This year The University of Nottingham is teaching an entire module for engineering students entirely in VR. Students taking part in the ‘Simulation, VR and Advanced Human-Machine Interface’ course are being taught entirely in a VR world.
Each week around 50 students and lecturers don their VR headsets and jet off to the appropriately named “Nottopia”, a virtual teaching island. They can attend lectures and seminars as their VR avatars. According to the university, the new approach was implemented only in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, instead it was to offer their students a more immersive and community driven learning experience that showed off the abilities and limitations of the VR workspace.
Professor Gary Burnett, the course convener, wrote:
“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. 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 class ran from September to December 2020. It was open to final-year undergraduates in mechanical or aerospace engineering and product design and manufacture and postgraduates in human factors and ergonomics. According to Rebekah Kay, a student studying for an MEng in Mechanical Engineering:
“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. 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.”
When universities fully return to face-to-face teaching this course will still be running, it has given lecturers and students alike a fantastic feel for the power and influence VR can have in the education and enterprise sectors. Even if students don’t have a VR headset, they can still access “Nottopia” via their desktop.