September 2020
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Andy Curtis, Anaheim University, California, USA (online) based in Ontario, Canada
Dave Dolan
, Veative Immersive Technology Solutions, Shiga, Japan

Andy Curtis

         Dave Dolan

Virtual and Augmented Reality: From Modest Interest to Exponential Growth

Although the coauthors of this article have been actively involved in developing new language education technologies for decades, we still begin by questioning the idea that more or newer technology is “the answer.” Instead, we believe that a key question should be: What would this new technology enable us to do, as language teachers and learners, which we cannot already do now? Too often, new technology is bought, for example, because if the technology funds for that fiscal year are not spent in time, those funds will no longer be available. As a result, the technology can end up driving the pedagogy, rather than the other way around. One of the more specific questions that we have been grappling with is: How can we use newer technologies to create an immersive, simulated, and stimulating target language environment? One way to answer that question is to use virtual reality (VR), which we believe is set to grow exponentially after steadily increasing—but still limited—interest in recent years.

In 2016, Becker et al. wrote in their report Innovating Language Education: “Immersive technology such as online games, virtual and augmented reality, and telepresence allows students to be transported to settings that simulate situations [emphasis added]…providing them with realistic opportunities to practice and learn” (p. 2). Ideally, all language learning practice should be “realistic,” but these immersive technologies can create a heightened sense of realism. Do you remember when we used to bring realia into our classrooms (i.e., physical objects often used to help students concretize their vocabulary learning)? In a similar way, these technologies can be used to bring our learners to settings that are real, but in a virtual world, without the high costs and potential risks of physically travelling to or being in a target language country such as, in the case of English language teaching (ELT), the United States or the United Kingdom, both of which have been struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Becker et al. (2016) also stated that “Immersive technologies can help higher education institutions overcome economic and geographical restrictions [emphasis added] that keep students from participating in authentic language learning situations” (p. 14). Four years later, in 2020, the greatest “economic and geographical restrictions” in a century have come about as the result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

In recent years, the interest in augmented reality (AR) and VR in ELT has grown, albeit somewhat slowly. For example, in a TESOL International Association blog post in 2019, Greg Kessler wrote about “Virtual Field Trips for ELT” and noted that the cost of VR and AR technologies—which many educators have seen as being prohibitively high in the past—has come down considerably in recent years. That posting was followed in 2020 by Jeff Kuhn’s TESOL International Association post titled “Increasing Immersion: VR Becomes Classroom Ready.” Kuhn wrote about the potential of VR “to revolutionize training and education by placing users in computer-generated environments where they can move around, interact with the environment, and feel as if they are really there [emphasis added].” As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, that gradual buildup of interest in AR and VR in language teaching and learning may well grow exponentially in the near future, as global travel restrictions, economic constraints, and safety concerns all come together in some kind of “perfect storm.” We are already seeing increased interest in AR and VR in medical education, and we are expecting to see a similar surge in language education soon, as a result of the pandemic, making the idea of “being there without going there” a potential game-changer in ELT.

Challenging Some Assumptions About Augmented and Virtual Reality

Considering the potential exponential growth in the use of AR and VR in ELT, we believe it would be helpful to challenge some of the assumptions we have encountered regarding AR and VR, namely:

  1. 1. AR and VR are new
  2. AR and VR are the same
  3. AR and VR are the answer to language teaching and learning

Although “new” is a relative, chronological concept, AR and VR are not new, as they have been in existence for as many as 30 years by now. For example, a former Boeing Aerospace researcher, Tom Caudell, is credited with coining the term “augmented reality” in the early 1990s. A key distinction between AR and VR is that AR is based on using the technology to overlay additional digital details onto an image being viewed through a mobile media device, such as a smartphone camera. However, instead of that overlaying, VR is based on the individual being surrounded by and immersed in a realistic, simulated, virtual environment. In AR, the key term is “augmented” (i.e., what the viewer can see and hear is added to). This is different from VR, where the person is surrounded by a virtual environment, the perception of which changes as the person alters their position.

According to the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF; 2019), VR was “first achieved…by a cinematographer called Morton Heilig in 1957.” Helig was a filmmaker and pioneer in VR technology. Together with Howard Rheingold, Helig invented a mechanical device that they called a Sensorama, which “delivered visuals, sounds, vibration and smell to the viewer” (IDF, 2019), and although it was not computer controlled, it was “the first example of an attempt at adding additional data to an experience” (IDF, 2019). In the Sensorama, the simulated experience was riding a motorcycle through New York City streets, with the additional data being the noises and the smells of the city, which were simulated by chemicals that smelled like gasoline fumes and pizza parlors being wafted by fans over the person sitting in the machine. In the Sensorama, the person sits in the machine, whereas in VR, the machine sits on the person (on their head).

By the late 1960s, the American computer scientist and computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland “invented the head-mounted display as a kind of window into a virtual world” (IDF, 2019). However, the technology of the late 1960s made Sutherland’s invention “impractical for mass use” (IDF, 2019). Following Sutherland’s work, in 1975, the American computer artist Myron Krueger developed the first VR interface in the form of an artificial reality he called Videoplace, “which allowed its users to manipulate and interact with virtual objects and to do so in real-time” (IDF, 2019). Building on Sutherland’s work in the 1960s and Krueger’s in the 1970s, the Canadian computational photography researcher Steven Mann “gave the world wearable computing in 1980” (IDF, 2019). The advent of “wearable computing” constituted a major step forward in the development of these technologies.

One of the most clear and concise descriptions of the distinctions between AR and VR was given by Johnson (2016), when she reported for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at the TED 2016 conference. Johnson (2016) explained that “Virtual and augmented reality tend to get lumped together, with both abandoning the two-dimensional screen for something that appears to be right in front of – or around – you [emphasis added]. The big difference is whether the images join you as holograms in your living room (augmented) or transport you to another world (virtual) [emphasis added].” In relation to learning second/foreign languages, the ability to be “transported to other worlds” is especially important, as that kind of simulated, stimulating immersive experience can help to bring the target languages and cultures to life much more effectively than words and pictures on a page, in a textbook. It is, however, important to note that none of the main applications of AR and VR listed by Johnson were educational. The uses of AR and VR were instead “conquering fears” (IDF, 2019), such as the fear of flying; “living a story,” including using VR for journalistic storytelling, for example, virtually experiencing a Syrian refugee camp; and everyday computing, such as word processing and checking email.

An Important Part of the Future of English Language Teaching

In relation to the aforementioned third AR/VR assumption, although AR and VR are not the answer to language teaching and learning, a major benefit of VR is being able to place learners “in” environments such as an airport, a coffee shop, or an office to create an in situ sense of presence in a specific setting, which can be customized and even individualized, for in-class and out-of-class student-driven learning. In terms of contextual authenticity, a strong sense of time and place can be achieved inside a virtual environment, which enables learners and teachers to feel as though they are really there.

However, it is important to leverage key aspects of these technologies that may not be found elsewhere. For example, some of the most powerful elements that VR can bring to language learning include a safe, multisensory, nonjudgmental environment, where learners can play with and explore a new language to help them develop their listening and speaking competencies, as well as their confidence with the language. One size does not fit all in ELT. Therefore, AR and VR are not the answer to language education—any more than moving everything online during the pandemic was theanswer. However, AR and VR, especially the latter, are likely to provide many new and exciting possibilities for ELT in our postpandemic world, as a safe, secure, efficient, and cost-effective way of “being there without going there.”


Becker, S. A., Rodriguez, J. C., Estrada, V., & Davis, A. (2016, February). Innovating language education: An NMC Horizon project strategic brief (Vol. 3.1). The New Media Consortium.

Interaction Design Foundation. (2019). Augmented reality - The past, the present and the future.

Johnson, L. (2016). TED 2016: Virtual and augmented reality steal the show. CBC News.

Kessler, G. (2019). Virtual field trips for ELT. TESOL Blog.

Kuhn, J. (2020). Increasing immersion: VR becomes classroom ready. TESOL Blog.

From 2015 to 2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He has been researching and writing about online technologies in language education for 20 years and teaching online for 10 years.

Dave Dolan holds a master’s in TESOL from Anaheim University. He established an English language school in Japan in the early 1990s, and he currently travels the world talking about edtech solutions.
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Which of the following has been the biggest challenge with transitioning to virtual English language instruction in recent months?
Converting course materials to a digitally friendly format
Student access to hardware and reliable internet connections
Student engagement and participation
Assessment and monitoring student progress
Supporting students individualized needs

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