he added.

Virtual reality isn't just for gamers anymore. The University of Toronto’s medical school is among nearly two dozen schools using made-in-Canada virtual reality technology to train future surgeons, at a time when in-class learning isn't an option because of reduced surgeries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another thing Baileson said to consider about VR learning is whether the task being taught is spatial.

"Is it something that requires someone to turn their heads around or reach their hands out? If the answer is yes, it's going to be a good fit for VR," he said. "If the answer is no, you don't need to move your head, you might as well use a high resolution computer screen because those visuals are going to be better if you're not moving your body."

That's a significant reason why Bailenson believes VR is "a great medium" for soft skills training, such as teaching someone how to perform socially.

"It's procedural in the sense that you have to practise saying things in a particular order," he said. "It's spatial because you got to think about where you're going to put your eye gaze. Where are you going to? Where are you going to look in a scene? When are you going to lean forward?"

"Because it's both procedural [and] spatial, when you're teaching people interpersonal soft skills tasks, it's an epic win with VR."