Virtual and Augmented Reality in Education Conference

Today I was attending the Virtual and Augmented Reality in Education Conference at the University of Swansea/Prifysgol Abertawe in Wales. It was an exciting opportunity to hear about how people are using immersive technologies in their teaching (the focus was on University level education). Swansea seems to be a real centre with the School of Engineering using VR consistently across the curriculum where other universities are just doing pilot projects.

EDIT: the videos are now online (including some I couldn’t attend and therefore write about because they were in a different track). Full set is below, and individual talk videos are added in my write up.

Danaë Stanton Fraser

The opening keynote was by Danaë Stanton Fraser, who has been working in VR and related domains since the 90s. She is currently at the unviersity of Bath, though most of the work she described was done while she was at the legendary Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham.

She is a psychologist who studies people’s responses to virtual reality, for example, she has done a lot of work on how kids learn to build cognitive maps (representation in their brains) of 3D environments. She has shown that people can be very good at learning places in VR and that this learning transfers to real places, which is very important in education. Not only that learning places in VR can make us better at learning new places in the real world.

She has also done an lot of other interesting projects, for example a VR “story tent” that shows visitors what Nottingham castle would have been like in the middle ages…

Or savannah, a project which mapped the behaviour of a pride of lions on the African Savannah to a school playground, so school children could follow the lions using mobile devices.

Using VR headsets to develop empathy and understanding of mental health experiences

Lorna Saunder at City, University of London. Was using immersive 360 video to help the mental health nurses that she teaches develop empathy with their patients.

The experience aimed to tecreating the experience of mental health, by viewing social situations through the lens of mental health disturbance: how it interferes with communication. It was a 360 video of a party, but overlayed with different effects depending on the mental health problem being modelled. The app simulated Mania, Psychosis, Anxiety and Depression.

The images were overlayed with text that represented the kinds of intrusive thoughts that patients with these conditions often suffer, as well as voices to show the experience of Psychotic patients who hear voices. The fonts and movements of the text were designed to represent the emotions that accompany the conditions.

The experience had a strong impact on students and developed empathy, and changed their thinking, making them realise how difficult it must be to live with certain conditions. This is a very important realisation for nurses who will be working with mental health patients throughout their career.

To infinity and beyond: Using VR and Critical reflection to teach leadership

Catherine Groves and James Holness at Swansea described a project about using VR to teach leadership skills. This was part of a masters programme in Sustainable engineering management for sustainable development, where students spend a lot of time in the field in Sub-saharan Africa. They need strong cooperation and leadership skills during their field work.

They have often done leadership training like mountain biking and archery days but this if often not accessible to people with disabilities. VR can be more accessible, but still authentic.

They used a pre-existing VR game, the Star Trek Bridge Game. This is played as a group of 4 with each person having a separate role. It allows realistic group interactions because each individual has specific data streams, no one has the complete picture. It requires complex collaborative problem solving. The “Kobayashi Maru” scenario, which has no good solution, in particular can be very challenging creating palpable stress levels.

They could use a pre-existing scenario, because the focus of learning was not on what the students were doing, but how they interact (though they did caution that you need to be careful of cultural references, since one student from Africa had never heard of Star Trek or even Science Fiction, making the game very difficult to understand).

The key learning did not actually come in the game itself, but in how the students reflected on the experience. They used a process called Action Learning, in which acting and doing (playing the game) is followed by Critical Reflection, in which students are encouraged to think about their experience and how they acted in terms of things like power dynamics, social relations and assumptions they take for granted (many assumed the point was to win the game, but actually the most important thing was how they interacted).

This is an important lesson for VR education, it is really important to remember to include time to reflect on the experiences, which can create as much learning the experience itself (in VR you can record and then replay the entire scenario, which might help reflection).

Can virtual reality clinical scenarios improve medical students’ clinical learning?

Mohammed Nasif Mahmood at the University of Leicester used VR to help prepare students for one of the most stressful parts of medical education. As they start their 3rd year (in the UK at least) medical students start to take part in ward rounds in hospitals, visiting all patients on a ward as part of a team led by a senior consultant. They have to take part in the care of the patients and answer questions. This is their first time working with real patients and can be very daunting.

Mohammed and team created a 360 video of of a ward round that students could use to experience what it is like before doing a real ward round.

He did a small scale study comparing the 360 video with reading power points about ward rounds. Interestingly students with the power points did better than the VR students at the documentation: the book work part of the job, but the VR students’ confidence increased a lot.

This shows that VR isn’t best at everything, things that you can learn from reading, are often better learned from reading, but VR can teach things that you can’t learn from a book, like the confidence to step into a real hospital ward.

Teaching anatomy through VR

Laura Mason and Marc Holmes from Swansea also talked about medical education but of a very different sort: learning anatomy.

Anatomy is a difficult class that involves learning the intricate details of the human body, for example all the bones in the body and how they fit together. The students involved in this study were studying medical engineering. They often find anatomy even harder because they typically haven’t studied as much biology as medical students.

Laura and Marc’s solution was to develop a VR app in which students have to assemble the bones of a skeleton in 3D. While many of the other examples I’ve described use the ability of VR to recreate a real life experience, this example is much more about how you can interact with 3D objects in VR.

Using the app boosted students scores. This might have been because it helped them realise how much they didn’t know. They had done quizzes (and presumably not done well), but it wasn’t brought home to them until they had an actual 3D skeleton to put together.

Another key result: students wanted more. They saw the value of this sort of learning and would have like more of it in other areas of the curriculum.

Providing Transformative ‘Exceptional Human Experiences’ in undergraduate Psychology teaching

Ciarán O’Keeffe studies and teaches Parapsychology: scientific study of the paranormal. That doesn’t mean he is a believer try to prove the paranormal exists, or a skeptic trying to provide “rational explanations”. He is simply trying to understand what people actually experience when they say they see ghosts, have mystical experience or experience telepathy.

He and colleagues developed a course about “Exceptional Human Experiences”, experiences that go outside the bounds of normal human experiences, for example divine encounters, psychedelic, lucid dreams, near death experiences or out of Body Experiences.

He saw VR as an opportunity to give students a sense of what these experience might be like. He was particularly inspired by, a less mystical Exceptional Human Experience: the Overview effect often experienced by astronauts. This is the life changing experience of viewing the earth from space, that many astronauts say has fundamentally changed how they think. (Interestingly Jeremy Bailenson also mentions this in his book on VR Experience of Demand).

In the class Ciarán gave students the choice of experiencing a form of Exceptional Human Experience via VR. Some chose being on top of Everest, others did spacewalk (or Google Earth to have an overview effect and an out of body experience), or swam with dolphins.

Interestingly some students found that simply being in the VIVE home environment was a powerful experience: a kind of out of body experience of being transported to a different, calming environment.

He concluded that VR itself is enough of a step outside of our daily lives to count as some sort of exceptional experience (though I doubt that will be true in future if we are using VR all the time).

Virtual student exchange and the use of VR in Syrian refugee camps

One of the most ambitious projects was a “Virtual Student Exchange” organised by Henry Dawson at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

He teaches public health and wanted to engage his students with more international examples. He has collaborators in Lebanon and was interested in public health issues suffered by Syrian refugees. But the parts of Lebanon containing the camps were considered too dangerous, it would have been impossible to get insurance to take students there, even though Lebanese Universities had no problems sending their own students.

The solution was to do a virtual exchange between students in Wales and Lebanon. They would work in groups to do a project on the refugee camps. Only the Lebanese students could actually visit the camps, but both students could designs the interview questions that they would ask and analyse the data.

The collaboration itself was not based on VR, it mostly happened via Skype and WhatsApp. These allowed the groups to work together, but also socialise, introducing their family to their colleagues in another country and taking them on video tours of their home towns.

But the Lebanese students took 360 video in the camps, allowing students in Cardiff to have a much stronger experience of what life is like there.

The students made some interesting observations. 360 video allows you to see the interviewers response to answers, and other aspects of scene as well as the interviewing. For example you can see and interviewee pointing and look at where they are pointing. VR allows viewers to feel the reality of the refugees and learn from direct experience of the subject matter.

360 video was seen as much more honest, “with 2D the camera controls what you see, while with 360, you control what you see.”

During questions we discussed how the next project should be allow Lebanese students to experience public health issues in the UK, otherwise the interaction still remains unequal, with western students studying “difficult” conditions in other countries but no communication in the other direction.

Can VR improve auditing students learning experience and aid their professional training?

Before today I might have stereotyped accounting as a pretty technical field concerned mostly with spreadsheets, but Terry Filer, also from Swansea, talked about how important real world experience is.

She was teaching Audit, which is when accountants check the accounts of a company are fair and correct. They have to, of course, check the accounts themselves, but they also have to check the real world company to make sure the accounts correspond to reality.

For example, they often have to check the inventory of shops: what goods they have in stock and what they are worth.

Terry visited Hancock and Brown a local builders’ merchant and took 360 video of their shelves. Students had to use this to virtual “walk the shelves” checking what products there were and whether they corresponded to the accounts.

After that they had to interview the “managing director” of the company (played by Terry).

There were a few pit falls. For example, the padlocks were missing their keys. What is the value of a lock with no key? This gave them the opportunity to tackle difficult. problems in a real world situation.

Again, students wanted more, particularly in hard subjects like financial accounting.

What can we learn in VR?

One of the interesting things about the conference was seeing the range of uses that VR was put to in education. This can help us think about what VR is good for in education. This is important, as VR is not (currently) good at everything, the ward round students did better on the book work when the learned from powerpoint.

Here are a few general points:

Practicing real world experiences (for example ward rounds or auditing). Students can get access to practice real world activities that they would not easily have access or which are stressful so they benefit from practice before doing the real thing.

3D interaction and learning, for example learning anatomy which is about things fitting together in 3D (very hard to learn from 2D images)

Understanding the experience of others, for example, experiencing mental health problems or life in a refugee camp.

Having impossible experiences, like the exceptional human experiences

“Safely” experiencing interactions, like the management Star Trek game, where students could experience group dynamics in an environment that otherwise doesn’t matter.

Reflecting on experiences, again, the Star Trek game allowed students to reflect on their experiences once they left VR, which is important almost all of VR education.

To wrap up, everything that I saw today points to an exciting future for VR education, and I, for one, am really looking forward to being part of it.



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Marco Gillies

Marco Gillies

Virtual Reality and AI researcher and educator at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-developer of the VR and ML for ALL MOOCs on Coursera.