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Exploiting Virtual Reality Techniques in Education and Training: Technological Issues

2. Introduction

2.1 Background

In the future, technology will bring about major changes in the educational process. The consequence of these changes will have a profound effect on the way education will be delivered. Such is the technological revolution that changes will occur very fast and will have a significant impact on educational establishments. One only has to look at the proliferation of the world wide web (WWW) to see how extensively a new technology can penetrate the educational infrastructure. No one would have predicted the growth of the use of the WWW two or three years ago.

Political and economic pressures are leading to considerable efficiency gains and improvements in the quality of educational processes in educational institutions. This challenge is being met by new modes of teaching, modularisation and semesterisation and more efficient use of assets, such as: longer teaching days; increased consultancy; exploitation of patents and intellectual property; and conference use of residences. There are growing demands for post experience adult education to meet the increased skills needed by industry, as well as a healthy demand for higher education from school leavers. Demographic factors and the current employment climate are relevant and will vary over time requiring institutions to be flexible and speedy in their response to change. As students pay more towards the cost of their education they will adopt the role of paying customers and their demands for relevant courses, delivered in a convenient manner, with clearly focused career earning potential will increase. The higher education market place will become more competitive; attracting students of the right calibre will be paramount.

There has been a steady increase in the potential for Virtual Reality (VR) techniques for many education and training applications. In particular the ability to provide cost effective access to high fidelity computer simulations is a very important attribute. The potential of a VR based system is very impressive and as costs for the enabling technologies fall there is likely to be an acceleration in the uses that it will be applied to. It is not too difficult to see that VR will have a major influence on the UK's educational process by providing educational establishments with a powerful new approach to teaching and research. It will soon be feasible to provide access to sophisticated laboratory facilities albeit in a virtual manner. The exact form that virtual teaching aids will take on depends very much on the nature of the teaching programme to be delivered. A broad spectrum of technology based concepts are available and it will be extremely important to understand where and how to apply these to achieve an effective teaching/educational medium.

This report sets out out to deal specifically with VR concepts and how the enabling technology should be employed. There are a number of other factors to consider when employing VR technology and include aspects such as funding; cultural factors and the management of change. These will have an effect on the eventual use of the technology. The report will examine the relevance of VR to higher education by comparison with current trends in the use of technology based teaching methods. The proliferation of computer based systems in higher education establishments clearly highlights the willingness of the community to accept more effective methods. After a brief review of existing and likely developments in VR based systems over the next few years the report will review opportunities where VR systems have much to offer:

2.2 Report Objectives

The aim of this report is to inform the AGOCG membership on the potential use of VR in higher education and the impact that associated technology issues will have on its adoption. It is not the intention to review the individual enabling technologies in detail as these will continue to evolve over the years and are covered elsewhere (Kalawsky 1993). However, a top-down systems approach will be used since this perspective will drive out the requirements of the underlying enabling technologies. In this context, the term ‘system’ is assumed to cover both hardware and software components.

The objectives agreed for the report include:

2.3 Report Structure

This report is structured in a way that firstly introduces the role of VR in education (Section 3) followed by a description of the concept of a VR system (Section 4) with reference to the different types of VR system. The resulting framework has been developed in a consistent manner to allow the reader to compare the different attributes of the differing approaches to VR. Finally, Section 5 looks at various conclusions and recommendations.
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