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Potential of VR for UK Higher Education

This workshop was held at the Cosener's House, Abingdon on 20-21 December 1995 and was attended by 38 people.

In opening the event, Dr Anne Mumford put the workshop within the context of the emerging strategy of the Higher Education Funding Councils(HEFCs) Joint Information Systems Committee(JISC).

The question we must address is whether the use of virtual environments can be cost effective in some areas of higher education. An issues document produced by JISC has generated debate in the community and will result in a strategy during 1996. The issues which are being discussed and which are relevant in this context include the issues surrounding distance learning, modular courses, flexible learning, the potential of virtual laboratories for hazardous and/or expensive experiments (or indeed currently impossible ones). All these are relevant in the context of the workshop.

Prof Roy Kalawsky from Loughborough University made the keynote address to start the workshop and to focus attention on issues before the group.

He noted that the future could see educational services available on demand in a world where remote learning, continuing education, regular retraining of the workforce became the norm. VR could have considerable potential in that it allows high levels of interactivity, sense of immersion and inherent flexibility/adaptability. It is important however that VR systems are seen as more than just a visualization system. The underlying models are crucial. We all learn faster if we can "do" something rather than read about it and, if we can, learn from mistakes (which need to be allowed). Learning can be more efficient as a result of an enhanced sense of presence. We can have access to otherwise expensive or prohibitive

There are many issues to be resolved including: quality of teaching - will it be better and how do we measure this, copyright/IPR issues, protection over the network, delivering the VR based educational programme.

The work following the opening plenary session was largely done in group discussions where the participants discussed one of the following: technology, applications, educational aspects and software. The following recommendations emerged from the groups To achieve this we could do the following: produce case studies, provide application-oriented examples, review industrial applications, review international work, review related technologies (eg games). We also need guidelines on good practice, incorporating VR into applications and ethical issues. This needs to include authoring tools and database related systems. This could then lead to CHEST agreements for software and associated training materials and support. It was suggested that some useful agreements could be reached today prior to a formal evaluation to ensure the community obtains the best possible prices. This would include usability issues and the integration of models and VR. Much of the work which is required is multi-disciplinary in nature which can lead to difficulties in obtaining funding. The setting up of a community club would be of considerable value. These include both the use of virtual environments and the discussion of virtual environments within the curriculum. There is a need to share experience. The workshop endorsed the idea of a focus club for the area which has emerged from the JISC Technology Applications Programme (JTAP). It
was hoped that this could involve projects other than those directly funded through JTAP and that it might be used for dissemination purposes. It was hoped that the JTAP programme would include some application demonstrators. The UK HE community should encourage the development and promotion of standards, those mentioned were VRML and PREMO. We need to encourage interchange of and access to models. These may be free or involve charges. A review of commercially available models would be useful. The UK VR SIG has links to repositories, pointers to
conversion tools and syntax checkers. We need to ensure information about these is known in HE. We need to ensure that links are developed with relevant eLib (Electronic Libraries Programme) and TLTP (Teaching and Learning Technologies Programme) projects. The UK dominates the VR software industry. Links between HE and industry can help maintain this.

The presentations, discussions and conclusions of the workshop will be
written up as AGOCG Technical Report 28 as well as being issued as part of the SIMA series. Contact me if you wish to have a copy of the report.

Anne Mumford