VR and AR in Higher Education Conference – Swansea 2018

Our second blog post comes directly from UK, Swansea. Why? Me, Marco Arena, Founder of Beyond the Gate and our VR Education Specialist Elena Pessina are travelling to the first academic conference about VR and Higher Education to meet the few experts in this field that gather in Galles for the first time.
Swansea is an interesting city and the conference is held in the brand new campus that has been built directly on the shore with the support of the European Development Funds (Is Galles sure to follow UK in Brexit?)

Marco and Elena in Swansea

I have to be honest, I expected more participants from different countries and backgrounds, as there are mostly academics from UK. Me and Elena are the only people from the private sector that are attending the conference. Nevertheless the presentations were all very high quality and we were extremely satisfied with the event overall. For those who could not come to the conference, they could attend on SANSAR, which is according to their website, “The world’s leading social virtual reality platform”. Cool idea, not sure whether many attended the conference through it.
Highlights of the conference:

The opening keynote by Prof. Danaë Stanton Fraser, one of the world-leading expert on the topic, was great, touching on some of the key benefits of VR in education:

  1. Helping students developing cognitive maps and spatial skills
  2. Developing empathy and social skills (key 21st century skills)
  3. There is evidence that VR increases knowledge retention

While these are amazing findings, Dr. Fraser made a very good point: there are still barriers that prevent VR to become massively adopted in learning. First VR content is not well integrated in schools’ curricula, the technology is still relatively complex and the teachers don’t know how to use it. Honestly, this was music for my ears, as Beyond The Gate was founded exactly to support teachers to use this powerful technology and, at the same time, provide them with content that is relevant for their pupils (ads finished). Moreover she highlighted how active VR (I.e. Beyond The Gate, etc) is much more effective than passive one (i.e. Google Expeditions).

Swansea from the airplane

Swansea from above

VR for MEMORY and SPATIAL SKILLS – Laura Mason & Marc Holmes

VR has a strong potential also in enhancing memory and spatial skills. Medicine students always spend plenty of time studying the complex anatomy of human body, with a strong memory effort. VR could help them in the process of learning retention, making the study funnier, easier and more effective. Dr. Marc Holmes and Dr. Laura Mason, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Swansea University, presented this innovative approach to teaching and learning anatomy. Using a VR app to learn about the skeletal system, students were more engaged and they got higher exam performance compared to the exames they took after studying with the traditional method. We tested the VR experience and it was really interesting! You see all the different bones floating in front of you and you have to recognize their name, choosing from multiple options, and place them in the right position, building bone after bone the human skeleton. Really fun and useful! You can download it freely from github.

VR for SOCIAL SKILLS – M. Gillies, I. Ctori, H. Dawson

A picture from ‘Outside the Cave’

Anxious for a first date or worried about speaking in public? Sometimes it’s not easy to interact with people around us or manage complex situations, but virtual reality could help people training social skills in protected environments. A very interesting session about that was Virtual Reality for Learning Social Skills led by Dr. Marco Gillies, researcher in Virtual Reality and Virtual Humans, with a focus on social interaction. Dr. Gillies talked about some experiments made to test people’s communication skills, speaking to different kinds of virtual audiences with several attitudes (from involved to absent-minded to noisy).

Through these programs was tested how VR could help understanding and taking control of the body language and, of course how it could foster the development of different types of social skills. In professional training for example, medicine students could meet patients’ relatives and talk to them, trying to solve problematic situations or replying to their questions. Moreover this experience enhance students’ empathy through a deep immersion in a real situation.

And what about problems affecting people from the other side of the world? A really interesting talk from Mr Henry Dawson, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, Housing and Risk at the Cardiff Metropolitan University. Students from Cardiff and Lebanon experienced a virtual exchange, using video conferences to investigate the public health issues around the Syrian refugee crisis in the Middle East. Bringing interview forms designed by the Cardiff students, the Lebanese students went to a refugee camp near Beirut listening to people’s stories and gathering informations and VR footage to share with their colleagues. In this way, Welsh students experimented in a deeper way the refugees conditions even if miles apart the project raised awareness also in other people and funders. Amazing! Hope there will be other projects like this!

VR in DESIGN and Engineering – P. Xavier, W. Harrison & P. Dorrington

Another higher education problem that can be addressed by VR is a divide between theory and practice for students, as Dr. Patricia Xavier, highlighted. In her presentation, entitled VR in Construction, she described how she tackled this problem using VR for her Civil Engineering course. Due to the high number of students attending it, it was really hard to allow them to have a first hand site experience. With a 10 US$ cardboard and a smartphone, she took her students to a real building site where they could familiarize with the space and the site machineries like cranes, scaffoldings and others. Thit is definitely a good and cost-effective introduction to VR for her students, but Google Cardboards and similar technologies lack one of the most important feature of VR in education: interactivity.

Dr. Will Harrison and Dr. Peter Dorrington decided to go for a more advanced approach with their students using a different HMDs (HTC Vive) which allow for users interaction. In their project they proposed to second year mechanical engineering students to complement the use of CAD with a VR sketching tool developed by them. Some of the lessons learnt from this experiment were interesting: VR helped students to have a better feel of user interaction at early stages of prototyping allowing them to evaluate earlier their design choices.

BARRIERS in VR Education – L. Evans.

The second wave of VR has been around for already 2.5 years if we consider that the consumer edition of the Oculus Rift was launched in March 2016. Most of the educational content so far have been short thematic experiences or experiments developed by practitioners or professors like the ones presented earlier. Even though consumers like the technology and there is growing evidence that VR can benefit education, the adoption rate in schools and universities is still pretty low. In his presentation Dr. Evans summarized really effectively the barriers of VR in education from a chapter from his upcoming book The Re-Emergence of Virtual Reality in his presentation. The barriers he identifies are: cost of VR, its materiality, the interfaces, and the lack of language and discourse for VR.

Well, we all know about the cost of VR that do not only includes the HMDs, but also the cost of the computer which need to have strong performances and high-end graphic cards. The materiality is a pretty interesting concept also: we tend to think about VR as a totally virtual experience, but the truth is that it has a lot of material limits: think about the wires, the limits of the room, the issues with embodiment (your avatar). If one of such features should not prevent to buy a VR headset, think about all of them together. Also the interfaces and the language of VR are a limit to consumers and educators’ adoption. Most of the VR discourse so far have been shaped by game developers who have been the first working on the technology. VR, however, goes beyond that and their approach to experience design might not fit well to the other domains where VR is applied such as education.

My final thoughts – Is stand alone the future?

The potential of VR in education is immense and I am pretty confident that in a couple of years VR will be just another tool available for educators and parents. The most immediate benefit I see is definitely helping students to develop spatial awareness of places and situations that cannot be visited otherwise. As spatial skills at young age are positively correlated to STEM academic performances (Wai et al. 2009) VR could play a central role in boosting kids learning. Creativity is definitely another area of great potential: being able to fast prototype and see from within how your design looks will help students to have more hands-on design experience. The expectations about VR in social skills, however, seem a bit inflated as there is much to do to take avatars, AI and chat boxes to good quality standards necessary to allow for meaningful human-computer interactions.

The barriers we talked about earlier are preventing people to buy headsets and content developers to invest in quality experiences. There is a good news though for VR in education: this vicious circle could be stopped by new headsets coming out that solve some of the problems previously listed: stand alone headsets such as Vive Focus, Oculus Quest and Google Daydream with 6DoF joysticks. In a future post we will describe what such HMDs mean for education.


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