Yalun Helen Zhou

Associate Professor & Graduate Program Director, Communication and Media

Yalun Helen Zhou has an interdisciplinary background in applied linguistics and education. Her research involves second language acquisition, multimodal literacy design with emerging technology, and user experience on different platforms (e.g., 2D, 3D, and immersive).

Zhou believes that learning theory can be informed by empirical studies in classrooms, and conversely, classroom practices can benefit from the advancement in learning theory. She studies how different learning environments (traditional, virtual, VR, and XR, immersive, or mixed) can best assist language and culture acquisition. Besides, Zhou investigates the role of culture and the impact of sociocultural background on multilingual users. Utilizing a post-structuralist framework and phenomenological narrative inquiry, her book (Springer, 2021) examines the academic journeys and the emergent cohesive behaviors of Chinese international students in China and the United States. The narrative analysis attempts to understand “why” behind the storytellers’ decision-making rather than to seek solutions (“how”) for specific problems.

Before joining RPI, Zhou worked at Michigan State University, collaborating with Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute to offer an online Chinese program through massively multiple-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs). At RPI, in addition to teaching, she is among the core faculty of The Mandarin Project, a research initiative between Rensselaer’s CISL (Cognitive Immersive Systems Laboratory) and IBM. She is also an affiliate with the Games & Simulation Arts & Sciences (GSAS) Program and Critical Game Design Graduate Program. With CISL, she leads the content development and instructional design of The Mandarin Project. She collaborates with virtual immersive learning environments teams in the design of 360-degree panoramic language interaction, multi-modal conversation with embodied AI agents, game narrative, and pitch tone contour analysis system. Her multi-disciplinary faculty and student researcher collaborators come from diverse disciplines, including computer science, cognitive science, game design, simulation arts, and architectural acoustics.

Zhou is currently the Editor of the Journal for Distinguished Language Studies. Her scholarly work has been published in a wide variety of academic venues, including CALL, Learning Environment Research, System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics, Journal of Technology and Chinese Language Teaching, Immersive Learning Research Network, ACM DIS, HCI International, AAAI, The Journal of the Acoustic Society of America, and Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching.

Helen Zhou was the recipient of Rensselaer’s Class of 1951 Outstanding Teaching Award in 2017. She welcomes graduate students who need advice on intercultural communication, identity and motivation, learning technology, research methods, user experience research design, and data analysis.


Ph.D., University of Missouri-Kansas City

Research Focus
  • Applied Linguistics
  • Learning Technologies (gamification, AR, VR, XR)
  • Learning Environments (traditional, virtual, immersive)
  • Technology-Assisted Learning (CALL, gameful, game-based)
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