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Teachers use Virtual Reality technology to engage students during lockdown

Despite the challenges presented to us by the need to rapidly adapt our teaching to use video conferencing apps like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype - it has been noticeable that some students have taken to video lessons like ducks to water! This led UTC Reading’s Department of Engineering to think about the teaching mechanisms that could be harnessed in the coming years to benefit remote education (though we hope that lockdown won’t go on quite that long!)

Virtual Reality (VR) has long been touted, but little utilised, as a ‘game changing’ immersive educational experience. But, putting aside the potential to give students an immersive tour of a North Sea oil rig or nuclear power station, the potential is emerging for VR to be a “Zoom-on-steroids” solution for remote lessons. Students can sit in the same classroom and watch the same teacher discussing a topic, examine 3D models, watch supporting videos, write answers on the class white board - all in the comfort of their own (real) homes. This opens the opportunity for truly collaborative lessons where students can join from multiple schools and potentially from across the globe!

Dr.Martin, Thomas and Alan Isley, teacher and technician respectively in UTC Reading’s Department of Engineering, have both had previous experience of VR in education. During lockdown, they have harnessed students’ keenness to spend more time on their gaming equipment by assembling a ‘task force’ of seven students, from Year 10 to Year 13, who have home VR equipment. This task force is currently assessing the available free-to-use VR apps that have a facility to collaborate with other users and to share resources: Engage VR, Rumii, Altspace and Mozilla Hubs. Some of these are designed mainly for informal social interaction; some are specifically aimed at the educational and corporate communications market. There are also some pay-to-use collaboration apps currently in development such as MeetinVR and Glue that will be included in the investigation.

UTC Reading’s assessment is considering which VR apps are convenient from:

  • the teachers’ perspective: no need to ‘rejig’ already-prepared resources; ability to show presentations, videos and 3D models; access to a white board; ability to identify which student has a question; ability to mute/unmute and position students at will; ability to take a register of attendees
  • the students’ perspective: clarity of materials presented by the teacher (visual and audio); access to white board; ability to ask a question; lack of lagginess and motion sickness; ability to explore the location before/after the lesson

The photos below show the initial experiences of the focus group, with more trials yet to come. Potential has already been spotted to link across BTEC units. The 3D models shown on the floor in the second photo were produced by Year 12 students as part of BTEC Unit 10: CAD. These can now be examined and discussed at real scale!

Discussions have started between UTC Reading and VR equipment manufacturers, academic research groups and end users in industry to take forward the eventual findings from this study to embed VR into future engineering education.

UTC Reading teacher and students in Altspace
Engineering students with BTEC CAD models in Rumii        


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