Michael McDonald, TEFL-qualified English teacher from the UK and founder of the Gold Lotus language consultancy in Italy, and co-team leader of the Educators in VR vLanguage Arts Team Project and teaches English language skills in the new EDVR Institute.
After completing over
100 150 VR English lessons in AltspaceVR, Michael sheds some light on the lessons learned and reflections from the experience. His experiences will help future educators approach this new way of teaching as he shares his vision of how this technology can be the vehicle for positive change the global consciousness.
What I have learned most from teaching over 100 English language lessons in Altspace is much more than how to teach a foreign language. It is how to exude inspiration for the benefit of my students, and how to raise an awareness and consciousness in the metaverse to be taken back into the physical realm.
In a nutshell, I’ve learned to be kinder and compassionate. I’ve learned that patience for teaching in VR requires a new level of commitment. Without a doubt, I’ve learned to trust my instincts, but also to step back and reevaluate my choices, listen, and look for clues in how to reach students in ways I never imagined. I’ve learned that there are infinite ways to immerse students in lifestyle, cultural, history, and society in general to explore language. I’ve learned that the technology for language learning is here, now, in virtual reality. Most of all, I’ve witnessed the ground-breaking revolution in VR for education, and I want to do more.
The experience however was not without its pitfalls, so let’s start with those first because we all love a happy ending.
Teaching Public Workshops is an Open Invitation to Everyone
In the early days of teaching in virtual reality I held the naïve belief that people would be better behaved in VR than they would be in, say, the asylum of many YouTube video comment sections.
My completely unscientific premise was grounded on the now comical belief that if people embodied a virtual avatar, with moving limbs and the ability talk to them and clearly reflect their emotions through virtual body language like hand gestures, head movements or physical proximity in real time, that this would serve as an antidote to idiocy, passive-aggressive behaviour or general naughtiness. My pseudo-scientific hypothesis was about as far from reality as the recent VR English lesson I did in ENGAGE taking a group of unmasked Norwegian students into the White House on the eve of the last US Presidential Election.
The reason I was wrong can be seen in everyday life. Open a bar in London. Many patrons on your premises will be welcomed. They come, guzzle their beverage of choice and leave. It won’t take long however before you see a different type of creature skulking its way through your door – intent on ridiculing the inexperienced member of staff struggling to grapple with the art that is pouring the perfect pint of Guinness, to others who have no regard for the sanctity of a public toilet. As someone who used to clean and then “pull pints” behind the bar of my local pub, I can only say that it was a harrowing yet valuable character-forming period of my life. The same can be said for venues like Altspace.
You literally see the best and worst (within reason) of humanity in social VR. In the last twelve weeks alone, I’ve virtually – no, really, virtually as in not physically, as opposed to “almost” (still with me?) – kicked out people for screaming and/or silently muttering the full array of English-language profanities, talking about self-pleasure or my pet hate: passive-aggressive behaviour in the form of continuous interruptions with vacuous comments or quips which are clearly designed to throw-off balance the harmony and good vibes of the learning and cultural exchange taking place.
Luckily, these incidents are uncommonly common and limited to events open to the public, thus, the open door policy for many pubs where anyone may walk through the doors, and often do.
Trusting Your Tingling Spidey Senses
There are times, as with the drunken loon in your London bar, that you have to call in the heavies – in this case the deadly combination of hovering your VR controller or mouse (if on your PC) over the offender’s avatar and selecting the “kick” icon in their name tag, a privilege offered to events hosts and moderators. From there you select the explanation for removal from the event that best fits the crime. Simple. Kind of.
A few months ago I was teaching in Altspace to a group of around twenty people. It was 11am for me in Italy, meaning the room was filled with Europeans, Asians and the odd nocturnal North American. Native-English-speaking Californians, 2AM their time, are here to learn English. They seem to know each other due to the camaraderie among them. My spidey-senses are tingling. I give them the benefit of the doubt. After a short while the flatulence begins (them, not me). Farting noises ensue, from where they’re standing.
At this point the optimist in me is thinking that if I tell them to stop doing something, they’ll stop. Experience as a teacher dealing with children (or those who possess the mind of a child temporarily) tells me that “stop doing that” translates to “keep doing that”. Give them a second chance. Everyone deserves a sec… there’s fart number two. Without hesitation I slide my avatar towards the huddle where the noise is coming from and rid the room of four disruptive individuals.
I won’t lie. The relief it brought me for not having to police them felt good. It was a quick fix. They were gone and unable to return to the event. Where else could I so easily take the reins of the law in my hands and wield such justice? The lesson goes on.
After the class, one of the disruptors did something which can only be admired – he resurrected his Twitter account to message me asking why I would do that to him. At this point, given his genuine dismay at what had happened I unblocked him from the upcoming event and he had been a valuable addition to the conversation before the trouble. I go for the second chance opportunity. His temporary banning was a mistake on my part – I cast blame by association. I wasn’t sure who was passing wind so I booted everyone in the proximity it was occurring.
This happens in VR and in real life – you let the intensity of a situation get the better of you and make rash decisions which can potentially lead to people branded as guilty when they most definitely are not. What if this were a student on a year-long course and his parents were paying for him to be there in order to pass an exam. I wouldn’t have had the luxury of being so trigger-happy, or at least would have had to justify my actions afterwards.
Onto my second mistake I regret from these past 100 lessons. A few months later, this same individual – a quite jovial and often talkative chap – began to assert his presence a bit too strongly on the group dynamic. Too many jokes, too much laughter. Other more passive attendees informed me that they felt he was slightly distracting nature to the class. One lesson I let my frustrations get the better of me and in front of the group of a few dozen people, shut him down quite abruptly and flat-out asked him why he felt the need to continually bring the attention to him. He left the lesson within the following minutes, then started messaging me apologising for causing offence and that he would probably take a break from our events.
Cue the compassionate teacher. I responded, asking him to meet me in the Campfire, a popular gathering space in AltspaceVR. We shared our feelings about the situation under a rather old, sprawling virtual tree. I took the time to understand more about the person he was – a student, interestingly quite well-read on aspects relating to language acquisition in children – and had the opportunity to apologise for not approaching him privately about his behavior.
Since then, his participation in the classes has been very different, adding genuinely productive interjections in the class, and supporting others to learn English better. It added a wonderful flavour to the learning and social experience.
I learned to bear in mind that people aren’t necessarily fully aware of how they are coming across to others, and a gentle comment in private can serve as the perfect remedy to bring everyone onto the same page. I learned valuable lessons about how to interact with people in virtual worlds, and how not being trigger happy with the moderation tools can save a lot of bad blood.
Since then, I’ve been more conscious of how I deal with people who aren’t the right fit for my English lessons. Is it right to banish someone rudely from your Shakespeare book club because they want to talk about Dostoyevsky? Maybe, but there are a series of steps I believe we must follow before clicking the kick button.
Given that we rely so much on voice in these virtual spaces since facial expressions and body language (apart from flailing your arms around) is pretty much non-existent, I’ve learned to embrace the power of enunciation – speaking clearly, tone of voice, emotional influences.
I’ve learned to keep people on their toes by projecting my voice and most importantly tap into the atmosphere of the space and modify that quickly. This is something that takes practice, and thankfully there are events throughout the day on Altspace and many other VR meeting platforms to help you refine your speaking skills.
Even in the face of inappropriate behaviour, we must set an example of politeness if we are to use this new medium as a vehicle for positive change. That starts with giving people the benefit of the doubt, and reminding them that there are people around them who mean no harm, winning the hearts and minds of our students.
The Logistics of Running Classes in AltspaceVR
As the Educators in VR co-founder Lorelle VanFossen once joked, running virtual events is like flying a jumbo jet. You’ve a number of things to keep your eye on and turbulence may hit at any time.
When I teach English in AltspaceVR, I’m usually in my Oculus Quest VR headset, as well as logged in on my laptop as another avatar. Not only does this avatar serve as the eyes through which the event is captured on film for later promotion but it gives me another quick perspective about what attendees other than me the teacher is seeing. For example, there have been times when I have seen the presentation slides on my Quest and not in the 2D view on my laptop, helping to isolate and respond to technical issues before the attendees notice.
March 2020 saw me deliver a full consecutive 24 hours of English lessons in virtual reality to raise money for the Italian Red Cross in Italy to support them in their fight against Coronavirus. My usual classes last thirty minutes. When you are not only teaching English from inside the headset, but moving slides, engaging attendees, and capturing film footage via your avatar on the laptop (which requires juggling the VR controllers to lift up the headset from the sweat-covered brow), and keeping your eyes peeled for trouble-makers – it can be quite intense, yet exhilarating.
It is then you realise the importance of the expertise of the team like Educators in VR for support. Since joining them at the start of 2019 to launch the vLanguage Team Project, it has been wonderful to see them evolve into a full-stack virtual events production company.
Imagine the complexity of a VR event when attendees and speakers cover multiple time zones, training speakers to feel comfortable navigating the virtual space, integrating and managing slides or other audio-visual effects into the event, and booking, managing, and supporting the event with moderators. You quickly see their value.
Would it have crossed your mind to design the space devoid of nooks and crannies for virtual tyrants to stealthily park themselves and wreak havoc on your all-important event with a blitzkrieg of flatulence? Probably not and this is where VR event organisers like Educators in VR really come into their own. I am honored to have learned under their tutelage how to improve my hosting and moderation abilities and so grateful for their continued support.
Other advice I’d give is to mould the tools, features, and worlds on offer to the particular learning objectives you have in mind as the teacher. Altspace has a smorgasbord of worlds on offer – anything from cities, to cafes to ancient historical sites. Use the world search feature on the web version of AltspaceVR. Favorite ones that look interesting. Visit them and consider how you could adapt those environments to add more context to the topics you’re covering in your classes.
Don’t be shy to use more traditional locations. A space like an office or classroom might cause VR evangelists to grimace and ridicule you for not making the most out of the metaverse’s time-space bending capabilities, but I’ve seen best results among my students when I strike the right balance between epic field trips around the world to expose them to highly contextual language in realistic settings then balancing that with a more sober debrief of the grammar structures and vocabulary learned in an environment that is somewhat less distracting.
VR a Catalyst for Unprecedented Global Change
It could be argued that the longer a police officer serves, the more acutely aware he or she becomes of the danger that exists in the world around them. Countless exposures to situations of peril and conflict honed their ability to foresee certain events and either diffuse them before the point of eruption or be on the front foot should all hell break loose.
Teachers are the same. If you’ve ever spent any time at the coal face of education – standing on your own at the front of a class staring down the barrel of thirty sets of eyeballs, you can’t help but liken it to a lion encountering a group of cackling hyenas in the unforgiving Serengeti. Show too much weakness and they will be feasting on your sorry carcass within hours, show too much strength and the toxic atmosphere will breed tension, revolts and poor performance for all concerned.
Only through experience can a teacher truly tune into the energy of a class. When you do tap into it, the autumn months bring new students, and new dynamics for you to adapt to. You’d be hard-pushed to find an entirely angelic class anywhere. It is the teacher’s job to try to keep the lid on negative energy bubbling over onto the other students and spoiling the integrity of the lesson, while maintaining a level of sensitivity to the reasons why people act the way they do and that their behaviour may well be a direct consequence of a deeply troubled home life or other.
This melting pot of factors is reflected in VR. In my experience, approaching questionable behaviour with politeness and even a sprinkling of humour can continue to reinforce the idea that mutual respect and a bit of give and take can bring harmony. Language like “If you don’t mind I’m just muting you so we can give other people a chance to talk, but we’ll come back to you in a few minutes” or “If it’s ok with you, could you stop doing that because there are people here to learn and you’re stopping them” can be a way to separate the harmless jesters from the outright troublemakers.
What happens when this fails to register in the mind of the individual whose sole aim is to disrupt the event and disturb others? This is where clear guidelines both in the event and lesson description and a quick review of them at the start of the gathering pays dividends, just like reviewing the syllabus on the first day of class.
Establishing the ground rules early as an educator (or event host) and physically (well, virtually through your avatar) dominating the space around you by not standing in one spot I find helps, too.
It is the role of a teacher, in my opinion, to promote empathy above all else. Teaching in virtual reality in places like AltspaceVR, where people can freely jump from one publicly-listed event to another, has huge potential for educators, businesses and content creators. There is a constant flow of passing people from all corners of the world entering your virtual space and being part of your lesson, product launch or meetup offering many opportunities to connect with new people.
As a teacher of English as a foreign language both in and out of virtual reality, I have a core belief: inspire people and they can learn anything.
People’s minds need to be fertile for learning. It is the role of the teacher to do the hard work initially in clearing the fields of weeds, rolling up his or her sleeves and turning the land over so that the seeds of inspiration can be sown. Combine that with a regular sprinkling of serious pedagogy, openness and goals to reach may increase the chances of spring bringing flourishing minds, bearing the fruit of the labour in the autumn and winter months.
This is where VR and spatial learning more generally really excels – the very fact that you can take your students on a tour of New York and Paris in one lesson, show them a 3D model of a bagel and a baguette, break them into groups to talk about their travel experiences, then finish the class gathering in a virtual departure lounge in an airport reviewing the key vocabulary, can be a huge stimulus for not just contextual learning, but supports collaborative learning and social interactions.
The deep connection and continued transferring of what works and does not work in VR into the real world and vice versa is critical. The two are, at this stage at least, inextricably linked and we should strive to use each reality – that of the physical world and the virtual one – as leverage to improve how we study, work, live and exist in the other.
VR: The True Global Village
To limit the accessibility of virtual worlds – whether it be AltspaceVR, ENGAGE, Facebook Horizon, or other – would be to play God in a way that probably no humans have done at any point in the history of our species. VR opens up possibilities in education we’ve never encountered before, and the potential is infinite.
No longer can we hold our hands up and ignore the far-flung, sun-scarred, and infrastructure-weak nations in the developing world, blaming logistical and physical factors for the reason why they are struggling to innovate and evolve societally as those more “powerful” nations. No longer can we fail to gather the collective energy and experiences of any strata of our global communities – village elders, the youth, the outsiders, the politicians, the academics, the entrepreneurs, the incarcerated, the economically struggling, the addicted and every other member to pool ideas and work towards a truly common goal for the benefit of all. We need a wholly unbiased, meaningful torch to firmly and collectively grasp onto to guide ourselves out from the quicksands of unfettered global corporatism, ongoing religious tensions, political uncertainty, toxic ideologies across the board and continued detachment from the wisdom and grounded relationship that all of our ancestors had with the soil under their feet and stars above their heads.
This torch must be the commitment to tirelessly giving back to the natural world, for the natural world is – as I see it – the only hearth around which people of all denominations can gather and warm their collective ideas, hopes and visions.
Paradoxically, the more time I spend immersed in virtual reality, the more vividly I perceive the physical world around me and develop a genuine, almost primordial urge to not just learn more about how I and others can coexist respectfully with the elements from which infinite generations descended. It makes me think more about what can be done to accelerate its rebirth. The rise of untethered headsets, where I can move freely around the physical space to do the same in the virtual realm has similarly sparked an untethering of my mind from what I believed to be important around me, something akin to only appreciating that which you lose.
Let the common, guiding light for us all in this new chapter of technology and human interaction be the health and sustainability of our planet.
Just as our ancient ancestors, long before the arrival of the pyramids and the Great Sphinx in Ancient Egypt communicated to us of their existence by marrying heaven and Earth through the alignment of the stars in the sky, to the strategic placement of fifty-ton stone megaliths in the soil they lived, must we too send the message to distant descendants that we used this wave of spatial computing to spark a renaissance of how we co-exist with the natural world around us. I implore all of you currently embracing or hoping to harness the power of this new wave of technology to ensure that the promotion of a healthier planet be a worthy beneficiary of the promotion of your event, conference or gathering.
This need not – should not – be an over-exuberant war cry which will only dissipate as the winds of time blow forth, but a calm and steady pursuit so as to respectfully and unpretentiously raise the collective consciousness to a point where it would be seen strange to run events and deliver ones services in virtual worlds without contributing, even in some small way, to the betterment of the natural world which exists on the other side of the head-mounted device.
What I propose is far beyond immersive content which explicitly shows the beauty and devastation of global warming and the submergence of our sea life in plastic, however powerful and needed that is. Just as enough raindrops on a meadow give rise to the incredible growth of a blanket of mushrooms, I envision a time where even the humblest of events acts as a single raindrop falling onto the soil. With enough drops, it can bring the rapid and uncontrollable fruition of a deeper global consciousness of the importance of the natural world around us.
In practical terms this might be a donation of a percentage of a virtual event’s revenue to a charity doing work for the benefit of the environment, made easy through an integration or type of plugin on all VR meeting platforms. It could be VIP access to an intimate Q&A with a famous person after a blockbuster VR event in return for demonstrating that you, in your local community, did something to give back to the environment such as riding a river of rubbish or collecting plastic waste from a stretch of beach. Other incentives could be free access to an educational expert for an hour in VR in return for an hour’s volunteering support at a local animal sanctuary.
Whatever it may be, let us use this advancing technology and the continually-growing list of events and experiences on offer as the fuel to more cohesion among us as a species, causing an osmosis – and not a continued detachment – from the virtual to the physical to the natural world at the grass-roots level, while we still have the chance.