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The Potential of VR for UK Higher Education

Executive Summary and Recommendations


Directions in Education

Educational provision has been undergoing rapid change recently and this is likely to continue with accelerating pace. The trend is away from a short, sharp burst of residential higher education early in a person's career towards a demand for lifelong continuing education and retraining. This will be based either locally to the student or, increasingly in the future, provided remotely over networks.

These developments will change the educational, economic and social basis for the higher education system as we know it today. They will require greater flexibility in the methods of delivering teaching, in the accessibility of learning material and in a person's ability to select course content appropriate to their own personal needs. They will also result in a much larger number of students seeking access to educational resources. There is unlikely to be a proportional increase in the economic resources available to meet there demands.

The challenge to technology, and in particular to information systems, is to provide solutions to these problems.

Some progress has already been made. The Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) has developed new teaching and learning resources for UK Higher Education. The Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) Centres have helped lecturers in their introduction of TLTP and other resources. Further work is still necessary to build on these early successes.

Directions in Technology

The rapid growth in exploitation of networks and the development of network-based software tools is providing access to an ever-widening range of resources on a global scale. This has already had a major impact on research and is now impacting teaching and learning. The possibility for collaboration on the development and use of materials offers real potential for economies.

The use of workstations and PCs by researchers, teachers and students is now widespread. Their configuration and performance continue to increase at reducing cost in real terms. Their increasingly powerful graphics capability offers the potential for improved interaction techniques.

The availability of an increasing range and volume of material on-line and improvements in the hardware and software resources for interacting with it are key elements in the exploitation of technology for UK Higher Education.

The Role of Virtual Environments

Virtual Environments, as a powerful emerging technique for interacting with on-line information, are potentially well placed to take advantage of these advances. This Workshop was held to investigate this potential and indicate how it might be realised. Following scene-setting and review presentations, four discussion groups explored the area of Education Issues, Technology, Software and Applications. Each had a brief to identify the key issues in their area and to make recommendations on what should be done.

Several example scenarios for the use of virtual environments emerged from the meeting covering a wide range of disciplines. These included:

All these virtual scenarios recognise the enhanced level of experience afforded by the greater visual, and potentially auditory and tactile, involvement of the user with the subject matter. The user can experiment and make mistakes without possibly dangerous or embarrassing consequences. The ability to model situations, exert control and observe behaviour, and the increased sense of presence afforded by virtual environments, offer the possibility of greater understanding. Virtual environments build on other technologies such as CAD, visualization and multimedia which are already, or are becoming, well established within current practice.

The potential of virtual environments to impact teaching and learning across the whole educational spectrum is exciting and challenging. However, the Workshop recognised that there is still much work to be done to establish firmly the benefits of virtual environments and to identify the ways of achieving these. The following issues and recommendations point the way forward.

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