University of Johannesburg: UJ’s virtual and augmented reality hub to advance STEM education

UJ VARSTEME learning combines Virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence and augmented reality (AR) to create training programs for teacher and learner by adapting to their specific needs and offering a safe place to learn.

The Department of Science and Technology Education within the Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), launched a new virtual and augmented reality research and teaching hub on Wednesday, 04 August 2021 to accelerate innovation in the field and educate the next generation of researchers and practitioners.

The VARSTEME hub creates one of Africa’s primary academic centers dedicated to virtual and augmented reality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic (STEM) learning. The new center located at Auckland Park Kingsway — a campus hub of VAR activity — will support research and education initiatives with potential to deliver game-changing breakthroughs in the field.

“We have great expectations for the hub and believe that this can be a significant feature of the faculty and the University for research and teacher education,” says UJ’s Prof Umesh Ramnarain, HoD: Science and Technology Education. “In December 2020, UJ was invited to do a presentation on the activities of the VARSTEME hub at the 5th Europe-Asia Symposium on Simulation & Serious Games for Education. It was the first invited presentation from an African country.”

To date, AR and VR applications remain niche tools for scientific research. The goal of the VARSTEME hub is to equip pre-service and in-service teachers with knowledge and skills in the use of advanced learning technologies such as virtual and augmented reality (VAR) in STEM education. Associated to this goal, is the research agenda to pursue studies on the efficacy and pedagogy of VAR.

“UJ’s VARSTEME hub is well placed to assume a key leadership role in exploiting the affordances of virtual and augmented reality not only in South Africa but on the African continent as a whole,” says Prof Yiyu Cai, from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. Prof Cai is a worldwide leader in the field of virtual and augmented reality (VAR), and Program Director of The Strategic Research Program of Virtual Reality and Soft Computing, and Professor in Charge of The Computer-aided Engineering Labs at NTU.

“Through VARSTEME, international collaboration can be developed for next generation education research.”

The UJ VARSTEME hub will bring together an interdisciplinary team of UJ faculty, graduate students and postgraduates taking up studies in VAR. The recognition of technology-enabled learning (TEL) that has been forced due to the pandemic is opening doors to learning opportunities that are unprecedented in human history. The development of VAR technologies is a marker for the future of basic and higher education delivery in the country.

The UJ VARSTEME hub builds on the Virtual Campus tour in VR with AR campus maps. In one example, Virtual Graduation ceremony and links to online systems for graduates are available. These include digital certificates, electronic Academic records and the graduation selfie picture feature.

The UJ VARSTEME hub one of the country’s upcoming dynamic centers for VR and AR innovation, paves the way for unique industry and academic collaborations aimed at achieving new capabilities and offering users seamless experiences.

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