There are two big surprises when you survey the ICT suite of St Julie's Catholic High School in Liverpool. The first is the incongruous sight of a large statue of Saint Julie Billiart (the founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame) standing amid a sea of high-tech equipment that includes about 30 powerful computers and flat screen monitors. The second is the use of virtual reality technology to create an artificial world that pupils can interact with in order to enhance language teaching.
St Julie's is based in Woolton Village, a semi-rural setting a few miles from the centre of Liverpool. It is an 11 to 18 all-girls' school with about 1,400 pupils, including 200 sixth-formers. It is a beacon school and a language college.
St Julie's use of virtual reality (VR) is down to John Hopwood, a former teacher and now ICT consultant to the school. John worked on educational materials for the pioneering VR company Virtuality in the early 1990s and is a big fan of the technology.
The most common image of VR is of a person wearing a VR helmet and data glove which is used to manipulate or "touch" objects in the virtual world.
But the VR used at St Julie's is desktop VR, and a standard computer keyboard and mouse are used.
In many ways, VR was ahead of its time and anyone wanting to create a reasonable virtual environment needed a very powerful computer. Today, many classroom PCs can be used for VR, although some may require an upgrade to their graphics card. VR means schools can use the same power of interactivity that makes computer games so engaging and it's no accident that John also sees much potential for using computer games in education.
Teachers and students at St Julie's use VR software developed by Virtual Education Partnership (VEd), known as Creative VR. This makes it possible to construct what are known as "virtual knowledge spaces" or 360-degree environments that can be explored by the user. The environment can also contain avatars - animated "humans" that represent the user exploring the virtual world.
Users enter the virtual knowledge space down a tunnel and reach a large chamber, which can contain up to 36 plinths. On top of each plinth is a large flat-screen display. VEd says Creative VR could be used in language teaching for mock oral examinations, exchange trip linking, collaborative word-learning galleries, internet treasure hunts, sign language practice and for less widely spoken language materials.
St Julie's has used VR to forge stronger links with schools abroad. In the case of a school in Nuremburg, it was used to enhance a video conferencing system used by both schools. Video conferencing not only allows students to practise a foreign language with native speakers, but also to enrich links between schools.
During one video conference between St Julie's and the German school, the German students gave a big-band performance while a girl from St Julie's sang from a German opera. John recorded video clips and digital still images of the school concert which were then put into a virtual environment. This was burnt on to a CD and sent to the Nuremburg school which then added its own materials to the VR environment.
This was then re-broadcast over the video conferencing link, with the children reliving the concert and talking to each other over an internet connection. "Video conferencing often has no lasting history. You do it and that's it. But by using VR technology, it can become a sustainable language resource," says Hopwood.
Another use for VR is as multimedia treasure hunt, explains Hopwood. You can attach audio, video, weblinks, even PowerPoint presentations, to the plinths. So you could have the a room arranged like a treasure hunt, giving the kids instructions to go to a plinth and then go somewhere else where an instruction tells them to go to an internet site linked to the plinth.
"URLs are often too difficult to remember or to type and you need to get only a single character wrong and you lose the webpage. But with our VR system, we can simply attach the web link to the plinth, which is then clicked on. A pupil could also go through a PowerPoint presentation, save it and then click the mouse to go back to the VR room," John says.
St Julie's also used VR to document a school trip to Japan last year when 15 Year 12 students visited Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo. Claire Guest was one of the visitors and helped put together a VR record of the trip: "It was an amazing trip and I would definitely like to go back. With the virtual reality system, we could give others a better idea of our trip."
The Japanese VR room includes a video thank you, examples of Japanese cuisine and video highlights, such as a trip to the famous Golden Temple in Kyoto. Ready-made templates make it easy for students to create their own VR worlds and St Julie's has already extended VR beyond the languages department.
In art, a number of students have used VR to assemble their own virtual portfolios. "Kids can gather their digital pictures and sounds together and then use the VR software to put together a package. It takes around 30 minutes. When artwork is displayed in this format, it looks very impressive," adds John.
Virtual reality has often been seen as a gimmick. But with improved classroom technology, easier and more powerful VR tools and a growing realisation that VR has many sound educational features, it's now a good time for more schools to consider VR to widen their educational horizons, and that includes language teaching. As John puts it: "The only limit is your imagination."
Most modern classroom PCs can run VR software, although it is important they have a powerful enough graphics card for drawing the 3D virtual world on-screen.
Creative VR is available from Virtual Educational Partnership in the form of a CD-Rom or online download. Each costs pound;599 ex-VAT. The software can be purchased under the electronic learning credits scheme. VEd also offers schools training, technical support and an optional virtual reality set.
St Julie's High School: www.st-julies.liverpool.sch.uk