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Dutch virtual reality can help reduce teacher shortage worldwide

Dutch lecturer uses virtual reality to improve teaching and developments are being watched by the Teachers Task Force of Unesco

Stan van Ginkel, a lecturer and researcher at the Archimedes Institute and the Intelligent Data Systems professorship at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, researches the use of virtual reality (VR) glasses as a means to reduce teacher shortages.

Once a geographer, Van Ginkel ended up in the educational field when five years ago he decided to start a PhD at the University of Wageningen, where he looked into the effectiveness of the design of learning environments.

Never had he thought of incorporating technology into this field. “I am not one who always has the latest technological gadgets,” he said. In his initial study, Van Ginkel found that three out of seven design principles have to do with feedback, so he set up experiments on this subject.

“We wanted to see whether it matters who gives you feedback,” he said. Does it make a difference if your teacher gives you feedback, or your peers?

“It seemed the teacher feedback had the most impact – but that posed a new challenge,” he said. “We now knew that the feedback of a teacher is the most useful to students. And in the previous study we had already found that that practice was crucial for the development of the students. But the combination of those two is nearly impossible. A teacher can’t give students endless possibilities to practice, as well as valuable feedback to every individual. There is just not enough time in a day for that.”

Virtual reality offers valuable student feedback

Then the opportunity arose to incorporate virtual reality in the experiments.

“VR is a very good way to simulate real-life situations and the technology can be used to give real-time feedback to a student,” said Van Ginkel. His team set up a VR lab and conducted experiments within the existing oral presentation skills course.

“We had the students do presentations in the first and third sessions of the course so we had a pre-test and a post-test situation from which we could then conclude the development of the students’ skills.”

In the second session, the students were randomly divided into two groups. One group received feedback from the teacher – the most optimal form, as previous research concluded – and the other group received feedback from the VR system.

“The results were remarkable. There was no difference in outcome between the groups. And the VR system was only in its infancy,” said Van Ginkel.

The first group valued their teacher’s feedback because of its positive and constructive character. The VR group, meanwhile, said they had never before received such detailed analytical feedback.

Endless practice and feedback

The VR system Van Ginkel developed with his team and his technological partner CoVince Adventurous Learning analyses three important aspects of oral presentation: eye contact, the use of your voice, and your posture and gestures.

While the complete setup contains not only VR glasses, but also sensors for posture and gesture measurements, Van Ginkel and CoVince have now developed a mobile environment that students can use at home with just their smartphone and simple VR glasses.

“That means students can practice endlessly at home, with a virtual real-life audience,” he said. “Afterwards, you get feedback from the system: how was your intonation, your volume, your speed? And did you look your audience enough in their eyes? It is a very safe feeling to practice speaking in public in a very secluded and virtual environment.”

Personal learning environment

Although VR glasses in Dutch education are not new, most of them only have limited possibilities. Geography students can look inside a volcano for instance.

“But our system provides the opportunity to learn self-reliantly through a personal, digital learning environment that matches a student’s own personal learning demand. And that is totally new,” said Van Ginkel.

One of the advantages of this personal way of learning is that students don’t have to wait until a course is on the curriculum.

“Presenting is a crucial skill that students need throughout their education. So when they are working in groups and have to present something to their peers, they can perform the oral presenting skills course themselves, instead of having to wait until later in the year, when the course is on the school curriculum,” said Van Ginkel.

The quality of education can be greatly increased through virtual learning, according to Van Ginkel. “Not only by the detailed feedback and the possibility of perpetual practice, but [because] the teacher has time for other things, like coaching. Furthermore, the data from the system can be used by the teacher to monitor the development of students throughout the years.”

Highly sought after technology

The VR glasses and the platform that Van Ginkel developed in the VR lab at the Archimedes Institute for the second-degree teacher training course at the Utrecht University of Applied Science, are highly sought after. Not only courses within the Archimedes Institute use the VR glasses, but also the teacher training in Dutch and English and the law school of the Utrecht University of Applied Science use the VR course for their students.

“Other universities are also offering our VR course for oral presentation skills to their students,” he said.

Van Ginkel published the results of his research in several leading education journals. “Recently, I even had the chance to show 200 people from all over the world the possibilities of VR in education, when I was invited to speak at a United Nations conference,” he said.

The interest was so great that he was invited to the Teachers Task Force of Unesco to help solve the worldwide shortage of teachers.

“Within this task force we are going to research in what way AI [artificial intelligence] can play a role in education,” said Van Ginkel. “For example, with correcting schoolwork, preventing absenteeism, exercises and administrative tasks. On the other hand, VR can also contribute to the training of teachers, as is planned in South Africa.”

Van Ginkel and his team are currently working on translating their platform in English so companies, educational institutions and other organisations from outside the Netherlands can also benefit from his research and his platform.

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