Blended-Learning Strategy

Role Plays in Videoconferencing and Virtual Reality

Kurt KohnBerlin (GER), November 2014 - Kurt Kohn is director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center (STC) Sprachlernmedien and professor emeritus of applied linguistics at the University of Tübingen. Since the early 1990s, he has been involved in European projects on technology-enhanced language learning and teaching. His more recent EU projects deal with intercultural telecollaboration and lingua franca pedagogy, interpreter training in virtual reality, and language-teacher education. His talk at ONLINE EDUCA will be part of the session "Creative Approaches to Language Learning" on 04 December 2014 from 16:30 to 17:30.

Virtual reality has been pronounced dead as a learning environment. Has your experience demonstrated that this isn’t - or shouldn’t be - the case?

Prof. Kurt Kohn: We are obviously living in fast-paced times: tools and environments are pronounced dead before they have been properly used and explored. Has virtual reality been given a real chance to prove its pedagogical potential and viability? A few years ago, companies and educational institutions felt the urgent need for being “present” in Second Life – and many were disappointed about the slow uptake and weak return on investment.

But creating a virtual presence is hardly enough; what counts in the end is meaningful interaction that adds value to what people are aiming to achieve in their real lives. Besides this, judgments about virtual reality being “dead” have been pronounced on the basis of current technological limitations, but the technological basis for virtual reality is developing fast. Whether virtual reality is dead as a learning environment hence very much depends on the kind of system chosen and how it is actually used for which purposes.

In the EU projects IVY (Jan 2011 - Feb 2013) and EVIVA (Jan 2013 - Dec 2014), both coordinated by Dr. Sabine Braun, Director of the Centre of Translation Studies at the University of Surrey (UK), our focus is on 3D virtual worlds specifically designed and customized to cater for the learning needs and requirements of interpreter education ( While most of the virtual environment and content was developed in IVY, the EVIVA project now widens the perspective: it sets out to evaluate the educational potential of 3D worlds and to compare it with that of video conferencing and online video interviews available from the EU project BACKBONE.

The bespoke 3D virtual environment was created by the Computer Science Department of Bangor University (UK) in Second Life. The content, such as bilingual dialogues and role-play outlines, was developed by the IVY and EVIVA project partners, including the Universities of Cyprus (CY), Poznan (PL), Bar Ilan (IL), and the STC Language Learning Media (DE). The environment offers locations for business and community interpreting, including a reception area, meeting and conference rooms, a hospital ward, and a court room. Interpreting students in Greece, Poland, and the UK use this environment for controlled practice with prepared material and role play including live encounters with interpreting clients.

Prof. Kurt Kohn: Major challenges concern task design and pedagogical implementation. In our case, the virtual-learning phases are pedagogically embedded in the students’ study environment at residential universities. Success largely depends on the overall blended- learning strategy that combines and integrates virtual modules with face-to-face preparatory and follow-up activities. It is, however, one thing to explore virtual learning approaches under project conditions and quite another to implement them in the real world of educational institutions.

Our students might be "digital natives" – they might even be familiar with Second Life or other 3D worlds, but this does not necessarily make them naturally competent users for LEARNING purposes, either in general or in relation to interpreting. Learner preparation is needed to achieve a better understanding of what is involved in interpreting competence and of the pedagogical affordances of the virtual-learning environments provided. In addition, individual and collaborative autonomy need to be supported and further developed through continuous and flexible tutorial guidance. Successful integration of virtual learning activities thus requires teachers to become involved outside and beyond the familiar classroom arrangements that largely characterize and determine teachers’ work days. Tried and tested teaching methods will have to be revised and adapted to cater for the newly arising demand for supervision and coaching in connection with the virtual learning phases. This is particularly difficult to ensure when external teaching staff is involved.

What advantages do virtual environments offer for language training?

Prof. Kurt Kohn: The EVIVA approach incorporates the concept of "blended learning", in particular in its variant known as "flipped classroom". The advantage is to be able to answer the students’ crucial need for authenticated and individualised interpreting practice despite the obvious limitations of the physical interpretation classroom in this respect. Certain tasks are thus "flipped" and "outsourced" to the virtual learning environment, to video conferencing, and/or video repositories, where these tasks can be better facilitated and supported.

In this connection, role plays simulating various communication genres that are relevant in the interpreting context, from interviews to thematic explorations to problem-oriented discussions, are of key importance since they enable interpreting students to become involved – in their respective individual ways – in relevant learning activities. These include activating and practising one’s interpreting knowledge and skills, noticing gaps in one’s interpreting competence, searching for possible solutions, becoming aware of targets and challenges for further learning, as well as reflecting on the nature of interpreting and interpreter education.

The EVIVA evaluation studies have demonstrated that these "flipped" activities always need to be seen as part of the entire blended-learning ensemble. Preparatory classroom activities are implemented to prevent weak virtual learning. This involves helping students to understand the conditions and processes of interpreting, to become aware of their own learning needs and requirements of success, and to fully grasp the virtual task at hand. Recordings of the virtual sessions combined with informal learner journals provide input for reflective follow-up sessions with the interpreting tutor. The significance of these follow-up activities is twofold: for students they contribute to awareness raising and "learning to learn"; for teachers they open up a window for assessment.

In EVIVA, the overall objective is to enable interpreting students to engage in independent and authentic interpreting practice. It is quite obvious, however, that interpreting is just one special case of multilingual communication and that the approach developed has an interesting potential for communicative foreign-language learning as well.

What are the differences between using role plays in a video conference and in a virtual space? Which is particularly suitable (or absolutely unsuitable) for which types of learning goals?

Prof. Kurt Kohn: An interpreting role play in a virtual space, e.g. a meeting room or a hospital ward, can be a rich, almost physical experience. The interpreter arrives on the set, talks to the client to find out more about the interpreting task ahead, meets the other "actors", clarifies procedures, and decides where to sit. Students reported a sense of presence, of being involved in the situation. Interpreting is a situated activity that requires the activation of different types of knowledge, including situational knowledge. The students’ reaction suggests that plausible virtual locations like the ones in the IVY 3D environment can contribute to relevant knowledge-activation processes.

On another note, some students said that "hiding" behind the avatar offered a level of anonymity that made them feel less self-conscious and pressured than in face-to-face communication or video conferences. Not being able to rely on body language or facial expressions was perceived as a disadvantage – but also as helpful by some since it reduces the overall multimodal processing load. An advantage of implementing role plays in a video conference is clearly the more naturalistic effect of being able to actually see one’s partners, their gestures, and facial expressions. In cases where the interpreting role-play requires sharing of support documents, a video conference with presentation board and screen sharing function is currently more suitable and easier to handle.

At the end of the day, the question of whether virtual reality or video conferencing offers better solutions for interpreting role plays can only be answered in relation to the respective interpreting task, the training focus, and the students’ attitudes and preferences. It is horses for courses after all. In addition, and with reference to the wider context of blended learning, I would like to emphasize that virtual reality and video conferencing should not be seen as being in competition with one another but rather as complementary.

This is also evident in relation to scaffolding the interpreting students’ learning experience within and between the two environments. On the one hand, controlled virtual interpreting practice based on prepared conversations and using robot-avatars as speakers prepares students for more demanding virtual role-plays involving human partners (including real clients). On the other hand, virtual interpreting practice with controlled or open role-plays can help to develop confidence for (remote) interpreting in video-conferencing environments.

How long have you been using this language-learning approach, and what changes and developments have you witnessed over the years?

Prof. Kurt Kohn: So far, our approach to interpreter education in virtual reality and video-conferencing environments has been implemented and trialled in direct connection with the development and evaluation work in IVY and EVIVA (see above). This has involved interpreting students and tutors at the Universities of Surrey (UK), Poznan (Poland), Athens and Corfu (Greece).

The use of Second Life as a platform for developing our approach has been beneficial, given that Second Life comes with many ready-made "building blocks" and functions. The options available in Second Life have greatly developed over the last few years, for example in terms of  "realism". However, to take the IVY and EVIVA development further, a step-change may be needed. We are currently exploring emerging virtual reality technologies that offer better development and customisation options and more powerful simulation capabilities. At the same time, the challenges concerning pedagogical implementation in an overall blended- learning setting and the teacher-education and learner-preparation tasks involved will be given serious consideration.