Georgian College combines Indigenous language education with virtual reality
Georgian College is one of the few schools in the world to offer Indigenous language instruction in an immersive virtual reality (VR) environment. This new technology is changing and improving the learning landscape for students and is part of the college’s bold new digital innovation strategy.
Rob Theriault, Head of Immersive Technology at Georgian, worked with Indigenous Studies staff and faculty to create an Immersive Indigenous Languages House that provides Anishnaabemowin program and curriculum development students a unique and fun way to experience learn and practice their oral skills.
The first language course module is based around the house. Using AltspaceVR, Thériault built and furnished a house and put information buttons on all the elements of the house.
Faculty Angeline King and Elder Ernestine Baldwin translated a list of words for everything so that when a student clicks a button, the word Anishnaabemowin appears.
There is also a second house using the Engage software which includes voiceover translations with either King, Baldwin or another faculty member Mitchell Ackerman providing the pronunciation.
King said it was a big process to build the list because some words don’t exist in the language so they had to create words.
“We also wanted to stick to our own regional dialect,” King said. “Ernestine and I went back and forth on them – we have a great sense of humor with our tongue. “
There is also a fire pit and basketball court outside the house where students can virtually socialize. This semester, King was able to teach students additional words around basketball – a whole lesson in itself – and it was a way to teach them the language in an immersive and fun way.
A medicine wheel has also been integrated into the house.
“We can teach the students everything on the wheel – what the colors and all the teachings mean,” King said. “They think they’re here just to learn the language, but we also teach them the culture.
Maryam Ismail has just completed her first year in the program and said the best thing about using the technology at the Indigenous Language House is that it brought all the students together.
“We feel closer to each other,” Ismail explained. “It will be weird to finally meet in real life and realize that we don’t all look like our avatars,” she said with a laugh.
Although she said there were some challenges around internet connections, Ismail enjoyed using the technology for her class and noted that they learned while playing and exploring with their headsets and laptops. They had fireside conversations where they can learn many effective language learning skills.
“I really think the format has improved my learning,” Ismail said. “After COVID-19, I can’t wait to go back to school, but keeping VR would add so much to the curriculum. I think it should be part of the curriculum.
Michele O’Brien, program coordinator for all Indigenous programming, was quick to see the potential benefits of virtual reality technology.
“It allowed us to prepare the next generation of learners – and that doesn’t necessarily mean straight from high school – it could mean students of various ages,” O’Brien said. “Technology enables learners to see, feel and hear the meaning and translation of words.
O’Brien added that the best way to learn a new language is through socialization and that when students return to face-to-face learning it will be a good way for them to put what they have learned into practice. in class and practice their skills by themselves time.
Greg McGregor, director of native access services and programs at Georgian, said the college had recognized years ago that the native language – and those who speak it fluently – were moving away.
“It was essential to create the Anishnaabemowin program and program development if we wanted to save the language,” he said. “We are the only college in Ontario to currently offer a program in Anishnaabemowin and it is important to remain a world leader in this area. We also know that for the language to survive we need to involve the younger generation and this new technology is a perfect way to achieve that. “
Georgian also shares this new technology with other colleagues. All virtual reality assets built for language learning will be open source so that they are available for other Indigenous programs across Canada and around the world. Additionally, O’Brien and King were invited to participate in a panel at the iLRN Global Conference on June 5. They presented on the revitalization and preservation of Indigenous languages and culture using XR.