Over the last decade, higher education institutions have invested heavily in incorporating new technologies into classroom design, creating innovative learning spaces that provide both formal and informal learning opportunities.
More recently, the emergence of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) is taking this to the next level, with universities beginning to think about how virtual instructions can be combined with physical learning spaces to enhance student exploration, collaboration and discussion.
VR and AR activities can range from sitting in a swivel chair or standing at a table displaying holographic content to navigating a complex virtual space and interacting with digital objects. All of these activities require redesigning and rethinking learning spaces.
While Australian universities are still in the relatively early stages of incorporating VR and AR into learning space design, many have already been experimenting with how this new immersive technology can be harnessed to improve student learning outcomes and engagement.
The University of New South Wales is has been trialing the use of VR in its School of Mining Engineering for some time, with the aim to provide students with a personalised learning experience that goes beyond traditional education methods.
Developed in conjunction with industry partners for training purposes, UNSW’s VR Suite consists of floor-to-ceiling screens, the VR Simulator – also referred to as the Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment (AVIE) – and casts 360-degree 3D images against the dark surrounds with cinematic clarity.
“UNSW is constantly trying new things. Specifically in the Mining Engineering space, VR has been implemented as an application for learning. Because a lot of mines are in the middle of nowhere they are difficult for students to visit. VR is providing us with that spatial awareness and on-site experience in the confines of our classroom,” says Alexander Mayer, Student Ambassador at UNSW.
But despite its benefits, like any technology implementation project, rolling-out VR is not without challenges.
“The VR model developed at UNSW was the first in its field and there was no example we could use as a basis for the project. Most of the time it was trial and error, which was a challenge,” says Seher Ata, Associate Professor / Virtual Reality Program Developer at UNSW.
Ahead of the 7th Annual New Generation Learning Space Design Summit 2018 , Seher and Alex share insight into their experience of using VR in learning space design.
Below, Alex shares insight into how VR and the personalisation of spaces has transformed his educational career and Seher explores the steps her faculty has taken to integrate VR into learning space design to improve overall student engagement.
Rolling-out VR in a physical learning space
Seher: Over the past 15 years the UNSW School of Mining has been investigating and implementing new immersive technologies to improve the student learning experience. It began as a project only for graduates, but over the years it has expanded to encompass all students.
The School’s first VR Simulator consisted of a large computer screen, virtual-reality eyewear and a hand-held simulator to guide students through various safety scenarios in a mine environment. In 1999, a flat-screen ‘proof of concept’ was deployed and subsequent funding was provided by industry through the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP).This concept was further refined and successfully installed across the NSW Mines Rescue training facilities.
The VR Simulator, referred to as AVIE, was developed by Professor Jeffrey Shaw’s iCinema team at UNSW’s Interactive Cinema Research Centre. The School of Mining Engineering immediately saw the potential in AVIE, and deployed it for student use and industry training. Industry interest in AVIE soon led to the development of additional modules over the following years, simulating a range of different mining scenarios that could be safely explored within this controlled environment.
The benefit of VR for students
Seher: We actively use VR in our teaching in the School of Mining. Working with both AVIE and the iDome results in a high-impact, immersive learning experience for all who enter the VR Suite. But possibly most exciting for us is the potential for our students to go beyond the textbook and the lecture hall, to safely experience unforgettable lessons first hand – creating a memorable foundation for a rewarding career.
VR is providing our students with an imagination to go beyond what a traditional classroom provides. It is an exciting experience and we have seen the new technology really motivates students as well.
Alex: ViMINE is a tool for mining engineering students to experience various aspects of a mining operation working together, integrating several types of simulation into one environment.
It is an amazing tool and the Mining School has developed a number of different learning modules around it. For example, hazard awareness. Mines can be a dangerous place and research has shown that a lot of accidents in mines occur around inexperienced people.
Hazard awareness is quite easy to look at in a PowerPoint slide or on paper. But if you can actually walk around in VR and identity the hazards yourself without physically putting yourself in that hazardous situation, it is a massive bonus to use students. Eventually, we will be sent out into the field and will have to identify these hazards ourselves on the job.
Another example is we can use VR to do a pre-start check for a truck. Mining equipment is worth millions of dollars, so using VR we are able to walk around, check the truck, jump inside it and drive it around is very beneficial. We get to experience what it like to be there in person and what it feels like to drive a hundred ton truck.
It’s great for the students and also for the university because it promotes a unique learning experience. VR also communicates big data in a way that is easy to understand. In engineering, there is a lot of big data and sometimes it’s quite hard to process on a spreadsheet.
Through VR, students are able to get the spatial awareness and physically see what seismic activity is, how it affects a mine and also how to deal with it. There is big data visualisation and training that comes with that.
When it comes to VR, the limits are endless. If you can dream it you can make it. If you can’t dream it, you can’t make it. This is a great thing to say to mining students because VR is providing them with a way to apply their VR experiences to the learning process.
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