Turning Novels Into Engaging Multisensory Experiences
In the fall 2019 semester, my students in the course Langue anglaise et culture (English 102) read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, which details the author’s growing up in his native South Africa during the Apartheid era. To help students connect with the book’s subject matter and social context in a more concrete and meaningful manner, I turned the reading experience into a multisensory experience by designing learning activities that involved virtual reality (VR) and audio content.
Virtual reality to co-construct insight
I chose to read Born a Crime with my students because it deals with so many social issues that are also relevant in today’s Quebec. However, for students to be able to analyze the topics covered within the South African context and make the necessary links to spark meaningful discussions, they needed background. I find that students at higher levels need more higher order thinking activities to concretize the basics they have mastered and to learn more sophisticated ways to use those basics. The content of the book seemed so far from their reality—both literally and figuratively—that I quickly realized we first had to work on basic information, such as visualizing the townships and understanding the historical context in which Apartheid developed before we connected it to their lives in Quebec and the world in 2019.
I’m lucky to work in an environment where there are many dedicated teachers and administrators who truly take our students’ success to heart and who are continually looking for new ways to integrate and support students making them active participants in their own learning. During the fall semester, my CEGEP opened its active learning environment, Espace Moebius, which contains an active learning classroom, a media lab, and a discussion area. Trying to use the theory of Universal Design in my classes, I wanted to take advantage of the new multisensory learning opportunities offered and intended on having at least one of my weekly classes there, but unfortunately, I was not able to reserve the space for all of my class groups, which led me to re-think my plan.
In our Espace Moebius, students can use Oculus Rift and Oculus Go headsets to explore virtual reality (VR) environments. A lab technician, Cédric Corriveau-Mercier, is available during the space’s working hours to assist students. This allowed me to set my students up with a VR homework assignment without having to worry about the students’ technological skills in accessing the material.
Students experiencing virtual reality under the guidance of lab technician Cédric Corriveau-Mercier at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit’s Espace Moebius.
My pedagogical objectives included:
- learning more about the book’s setting
- developing research skills
- thinking critically about information sources
- supplementing global knowledge
- producing spoken and written output
- exploring the potential of VR
I set up the project in different steps, designed to run over 4 weeks:
- I shared a VR video (in a non-VR capacity in the classroom) with students as a starting point and showed them basic research skills. I then asked them to find 5 more VR videos each for homework. Students booked appointments for the Espace Moebius at their convenience to view their VR videos or to get help researching more sources with the help of the lab technician if necessary. After watching, students jotted down notes on the sights, sounds and feelings they experienced during their VR trip.
- The following class, students had small group discussions about their experiences. This also elicited descriptive vocabulary about the sounds and sights that compelled them the most.
- I compiled a master list of the videos and students viewed some of the choices recommended by their colleagues in the more traditional language lab setting. Although there were many overlaps, some students had gone above and beyond to find and experience virtual trips to give an idea of the inequality that still exists today.
- They then had to critique these videos in writing and make recommendations based on arguments related to the relevance of the material including its length, visual and sound quality.
- Another exercise contained a gallery walk where students compared historical images to what they had seen during their VR experience and what they had read in the book.
- Finally, they worked in small groups to tie the VR experiences and historical documents to parts of the text where they’d be most relevant, making notes in their novels in the appropriate places.
One of the production tasks consisted in recording a selfie video on Flipgrid and commenting on the videos of two peers.
Giving characters an authentic voice with audio books
To add to the multimodality of the reading experience, I also encouraged students to listen to the audiobook version of Born a Crime. Our department’s library committee and our wonderful library staff have worked hard to make sure that most of the titles students read in their different English classes are available to allow those students with special needs full access to the content in a way that works best for them. Having audio access also allows those students who travel quite a distance to get to school to make the best of their travel time when driving. One student even mentioned that he appreciated that he could listen to the audio book at his factory job instead of listening to music, which gave him more time for his other school work once he got home after his shift.
Trevor Noah narrates the audiobook version himself, which further augments the authenticity of the learning experience. As a native speaker of South African English, Trevor Noah uses phrases and expressions that students are often not familiar with, especially when he uses expressions in Xhosa. Often, these South African terms are pronounced differently than students (and teachers) might imagine when they read the book to themselves. It is also important to show the students that accents, linguistic variety, and regionalisms should be celebrated and not criticized.
Having students listen to the narration not only helps them notice the authentic pronunciation, but also highlights the cultural elements as they are described through descriptive language. Of course, students still have to go back to the book because they need to annotate the text and cite quotes; they cannot just listen passively and forget about the story, they need to actively integrate their ideas into the class activities.
The virtual reality experiences gave the students a more concrete feeling for the setting and social context they read about. Most of this was unknown to them, and VR helped bridge that gap. For instance, the students could explore the neighbourhood in which the author grew up, and see the locations mentioned.
This also made them feel more empathetic toward the story. They’re reading about growing up in a township during Apartheid, so just being able to see and feel what it’s like to live in a township gives them more perspective, especially at a time in their lives when many students seem to focus on what they don’t have instead of what they have and are questioning their futures. Noah also deals with heavy topics using a strong sense of irony and humour.
Overall, the students really enjoyed the experience. In a post-activity survey, the vast majority recommended using VR as a learning tool. They reported feeling immersed, which led them to feel more connected not only with the book’s protagonists, but also with people living in the Soweto township in general. Several students mentioned experiencing Soweto through VR gave them better insight compared to only reading about the topic.
This project came about organically as a result of my book choice and the creation and availability of the Espace Moebius and its resources. I was really pleased with the outcomes and students’ reactions. The VR and audio book elements contributed to making the learning experience more authentic and made students more eager to read now that they had some context. Students enjoyed using VR and felt it gave them deeper insight into the book’s subject matter. They didn’t seem to notice all of the writing, speaking and higher-level thinking they were doing in the target language since adding VR to the English classroom has been an atypical experience for most of them. This first experiment gave me the opportunity to validate the relevance and structure of the project, and I am doing it again with my students in the Winter 2020 semester. To maximize the impact of the project, I have reserved the Espace Moebius and hope to allow students to work on the different skills working at their own pace as they pass through different stations, exploiting all possibilities of the room and taking a 4-skill approach as students move between listening, reading, discussion and writing activities.