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Exploiting Virtual Reality Techniques in Education and Training: Technological Issues

3. Relevance to Higher Education (cont)

3.3 Virtual Reality as an Educational Tool

VR techniques will have a major influence on the educational process in the future with the range of potential applications being potentially large. VR has the potential to revolutionise education, particularly the higher education establishments. Multi-media based systems are probably better suited for primary and secondary education since subjects at this level are based on teaching broad principles or general concepts. At the higher education level the need is for more in depth understanding of complex subjects. These subjects are often multi-disciplinary in nature with a subtle blend of theoretical and practical knowledge. Rather than simply replacing conventional teaching methods VR could be used to provide access to sophisticated laboratory facilities without the high costs normally associated with the up keep of these facilities. The exact form these virtual teaching aids take depends very much on the nature of the teaching programme to be delivered. A broad spectrum of technology concepts could be made available but it will be important to understand where and how to apply these.

Recent advances in information technology have made it feasible to employ distance learning systems in support of the growing demands for educational services. These courses could be made available to people in the home, making it easier to gain additional qualifications outside normal working hours. Whilst it is possible to deal with theoretically based courses in this way it is much more difficult to provide 'hands-on' practical courses that are important for many of the design-based subjects. For design courses it is very important to allow the student to be in 'contact' with a design environment. This has traditionally been a studio or workshop for the generation, visualisation, development and evaluation of ideas in two and three dimensions.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for present distance learning systems to deliver the 'hands-on' learning environment that a well equipped design studio provides. VR could be used to allow the distant student to access an interactive virtual design studio. A virtual design studio will allow distant students to:

In order to deliver an effective service over a network it will be necessary to understand the performance requirements of the virtual design studio. The remote user’s computer will have to be based on a relatively high performance system where the interaction and image rendering will be undertaken. User interaction and the system modelling will be confined to the host machine thus overcoming the performance limitations of even high performance networks such as ISDN.

It is important to note that a VR system is essentially an interactive simulation that can represent a real or abstract system. The simulation is a representative computer based model which provides appropriate data for visualisation (could also include auditory and haptic/kinaesthetic) or representation of the system. This means that the application areas are almost endless. However, there will be some educational applications that will not benefit by being delivered by a VR system. Cost will also be a determining factor. The key drivers will tend to include:

There are other factors which have to be considered and include:

A final consideration that must be addressed is the need for a real environment. There may be occasions where there can be no substitute for training on a real system. This issue is very specific to a particular application and the question should be asked of every VR application being proposed. If anyone needs convincing that a VR system can be useful then it is only necessary to look at pilot training in commercial airlines. Extensive use is made of simulation systems to train aircrew from flying through to emergency procedure handling.

3.3.1 Potential areas where educational benefit could be delivered:

There are many areas where VR could be used to support education. The following table shows the educational benefits or attributes that can be expected.
Potential Use Benefit compared to traditional methods
Simulation of complex systems Ability to observe system operation from a number of perspectives aided by high quality visualisation and interaction.
Macroscopic and microscopic visualisation Observation of system features that would be either too small or too large to be seen on a normal scale system
Fast and slow time simulation Ability to control timescale in a dynamic event. This feature could operate like the fast forward or rewind preview of a modern video recorder.
Allow high levels of interactivity Most people learn faster by ‘doing’ and the VR system provides much greater levels of interactivity than other computer based systems. Provided that the interfaces are intuitive and easy to use then the degree of interactivity can be very beneficial.
Sense of immersion a powerful characteristic In some applications the sense of scale is extremely important. For example, architecture is an area where a sense of scale is required to visualise the impact of a building design on the external environment and the the inhabitants.
Inherent flexibility/adaptabilityThe inherent flexibility of a VR system comes from the underlying software nature of the virtual environment. A VR system can be put to many uses by loading different application environments. This means that it is feasible to use a VR system for a range of teaching applications. This means that if the system is properly applied it will soon generate cost savings.
Table 1 Comparative Benefits of a VR Educational System

3.3.2 The Shape of Things to Come

The future might lie in delivering the educational material online directly to the student. This is probably achieveable for theoretical based subjects but engineering in particular requires a degree of hands on.

Wide area network services such as Super Janet and ISDN may be able to deliver conventional educational material on demand. However, this does not solve the need for an equivalent of a ‘hands on’ laboratory expeience. It may be possible to provide access to certain virtual laboratories but the degree of hands on is likely to be very limited. Arguably, it is the necessity to be able to transfer skills learnt to a real situation that is the critical issue. There is growing concern that media based educational training systems only go so far and cannot provide tehe richness of a practical hands on environment. Nevertheless, there is a major role for media based education/training systems.

Consequently, remote learning could become the norm simply because of the accessibility and tremendous potential for cost and time savings. This is clearly evidenced by the increased number of distance learning initiatives that are now underway.

This evolving pattern raises the question of the role of universities in delivering education in the future. In the extreme this might suggest that a significant number of universities will go out of business simply because people will be able to access educational material from a few centres of excellence universities. This is more likely to affect universities whose courses are static and where technological change is very slow. However, the centres of excellence universities will see an increase in business as they need to regularly update their courses and also because of the increased level of access. Whether this situation emerges will depend on the perceived effectiveness of people who have undergone such training.

However, the saving grace for universities may be need to deliver practical hands on experience. Even this is not without threat since the cost of providing access to laboratory/workshop facilities is very expensive. The development of computer graphics simulation and in particular VR concepts may mean that it is feasible to provide equivalent hands on experience. This is an exciting concept since it could provide a very powerful educational tool.

3.3.3 Cost Issues

Higher education must cope with a change in funding strategy because of falling revenue (JISC 1). The serious decline in funding per student makes it very important to address the use of technology in an educational context. Successful exploitation of technology is unlikely to mean simply replacing older generation PC based platforms with faster later generation hardware. In some instances this can be an unwise strategy because with this change goes the need to update older generation software. It is also very easy to get on the software update ‘band wagon’ where users continually seek the next version of software without even gaining maximum benefit from the older version. This type of IT strategy must be avoided at all costs since it focusses primarily on actual hardware/software technology. Given the higher entry costs associated with a VR based system such a strategy would be extremely foolish since the usefulness of the educational material would be relatively short and will only last as long as one can afford maintenance support for a particulat generation of hardware. Replacement cost will be high for both hardware and the regeneration of the educational programme.

Fortunately, the funding available to educational institutions will hopefully reduce this type of strategy and force a more longer term vision. It is possible to isolate the educational service from the need to constantly update with new hardware. However, this requires a well coordinated top down view of requirements.

3.3.4 Revolution or Evolution in Education

Most higher education establishments are employing some form of information technology to support their education programmes. The technology ranges from state of the art multi-media systems to the early BBC micro. The education sector generally finds it hard to secure the large amounts of cash needed to support an IT intensive based course. Once a teacher has prepared a course on a particular computer system there is a reluctance to migrate to another perhaps more recent platform. This is a direct result of the teacher having to prepare the original courseware for themselves. Until good courseware packages become available this situation will persist.

Nevertheless, the computer literacy of students will be a significant influencing factor. They will expect to use the latest technology as part of their education. In the future, students will only want to attend higher education establishements that can offer the latest education technology. This will mean that the poorer education establishments will loose out on student numbers with obvious consequences.

As a result we will see a small technological revolution taking place in educational establishments. It will not be uncommon for students to have better computing facilities at home compared to their college. This situation is inevitable considering that the education establishment’s information technology update programme is likely to be longer than the student’s.

The educational establishment will also be expected to get maximum benefit from a particular education programme by using it for as long a period as possible. In this time it is possible that technology will have moved on a couple of generations.

Educational establishments are really facing a dilemma of when and how frequently to update their information technology. Education establishments would prefer some degree of stability so that they could run older versions of software on newer technology.

Since a VR system is likely to have a higher price tag than compared to more conventional computer systems there must be clear and quantifiable benefits before educational establishments will invest.

There are pros and cons for the introduction of VR into higher education. Firstly, it must be stressed that there is no substitute for tuition in a real environment. One of the strengths of a VR system can actually be one of its weaknesses. For instance, a VR system could train someone to deal with a hazardous situation safe in the knowledge that no harm will come to the student. However, this may create a false sense of security so that when the student performs the task for real there is a real danger that mistakes will be made with serious consequences. This aspect has already been faced in cases where airline pilots train on simulators. The solution seems to be make the simulation as realistic as possible. It has been known for pilots to very concerned when they crash a simulator. To ensure that the task is taken seriously if pilots crash a simulator they can run the risk of being grounded until they have been investigated.

One of the key benefits must be the to use VR to allow something to be taught that is currently extremely expensive or is impossible to do. There will obviously be considerable resistance to its use if it looks like replacing the need for teaching staff.

Clearly, educationalists will resist a big step change in the way they deliver training and education programmes. Instead a more likely strategy will be the gradual introduction of the enabling technology. This rate of change in technology capability will largely be driven by the funding policy for higher education.

It is suspected that some higher education establishments are already gearing their IT strategies to align with technology driven education programmes.

An example of how rapid the technological change can occur can be seen from the unprecidented use of the world wide web. As soon as users see the benefits their demand can be literally overwhelming. Unfortunately, such a rapid rate of technological change can have serious consequences including:

A technology orientated organisation may not have a problem with the first three points but the forth will require a carefully designed strategy. It is likely that the major cost of a technology based education system will be in the production of the courseware. It will be important to ensure that courseware can migrate with the technology and so save on the original investment. This obviously has implications on the way technology will be upgraded.

3.3.5 VR System Strengths

3.3.6 Weaknesses

A VR system has a number of weaknesses and include:
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