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Exploiting Virtual Reality Techniques in Education and Training: Technological Issues

3. Relevance to Higher Education

3.1 Introduction

In today’s economic climate it is important to justify changes from current practice. This is especially true in any area that makes growing the use of technology. Technology is changing so rapidly that organisations are taking steps to define their information technology strategy. This is necessary because of several important reasons, including:
  1. Cost of keeping pace with technology is very high
  2. Cost of maintenance can be very high
  3. Actual benefit delivered by the technology must be offset against cost
  4. Impact on organisation change - human resource is a sensitive issue
  5. Organisational efficiency

This section of the report will take a brief look at the introduction of technology in educational establishments and where VR is likely to make an impact.

3.2 Situation Review

3.2.1 Current Situation

Today there are few places that have not introduced some degree of information technology to assist in managing their business. This is leading to the situation where there is a growing technology dependancy. Educational establishments are no exception. More and more use is being made of computer based technology to support educational needs. Computer based training (CBT) systems have been in use for several years supporting routine training tasks and a wide variety of packages are available commercially to allow the student to learn at their own pace. The level of interaction is fairly low in the sense that the student follows the flow of the educational material and has to stay within the bounds defined by the programme providers. The ability of CBT systems to present pre-recorded video at appropriate points in the programme makes this educational system very powerful. Early CBT systems have developed into multi-media systems which provide a richer environment by making use of text, graphics, video and audio to support the learning process. The advent of the CD-ROM has also made it possible to store considerable amounts of material onto a single disc. The CD-ROM of a multi-media system also contains software that is executed on the host computer and provides even higher levels of interaction than the early CBT systems. Production costs are very high for good quality multi-media CD-ROMS but this is offset by the cost of distribution where a material costs for a single CD-ROM disc can as low as £0.50. This means that once an educational programme has been ROM’d it is very cheap to distribute. Furthermore, compatibility with existing multi-media personal computers makes it an ideal system for teaching needs.

However, limitations of current multi-media systems lie with the fixed programme material. The read only pre-recorded material means that material is stored in a linear format. This implies that a video sequence has to be viewed as a series of sequential frames. Whilst it is possible to select a number of individual frames or one of several video sequences the student must adhere rigidly to the pre-defined programme.

3.2.2 Demand for Re-education

There are many areas where rapid change is required to counter strong competition in the world’s markets. In particular there is a need to re-educate designers in rapidly changing technology fields. With design becoming more interdisciplinary there is a strong case for equipping tomorrow’s designers with a range of skills. The lean industry of the next decade does not possess sufficient human reserve to permit long term secondment for re-training a significant proportion of its work force.

Academia may have neither the range of up to date facilities nor the capacity to cope with this potential market, especially in resource-hungry design-based subjects. Distance learning provides only a partial solution, which has in the past been supplemented by 'summer school' level exposure to necessary facilities. In many of these latter cases, across a broad range of art and design subjects, effective education or training could be provided by extensive use of simulation and virtual reality technology. Current developments in both computing and network communications are poised to facilitate the incorporation of these techniques into the next generation of multi-media based, distance learning programmes. The requirement for technology update courses is expected to rise significantly to ensure that existing work forces can cope with the introduction of new systems.

3.2.3 VR in Education Today

There are many examples of where VR has been used for educational purposes around the world. Each has shown a degree of success even though the technology was extremely limited. It seems that the level of success was attributed to the flexibility offered by the virtual environment. The was no doubt that the students who used a VR based system enjoyed themselves. It is highly likely that this factor contributed to the sense of fulfillment that the students reported.

By far the most prolific country to try VR in education is the USA where VR has been applied to secondary and higher education. Unfortunately, it is not feasible to list the whole range of activities involving VR in education since there are so many examples.

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