Virtual Tours in Language Learning: Three reasons why they make sense

Language learning is one of the most interesting application areas for virtual tours. In the US, one reason for this is the increased cultural and economic diversity in workplaces and classrooms. Students and employees with English as their second language work hard to master the academic or professional vocabulary required by their studies or job. When students struggle with language, teachers struggle in getting everyone to meet the given learning standards. Proficiency in oral communication is imperative in ensuring academic success (see for example Mahmud, 2014).

The big promise of 360 media in language learning is the ability to provide students with more meaningful, real-life experiences that motivate and engage them to learn. Here are three arguments for why this may make sense.

  1. Humans remember pictures better than words (the “picture superiority effect”)

One explanation to this is Allan Paivio’s dual-coding theory from 1971. According to this theory, if we see an image of a banana, our mind stores this stimulus (‘banana”) both as the word ‘banana’ as well as the image of a banana. This ‘dual coding’ increases the chance of remembering the banana better compared to if the stimulus was only coded in our mind as the word.

2. Contextual multimedia works even better

Pictures, sounds, and words together with a contextual experience of a place can create memorable learning experiences more efficiently than plain images or written words alone that are not associated with anything real. That’s because a simultaneous visual/auditory/verbal stimulus automatically connects our minds with multiple associations about the world. This could be a previous experience or a personal memory that associates with the new word or concept in our minds. While multisensory learning materials (including interacting with images by touching them) help most learners, they are especially helpful for dyslexic or autistic students. Seeing a new word written under a picture and hearing how it is pronounced, helps us understand and remember what we are looking at.

3. 360 tours expand contextual learning beyond physical environment

Whereas previously, learning in a real-world context was limited to student’s physical environment (and maybe the school’s and parents’ travel budget), 360 images and videos are making it possible to travel anywhere virtually. We can remember and learn on a virtual field trip the same way as we learn on a physical field trip. For example, last summer I went to Macchu Picchu in a mixed reality headset, but my memory tells me I was there for real. If I went there again, I would recognize the place.

Example: Nearpod’s new lessons for ELs

Nearpod used ThingLink’s image interaction technology in their new product for English Learners (ELs). Nearpod’s Teacher Guide defines the lessons as follows:

“Overcoming the limits of time and money, these lessons aim to provide the most realistic medium in which language learning becomes meaningful and responsive. (…)

By introducing students to low-risk familiar settings through an engaging, fun, and hands-on experience, students are more likely to feel motivated and build a positive attitude towards learning.

To be clear, Nearpod’s lessons are not only virtual tours. For example, this lesson “At the Ice Cream Shop” includes several other elements such as questions, learning goals, articles and interviews, as well as quizzes. The main learning goal, however, is to be able to “Use the key vocabulary to describe things you find in an ice cream shop”, and it is the virtual to Lulu’s Ice Cream Shop that introduces the key vocabulary to students.

The tour consists of three images, one from the street, second at the store in customer’s perspective, and third behind the counter in store keeper’s perspective. Students can look around and touch the things they see. An round icon indicates a point of interest that embeds a closeup image, a written word, and an audio feedback.

Here is another example from the dentist’s reception, where the learner can explore the room and learn words in Spanish.

Think how different this learning experience is compared to the more traditional approach for academic language learning, that has mostly relied on memorising lists of words! Nearpod’s examples show how a virtual vocabulary lesson can substitute a textbook and provide a more realistic and meaningful context for learning. Virtual visit to new or familiar places can resonate with our previous experiences, creating a connection between 1) what we are perceiving in a learning situation and 2) our memory. This is why 360 tours in language learning make a lot of sense!

Founder & CEO of ThingLink, education technology company for building visual learning environments in the cloud. Winner of UNESCO ICT in Education Prize.