Virtual reality in higher education offers an injection of curiosity

Higher education establishments are starting to see the benefits of VR for teaching. Paul Milligan speaks to the early adopters to find out how the technology is evolving.

Virtual Reality is in a strange place. It’s been around for many years, yet the technology is still considered to be cutting edge and adoption levels remain low. Cost has been the main barrier so far, but with headsets now selling for just €300, it’s putting the technology within the reach of a much wider audience. One sector where the technology is starting to take off is in higher education (HE). That may come as a surprise initially, given that budgets are often restrictive, but the sector has proved time and time again it’s willing to experiment with new technology. We spoke to a range of those working in HE to find the different ways it was being utilised.

We began by asking what VR can add to traditional ways of teaching, it’s clear the technology offers huge advantages in engagement, which has become a significant byword in modern education. “Students learn in so many different ways these days, and we just have to be innovative and creative so that they have a better learning experience. They retain the information, they engage better, and therefore improve attendance, improve engagement rates, through the use of VR,” says Dr Alison Lui, associate dean global engagement at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU).

“VR offers a great immersive experience, when they put on a headset you inject curiosity into their heads,” adds Dr Chin Eang Ong, senior lecturer in digital business and analytics, LJMU. “Before we put VR in the class, yes they learned but there was little communication, when you introduce VR it creates a bond between the students.” As someone who teaches design, VR offers Simon Harrison, digital learning director for the faculty of engineering at the University of Nottingham, a whole new dimension. “When we design three dimensional things, we design them in a 2D medium, on paper or on a PC. Suddenly, virtuality gives us the opportunity to actually design things in a three dimensional space, so we can understand depth as well as width and height, and it can change the entire process. I find it really exciting because it has the potential to revolutionise the way you teach.”

Compared to non-VR teaching, VR has a lot of advantages to traditional teaching, says André Hinkenjann, professor of computer science at the Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Science (H-BRS), whose interest in VR goes back to the early 1990s. “It enables participants to take part remotely while keeping the common 3D environment of
the teaching situation on-site, which means that participants with limited mobility have the same movement options. Also, imagine you want to show something that humans cannot sense, for example dangerous radiation, and the same argument holds for very small objects like crystal lattices or atoms.”

Can VR work across the university curriculum, or are there some disciplines where it’s a more natural fit, for example design or medicine? Traditionally VR was mostly useful for visual applications, such as taking students on a virtual field trip, or a simulation of a medical procedure, says Madeleine Stevens, reader in organisational transformation and teaching innovation, LJMU. But it is evolving into new areas, such as business schools she adds. “The more novel application now is for business schools where we’re starting to address soft skills. I use VR for active listening and public speaking, and more recently, in negotiation. The benefit of VR is that it replaces the talking at students teaching methodology with them experiencing it first hand, while also learning from new content.” LJMU is currently developing a VR COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) project with SKEMA Business School in France on VR software and the management of an Italian winery.

“The students watch a 360-degree video, have the VR simulation software where they talk about strategy, entrepreneurship, leadership, not just within their own cohort, but with the students at SKEMA too,” adds Stevens. It’s not just soft skills in business that could benefit from VR in HE, H-BRS is also working with University Hospital in Cologne for treating agoraphobia, in which you move around a busy subway system to get used to being around crowds.

With any technology in HE, there are teaching staff that will embrace it, and some who will want to stick to what they know. Has the introduction of VR been met with any reluctance from lecturers? “It can be met with resistance, but usually teaching stuff are very open to new technology that can help improve teaching. When the students are motivated by using VR then the teachers are happy, so a lot of them are saying we’d like to try it out,” says Hinkenjann. The tide is turning towards VR says John Mould, commercial development manager for ST Engineering Antycip, a provider of VR and simulation systems, whose recent clients include projects for Caen, Oxford Brookes and Cardiff universities. “I think we’ve broken down a lot of those resistant barriers in the last decade, often it’s the universities coming to us with their passion for embracing VR, they’re coming to us saying this is what we’d like to do, and we’ve got to educate them in the art of the possible.”

One criticism of VR systems is that it can be a solitary pursuit once you put the headset on. How do universities deal with that aspect when teaching a class of 15 or 20 students? New technology is helping says Hinkenjann, “Modern headsets use tracking, so we know where the users are, so the participants see each other. If you then provide audio channels, where they can talk to each other, or send text messages, that gives them the illusion of being in the same room, so they are no longer alone.”

Nottingham University has recently opened a dedicated VR classroom, enabling remote viewing and teaching for students and lecturers. This classroom uses 40 VR headsets, 35 of which are tethered overhead to individual PCs, with five available as traditional, desk-based systems with display screens. No lecture is ever silent says Harrison, there’s always background noise, but with every student putting on a headset, that is changing. “When they get the headsets on for the first time, the noise level goes up 10 decibels because they’re all giggling. Then about 15 minutes into the class it changes completely. I’ve been a teacher for 20 years, I’ve never had classes so quiet in my entire life. You could hear a pin drop because they’re totally engrossed and focused on what they’re doing. They do lose touch with people around them, but that’s a good thing because it means they’re concentrating on what I’m trying to teach them, which is a rare thing.”

Being creative and working with suppliers/integrators can help solve any issues you may fear about student isolation. Again, its new technology that’s helping. Oxford Brookes University, working with Antycip, has installed a multi-view VR cave, a new technology where the VR 3D glasses enable more than just one participant to have a dynamic perspective, unique to them within the virtual world. “We could both be stood in that VR cave, but if you wanted to walk off to look around the corner to see what’s there you can do that, and I keep my perspective,” explains Mould. For those interested in this type of technology, it’s worth noting that projectors can provide up to six dynamic views in the virtual world, direct view LED based technology currently only supports two dynamic views.

VR hardware is widely available, and the costs are now affordable. One barrier to adoption might the availability (and cost) of content. Is there enough relevant VR content currently available, or are universities forced to make it themselves? “We are intending to write and build our own software because what we want to do on it doesn’t exist. What we need is what a lot of other universities need, and currently nobody’s making that,” says Harrison.

The high cost of software development means it’s out of reach for many, as this example from Dr Oliver Kayas, senior lecturer in digital business, LJMU, illustrates: “We went to a developer to get an application customised to what we wanted it to do. When they gave us an idea of what the price was, it was several tens of thousands of pounds.” It’s not just the money, but time involved that’s also restrictive he adds. “We had ideas where you could do negotiations and interact with people in the app, but we would have had to develop all the scripts, and it would have been a hugely labour intensive activity for us to take on.”

André Hinkenjann is trying to address this issue with his Figments project ( “We wanted to create an environment where teachers create their own teaching set
ups without knowing how to programme. And you can share that and others can reuse it.” The software is based on the widely-used game engine Unity, “You can create your own rooms and store them and other users can use them. We also have a limited amount of 3D assets that you can download from a cloud server and place in your own 3D environments.” One of the goals of the Figments project is to potentially roll it out to other universities, either hosted on a central server, or on a server at each university.

Antycip is working with software developer TechViz, to help increase the amount of VR content currently available. “It offers OpenGL and DirectX interception, so if the student is designing a building with a CAD application, we can now point at that screen with our TechViz software and say, take that visual context,” say Mould. “We can open up a virtual car or ship and we can walk inside it within seconds. That application doesn’t even have to know about our software, we are just intercepting the visual geometries and the makeup of that object so that we can go inside it or fly around it.” TechVix currently works for nearly 250 different industry standard applications. Everyone we spoke to reiterated the urgent need for a central database of affordable educational VR content.

Do those who sign the cheques require some convincing when it comes to investing in VR? You’ve got to have a clear use case scenario says Harrison. Nottingham has just spent €350,000 on a VR classroom, but that level of investment was because his use case was wide ranging, he explains. “We could teach the students things that couldn’t be taught, we could improve the efficiency of teaching. We currently have some laboratories that can only take six students at a time, we might have to get 250 students through that laboratory in a year. And that drives our timetable. That one small little lab can change the way we have to organise the entire course. My proposal was about leveraging all the advantages of this technology, not just the students will love it, but we can it might affect our timetabling, it will show that we’re using advanced technology, it will improve the student experience, and the efficiency of teaching.”

What has the student reaction been to using VR in lectures? Kayas, Ong and Dr Victoria Jackson (programme leader, LJMU) are currently in the middle of a research project at LJMU to assess what the students views on using VR are. “We asked them what their expectations are, how they actually think the technology performed, and what their continuous intentions were. Would they recommend that other tutors use it on other modules? We haven’t done a full analysis of the data yet, but just looking at the findings, initially, it’s overwhelmingly positive. They were very supportive,” says Kayas.

VR has a wealth of possible uses in HE, and it feels like the early trail blazers like LJMU, Nottingham and H-BRS have only scratched the surface of what can be achieved so far. With the cost of systems falling, more universities will start investing in VR, and once the quantity of cheaper content is widely available (a central database seems to be the most obvious outcome here) then its widespread adoption in HE seems assured.

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