Developing and Exploring the Effectiveness of an E-Tandem Programme with VR in Foreign Language Learning at XJTLU

About Authors

 
Rui Xu is an EAP tutor and manager of the VR Language Learning Lab, School of Languages. The VR Language Learning Lab is a community of educators and students passionate about enabling, enhancing, and enriching the language learning experience by exploring innovative applications of extended reality (XR) technologies.
 
Xiaoying Yuan is a Chinese language lecturer from Modern Language Center, School of Languages. She has gained teaching experience in several countries including the USA, UK and Thailand. Her current research interests are the benefits of language exchange, and VR facilitating teaching and learning autonomy.
 
Fan Yang is a Chinese language lecturer from Modern Languages Centre, School of Languages. She has taught and tutored in multiple language programmes, including the Princeton-in-Beijing Programme and the Lauder-Wharton language programme. Currently, she is in charge of this E-Tandem programme and leads the business language corpus construction for the TDF programme.
 
Guhuai Jiang is an EAP language lecturer from the English Language Center, School of Languages. Her research interests include intercultural learning and technology incorporation in students’ language learning.
 
Keywords: E-tandem, VR Technology, Chinese Language Learning
 
 

Introduction

 
Travel constraints during the pandemic have necessitated the delivery of Chinese language modules at XJTLU in an online format, limiting opportunities for international students to engage with native speakers and immerse themselves in Chinese culture. To address this issue, we have envisioned a proactive solution - pairing international students with their Chinese counterparts and tasking them with collaborative activities within a Virtual Reality (VR) environment, specifically Mozilla Hub. The statistics show that international students are very interested in practicing Chinese with native speakers and are willing to know more about Chinese local culture.
 
Inspired by the paper ‘Designing and Supporting Virtual Exchange: The Case of Chinese–English e-Tandem’ (Tim Lewis & Kan Qian, 2021), this E-tandem programme aims to provide international students at XJTLU with an enriched avenue to practice Chinese and gain profound insights into Chinese culture through meaningful interactions with their language partners. VR technology is incorporated to create new immersive learning experiences that transcend the confines of traditional online education. This incorporation of VR is expected to imbue our programme with an unparalleled sense of presence, ultimately enhancing performance and elevating engagement levels to new heights.
 
 

Collaborative VR E-tandem experiments with Learning Mall XR Lab

 
Our project was supported and hosted by Virtual Reality Language Learning Lab (SoL VRLLL) at XJTLU. This community comprises educators, researchers, students, and XR (VR/AR/MR) enthusiasts who are passionate about enabling, enhancing, and enriching the experience of language learning at XTJLU through innovative uses of XR technologies.
 
To assess the effectiveness of VR intervention and provide students with a highly immersive VR experience, we were honored to collaborate with the LMO XR lab which generously supplied cutting-edge VR headsets and VR-ready computers for our pilot research.
 
During the experiments, international participants and their language partners were equipped with HP Reverb G2, one of the mainstream VR headsets, and Alienware computers. The virtual reality Chinese teaching environment was constructed with Mozilla Hub, an open-source VR online tool. This platform was chosen for its capacity to replicate various real-life scenarios, catering to our teaching and research goals.
 
 

Participants and Experiment Information

 
We recruited 8 pairs of students in total and provided them with VR rooms to conduct language tasks and cultural communication every two weeks.
 
 Participants

 Onsite students in the VR lab:

 5 pairs

 Online students using personal

 computer: 3 pairs

 Time  Week 5-week 12, S2 AY 22-23
 Themes

 Explore session;

 Order food in a restaurant;

 Rent an apartment;

 Find a book in the library;

 Decorate a birthday party;

 
The experiment successfully completed in May 2023, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the research team, two research assistants, participants, and the invaluable support of the VR lab.
 
 

Feedback and Implications

 
1. Participants’ feedback

 

Participants enrolled in the E-Tandem programme with specific expectations, aiming to improve their language proficiency in either Chinese or English, forge friendships, and bolster their communication self-assurance. Among the respondents, 3 out of 10 students indicated that the programme has “exceeded” their expectations, while the majority, 7 out of 10, felt that it met their expectations. Notably, one participant emphasized the need for additional practice but expressed increased confidence in speaking Chinese, acknowledging the patience and support provided by their language partner. Across the board, international students relished engaging in discussions on diverse and enjoyable topics with their Chinese counterparts, facilitating cultural exchange. Despite all the enjoyable moments, participants had certain levels of difficulties in maintaining smooth communication due to their limited language proficiency.
 
Regarding the VR equipment, participants exhibited varying preferences across different topics. A majority of students enjoyed the facilitation of the VR equipment, with one participant expressing relief when navigating the immersive, game-like environment. However, a few participants cited prolonged software response times as a concern. Despite these technical challenges, many participants actively explored the contexts for certain expressions, and gained deeper insights into cultural elements, benefiting from the enhanced visualization support.
 
As programme investigators, we are encouraged by the positive feedback from weekly interactions and feedback reports. Chinese student partners have proven to be supportive and encouraging, emphasizing the importance of international students speaking with confidence and not being overly critical of themselves. Despite scheduling conflicts faced by some participants, most international students valued the opportunity to practice speaking in Chinese with their language partners.
 
2. Challenges and Issues in VR intervention

 

While the majority of students acknowledged the potential benefits of VR technology in enhancing language learning, facilitating specific scenarios with visualizations, and augmenting interactivity and engagement, challenges and issues arose during the study.
 
Several students provided quotations affirming the positive aspects of VR technology, such as "Added fun and interactivity," "Visualize objects and behaviors," and "The visual aid helped me understand better." For those who had not previously experienced VR technology, the programme served as an educational introduction to this novel medium.
 
However, it is imperative to address the adverse effects experienced by a subset of participants. Specifically, 1-2 students reported experiencing nausea when putting on the VR headset, necessitating their switch to 2D VR technology for communication. This highlights a limitation associated with VR technology.
 
Quotation from a student:
 
“Most of the time we communicated smoothly face-to-face, without VR technology.”
 
Another issue pertained to the time required for setup, ranging from 3-10 minutes, including configuring Mozilla Hub and preparing the VR headsets. This challenge underscores the need for enhanced technical support to streamline the setup process and optimize the VR experience. A student aptly summarized this concern, stating,
 “We wasted much time waiting for the devices to be fixed. The website also needs to be improved. If the VR technology can be better perfected, I think the result will be more satisfactory.”
 
Additionally, overcrowding in VR classrooms, with more than four students, led to overlapping voices and decreased conversational clarity, impairing effective communication.
 
3. Further research plan
 
Following the distribution of our post-project survey in August, we have received thirteen responses to date. Most of the responses are quite positive which serves as a big encouragement for the research team. In pursuit of a more comprehensive understanding of the students’ experience, our next step involves conducting individual interviews with the students. This qualitative approach will complement the survey responses and enable us to gain deeper insights into their perspectives. Hopefully, we could leverage these insights in a quest for solutions and refine our experiment for future iterations of the programme.
 
4. Future implication
 
Despite the return to on-site classes for most students, the VR-equipped E-Tandem programme is still meaningful in providing visualization and language context. VR technology can create scenarios that are otherwise challenging to replicate in traditional classrooms, fostering interest and engagement. For example, it is hard to actually lead language learners to climb a mountain and learn the corresponding language structures, but the VR Lab can easily create such a scenario for language learners.
 
Language partners are supportive and encouraging. With a native language speaker partner, international participants find it easier and more relaxing to pick up a new language with a booming interest in learning about a new culture. In future language classes, ongoing facilitation of language partnerships is anticipated.
 
While present technical challenges persist, the integration of VR technology into students' language pair learning holds substantial promise. This integration not only enhances interest and builds specific scenarios for students to engage in, but also stimulates their visualization and interactive sense of particular language topics. Furthermore, the broader applicability of this E-Tandem programme across various language teaching domains is noteworthy. Beyond its immediate benefits, this E-tandem programme can be also considered widely applicable in other areas of language teaching as it fosters friendship among students and cultivates a secure and supportive learning environment that encourages risk-taking and, subsequently, the development of learner autonomy.
 
 
 

AUTHOR
Rui Xu, Xiaoying Yuan, Fan Yang, Guhuai Jiang,
School of Languages, XJTLU

DATE
31 October 2023

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