by John Shaw

The use of technology in the classroom has been a hot topic in journals for as long as there have been journals. Smith (2007) points out that the EFL journal pioneer, A. S. Hornby, was not only a trailblazer in this regard, having founded the original English Language Teaching in 1946, but an early proponent of English for foreigners through the radio, which he saw as a revolutionary tool for spreading English around the world.

Nowadays, computers, the internet, and smartphones have all prompted the innovative teacher to experiment - and to write about their experiments! - and VR, which was the big new thing a decade ago, has been no different. Despite the current buzz around the exciting possibilities of AI, studies centred on VR have quietly been bubbling under the surface since the early 2010s. To summarise the research, the fact that VR blocks out external stimuli (through the use of a headset) promotes engagement, and there was much optimism about the availability of cheap Google Cardboard VR and the supporting application; however it is often claimed that more research is needed (one begins to feel that these words are as common in academia as ‘See you later’ or ‘I’m applying for more funds.’).

One such study by Karageorgakis and Nisiforou (2018) showed that while the affordable cardboard device had a negligible effect on test results in their study, the participants felt that it did help them and they really enjoyed it, hence there is much scope for future possibilities.

From this, you would think that the future of VR and further exploitation of the medium is bright. However, the situation in 2024 paints a different picture. Google Cardboard and its successor, Google Daydream, were discontinued in 2019. A single Oculus Quest headset is not cheap, nor are many of the programs in the store, and Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of Meta’s VR becoming the next big thing has still not materialised. Also, you’ll have to wait before we can talk about the new Apple headset as I’m still clearing the purchase of a superyacht off my credit card.

In this article, I will talk about my experience and how we use VR at IH British School in Reggio Calabria. The school invested in two Meta Oculus Quest 2 devices about two years ago and we have set about exploiting them in different ways. At the end, I will list some applications and give a description of how they can be used.

How did I discover VR?

I’ve always been a bit of a gamer and when I lived in Moscow it was easy to find VR cafes. In that case, the shoe was on the other foot as I was the one playing games in a foreign language and suffering the impatience of the cafe employees who had clearly never read Krashen on the affective filter, shouting commands at me until I was able to successfully navigate the controls and specifications for each game. When I was offered the opportunity to work with VR at IH British School in Calabria, I jumped at the chance.

What was it like the first time in the classroom?

I was a little bit nervous because there are a few technical steps and if one stage doesn’t work then you might not be able to use the technology and your class of excited students will surely be disappointed. Luckily, we overcame these steps and the students were able to use it, and they thoroughly enjoyed it. It took a while to get a hang of the controls, but this was another language-learning opportunity and could be pre-taught (unlike in my own experience). They spoke more L1 than I had hoped for, but this was quite a rebellious B1 teen class and I was able to reflect on ways that I could encourage more English in the classroom in the future.

What are my experiences with the programs?

The game we use the most is the VR4ll program, which was partially developed by IH schools (Jantar/Split, Bucharest and Sofia) and co-funded by European Erasmus+. An example is a mission where you need to repair a spaceship before returning to Earth. The scenery is very realistic and, to be frank, a little terrifying if you are afraid of heights. There are several tasks you need to complete before finishing the missions and for each stage one student wears the headset and the rest of the class, who can see through the user’s eyes on a big interactive whiteboard, give instructions and directions using hints given by the teacher. The teacher’s main role is to create pre-tasks to lead the students into the game, pre-teach specific language like the tools that they need, and prepare appropriate post-tasks, discussions, and homework. Fortunately, the program comes with a huge handbook with suggested lesson plans and ideas for different levels. We’ve also used sports games and 360 degrees on YouTube for various purposes.

What kind of contexts have I used it in?

As mentioned, the VR4ll program can be used as a part of an ordinary lesson, especially if the theme of the level matches the topic being used in class. Personally, I have often used it as a reward too. Sometimes teenagers lose their motivation, especially in the colder months as their exams are approaching. It can be used as a carrot for getting through a class that requires a lot of hard work. It’s especially effective for lower-level teenagers who may not find English study particularly engaging and for the very shy who can experience English in their own protected world. The school has also used it for prizes for our events - for example, the winning team of the school’s pub quiz got a free VR lesson and one of the prizes for our teenage sports day was an opportunity to play sports games on VR, in addition to a trophy, snacks and a chance to interview a British sports journalist (who ‘coincidentally’ is my brother).

What are the drawbacks of this technology?

When we started this journey, I had lofty ideas about how VR would replace online Zoom lessons as everyone will see each other in a virtual workspace that could be manipulated at will by the teacher who would have the whole world wide web at their disposal with a touch of the button (and now that I think about it, that sounds strangely - and gloomily - reminiscent of the ill-fated Second Life). In reality, though, the high cost of the devices and programs is the biggest drawback. It means that you often only have one headset per class so students get a limited time to try it out. Despite this, it is still possible to make activities student and language-centred, but it takes away from some of the wonder. Another drawback is that some students do not feel comfortable with it for one reason or another (whether it be fear of embarrassment or physical effects like vertigo) and it can be a little tricky for those who are visually impaired. Finally, it can be quite taxing on the eyes even after short periods of use, and do people really need more screen time? Then there are ethical issues at play too with two BBC reports in the last year highlighting the potential danger to young people.

Do I think that VR is the future of teaching?

It is immediately obvious that VR can be used as a teaching aid, whether it be a program to explore human organs or as a job simulator, to give just two examples. However, for now, I see it as a tool like so many others that can spice up the lesson and add more possibilities.

As mentioned, the cost makes purchasing these devices en masse prohibitive, which I don’t see changing anytime soon. There are adapters that can turn your phone into a VR headset, but I haven’t seen a set-up that doesn’t give you a massive headache within five minutes or run nearly as well due to the lack of processing power and sensors in a smartphone. Then there is the issue of controls that adds another layer of complication.

Next, as it is, VR is still too straining on the eyes for an extended period of time, so it wouldn’t be practical as a full-time mode of study. VR does not allow for clear communication in a group setting either, especially if you only have 1 headset and account, and even if you had multiple headsets, how would you manage the sudden increase in noise around the classroom with everyone zooming around outer space looking for a floating wrench?

For VR to be a thing, headsets will have to come down to a price where the vast majority can afford them; there would have to be lots of free content put out there by dedicated communities, and your internet connection would need to be faster and more reliable - the tech aware will presumably know that when you have a fast internet connection, it might only be fast on the download side, but VR needs good upload speeds too, and very few people, let alone schools, have good upload capabilities.

I for one am not holding my breath, but if in thirty years all this has been addressed, I will have a backup plan in case my pension falls through.

A Brief Tour of Some VR Programs


As mentioned, VR4ll allows students to discover space, but in addition to this, we can explore the Roman world, a desert island, and the snowy depths of South America to practise problem-solving, learn history, and understand sustainability. The program is free and comes with an extensive guide on how to use the program and interactive plans for different levels. There are some minor glitches as expected in a free game, or maybe it’s just me who managed to jump off the Rome map and fall into the void watching the world disintegrate like Aincrad at the end of the first part of Sword Art Online.

Hello, Earth! The first VR4ll level.

Trying to solve a murder mystery by The Colosseum.

Glitching into the void as ancient Rome dematerialises.

Sports Games

Sports games are some of the most popular apps on the platform and there are some nice free ones or those with demo versions. One of the latter examples is Sports Scramble which gives you the option of baseball, tennis, and bowling. Not only is it fun and interactive, but it also has the added twist that the equipment changes, so you can be playing tennis with a foam hand as a racket and an ice hockey puck as a ball. This experience could go hand-in-hand with many lessons in junior and teen coursebooks about sports, equipment and rules. There are also free basketball and air hockey games that I’ve seen and even a fishing game, Bait!, that I haven’t been able to master, just like in real life.
Pro pitcher in Sports Scramble.

I finally caught a fish in Bait!

YouTube 360

YouTube has a VR feature with videos that surround you and you can turn 360 degrees and walk around a certain area of the video. You can fly over exotic locations and describe them to others and take guided tours of places like Buckingham Palace. While one may argue that you can exploit just as much English from a normal video, the full immersion of actually being there is surely more memorable and motivating for most students.
Transported to the Australian bush.
Flying above the Manpupuner Plateau in Komi Republic.

Honourable Mentions

Most of the recommended games tend to be shooters and zombie apocalypses which are not really appropriate for the EFL classroom. One big ‘hit’ though is Beat Saber which is a dancing game where you use a lightsaber to hit 3D cubes in specific directions and avoid obstacles. The optimistic teacher might assume that this is the perfect chance to teach directions in a memorable way. To that, I say good luck doing that when Sandstorm by Darude is playing faster than you can count the blocks. Instead, it's a nice game to use as a reward and burn some energy and perhaps for teacher parties. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the meditation app TRIPP where you listen to a calm narrator instruct you while moving through psychedelic space. Here there is potential to settle students, especially those with behavioural challenges.

Do you beat with sabres or sabre to the beat?

Taking a meditative TRIPP through space.

In the end though, there is a treasure trove of games out there waiting to be found and an enterprising teacher with time and motivation will always find something. VR is interesting - but more research is needed!

Bibliography and Further Reading

Smith, Richard C. (2007) ‘The origins of ELT Journal’. Online (Oxford University Press website):

Karagerogakis Theodosis and Nisiforou Efi A. (2018) “Virtual Reality in the EFL Classroom: Educational Affordances and Students’ Perceptions in Cyprus” in The Cyprus Review Vol 30:1.

Child abuse material found on VR headsets, police data shows, 22/02/23

Police investigate virtual sex assault on girl's avatar, 02/01/24.

Author Biography

My name is John Shaw and I currently teach and coordinate Teenage and Adult events at IH British School Reggio Calabria in the south of Italy. I started teaching 12 years ago at IH in Moscow after completing my CELTA at IH Prague. In Moscow, I worked for many years as an ADOS for the school’s camp and some satellite schools and later worked as a DOS at a school which provided extracurricular English at public schools. My immediate goals are to (slowly) complete DELTA 3 and add activities to an open-source ‘Book of Games’.