How we made virtual reality part of our students’ learning

16 Feb 2019, 5:00

After a poor Ofsted inspection, Preston’s College worked out how technology could boost student and staff performance, says Steve Smith

Everyone knows what 360-degree footage is – it’s everywhere, from intrepid Go Pro users wrestling great whites to “twerking” on the world’s highest peaks. Our role, as educators, however, is to go beyond entertainment and use technology to create a distinctive learning experience. At Preston’s College we think we have worked out how to do it – on a small budget.

After our last but one Ofsted visit our college dropped to a grade 3. We were criticised for not providing enough formative assessments for our learners and needed to provide more “stretch and challenge” for our more able ones. The college made a variety of improvements and following our last inspection in October last year we became a strong grade 2 college. Our augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) work was definitely part of the picture.

This is the difference I think they have made to our formative assessment.

Reflection and review is more compelling
Learners in performing arts are continually on the move – how can fleeting movements be captured to evaluate how they use their space and interact with each other? By placing a 360-degree camera in the middle of a set of dancers or actors, they can look at the footage and set any angle of view to show how they move through space and relate to one another. They can “freeze-frame” to look at their backs or three-quarter views – any angle that is inaccessible in practice. The clarity and richness of information astonishes and stimulates learners to reach beyond what they thought was possible.

Learners can now create and publish their own AR and VR resources that were almost impossible just two years ago
Our sport tech learners used scanning software to design their own football boots and shirt tops for a group assessment. They could project and rotate their design and show a person wearing their top in 3D. It was just a whole step beyond what they thought was possible, and it stimulated them to explain their products in greater depth, which, in turn, improved their assessment grades.

Students have value-added workplace skills
We have encouraged learners to use 3D scanners and 360-degree cameras to create resources and widen their skill-set to annotate and publish what they make. Imagine the impact on employers when a learner produces e-portfolio evidence using 3D objects and virtual images. With more investment in industrial hand-held scanners, any learner could link their work to CAD CAM and 3D printing. For instance, hairdressing students could design and prototype their own range of styling equipment, or civil engineering learners could convert their architectural structural designs into three-dimensional models.

It’s also re-energised our teaching staff.

Imagine the impact on employers when a learner produces e-portfolio evidence using 3D objects

Expensive resources are better used and shared in new ways
We bought our first mobile 3D scanner for £399 and practised on an expensive plastic model of hair follicles and skin dermis layers, placing the 3D object on a free platform. We used free software to “layer” information on the object to give a fuller explanation of the subject.
We’d seen its potential for teaching in biology but on a professional development day, teachers from hair and beauty said: “that’s fantastic, we can use that!” Another teacher from auto vehicle said: “that’s really useful to show how oil affects the skin and hair and why it’s important to wash your hands correctly”. Thus a model that had spent too much time sitting on a shelf in a classroom ended up reaching across three curriculum areas.

It stimulates teachers to change what they do
We hold our AR and VR resources centrally, although teachers can book them out and use them inside and outside the college. The skill-set is modest so CPD effort is minimal (but we always give help when needed!).

The key to it all
Technology needs to be an answer to a specific problem: in our case how we improved formative assessments and stimulated learners to exceed their personal expectations. Having a clear objective will make it easier to see what difference, if any, AR and VR can make.

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