Next frontier in engineering learning – UK’s first university module taught wholly in VR

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

Each week, 50 students visit a virtual teaching island, called Nottopia, for mini lectures and seminars to learn about using VR in product and technology design.

The teaching shift is partly a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but primarily a way to offer students a more immersive and social learning experience. Students see it as an obvious way to learn about simulation and VR from within VR and much prefer the format to the conventional face-to-face lectures of years past.

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 and product design and manufacture and postgraduates in human factors and ergonomics.

For course convenor, Professor Gary Burnett this has been a fascinating way to use VR as an educational tool to foster student engagement and social interaction.

Compared to other modes of learning, VR has a unique ability to engage the senses, enabling users to become much more present and focused in a virtual world. 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.

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”.”

Rebekah Kay, 22, on the MEng in Mechanical Engineering course, is currently learning in Nottopia. She is also researching the student experience of the virtual learning island for her degree. She described the module as “completely unique compared to any learning experience” she has had.

Nottopia takes learning way 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. While another seminar, focused on advanced in-car interfaces, gave students the chance to study and solve design problems on a driverless ‘robotaxi’ that wouldn’t have been accessible to them in real-life.

While Nottopia may currently have the novelty factor compared to an online meeting platform such as Microsoft Teams or face-to-face lessons, it is also proving to be an interactive and social, learning environment with genuine wellbeing benefits for students.

The virtual world can suspend reality, offering an idealised, otherworldly environment where students can feel safe and calm. During the semester, Nottopia’s backdrop has morphed into a space with glorious sunsets, starry skies and even a picturesque Mediterranean island. Nottopia has also been themed to mark Halloween; with pumpkins, spiders and bats; Bonfire Night with a fireworks show and now Christmas, with festive decorations and music.

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

Adil Asmal, 23, an MSc in Human Factors and Ergonomics student on the new-look module, said: “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.”

In addition to a live chat function for everyone to communicate with, avatars can take selfies, which is a great way, Professor Burnett explains, to feel part of the cohort. These images are posted on a ‘pin board’ in the virtual common room – a fun, relaxed, student-owned space.

Students have also personalised other spaces in the island to make it feel like their own; designing and adding things like fish in the floor-to-ceiling aquarium or Canada geese in another room to reflect the real-world University of Nottingham campus.

Topics covered in the course, include fidelity and validity of simulators, VR technologies, multi-modal VR, space perception, immersion and presence, natural language interfaces and VR sickness.

Sickness is a key reason that Nottopia is operated as a desktop PC virtual reality space. Headsets can and have been used by students, but aren’t necessary. Professor Burnett explains that while headsets are more immersive for the senses – that has pros and cons.

“There can be sensory conflict for some users. While your eyes are telling you you’re moving, your body knows it’s not so your brain gets confused; that can make you dizzy or even sick. 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.”

While face to face teaching will likely remain an essential part of the curriculum for most, 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.

Professor Burnett has recorded the sessions on video to analyse the findings from a human factors research point of view. Additionally he will use feedback from a participant survey to refine and develop the virtual learning experience for next year’s intake. Click here to view a past lecture held in Nottopia.

Key findings from the survey:

  • 100 percent viewed their experience in Nottopia as positive or somewhat positive
  • In comparison to a traditional classroom setting, 85 per cent felt their motivation to participate in classroom activities increased/somewhat increased
  • 100 per cent agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “Nottopia allowed for social interaction”
  • 93 per cent agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “Nottopia represents the future of how universities could teach students”
  • 96 per cent agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “In Nottopia, I felt comfortable communicating with other students”
  • 89 per cent agreed/somewhat agreed with the statement, “in Nottopia I felt comfortable interacting with lecturers”
  • 85 per cent agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “In Nottopia, I felt comfortable expressing myself”
  • 74 per cent agreed/somewhat agreed with statement, “Nottopia helped relieve social isolation caused by the pandemic”

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