Selected academic research projects

Challenges and opportunities for EMI teacher training in Japanese universities (2021 - now)

The problem

The government of Japan is aiming to internationalize higher education to gain a competitive advantage in the globalized business world. Teaching content in English (known as English Medium Instruction) is one of the main strategies to achieve this goal: about 40% of Japanese universities now offer EMI courses. Many EMI teachers in Japan, however, say that they experience difficulty in EMI instruction; such difficulties can be addressed by EMI training, but research shows that it is practically absent, and we know little about best practices that would work specifically in this context.

Which brings us to the problem and the research questions: What type of EMI training would Japanese EMI teachers prefer? And how do their preferences depend on their background and experience?

Project constraints

The budget for this study was 2,340,000 Japanese yen (sponsored by a research grant). I calculated the costs of all necessary equipment, software, labor and participant incentives, and it did not leave much room for travel costs to perform in-person interviews since the project was on a national scale. I chose to turn it into an advantage and collect data online from participants and regions that were too far away for in-person communication.

Research method & process

For this problem, I chose the survey method that combines quantitative and qualitative data. Using a survey ensured getting a wide range of data from diverse participants that would be difficult to capture through interviews.

I made a list of Japanese universities that offer EMI courses and a list of EMI instructors working there and invited them to take the survey. The survey was carefully constructed based on what is known in current EMI literature and included questions that would help construct the profile of different types of EMI instructors in the study and their experience and attitude toward EMI training.

I used Excel and JASP to analyze the data of 107 EMI teachers from 36 universities across Japan.

Insights & Impact

A typical EMI instructor in surveyed Japanese universities is a highly educated and most likely Japanese man of about 48 years old and with about 9 years of experience teaching EMI and working in a full-time position. He focuses on using English in the classroom (which can be tricky with domestic students!) and prioritizes content over supporting students’ English skills development. In EMI training, he prefers hands-on, practical support (class activities, assessment guidelines, peer collaboration) and, to a lesser extent, help with teaching methodology.

Female and non-Japanese EMI instructors have background and training preferences very similar to this typical profile with one exception: EMI instructors who are non-native English speakers also expressed some interest in receiving support for their English speaking, pronunciation, and vocabulary skills - but this support is not a priority. The years of teaching experience, the type of university and other contextual factors did not play a role in such preferences.

What does this mean for the designers of EMI training for Japanese universities?

Deigning a mobile Virtual Reality application for a remedial spatial thinking course (2018-2019)

The problem

Spatial thinking is the skill of processing and navigating the space around us, and is considered one of the foundations of success in STEM disciplines. An instructor at a large American university who was in charge of a remedial spatial thinking course (which aimed to help students improve their spatial thinking) was curious if VR technology can help students become better at 3D visualizations and spatial reasoning. Our team offered to design a series of mobile Virtual Reality applications to explore this problem.

We focused on two research questions:

#1: How do students evaluate the usability of the developed mobile VR apps?

#2: Do the designed apps improve students’ spatial thinking skills?

Project constraints

Our team had a set of about 15 smartphones with Google Cardboard mobile VR headsets and Bluetooth VR controllers. The processing power and the functionality of the controllers were limited, and the class size was about 30 people, meaning that the apps had to be lightweight and designed to work with pairs of students. We chose to design the apps as an aid and focus on developing detailed instructional materials to guide students through spatial training.

Application & instructional material design

Using the existing literature on spatial thinking and iterative feedback from several colleagues not involved in the project, I prototyped the structure and UI of the applications. The app was built by two students with expertise in programming using Unity 3D; I created 3D models for the apps using Blender.

For instructional materials, I created self-paced worksheets that guided students through VR-facilitated activities and encouraged reflection. The activities centered around an ongoing dialogue to help learners verbalize their problem-solving process.

Application demo

Research method & process

To test the usability of the developed apps, I used a triangulation of three methods: 

To measure the impact of the apps on students’ spatial skills, I used a quantitative approach: participants took a spatial ability assessment (Purdue Spatial Visualization Test) before and after the course, and their performance on each pre- and post-unit test (designed by the course instructor) was also collected. I used Excel and SPSS to analyze the quantitative data, and NVivo for qualitative analysis.

Insights & Impact

My in-class observations revealed learners’ pain points in the VR apps usability that were later confirmed in the survey responses (55 students) and interviews (25 students). Three pain points were related to the mobile VR technology itself: 

The fourth pain point is about the non-intuitive menu design of the applications: learners were often unsure about what each menu button meant.

While 29 learners in the survey found the VR apps helpful in visualizing objects and manipulations that are hard to imagine, 16 noted that technical difficulties such as unstable controllers and unintuitive menus made it hard to benefit from the apps. 6 learners described physical discomfort because of dizziness or headache, 5 emphasized that the VR experience was enjoyable and fun, and 9 did not find the apps useful in developing their spatial skills.

In short, the usability of the developed apps received substantial negative feedback from the learners, even though many of them found the apps helpful in the learning process. 

Learners’ performance data showed no significant improvements in their spatial ability test scores; they may have enjoyed using VR but the tool did not help develop better spatial skills.

Recommendations for using mobile VR apps in the classroom: