Nicole Mills, Senior Preceptor in Romance Languages and Literatures, helps students grasp the French language and experience the culture through “alternative classroom contexts.” Specifically, students participate in virtual reality (VR) experiences alongside the curriculum. During the first week of the semester, students immerse themselves in the daily lives of four different Parisians from the same quarter through a series of 360 VR videos that were self-recorded by the Parisians themselves. They then partner to challenge stereotypes of Parisian culture and compare observations and findings. For remote learning, Mills added both amateur and professional VR films showcasing Parisian life with accompanying tasks. These VR experiences are mediated by one-on-one 30-minute discussions with Parisians designed to both develop interactional competence and encourage the discovery of cultural phenomena. VR can transport students to culturally immersive experiences that are otherwise impossible given COVID-19 travel restrictions.
This experience strengthens students’ commitment to learning the language in new ways. “We can discuss culture by presenting photos or video clips, but there is something about a VR experience where you feel like you are present in that cultural moment—where language, place, and community unite.” Research by Mills, Courtney, Dede, Dressen & Gant (2020) suggests that this deep immersion allows students to envision and experience diverse facets of culture, and more vividly imagine their future role as participants in those communities, in ways that more traditional forms of learning do not.
“With the appropriate pedagogical framing, I think that VR can get students to shift toward a more nuanced and multifaceted understanding of culture. We saw that shift.”
Mills notes the challenges depend on the magnitude of the project and the level of customization. For example, the present lack of access to 360 editing software at Harvard makes it challenging to develop specialized VR experiences that align with curricula. Mills emphasizes that support is widely available through various offices, staff, and resources on Harvard’s campus to collaborate with instructors on creative strategies for incorporating VR in your courses.
Takeaways and best practices