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Reception of Plumpton College using VR alternatives

Staying immersed: moving practical course content online

Plumpton College, often praised for its trailblazing use of VR and AR in practical course content, has had to face a fundamental rethink and is coming up with fresh immersive answers.

Steph Heath

“VR headsets seem quite outdated and irrelevant now. They’re a shared device that you're using in the classroom, which isn't a viable option any more,”

says Steph Heath, learning technology manager, Plumpton College.

Immersive technology and COVID-19

One of the most promising developments in teaching and learning, pre-COVID, was immersive technology: virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR). VR and AR enabled learners to go virtually where physically they could not to get practical experience in places or activities, or from subject experts, that were otherwise unobtainable.

Learners saw the benefits in courses as diverse as motor mechanics – where they could watch experts and repeat tasks at their own pace.

The VR headsets are now gathering dust in the classroom. At home, a quality headset (and its associated computing power) is unaffordable as a personal device for each learner, which puts paid to any expectation that VR and AR might fill the gaps COVID has left in the practical components of college courses.

So, in the absence of both hands-on experiences and their virtual counterparts, how can teachers provide crucial applied teaching and learning?

Plumpton College has been facing this problem since February and, with courses ranging from agriculture and forestry to veterinary nursing, blacksmithing and much more, it was very much a case of going back to the drawing board,

“Taking account of accessibility requirements and making sure our content could be accessed anywhere with any device, rather than being exclusively matched to technology such as VR headsets,”

says learning technology manager, Steph.

Finding an alternative

The college is developing an approach that comes as close as possible to VR while offering the learner something that requires no more than a desktop or portable device – even a phone on the go is sufficient – and an internet connection.

“We want to address the extensive research that Jisc has offered in terms of disadvantaged learners and barriers to learning, therefore it is important that we think of new ways to engage learners remotely in new ways whilst ensuring that all learners have the same experience.”

Plumpton’s approach is based around combining staff-generated visual content with the cloud service ThingLink which, in a nutshell, makes it easy to add user interactivity to almost anything visual, edit it, include narration or voice instruction and publish it online for viewing in a normal web browser.

The immersive experience can be greatly enhanced by use of a 360 camera – Plumpton College had already invested in two of them. The project is still in trial phase, but course content is already being produced by teaching staff.

Creating a virtual aquarium

An early beneficiary has been the animal management department, for which programme manager and lecturer Amber de Vere recently made a 360 film in a sea life aquarium that allows the user to move around the aquarium virtually, controlling their point of view and what they see. She then used ThingLink used to add visual ‘hotspots’, small on-screen icons that can be touched or clicked to open up text information panels, user input panels or other media – perhaps a more in-depth video on a topic, such as an information video on sharks, indicated by a video icon that appears when a shark is in view. Steph said:

“You can see they appear at different times in the video and offer further information about the featured aquatic animals as they swim past you. An immersive tool that gives students that important experience when they can’t actually visit an aquarium in person.”

The department is also in the process of adding interactive elements to a film that looks at foxes and raccoons in an animal sanctuary enclosure.

“They’re actually using the system slightly differently than we expected. Rather than having the hotspots ready and presenting it as a type of formative assessment or learning, they’re asking their students to work with them to add the hotspots collaboratively. Tutors can then navigate around the enclosures to ask: ‘as part of your assessment, how do you analyse this enclosure? What are your thoughts on the way it's been set up or maintained and how the animals are interacting?’”

Identitifying trees, virtually

Forestry and arboriculture instructor Sean McLaughlin is also currently working out in the field, studying trees with a 360 camera for future ThingLink enhancement. Meanwhile his department has created a tree identification tool for the Plumpton campus – a 2D map made interactive using ThingLink and more. Sean said:

“You can embed a range of different edtech tools such as Wakelet, MS Forms, Sway and Pinterest and it creates a great interactive experience for students.”

A 2D map with a tree identification tool for the Plumpton campus
Creative Commons attribution information

As well as using it remotely, students can bring up the map on their portable devices when they are on campus, check the identifications in situ for themselves and add their own discoveries via the embedded tools so that the whole process is live and collaborative. 

“I think ThingLink is a good interactive way of learning about a subject of your choice or as a revision tool to make your own and help you remember,"

says one of Sean’s forestry students.

Steph says:

"We’re really excited by the possibilities, particularly as a land-based college, because there are so many ways to develop content, from motor vehicle to blacksmithing, horticulture – our wine labs have already asked to use the equipment and get involved, and one of our countryside and agriculture tutors has started experimenting with 360 video for tractors and the setting up of trailers.”

Giving ownership to tutors

A significant benefit that’s emerging in the ThingLink pilot, according to Steph, is that the process gives,

“That sense of ownership to the tutors, rather than it being an outsourced situation where colleges would contact external providers or a lone learning technologist to create an experience for one cohort.”

This is helped by having the system in the cloud, so that tutors can do their work anywhere.

“It offers an opportunity for our tutors to be content creators. The cameras we're using are quite easy to operate so, once we train the tutors, they can go off and they have full control over content. It means they're part of that whole journey.

“Staff members are so excited to share this content and I don't want to stifle that: I want to continue this enthusiasm in ed tech. Pre-COVID, it used to be very difficult to gain this level of engagement and momentum, especially how eager they are to now innovate and develop what has already been produced.

“And the students can be content creators, they can respond and use it as a formative assessment. I'm keen to use that to our advantage and start to bring the practical elements of learning home, even just things like having a 360 video or image around the workspace in our motor vehicle workshop, for example, and explaining why we set things up in this way. Students can get involved and have an impact on the scenario they're seeing.

“The beginning of lockdown was so focused around just getting the fundamental online delivery model right and now we’re starting to think about what an innovative online lesson looks like and how we can go a step further.

“Actually, I think: you know those old school headsets? They will be just that. I mean, even when we go back to whatever the new normal will be, students can engage with this, it embeds within Teams and they can use it on their iPads and their phones, rather than being reliant on having this headset, this physical item that they have to have in the room. It's going to change things for a long time.”

Discover more ways that peers are rethinking teaching and learning.