Leading the Way in The Use of Immersive Technology, Darlington College Shortlisted for An Award for Its Efforts in Immersive Learning Experiences for Its Students

SITTING on a chair, the tropical sea washes up the beach and the temptation to lift the feet is overwhelming to ‘keep them dry’.

Suddenly a wallaby wanders by, so it must be Australia then, but before there’s time to wonder further the scene becomes a jungle, complete with what looks like an Indian elephant.

Seconds on the cityscape is Shanghai and after that outer space, walls and floor flying by at warp speed. Moments later the view is the top of a wind turbine, before the scene plunges beneath the ocean to view the reefs and the creatures that inhabit them.

It’s a breath-taking tour of the universe, an immersive experience now available to countless students at Darlington College, which has just been shortlisted for an award for its pioneering approach to learning.

Darlington College has become one of the first in the region to develop a 360 degree immersive classroom to complement its virtual reality suite. It is also leading from the front in building their own interfaces from the ground up, as some of the off the shelf solutions available currently did not meet the needs of the teaching staff.

The room is fitted with hi-tech projectors that can screen connected images onto all four walls and the carpet.

Lecturers are currently exploring the capabilities of the system, installed by Middlesbrough company Animmersion UK, and according to Darlington College programme leader of computer games development Lliam Morrice the “learning possibilities are endless”.

“This is taking students away from traditional desks, pens and paper and immersing them in a learning experience right across the curriculum,” he says.

“From my point of view, students will be able to sit inside the game they have made to experience and test the work they have produced. Others, such as engineers, will be able to problem solve at the top of a wind turbine, areas that would otherwise be inaccessible for all manner of practical, health and safety reasons. They will be able to travel inside the machinery they could end up working on. While some people can feel sick using the VR headsets, this isn’t a problem in the immersive room.

“But it goes further than that. It’s not just for the technical courses. We could use it for the gamification of maths, for instance, where to engage students we could play Battleships exposing them to the concept of co-ordinates.

“We could engage English students by bringing stories to life in the room. For example, we could transport them to the times of Sherlock Holmes where they could help solve the crime with the clues projected on the walls and floor. For our arts students we are seeing how we could or create a digital gallery, while TV and film students could use it as an immersive green screen. There are myriad scenarios that our public and uniformed services could use to teach them to identify and handle risks or protect the scene of an incident for forensics .”

Empty stools surrounded by a virtual tropical setting. He says that technology is advancing at incredible speed in all walks of life. “We want to make sure that education is keeping pace,” he says.

“It is so much more engaging than a blank piece of paper for lecturers and students. Teachers can move around the room and use a huge number of resources which is exciting for everyone.”

Lliam says the room is also invaluable in broadening students’ horizons as it allows them to experience everything from the Himalayas to deep oceans. “Young people living in Darlington can go anywhere in the world or off it,” he says. “It’s also a very calm space which will be great for any learners living with ADHD.”

Teaching staff are busy planning how best to use the facility in their lessons. The college also has 360 degree cameras to make its own material as well as being able to use resources from the internet.

CEO of Animmersion UK Samuel Harrison says: “We have worked extremely closely with Darlington College to deliver this incredible, highly accessible and flexible resource that can transform the learning experience across every subject area.

“It’s a matter of great pride that it is shortlisted for the prestigious Edufuturists Award and underlines the College’s commitment to push the boundaries of education by creating new and exciting opportunities for students and staff alike.”

Curriculum manager for engineering, design, automotive and the arts Alan Jones says: “Our overall goal is to develop immersive learning environments, both in 360 spaces and within virtual reality, for delivering skills in a more interesting, interactive way. Our bespoke VR packages, built from the ground up, allow our learners to work through engineering, health and safety scenarios in a safe virtual environment.

“Our 360 immersive classroom allows learners to be exposed to environments that ordinarily they wouldn’t have the chance to experience, all linking to lesson outcomes in sectors including GCSE English, maths and fine arts.

“Working directly with an awarding body, this is the first VR resource to be made available that maps directly to grading criteria within engineering and automotive qualifications. With the impending explosion of VR into the mainstream, we aim to lead this innovation into the classroom, to normalise this method of training, something which is normally more common in industry.

“Alongside these new physical spaces, we aim to normalise immersive content experiences within a breadth of curriculum areas at Darlington College. Introducing tools, such as 360 cameras and VR content production modules, should add longevity to these resources alongside the bespoke content we are developing ourselves, giving staff the freedom to expand usage.”

The initiative has resulted in Darlington College being nominated for the top honour in the Edufuturists Awards 2023.

The awards are run by the EduTech Project, a national organisation that promotes the use of technology in education.

Due to take place on May 4, the awards recognise outstanding educators and professionals who are pushing the boundaries of education and creating a better future for learners everywhere.

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