Fostering Cultural Understanding with Virtual Reality: A Look at Students' Stereotypes and Beliefs

Fostering Cultural Understanding with Virtual Reality: A Look at Students' Stereotypes and Beliefs

Margherita Berti (University of Arizona, Tucson, USA), Stefano Maranzana (Southern Methodist University, Dallas, USA) and Jacob Monzingo (University of Arizona, Tucson, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJCALLT.2020010104
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In virtual reality, language learners can experience the foreign culture by exploring authentic and contextualized learning environments. To date, there is a lack of studies investigating the use of highly immersive virtual reality for cultural understanding as well as learners' attitudes toward its implementation in the language classroom. This study addresses this gap by exploring language learners' stereotypes and generalizations of the foreign culture experienced in highly immersive virtual reality, and their beliefs regarding its use in the educational setting. Undergraduate students enrolled in beginner Italian courses viewed three ordinary Italian environments with the use of their smartphones, headphones, and Google Cardboard. Through surveys, written reflections, and a focus group interview participants shared their cultural understandings and attitudes toward virtual reality. Results show that virtual reality was positively perceived and helped learners discover new cultural layers generally not encountered in traditional pedagogical materials.
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Foreign language (FL) textbooks often provide a static representation of culture without giving learners the opportunity to engage with different aspects of the foreign country (McConachy & Hata, 2013). Thompson (2013) claims that writing FL textbooks requires difficult choices about what cultures should be represented, hence the teaching of culture becomes a challenging endeavor. Fortunately, the advent of the Internet and the rapid advancement of technology has facilitated access to culturally authentic resources and educators now integrate technology in their lessons to support culture pedagogy. Much scholarship has been devoted to the impact of technology tools such as podcasts (e.g., Ducate & Lomicka, 2009), social networking sites (e.g., Barrot, 2016), and blogs (e.g., Pinkman, 2005), however to date little is known about the effect of highly immersive virtual reality (VR) on culture (Berti, 2019). Differently from low immersive VR environments (e.g., Second Life), highly immersive VR utilizes a head-mounted display (HMD) enabling a fully immersive and personalized learning experience (Schwienhorst, 2002). Highly immersive VR is learner-centered and learner-driven, unlike other traditional pedagogical materials, since users can move in any direction and focus on what catches their attention within the digital 360-degree environment.

Considering the important role of technology in the field of language education and the scarce attention to highly immersive VR, this study attempts to shed light on the use of this emerging technology by answering the following research questions:

  • (1)

    How does highly immersive VR impact FL learners’ understanding of environments and people of the studied foreign culture?

  • (2)

    What are FL learners’ attitudes and concerns toward the use of VR in the classroom setting?

This article is organized into four main sections. The first section provides background information on VR and immersion, cultural understanding, and experiential learning theory (ELT). Next, the methodology is described and followed by a discussion of the results. The last section addresses the limitations of the study and suggests that future research focuses on the potential of interactive highly immersive VR for language education.

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