Storytelling is probably as old as humans existence.* All good storytellers try to immerse their audience in their realistic or fantastic stories, bring their characters to life and generate emotions in their listeners by all kinds of means: simply using their voice, describing a scene, making accompanying sounds with any kinds of instruments available, dressing up, playing suitable tunes, showing images or films, and using all the other tricks of the storyteller’s trade.
Can we then agree that VR technology is simply a continuum of what has existed for a long time and just allows us to use another technique (or trick) to help us feel present – immersed – in a world that is not our current physical world? Perhaps there is one important difference, though: in an interactive VR environment or virtual world, we are not just told an immersive story, we can actively take part in it, which can contribute to the feeling of really experiencing something – even more, creating an experience – rather than just being a ‘consumer’ of a story. Imagine just watching a film versus being able to jump into a scene and interact with everything in it and thereby impacting on and changing the story!
If storytelling has such an important place in human existence and experience, and VR can help us make stories more immersive, experiential and participatory, we need to keep this in mind when using VR in education and planning lessons or immersive experiences that we hope will lead to better learning. If we could manage to convey our learning content as stories, that would be a great success. This is not a new idea, of course, but one that is particularly important when using VR technology, for which immersion is cited as one of the main raisons d’être.
When we take our learners to a location in an immersive VR app or virtual world so they feel more immersed, for example to a café to practise ordering food, and we tell our students, ’Today we will practise ordering food in a café’, we’d be taking away from the immersive experience. It’s the same as telling students in a physical classroom, ‘Today, we’re going to practise using modals for politeness’. How engaging is that? How much positive emotional engagement will this create?
Instead, we can in many cases pack the grammar point or functional language into a kind of story. So, for example, before the café lesson, tell a simple story: ‘Today is my birthday, so I’d like to take you all to a café […] Let’s go!’ You can make your story as short or as elaborate as you want. Depending on your context, the length of time available and how your course and lessons are set up, you could really go into it with more preparation before the VR session to raise expectations, increase motivation, and spark your learner’s imagination right from the start. You could show them a picture of the place you want to take them too. Tell them it’s one of your favourite places and why. Perhaps tell them what kind of foods and drinks they offer in that place, when it opened, what makes it special. Elicit from them what kind of foods and drinks they like, where they usually like to go to celebrate, etc.
Another example: Let’s say the lesson is about learning/reviewing the names of colours. How can you introduce this lesson better than saying, ’In this lesson, you will learn/review the names of colours’?
How about saying, ‘I’m planning a party. I want to decorate my room. Look, here are balloons. Which colour do you like best?’ Or ‘Give me the red ballon’, or ‘Where is the blue ballon?’, etc., depending on what language your learners already understand or can use. At the end, you can say, ‘Thank you for helping me decorate my room’ and ‘You’re all invited to my party’.
So, as you can see, making a lesson into a story does not need to be difficult or time-consuming. You don’t even have to change your lesson plan, just introduce it slightly differently and embed it in a simple story.
Of course, there is a lot more to storytelling. The best stories are those that are created and told by learners themselves. For some ideas for this, have a look at my blog post ‘Photography and storytelling lessons in virtual reality‘.
*If you want to learn more about the development of storytelling from cave paintings to VR technology, you might want to check out this free online course by the University of Lancaster, which has a unit on the history of VR.