An Essex college leader is championing a UK network of virtually connected ‘immersive’ teaching spaces as a means of improving the learner experience, saving money, and solving the teacher shortage problem.
Dan Pearson, principal and CEO at USP College, has already linked its two campuses in this way, and invested in almost 30 ‘streaming rooms’, all of which are proving invaluable while the pandemic persists and remote learning is mandatory for most.
Installed from 2018 as part of the college’s digital strategy, the immersive classrooms are already having a positive impact on experience and outcomes. Achievement on one course was reversed from 65% and 60% in 2018 and 2019 respectively to 89% in 2020, while around 30% of students indicate that they have a better learning experience in the immersive classroom than in a standard lesson.
The immersive classroom in action
Feedback from learners includes:
- “The fact that both campus classes can share information and learn from each other is great”
- “We could speak and answer or ask questions as if we were in a normal lesson. We could also see the videos the teacher was playing as if it was playing in the room”
Teachers are benefitting, too
Feedback from teachers includes:
- “I have adapted my face-to-face teaching to suit a more digital environment – it has allowed me to develop the skills I need to make my lessons more interactive and engaging”
- “Using the immersive rooms has encouraged me to deliver more interactive and engaging lessons”
- “There are so many new opportunities and tools for assessing student progress interactively”
“At the moment we’ve got two immersive rooms at each of our two campuses, but in the future, I see a whole corridor of them linking courses like GCSEs and A-levels across the UK.
“My vision is for a national network of these rooms, where resources and staff can be shared. It saves money, makes the most of expertise, solves the teacher shortage problem, enables curriculum expansion and the students love it.
“I've started inviting principals to have a look and they've all been blown away. Two colleges are now coming on board, but more are required.”
Pearson looked at technology as a means of solving several problems he faced in 2017 after Seevic College merged with Palmers College 14 miles away. He explains:
“Some subjects were taught at both campuses, but with differing levels of success and small cohorts, so there was a lack of parity across the two sites. I also had a teacher shortage because it's very difficult to recruit highly skilled teachers in certain subjects, especially in the south east.
“On the other hand, some courses, like physics, were running with about 12 students at the Seevic campus, but only six at Palmers and I was paying two lecturers for that. So, it was a no brainer to reduce costs by linking the two campuses seamlessly through video conferencing and have one teacher deliver to both groups of students.”
Learning from mistakes
It wasn’t a smooth or risk-free process, however:
“We experimented for the best part of an academic year before we got it right. I talked to several companies which promised the world, but at a large cost. Initially I spent the best part of £100,000, so I had to dilute the original vision, which was to have a room with a real wow factor, with wrap-around big screens, to one that I could afford.
“I ended up with an over-complex, very expensive solution that was difficult to use. It was a great meeting space, but for teaching and learning it was difficult to use and we had to ringfence some bandwidth to operate it. We didn't get it right, so I had to go back to the drawing board.
“I needed something that a teacher with limited digital skills could easily use – where they just go in, plug in their laptop, and go. I partnered with a company called I-Immersive and Ajenta to fine tune and realise the vision. What we’ve ended up with, which is underpinned by vscene, is intuitive, simple to operate and costs about £30,000 per room.
“Each space has five, 89-inch screens with lots of different functionality, but without too many controls. It's quite intuitive and it has the wow factor I was looking for that appeals to learners. There’s no latency, and excellent real-time vision and sound.”
Winning over teachers
Having a simple-to-use solution was key to the success of the project.
“One of the mistakes we made early on was simply putting the immersive rooms in place and just expecting an influx of staff who wanted to use it,”
“We had to explain fully what we wanted the staff to do, and putting in a package of training, with gold, silver and bronze levels of digital skills attainment, encourages upskilling. “This gets the teachers working in the space effectively and encourages them to start delivering the curriculum with their new skills. We also encourage them to experiment and to make mistakes as part of their learning.”
None of this digital development work would be possible without robust digital infrastructure, which Pearson discovered had to be upgraded to cope, for example, increasing bandwidth and strengthening the campus wifi service.
Fortunately, he was able to take advantage of the government’s capital investment fund announced last year to cover this.
The immersive rooms have been a huge bonus during the pandemic, of course, because they enabled those isolating at home to keep up with lessons.
Now, during lockdown three, lecturers are coming into the empty college room, delivering online and in an interactive way, to many learners. All the sessions are recorded, so students can watch again at times to suit them.
Budget restrictions meant Pearson couldn’t install dozens more immersive rooms as he would have liked. As a compromise, he “reduced the concept to a very simple model”, which meant he could afford to set up 29 “streaming rooms” ready for the autumn 2020 term.
“Basically, each room has one big screen on a wall in a classroom with a high-end camera that can zoom in and follow the lecturer around, and they are good enough so people can see what’s being written on the board. All the students joining remotely appear on the screen.
“While the learners took to it like ducks to water, again, we had a job to try and get teachers to use these rooms. There was some ‘hearts and minds’ work we had to do to drag them away from Microsoft Teams, but my message was clear - that teachers need to develop skills to use this kind of technology, otherwise they'll become extinct.”
The future is virtual
Pearson's on a roll with his digital strategy and is now in the latter stages of opening a virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) centre in a once-underused campus building. He successfully bid for £1.9m (match funded by USP) from the South East LEP to develop this idea, which will include tech for developing extended reality digital training content for employers.
“Creative digital students will be based there permanently, where they can act as a college company. They’ll work with employers to find out what they want and then develop VR content in partnership with them, perhaps to show an oil rig or to practice using some dangerous piece of machinery that’s normally difficult to access. The companies will come in and conduct the training using our hardware.
“The new centre offers a threefold benefit: students get the experience of working in collaboration with companies and in industry, the employers have access to a high-end development centre and the college will benefit from commercial income.
“It's definitely not all about the income though; first and foremost, it's for training and learning purposes.”