Guest post by Michael McDonald, rumii customer and Founder of the Gold Lotus project, which helps people to rethink the way they learn English.
It’s early summer 2008. I’m sitting in a university library in England frantically putting together the final few paragraphs of my German language dissertation. To my left is the dry but useful Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage, to my right is my well-fingered Collins English-German dictionary. I swoop, without even looking and for one last time that evening, for the dictionary. In the past 4 years of this degree it’s become an extension of my body, flanking my arms on a desk or being piggybacked around campus in my bag. It weighs the same as a baby hippopotamus and has edges which could cut a diamond.
Fast forward 8 years, to 2016. I’d been teaching English for 6 years and after my experience learning and teaching foreign languages I came to the conclusion that standing in front of people, trying to get them absorb vocabulary, grammar and idiomatic expressions is about as easy as scaling Everest in flip flops slathered in Vaseline. In the 6 years up to 2016 I had plied my trade, but very quickly I realised that I needed to offer more as a teacher. My students needed more. So I did what any disillusioned teacher would do and bought 6 Go-Pro cameras, a tripod and some software, and started experimenting with web-based virtual reality taking panoramic photographs around London. I learnt some code, annotated some of the objects within those images and then uploaded them to a server so that my students with certain smartphones (i.e., those with motion-sensing features) could insert their device into a cardboard VR headset and get a sense of immersion in the English-speaking world with the advantage of interacting with their surroundings. That was the turning point.
To have grown up and studied in a world where paper dictionaries to language learners were as vital as a scalpel is to a surgeon, and then see the birth and rise of smartphones and their eventual transition into becoming windows through which you could view and begin to interact with alternative realities in 360 degrees profoundly changed how I viewed myself as an educator. Having the ability to take students, irrespective of their physical location, to virtual worlds, letting them loose in vivid representations of the sights and sounds I had grown up with as a native English speaker, and supporting them pedagogically at the same time felt like ripping back the curtains of a new morning and feeling a multi-coloured flood of light hit my weary face. Virtual reality now presented me as a teacher with an opportunity to begin to engage and educate students in ways that current textbooks, filled with their cheesy stock photos of butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouth children in some feeble attempt to relate to the target reader, just could never do.
In the recent years which have followed up to today, 2019, we’ve seen another major step forward in our immersive possibilities; standalone VR headsets. No longer are we forced to choose between smartphone-based VR or much more expensive hardware which required a hard connection to a high-performance PC to run. Standalone VR offers a much higher level of immersion but with the added benefit of not needing a smartphone or expensive computer to run. The headset has everything inside it for you to experience VR. But it doesn’t stop there. Just as a marble carver needs more than just a hammer to create a work of beauty, a language teacher requires a number of tools at their disposal to chisel away at and sand down the rough edges of their students’ abilities.
Enter rumii. A virtual reality collaboration tool, brimming with features enabling people to view documents on a virtual whiteboard, watch and discuss videos and refine communication skills with the document and screenshare capabilities, all in real time. Until now, the best I could offer as a teacher was physically meeting people at a specified location, for a class of an hour or two, but which comes with the hidden time and financial costs of getting to and from that location, not to mention energy-depleting traffic jams, delayed bus rides or sitting at chewing-gum-smattered desks in a building which barely has flushing toilets let alone central heating for those mid-December lessons. Where rumii excels in my experience is that it blends the best aspects of the physical and virtual worlds - complete envelopment of individuals within an engaging and interactive virtual learning space, with the ability for everyone present to move around and gesture just like in the physical environment, but without the drawbacks previously mentioned. Ultimately, rumii enables people to get that much-needed interaction with a native-English speaking teacher in a way that has never been possible.
This is just the beginning of a new wave of educational tools. Those days learning a language with a dictionary, coupled with the odd opportunity to attend a school exchange program as a way of having contact with another language and culture are still very much the norm for language learners today, if they’re lucky. VR and rumii are not, at this point at least, a silver bullet to language learners’ and teachers’ problems, but particularly for those who can’t or don’t want to physically attend learning environments, virtual collaboration tools like this certainly bring opportunity into a learner’s world. Considering the fact that we are preparing our children for jobs which don’t yet exist and that notions of what we can and can’t do seems to be in a state of flux resulting from proliferating technological and social changes globally, it’s no surprise that we’re witnessing a growing recognition of the importance of collaboration and communication skills, of softer skills like empathy and adaptability in ever-changing contexts, as succinctly outlined in the OECD’s recent publication “The Future of Education and Skills” and elaborated on further in Professor Rose Luckin’s “Machine Learning and Human Intelligence” released last year, which helps us to re-evaluate what it is we humans can excel at.
Here’s a brief sample of a business-English VR lesson that was delivered to an Italian doctor who needs to learn how to communicate appropriately at international conferences. At the time, Michael was located in London, with the student in Italy:
Thanks to rumii, language teachers like myself are able to hurdle not only over physical boundaries but creative and educational ones too, reaching people like never before, providing a language education which is infinitely more than just simply teaching some vocabulary and grammar. At its heart is the coming together of human beings within virtual environments, acting as a springboard towards new horizons in the physical world where, as in the virtual realm, there is unfathomable potential for a new age of learning and human progress.
This article was written by Michael McDonald, Founder of the Gold Lotus project, which helps people to rethink the way they learn English.
For anyone interested in joining a VR English class in rumii please visit the Gold Lotus project website at https://goldlotus.co/vrenglishlessons to schedule a free trial class.
If you are interested in rumii, please download our VR meeting and education software at http://dogheadsimulations.com