University of Nottingham students take course entirely in virtual reality 1

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Immersive technology proved invaluable to the learning experiences of students at the University of Nottingham, who are among the first to take a course entirely in virtual reality

Quick read

➨ Final-year undergraduate students took the Simulation, VR and Advanced Human-Machine Interface course late last year in a Mozilla Hubs virtual island called Nottopia
➨ One seminar saw students view a huge 3D model of a jet engine from the air
➨ Key findings a student survey reveal an overwhelmingly positive response to the experience

The story

Engineering students at the University of Nottingham in the UK are among the first to be taught entirely in virtual reality.

Billed as a response to the pandemic but also as a means to offer students a more social and immersive learning experience, final-year undergraduate students on several engineering degrees took the Simulation, VR and Advanced Human-Machine Interface course late last year in a Mozilla Hubs virtual island called Nottopia.

Up to 50 students per week were able to wear a virtual reality headset or use their computer to access Nottopia—a fully customisable virtual environment with live chat, personalised avatars, and selfies and a ‘pin board’ where they can be posted—and traverse the island.

Students used artwork hung on walls as portals to ‘travel’ to other spaces or walked through walls to get about more quickly to task-based experiences that allowed them to examine and scale complex, 3D objects.

One seminar saw students view a huge 3D model of a jet engine from the air. They were able to climb inside to find out how it works, which isn’t possible in the real world. 

Another seminar focused on advanced in-car interfaces, giving students the chance to study and solve design problems on a driverless ‘robotaxi’ that wouldn’t have been accessible to them in real-life.

Topics covered in the course include fidelity and validity of simulators, virtual reality technologies, space perception, immersion and presence, natural language interfaces, and sickness.

‘VR will increasingly become part of their working lives’

As an immersive learning experience, virtual reality was invaluable to the students’ education, according to course organiser Professor Gary Burnett, from the Human Factors Research Group at the University of Nottingham.

He says: “VR has many different applications and engineering students need to know the pros and cons of the technology; how it can influence product design and technological innovation and what might affect people’s ability to use VR at work.”

“We get them thinking about the major human factors issues they would need to address in the design process and critique the results of using simulation. As the decision makers of the future, VR will increasingly become part of their working lives.”

Virtual reality also proved to be an important tool for socialising at a time of social distancing and remote learning.

Rebekah Kay, who is studying mechanical engineering and is currently learning in Nottopia, says: “It’s so important to learn how to communicate online; our life is increasingly digital and we don’t know how long the effects of the pandemic are going to affect in-person teaching. This course has given me unparalleled opportunities to understand VR and simulation from all angles and get ahead of the curve.”

Another student, Adil Asmal, says: “I’ve really enjoyed interacting with my classmates and professor in the virtual world. Being able to pick and customise an avatar to ‘wear’ in Nottopia helps you to express yourself and feel more confident. It’s a much more fun and immersive way to consolidate what you are learning and I’ve been much more engaged in the discussions as a result.”

‘100% viewed their experience in Nottopia as positive or somewhat positive’

Burnett recorded the virtual reality sessions to analyse human factor considerations. He will use feedback from a participant survey to refine and develop the virtual learning experience for next year’s intake.

Key findings from the survey reveal an overwhelmingly positive response to the experience. They include:

‣ 100% viewed their experience in Nottopia as positive or somewhat positive

‣ In comparison to a traditional classroom setting, 85% felt their motivation to participate in classroom activities increased/somewhat increased

‣ 100% agreed/somewhat agreed with the statement, “Nottopia allowed for social interaction”

‣ 93% agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “Nottopia represents the future of how universities could teach students”

‣ 96% agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “In Nottopia, I felt comfortable communicating with other students”

‣ 89% agreed/somewhat agreed with the statement, “in Nottopia I felt comfortable interacting with lecturers”

‣ 85% agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “In Nottopia, I felt comfortable expressing myself”

‣ 74% agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “Nottopia helped relieve social isolation caused by the pandemic”

Teaching a course about virtual reality in virtual reality sounds obvious, but it’s important to investigate the experience and find out whether students really benefit.

Burnett’s comments about virtual reality sickness, which the course covered, and the importance of providing non-virtual reality access via desktop or laptop computer for users that experience a sensory conflict when wearing a headset, are a case in point.

He says: “Headsets have definitely become more affordable and user-friendly and our long-term strategy is to invest in these for the future to give students opportunities to use them for certain sessions in particular rooms.”

“However, as there will always be a few students who really don’t get on with wearing the tech and it can be difficult to type while wearing a head-mounted display. For us, desktop VR with all the same functionality is most accessible as a learning tool.”

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Images: University of Nottingham

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