Are virtual reality teaching aids a fad or the future?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused profound and revolutionary changes in working arrangements as well as teaching and learning globally. The lockdowns necessitated the transition to working from home, while higher education had to rapidly re-invent its traditional, on-campus education models.

In general, the evolution of online education has been gaining momentum over the past decade with the notable examples of massive open online courses (MOOCs) initiated by the MIT OpenCourseWare project and the subsequent emergence of platforms such as edX and Lynda among others.

Although the existing virtual platforms have been moderately successful, they have never seriously challenged the traditional models of on-campus university education.

The rapid spread of the pandemic has, however, caught most of the higher education sector by surprise. This was particularly felt in Melbourne, Australia, where one of the harshest and longest 2020 lockdowns enforced rapid and next day closure of all university campuses across this city of five million people.

In response, the Melbourne higher education sector had to instantaneously transition to virtual learning models, creating significant challenges and achieving various levels of success.

There seems to have been very little, if any, strategic planning in advance to respond and adapt to such events globally in the higher education sector. In Australia the necessity to transition to virtual models of learning has been further compounded by the isolationism approach of the federal government and continuing border closures that are in force to this very day.

Considering that more than 40% of students in Australia’s higher education system are international students, this has created a significant and long-lasting impact on budgets. The situation has also forced rapid innovation to cater for international students effectively stranded overseas and not able to attend campuses of Australian universities even after the removal of most COVID-related restrictions.

Beyond passive consumption of teaching material

Campus learning models have been slowly evolving over the past few years. Despite continuing with the traditional campus model, the Australian higher education sector has been steadily embracing elements of online education.

In particular, digital handouts and digital recording of lectures as well as the increasing adoption of e-textbooks have led to a steady decline of student presence during lectures. In fact, for several years and in many courses across the country, fewer than 20% of students have been attending on-campus lectures, especially in circumstances where online, anytime access to digital content has been made widely available.

When surveyed, students often prefer to ‘consume’ digital content of lectures at their own pace, save time on commuting and avoid the early morning rush hour. Nearly all students value and now expect on-demand asynchronous, digital lectures to be available for every subject.

However, while standard on most higher education campuses, asynchronous, digitally recorded lectures cannot provide interactive and deeper engagement with content.

They are also inherently passive means of learning and teaching: where the content cannot be practised in real-time, students are not challenged and do not interact with each other or the teaching staff.

This can be a very isolating experience for many students and has been indeed highlighted by the increasing number of mental health issues among students during the Melbourne lockdown period.

Over the years online education platforms such as edX have made some notable progress in enhanced digital teaching where pre-recorded content is combined with interactive quizzes, problem-solving tasks and interactive and diverse animations. During the pre-COVID era most of the traditional universities were very slow to embrace similar digital teaching strategies.

Forced by the impact of the pandemic in 2020, all of the Australian universities have attempted to embrace diverse virtual learning systems that can reach beyond passive consumption of thought material and have introduced interactive virtual classrooms.

In this regard, RMIT University in Melbourne has been a premier example, leading the new global trend of adopting the latest generation of gamified and interactive simulations in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teaching.

Virtual reality in STEM teaching

It has to be recognised that, even before the pandemic, student access to most teaching laboratories was restricted for time and cost reasons, leading to historically low student motivation and a lack of scientific curiosity and engagement that represent important factors affecting the future employability of graduates.

During the pandemic RMIT University recognised the growing need for virtual laboratory simulations that can deliver an ‘anytime-and-anywhere’ learning experience that simulates authentic laboratory activities.

Such virtual technologies can provide an invaluable asset for teaching, especially for very large undergraduate cohorts where limited resources and access to laboratories provides a significant obstacle to at-scale teaching of cutting-edge practical skills and technologies.

To overcome the challenge of the immediate halt of face-to-face teaching (including all practical laboratory science), RMIT University has deployed Labster, the prime example of next-generation gamified virtual lab simulations. Labster’s next-generation gamified simulations shift crucial practical education into the virtual realm.

The technology is based on a first-person, gamified engine similar to the one found in blockbuster computer games. Labster allows for high-quality online teaching where students can complete complex laboratory experiments, explore concepts and theories in a safe and highly engaging and immersive environment while not only meeting but also exceeding most teaching objectives.

RMIT was the very first Australian higher education institution to introduce Labster on a large scale with outstanding results in terms of student engagement and satisfaction. Technologies such as Labster have provided an outstanding opportunity to provide students during lockdown with a high-quality online learning experience that is fully interactive and engaging.

Beyond the pandemic

While some universities such as RMIT in Melbourne have embraced modern virtual teaching tools during lockdown, others have some way to go. In 2020 there has been a tremendous number of calls and workshops indicating that interactive virtual teaching practices need to become much more widespread. This was even widely and globally heralded as the next-generation digital revolution needed to meet the changing needs of students in the future.

Interestingly, the year 2021 in Australian higher education demonstrates a surprising and bi-phasic phenomenon.

In the midst of the 2020 lockdown the higher education sector was keen to boldly embrace and widely deploy virtual teaching aids. However, the 2021 widespread easing of restrictions and re-opening of campuses due to the successful elimination of COVID in Australia have also brought an avalanche of calls for a rapid return to old-style, on-campus learning and teaching.

Time will tell if the higher education sector globally will actually truly embrace the hybrid model with a mix of disruptive digital online classroom technologies and in-person classes or if such moves will be remembered as episodic ephemera once the pandemic is well and truly over.

Donald Wlodkowic is an associate professor in cell biology and toxicology at the School of Science, RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.