HICKORY, N.C. – More businesses and schools are investing in virtual reality as a new way to socialize, interact, work and learn. A North Carolina community college is logging on to provide another avenue for students to learn English as a second language.
Elena Margo Gould is helping young adults discover a new language.
Gould, an ESL instructor for six years, teaches students at Catawba Valley Community College how to read, write and speak in English.
“I love language, I love words and I love to see other people discover them,” Gould said.
Gould holds degrees in Spanish and French. She was inspired by her mother, who grew up overseas as a child.
“[My mother’s] family was stationed in France,” Gould said. “So, she knew some French…as a pre-teen I milked her for every word.”
Each day, Gould is translating her skills into helping others learn her native language through workbooks, audio lessons and virtual environments.
The program picked up VR headsets, a 3-D educational tool, in fall 2021 to enhance the way students study English vocabulary and grammar. They’re transported into real-world scenarios, such as going to the doctor’s office.
“They’re given a situation – for example – a backache and say ‘what you would you do?’ and they’re trying to come up with ideas on their own,” Gould said. “And when they click on it… it’ll give them more ideas.”
Gould says students work in groups of two. One student acts as a receptionist while the other plays a patient.
“When they’re with their partner they feel really comfortable and they have a good back and forth.”
While the virtual world is a great way to expand the horizons of their curriculum, Gould admits there’s a learning curve for her as a teacher.
“I’m still getting used to it,” Gould said. “Still discovering new advantages and disadvantages.”
She also hopes textbook learning continues despite the emphasis on virtual reality.
“I don’t want to throw the books away,” Gould said. “But I think adding this in on a twice a week basis – like we’re doing right now – definitely adds a dimension.”
Gould loves watching her class light up with excitement at the end of their half-hour online lesson.
“This is actually a little bit fun,” Gould said. “Rather than OK, I’m doing my exercises in a book – which is important – but if you can get them to look forward to something, why not?”
Gould says right now they’re using the VR headsets with only their advanced learners but she hopes to bring the virtual lessons to newer students soon.
The school uses federal funds through the North Carolina Community College System office to pay for virtual reality programmers and equipment for the project.
Associate dean Chanell Butler Morello says it’s a good investment. She says they’ve found virtual reality is effective in helping adult students learn and retain new information faster.
“Adults tune out if something isn’t important to them or necessary to their everyday needs,” Morello said. “With the virtual reality, the students know that everything they’re learning is directly applicable to their career needs and, they learn the vocabulary necessary to go on into the specific jobs they’re interested in.”
Catawba Valley Community College partners with at least 50 area businesses to help prepare ESL students to work in several careers once they graduate.