Selective focus of multiethnic students using vr headsets in university

Nottingham engineering students taught module wholly in VR

Image credit: Lightfieldstudiosprod/Dreamstime

The University of Nottingham is running the first virtual reality and simulation module in the UK, in which engineering students are taught entirely in VR.

Each week, around 50 students visit a virtual teaching island - called 'Nottopia' - for mini-lectures and seminars to learn about using VR in product and technology design. This teaching method shift is partly a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but primarily a way to offer students a more immersive and social learning experience. 

The 'Simulation, VR and Advanced Human-Machine Interface' course, which has run from September to December 2020, is open to final-year undergraduates in mechanical or aerospace engineering, as well as product design and manufacture, and to postgraduates in human factors and ergonomics.

Professor Gary Burnett said this method has been a “fascinating way” to use VR as an educational tool to foster student engagement and social interaction: “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”. 

Nottopia entrance with student avatars

Nottopia entrance with student avatars

Image credit: Nottopia

Compared to other modes of learning, VR allows participants to engage their senses, enabling users to become much more present and focused in a virtual world. Course leaders said that the classes also utilise social VR – where people meet online in avatar form – with students. Here, they can create their own avatars, as a digital identity, to navigate Nottopia and to communicate with each other. 

Professor Burnett said: “Some students choose to represent themselves realistically or idealised and stick to the same avatar week in and week out to ensure they are recognisable in the virtual world, while others temporarily transform into a cartoon or abstract version of themselves in a form of ‘identity tourism’.”

A student on the university’s MEng in Mechanical Engineering course, Rebekah Kay, is currently learning in Nottopia. She is also researching the student experience of the virtual learning island for her degree and described the module as “completely unique compared to any learning experience” she has previously had. 

“Joining in as an avatar gives you a veil of anonymity that has made everyone less awkward about speaking up and sharing views in class,” she said. “With its three-dimensional spaces, I also feel like I’m back in a classroom with my peers. In some ways, I feel more present than if I was physically there.”

Nottopia student avatars in a VR seminar

Nottopia avatar 'selfie'

Image credit: University of Nottingham

According to Burnett, Nottopia takes learning beyond mere simulations of reality; from ‘magical’ interactions where students can use artwork hung on walls as portals to ‘travel’ to other spaces or simply walk through walls to get about more quickly, to task-based experiences that allow students to examine complex 3D objects from all angles and to instantly scale them up and down.

By switching to ‘fly’ mode, students have, for example, been able to view a huge 3D model of a jet engine from the air and climb inside its mechanisms in a way that defies gravity and reality, they said. Another seminar, focused on advanced in-car interfaces, gave students the chance to study and solve design problems on a driverless ‘robotaxi’ that would not have been accessible to them in real-life.

Participating students have said Nottopia has helped with isolation from their peers in the real world due to Covid-19 and has provided much-needed bonding, for instance, without the stresses and barriers of social distancing and mask-wearing in real life. 

Nottopia avatar 'selfie'

Image credit: Nottopia

In addition to a live chat function for everyone to communicate with, avatars can also take selfies, which is a great way to feel part of the cohort, Professor Burnett explained. These images are posted on a ‘pinboard’ in its virtual common room feature.

While face-to-face teaching will likely remain an essential part of the curriculum for most, Professor Burnett said Nottopia proves that VR can replicate and elevate some aspects of the in-person classroom experience, particularly for engineering students who are increasingly likely to use VR in their future careers.

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