College brings virtual reality to the classroom


PXL University College in Hasselt is exploring how using 360-degree immersive video can enhance education and offer new possibilities for training

Virtual learning

Virtual reality headsets are becoming increasingly common as people explore three-dimensional games and immersive movies. But there are also serious applications for VR, from health care and the construction industry to risk management and tourism.

But one of the most fruitful areas for VR appears to be education, which is why PXL University College in Hasselt has begun a two-year project looking at how they can take advantage of the technology. It’s being carried out by education researcher Anne Appeltans and IT specialist Simon Verbeke.                                    

“At the Centre of Educational Innovation we explore the possibilities of new technology in education,” says Appeltans, giving tablets and learning analytics as examples. “Since VR is an upcoming technology, we were curious about it and wanted to explore its possibilities for educational use.”

The project began with a survey of the research literature and conversations with colleagues in areas such as health care and construction to identify possible pilot projects for VR. These discussions revealed a similar set of opportunities. 

Enriched videos

“The current idea is to make enriched 360-degree videos,” says Verbeke. “The videos fully envelop your view, so they are quite convincing in making you feel ‘there’. Because we’re using VR glasses, you can easily look around and focus on different parts of the video. The videos will be enriched by having interaction points, which will show pictures, text, videos, highlight areas in the scene, quizzes... the list of possibilities goes on and on.”

For example, medical students could practise their diagnostic skills on real patients documented in virtual reality videos, or student teachers could observe lessons. “The students can have a look inside the classroom without physically going to that class,” says Appeltans. “Because it’s a 360-degree video, the students can look around and see the teacher and the reactions of the pupils.”

The videos fully envelop your view, so they are quite convincing in making you feel ‘there’

- Simon Verbeke

The next stage of the project is to develop a system for enriching images and videos that can then be used in the pilots. “Alongside the technical development we will also fine-tune the didactic scenarios of the various cases,” says Appeltans.

VR devices currently on the market can already create convincing virtual worlds. Using dedicated headsets such as Oculus Rift would be one option, but these are both expensive and unwieldy, since they need to be connected to a computer with cables. But there are cheaper, less cumbersome alternatives.

“The goal is to make our system work on smartphones, which a lot of students already have,” says Verbeke. The image quality may be lower, but as long as a phone can display 4K video the result is still effective. “Schools could also provide a dedicated classroom with a couple of devices for students who don’t have a suitable smartphone.”

As well as thinking about students in higher education, the scope may open up later in the project. “It is possible that we will also think about using VR in primary and secondary school,” says Appeltans. “We will explore this with our teacher training programmes.”

Photo courtesy PXL University College