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Velawoods English is an immersive, self-study English course that, according to its website, “offers the next best thing to living in an English speaking country”. The product is the result of a collaboration between Velawoods Learning Ltd., Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment. We spoke to the Managing Director of Velawoods Learning Ltd., Hani Malouf, and CUP’s Publisher for Consumer, Keith Sands, to hear more about the vision behind the product and their experience of putting it together.

So, what’s the product?

Keith: It’s an immersive, first-person game-like environment whereby the learner interacts with characters through a series of real-world scenarios. New language is encountered through overheard conversations, formally presented in tutor sequences, and practiced in activities and conversations involving the cast of Velawoods.

The course is based on the face2face syllabus, although the concept is dramatically different. There are 60–70 hours of learning material at Beginner level, and even more at Elementary. Each lesson is structured around a set of tasks, each of which has up to 20 activities as well as testing and practice material.

About half of those activities overall are conversational ones,  so there are hours of animated conversations. In fact, about half of the product is conversational activities, so productive practice is really at the heart of it. Other activities – like the drag and drop and presentation activities – play a supporting and checking role, but the core of the course is the contextualized conversations.

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It uses speech analysis, right?

Keith: Yes. It’s a vital element of the product. We’re using Carnegie’s speech analysis. When we tried it at a private language school it worked quite well.  When we were demonstrating it to people there and somebody was struggling to get the speech recognition to pick up what they were saying,  they would keep doing it.  They didn’t want to click ‘Next’ and just move on. They would keep listening to the model, replay it, then replay their own speech until they got it right. So, it does have that loop where you really want to progress through the conversation, you really want to get it right.

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What was the vision behind the product?

Hani: One of the things we really wanted to achieve with this product was leveraging what it is that gets people addicted to games, or what it is that gets people addicted to the likes of Netflix and things like that. We wanted to bring these elements that we see becoming more engrained in the psyches of consumers around world to language learning.

That’s what we wanted to really embed in the feel of the product. The learner (hopefully) enjoys doing different tasks, but at the same time there is also a story, a sequence.  They’re not seeing random characters in random situations, but instead they get to meet those characters in unfolding scenarios and, as they do, they get to learn about them. Learners spend time interacting with all the characters in a given task and then, when they’re finished, they’re eager to see what happens next. We tried to do that as much as possible; to craft a  compelling narrative sequence from one lesson to the other. The biggest challenge was trying to create a story that links all of the learning objectives into a learning sequence that is interesting and engaging.

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For example, you have business meetings which we feel will give the learner the experience of living in a country that speaks English. You’re still following a syllabus that comes from Cambridge but you’re doing it in a more immersive way.

This is self-study product, and we know a major problem associated with self-study tools is that people feel lonely. They feel disengaged because they’re on their own. So, to address that, we wanted to have in-game characters and interactions that learners would actually grow to like. We didn’t want to it to just be about going to back to a lesson because it’s fun and interactive. We want learners to go back because of Amy and Bob and all the other characters, and to do stuff with them.

Some of them are your neighbours and you get to know them. We’re hoping that slight attachment will help to bring the learners back to the lessons and to get them more engaged.

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It comes with Cambridge Assessment certification, doesn’t it?

Hani: Yes, but we’re keen to make the distinction that this is a certificate for completing the course. It doesn’t represent a qualification, because we still want people to go and do the actual paper test. At the end of the day, we can’t guarantee that the student completing this course is the same one that signed up. We’re assuming that the majority of learners will be honest, however, so they get a hard-earned certificate of completion at the end.

Keith: There’s a certain amount of randomization for the tests and questions, so you’re not going to get the same test twice.

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How was the experience of developing the product?

Keith: Although it’s not actually a game, it’s built by a games developer (Route 1 Games in Sheffield), which has been an interesting experience for the product team and very different to working with a big platform developer.

Hani: In fact, it was a learning curve for both of us, because for them it was the first time they had got involved with an education product and for us the first time working with something that has quite a different product team setup.

There was a nice balance between us approaching it from a learning design point of view and the game developers saying, ‘Okay, this is how a gamer would experience or engage with it’. For example, the speech analysis and the camera positions, and those kind of things.

We didn’t want it to be labeled a game that you ‘play’ because of the education specification. You don’t have the free will to walk around and do whatever you want as in proper games. With that freedom you lose the structure of the learning, but we wanted to bring an element of autonomy into the product somehow. Ultimately, it’s an English course with a serious purpose, not a game as such.

Keith: What’s been interesting is working out, together with the team of authors and learning designers, to how to structure the content as a learning experience, specifically in terms of how you encounter the language. You encounter language that is explicitly taught and you also get a lot of incidental language, but you’re always encountering it in context. Engineering those conversations when you’re hearing it in context, then focussing on it and then providing an opportunity to use it in that repetitive cycle has been really interesting and different. It’s as you’d expect in a course book, but it comes to life a bit more. The context and immersiveness is key to it.

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Any surprises along the way?

Hani: We had to evolve the product while it was still very young in response to some market feedback. A lot of the UI changed, the experience was simplified, a lot of things started to get more refined based on the initial feedback we got from learners.

Keith: For example, there was maybe a bit too much going on in the first iteration in terms of user journey, whereas now you can get straight into the environment with one click, and straight into the lesson. One of the main advancements from the first version to the second was the stripping back of some of the features to make a slicker, more concentrated and simplified user experience.

We’re hoping that, even after the latest version gets released, we’ll be able to make more improvements. Ideally, because it’s all such a new experience, people will continue to give us feedback on how to tweak certain things. The platform allows to respond to that feedback and to adapt as necessary, which works quite well.

How is it playing with learners?

Keith: We’re  piloting it at a couple of schools in the Middle East and with self-study learners in Latin America. This will enable us to do a small impact study. We’ll also be looking at student engagement; whether there is any progress between tests, any correlation between performance and how long someone is spending on the platform, that sort of thing.

Hani: With the early adopters, we’ve seen people engaging with the application for up to two hours non-stop.  Once they start, they go from one activity to another. It’s possible to track this user information from our admin side so we can see the sessions.  Just seeing the learners spending over an hour and a half on a couple of activities was just amazing.

Watch this space for ELTjam’s review of Velawoods English. Meanwhile, take a look at some of the other product reviews in our archive.

Learn more about Velawoods English (and try it for free) over on their website. 

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7 Comments

  1. Thanks Keith. ‘More immersive than what?’ is a good question. I’d say, ‘just about as immersive as a phrase book’ might be something to aim at – i.e. not immersion as dictated by a grammar syllabus (which bears little or no relation to how language is encountered or learned ‘in the field’) but immersion as sensitive to situational and/or functional criteria. That’s how I remember my immersion in Spain: omg! I need words to buy food! omg… I need phrases to use in the bank! omg! I need polite expressions to talk to the neighbours. etc. The grammar does not lead – it follows.

    1. That reminds me of my second day living in Moscow, when I came out of the metro at 10pm on a cold January night and couldn’t identify my block of flats. I tramped through snowy yards for over an hour approaching strangers armed only with a print-out of the address and the single (to me almost unpronounceable) word *gdye?* (“where?”). An immersive learning experience that still gives me the horrors years later!

      As many coursebooks do, Velawoods English intertwines a functional and situational syllabus with a grammar syllabus. I think, because of the nature of the course, more of the grammar does emerge from the situational conversations than is usual in coursebooks – where reading texts sometimes seem a more convenient vehicle. There is a strand of specific grammar points delivered in a particular order (and I know your objections to this), but in nearly all cases this is a “focus on form” that happens after the learner encounters and notices the language in conversation.

  2. Learner engagement in digital environments is certainly the thing to strive for, and immersion in real-world scenarios sounds interesting, however, from what I have seen of Velawoods, the language-driven encounters are more like surreal-world encounters. (A postman walking up to a stranger in the street, introducing himself and handing the stranger a letter., etc). High on illogicality. Interested to read the review.

    1. I like the idea of having such ‘illogical’ encounters. It adds to the sense of creativity and novelty in a virtual environment. From what I’ve seen of Velawoods, it feels like Second Life with a more purposeful journey. I will look forward to how it develops.

    2. Thank you Peter for your comment. I am sure you appreciate that there is a challenge in the first lesson of the beginner course in creating ‘logical’ situations and encounters, when the learner has no knowledge of the English language and there is a very limited set of phrases or vocab to work with. We would be more than happy to provide more access to judge how the storyline and conversations evolve in subsequent lessons when there is more language to use. We admit that we allowed ourselves some artistic licence on how life is in Velawoods prioritising at the very start a systematic and easy introduction of the language to create a true self-study learning experience. On any count, if Velawoods is a 100% real depiction of our real world, I am sure we would not have succeeded in creating a positive and enjoyable learning experience :).

  3. Interesting – and so much more grounded in sound learning principles than, say, Duolingo. But this brought me up short: “You’re still following a syllabus that comes from Cambridge but you’re doing it in a more immersive way.” Isn’t there a fundamental contradiction here? How can an experience – any experience – be truly immersive if its linguistic elements are pre-specified? ‘Keep calm – and use the present continuous’!!!

    1. Hi Scott,
      Thanks very much for the comment. You make a very fair point: a course operating with a pre-defined syllabus is not as “immersive” as, say, moving to a target language country, armed with a notepad maybe, and getting by in L2, with a strong ’survival’ motivation for immersing yourself in conversation as often as you can. I’d also agree that a reactive, teacher-moderated course, where the learners are steering the topics and language content, can feel more “immersive” than a very coursebook-bound course (although there are challenges in putting that into practice with beginners).
      So we should really answer the question “more immersive than what”? One thing we discussed a lot when developing the course was the benefit a learner might get from watching a long-running TV series in a target language, perhaps with regular rewinding, notebook at the ready. Velawoods is something like that experience, but is “more immersive”, in that the learner actually is one of the characters – an active participant, ‘on the spot’, choosing what they need to say (albeit from pre-defined options) and with help when they need it.

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