Engineering students at Nottingham University are being taught in an immersive VR module that could pave the way for lectures of the future.
Nottopia is a virtual teaching island that plays host to 50 students each week. As well as acting as a virtual lecture theatre, Nottopia is a platform for exploring the foundations and possibilities of virtual reality, allowing students to interact with lecturers and other users. While headsets can be used for a fully immersive experience, Nottopia can also be accessed via desktop PCs.
Topics covered in the Nottingham course include fidelity and validity of simulators, VR technologies, multi-modal VR, space perception, immersion and presence, natural language interfaces and VR sickness. According to course convenor, Professor Gary Burnett, the module has been an excellent 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,” he said.
“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.”
The classes also utilise social VR – where people meet online in avatar form – with students creating their own avatar for a digital identity to navigate Nottopia and to communicate with each other.
“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’” said Professor Burnett.
Rebekah Kay, 22, on the MEng in Mechanical Engineering course in Nottingham, is currently learning in Nottopia. She is also researching the student experience of the virtual learning island for her degree.
“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,” said Rebekah. “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.
“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.”