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Coventry University adopts experimental approach to immersive teaching and learning

A Coventry University student wearing a HoloLens headset

Although inherently a little risky, the results of Coventry University’s approach to AR and VR are there to see

Quick read

➨ As a modern, forward-thinking higher education institution with a strong focus on research, Coventry University is a keen adopter of immersive technology for teaching and learning
➨ Dr Bianca Wright and Dr Shaun Hides outline how and why the university is encouraging the use of AR and VR in a range of subjects
➨ Coventry University is in the process of building two immersive studios to support use of immersive technologies

The story

There is an increasing acceptance that immersive technologies, most notably augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), are capable of great things, from onboarding new employees in a remote work world to providing the next great gaming experience.

But their potential is far from explored—let alone fulfilled—and it is imperative that creators, developers and, crucially, users continue to push them to their limits. One organisation falling into the latter category is Coventry University in the UK.

As a modern, forward-thinking higher education institution with a strong focus on research, Coventry University is a keen adopter of immersive technology for teaching and learning.

The university has gone as far as to appoint Dr Bianca Wright to the role of curriculum lead: immersive in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities to explore how AR and VR, among other immersive technologies, can be used by faculty and students in a variety of disciplines to aid higher education, industry engagement, and research.

Dr Wright is a leading proponent of AR and VR within the university, having run the undergraduate digital media course within the School of Media and Performing Arts.

Primarily aimed at students who want to use technology to create, this course serves as an excellent example of how the university is approaching immersive teaching and learning.

Dr Bianca Wright, Coventry University

Undergraduate digital media students are encouraged to experiment as they learn. Once they are introduced to AR, VR and other digital technologies, they are taught how and why they are being applied, and given the opportunity to put their technical and creative skills to work in a final project that “brings together the different learnings they have done across their modules and to experiment in different ways”.

And experiment they do, often in unexpected ways. As Dr Wright points out, the majority of students on the course with experience of or a familiarity with immersive technologies tend to be gamers who have tried VR.

Almost everyone knows of AR through social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, or games again with the rise in popularity of Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

Yet, digital media students opting to use AR and VR in their final projects tend to go different directions.

They have used AR and 3D models to bring 2D anatomical images to life to aid those studying medicine, developed an AR app capable of reading audio descriptions of ingredients to assist those with disabilities while shopping, and deployed VR to reduce anxiety.

This is what Dr Wright as immersive curriculum lead and the faculty want to establish going forwards, an environment where students and faculty can continue to explore these technologies as means to express creativity, whatever the results.

A logical next step for the university and undergraduate students who excel in AR and VR is further study in the form of a master’s degree, which is currently in the works at Coventry University for launch in January 2022.

But at the same time, they are considering what humanities students, for example, can do with immersive technologies. Dr Wright explains: “Digital media is focused on making experiences, but humanities students are not necessarily going to want to make their own. They might want a tool for language learning or an immersive scenario around sociology and criminology with different options.”

Coventry University wants to broaden the use of immersive technologies beyond the obvious courses such as digital media and into other disciplines, including humanities.

“Digital media students can expect to use and develop for AR and VR in the course of their studies, but that is not necessarily true for literature or fashion students,” Dr Wright says, “so we are aiming to get to a point where we can think about the best use of these technologies to complement what already exists.”

“In terms of teaching and learning, the learning journey is most important for us. It is not just about throwing technology at the issue, it is about how this technology enhances learning in that discipline.”

A Coventry University student wearing a HoloLens headset

‘As a university, it is our aspiration to be at the bleeding edge’

Dr Shaun Hides, executive dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, says the plan is to take what we have learned from the successes of courses like digital media and share them across the institution.

Work is already underway, with the faculty getting a new building in time for the new academic year in 2022. This will feature two immersive studios capable of hosting 20 to 30 people.

They will be fitted out with the latest in a range of VR, mixed reality and other technologies, including motion capture, as well as advanced audio and sensor equipment. Underpinning these will be the infrastructure needed to ensure high productivity and maximum output.

The aim is to provide state-of-the-art studios at the heart of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities where the university’s staff and students can, essentially, experiment, play and see what happens. Dr Hides says: “As a university, it is our aspiration to be at the bleeding edge, so we are trying to find out what is possible with this.”

Coventry University has had other successes with this experimental approach, such as the Telepresence in Theatre project, which saw the institution partner with Tampere University in Finland to carry out simultaneous performance activities using giant screens and video conferencing technology, backed by significant processing power.

Dr Shaun Hides, Coventry University

Dr Hides says: “Telepresence in Theatre was great in itself, but when we show what a success that was to other people, they get excited. Not because they want to replicate it, but because they want to do other things. Because we played with the technology and used it in ways that weren’t intended, they can see new capabilities and possibilities that they hadn’t thought of.”

And so it will go for the new immersive studios. Dr Hides says: “That experimental approach is going to be fundamental to what we do with these technologies.” 

Best of all, it is unclear what kinds of projects will emerge. One idea is to focus on sustainable development goals, with students in courses such as product design, transport design, history, creative writing, and media production, for example, working collaboratively to address specific issues. Or the university could follow the path set by the digital media course and focus on specific real-world issues, such as anxiety or supporting those with disabilities, with students and staff working to set methodologies.

Dr Hides adds: “A traditional pedagogy based on a set curriculum and testing students’ knowledge of it is not our approach. We engage in much learning through creative practice and experiment, often based on specific projects, enabled, of course, by immersive technologies.”

This spirit and its potential for success is best epitomised by the institution itself. Coventry University was, like all educational institutions, hit hard by the pandemic. As the university supported current students with tools and equipment to support their remote learning, it also took its degree show, celebrating the work of its graduates, online last year.

The in-person event usually attracts about 2,500 people over the weekend it is launched, but the digital version in 2020 achieved 10,000+ website hits. For the faculty that scale of reach meant there was no going back.

The 2021 Degree Show was primarily a digital affair held alongside a series of focused in-person events. It featured an online exhibition of work by arts and humanities graduates, and Coventry University even developed an AR app for prospective students to view the work in their own real-life spaces.

These showcases (a postgraduate one is currently underway) epitomise the progress being made at Coventry University to move forward at the pace of technological change, ensuring that no-one is left behind. Although the focus with immersive technology is on experimentation and this can be inherently a little risky, nevertheless, the results of this approach are there to see.

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Images: Coventry University