Serendip – an Immersive Sustainability Learning Adventure

Launching Serendip project on November 9, 2023!

When we started the Global campus project in 2022, we were given the freedom to experiment the limits of online learning. We were expected to do really bold, even risky EdTech experiments. So, we thought very carefully how we could use our time wisely. We wanted to know what this university wants or needs? What could be something bold that would benefit all the members of the university community regardless of the faculty and beyond?

One of the strategic goals for the University of Helsinki is to advance ecological sustainability and responsibility. The University is dedicated to integrate the themes of sustainability into all education programmes.

Well-designed digital and physical environments for work, teaching and learning will enhance ecological sustainability and promote encounters with others, support creativity, renew forms of collaboration and improve accessibility.

(University of Helsinki Strategy 2021-2023)

Following this mission, sustainability became a topic that would be the glue of our work. In the design process, we asked from teachers and students what they are missing regarding sustainability education. We learned that a virtual space where students would gather together around the world to solve the sustainability challenges would be the secret wish of the sustainability teachers.

Students, on the other hand, wanted to travel in 3D worlds and learn how to influence stakeholders. They wished to improve their skills in finding the intervention points in decision-making processes. Students also desired to see hope and use their all senses. We knew we wanted to do this. And this was the foundation for a bold EdTech experiment, the project called Serendip*.

Based on our pedagogical framework, we believe that learning should be engaging and fun but also at the same time personalized and efficient. By offering students a visually appealing virtual reality learning environment with diverse multi-disciplinary learning content and a chance to actually train the sustainability competencies, we can help students to become the change agents this world needs.

The learning content has been developed together with researchers, teachers and students from different disciplines. The research-based content together with state-of-the-art technologies make an engaging learning experience. In virtual reality we could make impossible possible, travel in time and place and practice empathy.

Also, we identified that by taking the AI tools to the next level, we could increase the interaction between a student and the learning content. Therefore, we designed virtual AI-powered characters for different pedagogical purposes for the game. Each discussion is different and personalized, based on the student´s own interests.

The first game episode, the Boreal Forest, one of the tipping elements in earth´s climate system, is an adventure through snow and woods. It combines forest economy, forest ecology and well-being with Indigenous studies. It helps the students to practice their systems-thinking, values-thinking and intrapersonal skills.

We see that you have a role to play in sustainability, so we are happy to invite you to participate as a teacher, a student or a subject-matter expert and co-create with us the further episodes. Learn more on serendip.fi and join the adventure by sharing us how you would like to take part by filling in the form. Can a learning environment for the sustainability education look like this?

* Serendip = The word serendipity, originating from an old Persian fairytale “the Three Princes of Serendip”, means unplanned fortunate discoveries. The Serendip Learning Adventure is based on serendipitous learning approach where, through exploration, learners might discover unexpected and interesting connections among phenomena which can lead to meaningful learning. Serendipity, as valuable unexplored sources for learning, can be fostered through engagement and interaction. We see that sustainability challenges need innovations which can be results of serendipitous events. 

AWEXR 2023, Vienna

AWEXR 2023 - Vienna

 

Yesterday and today (24. and 25.10. 2023) I attended the AWE XR Europe in Vienna. As usual when I travel, I chose to walk as much as possible and avoid public transportation. This time too, I took the train from the airport to Wiener Mitte and from there I made my way to the event venue, a distance of about 6km. Walking allows me to truly experience a city – its beat, vibe, smells, and soundscape. It’s the best way to get a feel for the local culture.  Exploring on foot ensures at least a minimum of movement during conferences and fairs –  and take in the sensory experience of a new place. Ironically, after deliberately immersing myself in the sights, sounds and smells of Vienna, I then spent the much of the event dealing with virtual and augmented worlds.

AWEXR 2023 - Vienna AWEXR 2023 - Vienna

The exhibition area at AWE XR Europe had a different feel compared to Laval VR earlier this year, with fewer exhibitors overall. I felt at AWEXR the focus was primarily on technical and engineering XR applications. There were exceptions like for instance hixr’s Time Travel Berlin and Chronopolis.

AWEXR 2023 - Vienna

Some notable observations

The playground area featured different XR experiences like Artivive and Nettle VR. Interesting exhibitors included Copresence app for virtual collaboration, Cognitive 3D for 3D modeling and Ikarus 3D’s 3D modeling software and product visualisation in general.

For me the one of the standout exhibits at AWE XR Europe was Time Travel Berlin’s, an immersive XR experience that virtually transports users back in time to 1920s Berlin. Unlike most other exhibits focused on technical demonstrations, both Time Travel Berlin and Chronopolis highlighted the humanities applications of XR through an incredibly detailed historical recreation in the case of Time travel Berlin.
Participants are immersed in a vivid simulation of the vibrant Pariser Platz outside the Brandenburg Gate, populated with period vehicles, hotels, and pedestrian crowds. The meticulous attention to accuracy and human-centered storytelling made it feel like walking through history. It showed that while XR enables engineering feats like 3D modeling, it can also profoundly enhance fields like education, heritage preservation, and narrative experiences. This innovative humanities-focused use of immersive technology was a refreshing change from the predominant tech demos. As one of the few exhibits bridging STEM and the humanities, it was undoubtedly a highlight of AWE XR Europe.

Another interesting exhibitor was Holonet, a Croatian startup offering a VR collaboration platform using realistic hologram avatars based on user photos. Their system supports see-through capabilities on glasses that have the feature. This creates a much more immersive experience than conventional VR avatars.

Delta Reality, another Croatian company, focused on delivering exceptional, meticulously crafted XR experiences. Their talented team brings together experts across technology, design and creativity to push the boundaries of immersive content.

AWEXR 2023 - Vienna

Overall, AWE XR Europe provided a great opportunity to see the latest innovations in XR from both startups and established players. The perceived smaller size enabled more intimate networking and discovery compared to other larger events. I was able to connect with key players in the European XR ecosystem and bring back valuable insights for our team. A highlight was reconnecting with James Mifsud of ArborXR, whom I had met earlier this year at Laval XR. It was great to catch up with James and attend the afterparty together. The impromptu dinner with other attendees especially the ones from Croatia was especially enjoyable and inspirational. Events like AWEXR enable these valuable personal connections within the close-knit XR community.

AWEXR 2023 - Vienna AWEXR 2023 - Vienna

AWEXR 2023 - Vienna AWEXR 2023 - Vienna

Online Learning and Global Trends: Insights from Edu Conferences and EdTech Events

The field of Educational Technology is rapidly evolving and the trends and advancements in online/digital learning are ever-changing with a fast pace.  Online learning has been on the rise globally, particularly with a further acceleration during and after COVID-19 pandemic as a need for a shift from traditional education to remote learning. This shift has been driven by factors such as accessibility, flexibility, and the need for continuous learning. With an increasing impact of digitalization on education and a demand for digital transformation, educational opportunities are becoming more accessible and more flexible. Education sector has to prepare and adapt itself to ensure that all students can benefit from these advancements.

During the past six months, in addition to a number of local and small events and seminars on different topics in education, I attended a few major global conferences on online learning and digital education as well as the biggest EdTech event in Europe in which I was able to participate in many keynotes, workshops, presentations, and discussions. Here, I present a reflection on my observations and takeaways of these events .

  • Online Educa Berlin (OEB): a global leading cross-sector conference and exhibition on technology supported learning and training that brings participants from higher education, workplace and government sectors to discuss how technology opportunities and challenges are transforming the world of learning.  
  • bett London: one of the biggest EdTech exhibitions in the world and a global meeting place for the educators, change-makers, startups and major companies in the field to present and discuss cutting-edge EdTech solutions.
  • EATEL Summer School : a major European event on technology enhanced learning held by the European Association of Technology Enhanced Learning which brings together researchers, doctoral students, and professors from a range of disciplines (computer science, educational science, phycology, social sciences ,and IT) to share and discuss their latest projects.
  •  EDEN Digital Learning Europe:  Europe’s leading network for advancing digital education Digital and a community to foster knowledge exchange and enhance understanding among professionals in distance and e-learning, and to promote best practices and policies throughout Europe and beyond.

As a professional in the field with hands on development who is closely following latest developments and advancements in education and EdTech sector, I can summarize the key trends and directions in online/ digital learning as follows:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and generative AI in education:
Image: https://www.leaderedutech.com/artificial-intelligence-in-education/

Artificial intelligence and its associated technologies have been a major point of discussion in the past few years. Lately, this has been particularly augmented by the emergence of generative AI such as ChatGPT. As a hype, it has triggered very heated debates on their applications, risks, and challenges from technical, pedagogical, social, and ethical perspectives (see UNESCO’s recommendation on the ethics of AI). On a broader level, it has got the attention of all stakeholders not only on micro levels but also macro and global change/decision makers. While there are extreme viewpoints of both proponents and opponents on the impact of AI on human being, society, businesses, and future jobs, for us educators and EdTech innovators, what is most important is the educational applications of AI. Whereas AI technologies are increasingly being used for various purposes in education such as intelligent tutoring systems, AI-powered simulations and immersive experiences, automated assessments, personalized guidance, and virtual assistants to offer immediate support to students, it will be still a big challenge in education and learning that how AI-powered tools can be implemented in a pedagogical and ethically sound way in educational settings. As such, in our Global Campus project we strive to explore the potential of generative AI as an assistive tool and content creation in online learning, e.g., Creating Videos with Artificial Intelligence. Another bigger question for educational institutions’ decision makers is how to deal with use of ChatGPT and AI-powered tools by students as it increases the risk of plagiarism and cheating.

  • Micro-learning, bite-sized contents and stackable credentials:
Image: https://iite.unesco.org/highlights/open-badges-new-opportunities-to-recognize-and-validate-achievements-digitally/

With the rise of digital learning in various formats, micro-credentials are becoming more prevalent in higher education. Micro-credentials involves delivering contents in small, flexible, focused units and bite-sized formats that learners can access on their convenience with a possibility of combining them together to accomplish wider learning topics. While micro-credentials are emerging and being developed across education sector, numerous global initiatives seek to support the development, implementation and recognition of micro-credentials across institutions, businesses, and sectors. Such examples include: European Council recommendation on micro-credentials, UNESCO’s definition of micro-credentials, and OECD’s education policy perspectives, and a cross-university initiative is the Micro-credential in Sustainability by Una Europa which the University of Helsinki is part of. Combining micro-learning modules together can create stackable credentials to build up higher-level qualifications as a flexible pathway to up-skilling, re-skilling and lifelong learning. A natural result of digital transformation and micro-credentials is the development of a kind of non-degree education structure of online credentialing and digital badges. Many online learning platforms are partnering with universities and industry organizations to offer recognized credentials, such as certificates and digital badges. These micro-credentials provide learners with evidence of specific skills and achievements which can enhance their employability. While learning outside the formal education systems through online/digital formats is increasingly growing, a big challenge that faces the global education ecosystem is to find the ways to accredit alternative learning pathways. Thus, certification and accreditation of online learning is still an issue. To address this, there have been a number of initiatives to provide both technical and organizational infrastructures to promote the recognition of digital badges and online credentials. For instance, MIT DCC Digital Credentials Consortium. Another standard for verifying and issuing badges is Open Badges which is the world’s leading format for digital badges.

  • Mixed reality (XR), immersive learning and game-based learning:

Gamification as a learning and training method has been around for many years. In the recent years, however, new generations of immersive experiences have emerged and been implemented in education and learning. Immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) are being incorporated into digital learning to combine physical and virtual worlds to create interactive learning environments enabling learners to interact with digital contents and virtual objects in simulated real-world contexts.

Image: https://www.spheregen.com/augmented-virtual-and-mixed-reality-employee-training/

Applying appropriate pedagogical principles of entertainment, adventure, problem solving and exploration, virtual reality can create realistic simulations of complex environments such as historical settings, medical procedures, and science laboratories allowing learners to practice and experiment in a safe and controlled environment. The applications of XR in all its forms in education and learning are various. For example, they can cover a range of purposes such as skill development and training, collaborative learning and teamwork, storytelling and narrative-based learning, cultural interaction, art and design, and language learning. Apart from the many EdTech startups and SMEs developing their solutions on different aspects of XR, big enterprises such as ACER and Microsoft are also trying to provide tools and resources of the educational applications of these technologies. One of the main product development goals in our Global Campus project is to implement different types of XR technologies in our experiments of which we are currently focused on creating a a VR learning adventure for sustainability.

  • Data Analytics and Learning Analytics (LA)

The grow of online learning in very many formats and the emergence of massive (open) online learning environments such as MOOCs has resulted methods and tools for data mining and learning analytics. LA is both methods and tools used to collect, analyze and report data about learners, their interaction and behavior, and the contexts and harnessing the power of data to understand and optimize learning and the environments in which it occurs.

Image: https://digitallearning.northwestern.edu/learning-analytics

Data analytics and learning analytics play important roles in the field of education. A well-developed area of research in education in the past decade, LA has gained the attention of course developers, learning designers and educational institutions to implement different methods of LA in online and digital learning environments to gain actionable insights and make data-driven decisions to enhance learner performance, engagement, motivation, learning outcomes and to personalize instruction. In recent years, efforts to combine LA and learning design have been developed across universities to apply and translate these approaches into online learning development.

  • Upskilling, digital skills and the future skills:

With the ever-changing nature of the society impacted by digital transformation, the skills needed for the present and the future citizens are evolving in a very fast pace. Not only the workforce of tomorrow will need new sets of skills but also today’s workforce needs to continually learn new skills and adapt as new jobs emerge. This digital surge requires a skills revolution in Europe, as well as globally. Today’s learners need to develop both multidisciplinary competencies, soft-skills, and digital skills to be equipped with the demands of the society and the future job market. As such, Future Skills are currently being developed all over the world in various shapes and forms, and the focal point is the changing nature of  social conditions for work, education and life and the importance of the skills for workers in a digitized world (a). Digital learning is increasingly recognized as a means to upskill and reskill individuals in a rapidly evolving job market. This calls for alternative forms of learning that the stakeholders should respond to. For instance, the European Commission calls to provide high-quality, inclusive and accessible digital education and training to develop the digital skills of the citizens. Part of the Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027), European Commission launched European Digital Education Hub to reinforce cooperation between stakeholders to promote digitalization agendas. An effective approach of lifelong learning is key to ensure that everyone has the knowledge, skills and competences needed to thrive in personal and professional lives. Defining skills for citizens, Mckinsey & Company has identified 65 fundamental skills that will help citizens thrive in the future.

Image: https://www.iberdrola.com/innovation/digital-skills

  • Blockchain in education:

Alternative formats of education such as digital credentials, micro-learning and badges require appropriate standards and protocols for verification, certification, accreditation, transferability and security. One way of applying blockchain in education is to use it as a  Credentialing Ecosystem to create portable, interoperable, user-controlled digital credentials. While the use of blockchain technology in education is still in its infancy, in recent years blockchain has been a debated topic to explore what are the promises and challenges of Blockchain in education. Here are a few ways and purposes that blockchain can be applied to educational contexts:

  • issuing, sharing, and verifying educational qualifications
  • issuing badges e.g., Open Badge Passport 
  • verifying academic credentials
  • authenticating users on logging and verifying data
  • recording academic transcripts and transferring the credentials
  • storing students’ data and personal information in a secure way
  • grading, assessment and recording the exam results
  • automating secure payments and financial transactions of students

Image: https://procsee.eu/good-practice/use-of-blockchain-in-education/

Blockchain can help educational institutions for a better security, anti-fraud protection and optimization as well as students to have their personal lifelong learning passport stored on Blockchain for use as part of their future career. While blockchain holds significant promises, implementing it in education requires cautious consideration of technical, regulatory, and organizational factors.

  • OER/OEP and open education:

The notion of open education is not new, however, and it goes a few decades back when there were efforts to change institutional practices to eliminate barriers and expand access to learning (b). Open education in its wider definition includes open educational resources (OER), open educational practices (OEP) encompassing a range of concepts and strategies that promote the accessibility, sharing, and collaboration of educational resources and practices. They are characterized as learning opportunities which are informal, personalized and distributed largely outside the boundaries of established educational institutions. MOOCs as the results of OEP and OER are the main formats of opening up learning possibilities to all that have been increasingly expanded in the past ten years and still are the major form of open online courses developed globally covering a wide range of topics.

There are numerous examples of the implementation of OER/OEP: OER Commons, Open Educational Resources (OER) toolkit, ENCORE+: European Network for Catalyzing Open Resources in Education.  Open access, open publishing, open licensing and Creative Commons have been encouraged and implemented in the realm of research and publishing as the results of openness movement in education. The adaption of OER and OEP requires fundamental transformations in policy, pedagogy, institutional structure, technical infrastructure, and cooperation.  

  • Mobile learning and learning on the go:

With the widespread use of smartphones, tablets, and handheld devices, mobile learning has become prevalent in recent years. Learning platforms and educational apps are optimized for mobile devices enabling learners to access learning resources anytime, anywhere.  Still, mobile learning is remaining a relevant solution to be more explored and adapted in the future of digital learning as a solution to address accessibility and equity in education. With the increasing development of mobile apps for various purposes, mobile learning is becoming even more prevailing in the future to empower learners on the go and with bit-sized digital learning materials, as mentioned above. More recent kinds of wearable technologies such as smartwatches, eyewear, AR/VR headsets are being implements and researched for their learning potential such as in-situ and real-time learning, immersive and interactive learning, and learning anytime/anywhere.  

Image: https://www.learndash.com/7-random-mobile-learning-facts/

References:

a. Future Skills – Future Learning and Future Higher Education. https://nextskills.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Future-Skills-The-Future-of-learning-and-higher-education.pdf

b. A NEW ECOLOGY FOR LEARNING: An Online Ethnographic Study of Learners’ Participation and Experience in Connectivist MOOCs. https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/184138/saadatmand.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

Laval Virtual

My Journey Through Laval Virtual: The Quest for Immersion in the World of Virtual Reality

To give you some context you will find a brief summary about myself at the end of this post.

As an enthusiast of the concept of virtual realities, I was eager to attend Laval Virtual, the premier event showcasing the latest advancements in VR, augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) in short XR in as someone put it humbly the capital of VR! I couldn’t wait to dive into the world of cutting-edge technology, engaging discussions, and artistic creations. Throughout the event, I found myself constantly questioning: “What truly defines immersive experiences in XR?”
This is my personal journey to and through Laval Virtual as I explored innovative brands, participated in thought-provoking discussions, and found inspiration in the arts, all in the quest for immersion. But before I let you read the text itself I offer you the possibility to immersive yourself in a few 360° photos from various stages of my trip.

You can freely navigate with your mouse within the 360° image, there is even a hotspot you can click on and move on to the next image.

Note: While writing this on Friday 14 April, Laval Virtual is still on-going, but unfortunately I have to catch a train and then plane to make it home still today. Greetings from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.

Discoveries

During my first day on Wednesday 12 April, I was thrilled to explore the innovative brands and technologies being showcased. As a newish VR enthusiast, I was particularly impressed by Movella‘s Xsense,  found the approach L.A.P.S. is taking interesting and thought Olfy had taken the next logic step in bringing one more of our senses to the XR table, very refreshing. Xsense’s groundbreaking work in motion capture, live avatar performance solutions, and sensory integration expanded, seeing it live, my understanding of what’s possible in VR and AR experiences.
L.A.P.S.’s solutions on the other hand enable real-time facial expression tracking, which allows avatars to mirror the movements and emotions of the performers in real-time. Finally Olfy is a virtual reality system that simulates smells to create a more immersive experience. In their own words: The sense of smell allows virtual reality experiences to be more engaging and immersive. Our goal is to enhance the emotions and effectiveness of virtual experiences by allowing you to experience them 100% (Olfy).

Thought-Provoking Conversations

As I attended the various discussions and keynotes, the Immersive Digital Learning topic stood out as a highlight for me, particularly the engaging panel discussion featuring Anaïs Pierre, Bogdan Constantinescu, Jayesh Pillai, and Thierry Koscielniak. Anaïs passionately emphasised that technology serves as a tool, and we must prioritise learning goals before seeking the appropriate technological solution. The use of tech tools must be purposeful and meaningful.
This is exactly how I feel about the use of technology in general. Content and (in my case usually) learning goals first, otherwise your course or product will not find its full potential.

I listened to Kent Bye’s fast-paced talk on the topic of XR moral dilemmas and ethical considerations. He discussed several crucial concerns that we should all be pondering, including the digital divide in access to XR technology, threats to privacy (e.g., biometric data), apparently there is no legislation on this and similar issues.

Furthermore a new concept I hadn’t heard before: mental privacy which is part of a proposed set of rights called the Neuro rights. Mental privacy refers to the protection of an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and mental processes from unauthorised storing and access, particularly in the context of novel technologies that can potentially monitor or manipulate these aspects of the human experience. This really jump-started my brain and I am still processing all the possible implications and reflecting on the ethical and practical considerations of using XR technologies in education and beyond.

During another panel discussion, I was introduced to the concept of eco-design, which involves reducing the energy footprint of eg. VR headsets. It became clear that as VR technology evolves, we must be aware of and address the energy-intensive nature of these devices to create a more sustainable and ethical future. By incorporating eco-design principles, we can minimise the environmental impact of VR and ensure a more responsible approach to technology.

Finding Inspiration in the Arts

Now of course Recto VRso cannot go unmentioned in this blog post. Recto VRso is a component of Laval Virtual, which this year took place partially at Le Quarante, a cultural center in Laval and L’Espace Mayenne. It showcases innovative uses of XR in the field of art and culture. Attendees can interact with some of the  installations that push the boundaries of what is possible in XR art, providing a platform for networking and inspiration in the field – further fueling my passion for the intersection of technology and creativity.

I’d like to single out one installation called Memory house by artist Jiahe Zhao.
According to the artists own words an my rough translation into English: Numerous items hold cherished memories, ranging from beloved family toys to treasured travel souvenirs. “Memory House” offers a solution for storing these memories in a virtual realm. By using 3D scanning technology, memory objects are brought into the virtual space, and through transformation by AI (artificial intelligence), they are manifested into a one-of-a-kind virtual edifice that is ideal for exploration.

And yet Recto VRso seems to be an exception. Over and over have I noticed that XR related applications are heavily situated in the engineering, training/onboarding and skills learning sectors, very little is to be found in the liberal arts world, sadly. Having an academic background in field of liberal arts myself I was excited to discover the creative applications of XR technology at Laval Virtual. I found inspiration in BavARt, an AR-specialised firm that combines art and technology in a Pokémon Go-style app.

Immersion?

As I left LavalVR, I couldn’t help but reflect on my initial question of what defines immersive experiences in VR. Throughout my journey, I discovered that immersion is not just about cutting-edge technology and realistic visuals. It also involves connecting with our emotions, bridging the gap between the digital and physical worlds, and finding inspiration in the creative fusion of art and technology. The quest for immersion is a never-ending journey, one that continuously ignites my enthusiasm for discovering the boundless opportunities that await in the world of virtual reality.

Final thoughts

This was my first conference I attend on my own, I knew no one at Laval and because I am not really an extrovert, but an observer if you will, I struggle connecting with  strangers. Most attendees were there in larger parties and would therefore communicate and entertain themselves among each other which makes it for outsiders as myself hard to mingle. I am not complaining just stating what I noticed.
Yet at the hotel I couldn’t help but be involved in socialising with the French during breakfast. As people were arriving to the breakfast they were greeting everybody and they were greeted by the ones already there. People would ask each where they’re from and what they’d do and so forth. There was active communication throughout  breakfast. I loved it

And finally, note that the venues for the Laval Virtual are kilometers away from each other and not just quelques pas (a few steps) as was repeated by officials a few times =)  Nonetheless I took this as an opportunity to walk and boy did I do some walking, a total of 27km on two and a hald days between my hotel and the three venues.

Thank you Laval Virtual et à la prochaine!

***

Background

I am fairly new to the XR world, in fact it was only last October (2022) that I had a VR headset on for the first time, imagine that! Having studied languages, folkloristics and other liberal arts subjects (at the University of Helsinki (UH)) I have noticed that I have a somewhat different approach to technology than most of my peers. I have been working in several positions at UH over the last, almost two decades including as an International exchange expert and Edtech specialist before joining the Global campus team. As a lifelong learner I started studying university pedagogy last year at UH believing it will give me a strong understanding of educational technology. Furthermore I am the chair of Una Europa’s Educational design and technology cluster. For more coherent  info on me see the Us section.

Case Sustainable Health – a teacher’s view on Global Campus collaboration

Surreal handshake

 

Sustainable Health is a multidisciplinary online course that discusses sustainable development themes in the context of healthcare and life sciences. It serves as the discipline-specific counterpart to the University of Helsinki Sustainability Course (SUST-001). It is currently being piloted in the University of Helsinki, Faculty of Pharmacy, and development is ongoing for its expansion into a massive open online course (MOOC).

The course employs a highly learner-centred approach, giving participants ample freedom in terms of how and when they choose to complete it. The students construct an e-portfolio, where the participants compile reflections on sustainability challenges and solutions. The portfolio may be based on pre-defined assignments or other freely chosen topics that align with the learners’ interests. Mid-course, students exchange peer feedback on their portfolio drafts, and at the end of the course peer assessment is carried out to verify that the portfolios meet the passing requirements of the course. The participants can choose whether they wish to complete the course within one teaching period or over two consecutive periods.

The collaboration with Global Campus begun during the development phase of the first pilot version of Sustainable Health. At the time, large parts of the course content had been prepared and the outlines of course completion mechanics drawn. What we felt was still missing was a unifying concept to tie together the individual topics and tasks of the course in a way that would keep the students motivated throughout the extended periods of self-paced studying. Additionally, we wished to gain expert insight into the execution of the peer feedback and peer assessment workshops. This is where Global Campus stepped in.

I was immediately amazed by the can-do attitude of the whole Global Campus team. In the beginning of the collaboration, I was asked to compile a wish list of features and enhancements for the course that the team could help me with, which felt like a strange position for someone whose work typically involves catering to the wishes of other teachers. Not having a clear sense of the full range of possibilities, I was initially hesitant with my hopes, but it soon became evident that the options would be only limited by my own imagination. For example, what started as an idea for using text-to-speech snippets to introduce the course content was transformed by Global Campus into a full sci-fi narrative, delivered in a post-apocalyptic virtual reality environment by an avatar from the future. Such a mind-blowing reference point has taught me not to hold back my scope based on what I expect to be within the realms of possibility.

Furthermore, I received valuable advice on how to organize the exchange of peer feedback among the course participants and got excellent insight on how to formulate the feedback instructions and questions in a way that would make the assessment process motivating and useful to the students.

Despite the creative and uninhibited atmosphere, working with Global Campus was very organised. With Sasa Tkalcan’s excellent coordination and comprehensive documentation on the shared project whiteboard, the goals were set very clearly, and progress towards them was regularly monitored. I really liked this approach and hope to apply it in other collaborations later on. This was also my first time working with some of the project management tools involved, like Kanban, so I also acquired new tracking methods for my projects.

During the development phase, Sustainable Health was one of two concomitant Global Campus pilots. Despite the completely different disciplines and course topics of the pilots, we had several meetings between both developers and the whole Global Campus team and ended up having an extremely fruitful collaboration based on the shared goal of creating quality e-learning. Some unique ideas that arose in our joint discussions ended up as crucial parts of Sustainable Health (and vice versa, I hope), highlighting the impact of the interdisciplinary brainstorming. I have no doubt that we will keep in touch and continue sharing ideas and good practices with the developers of the sibling pilot also after the finalisation of both projects.

The biggest challenge I faced during the collaboration was the allocation of my personal resources between developing the e-learning mechanics of the course and producing learning materials. The latter task was initially hoped to be shared within a larger group of subject matter experts, but the dynamic nature of the working group and the limited time resources of the experts proved challenging for co-creation. Eventually, I took on a large portion of the scientific content creation to ensure that the course would be ready for piloting on schedule, which limited my availability for the conceptualisation of experimental e-learning elements. On the bright side, the content is now in place with the pilot, allowing the future development of the course to focus purely on educational technology innovation and making the course as fun, engaging, and inspiring as possible. Conversations with the Global Campus team and other pilot developers revealed that the issue may in fact be more general, as it may often be challenging for subject matter experts to find the time to produce certain types of content, such as video lectures. However, it was also highlighted that AI-assisted technologies, such as text-to-speech and digital avatar tools, could significantly reduce this barrier and make it easier to co-develop learning materials in the future.

Overall, working with Global Campus has been a great experience that has really expanded my perspective on what is achievable when open-minded enthusiasm meets with the latest technology. In addition, the collaboration between the two parallel course pilots served as a great example of how multidisciplinary teamwork and idea exchange can greatly enhance course development projects when facilitated by a great team. I feel that by sharing knowledge and best practices between the projects, we established a framework that could be easily adopted to guide future course development initiatives.

Ilkka Miettinen
University instructor / Post-doctoral researcher
Faculty of Pharmacy / Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS)
University of Helsinki

Why VR for education?

When considering if a new emerging technology, such as virtual reality (VR), would be a right tool to use in a certain educational situation, one should always think about the specific need.

People usually refer to virtual reality (VR) as a 3D environment that is experienced with the VR headset. It can also be understood as a virtual gamified learning environment, a simulation or 360 content that can be used with the laptop or mobile device. According to Helsinki XR Center´s good glossary and definitions:

VR can mimic reality or be something totally different.

Sometimes other type of media like a video is more powerful, sometimes not. To sum up when VR could be used, teachers could think about the following. If something is not possible in the classroom or with traditional EdTech and online learning tools, then maybe that is possible in VR because:

VR can make impossible possible.

Here is a list of some of the identified benefits of virtual reality as a learning technology:

  • You can travel in time, back and forth. This allows learners to be uniquely immersed in different kinds of future scenarios too.
  • You can travel in place. A teacher can take the class into space or they can live someone else´s life on the other side of the world.
  • You can travel in size. A learner can make big things small and vice versa. It is possible to observe the objects that otherwise would be impossible, like travel inside a cell or a volcano.
  • The complex cause-and-effect relations are easier to understand when seeing the consequences in front of you. What a learner does in VR is affecting to the end result.
  • You can change the perspective and learn empathy. Probably one of the most important benefits of VR is the possibility to see the world from someone else´s eyes. When you imagine the world from another person´s point of view, the gap between oneself and the other decreases and the other becomes more “self like”. This way, VR helps to avoid stereotypes and false or comforting narratives. The research has found out that VR experiences in perspective-taking are especially powerful for people who in general have a hard time feeling concern for others and be empathetic. (Bailenson, 2018)
  • You can explore your identity. Immersion is important in identity exploration because virtual identity doesn´t need to worry about the physical attributes such as gender, race, and disabilities. (Slater, 2009 in Dede et al, 2019). In a virtual world, you can be anyone.

A learning theory that is often referred in relation to VR is situated learning or transferability. Transferability is also one of the key learning design principles defined by OECD (2018). Higher priority should be given to knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that can be learned in one context and transferred to others. A major criticism of instruction today is the low rate of transfer. Even high performing students often are unable to apply what they have learned in the class to similar real-world contexts (Dede et al, 2019). With virtual reality it is easier to create authentic learning experiences and simulations that feel like real.

VR headset in a university campus

When thinking about the virtual reality and other immersive tools as an educational technology, a teacher can think about the use cases through the following questions:

  • What is the most difficult thing to teach?
  • What is expensive?
  • What needs to be scaled?
  • What is the most important thing to teach?

VR applications are perfect tools for immersive experiences. Immersion is described as the mental state of being completely engaged with something. When learners have a safe space where they can explore things and try if their strategies are efficient, they can take more risks too. When being fully immersed in the virtual world, learners can be so motivated to learn more and are interacting with the content even deeper so that they can even reach the “flow”. That means that they can lose everything else around, even their sense of time (Csikszenthmihalyi, 2014). The educators can also think about the level of immersion they are aiming at – we also have great semi-immersive environments to use like 360 pictures or videos.

We encourage teachers to test and try the possibilities of virtual reality in education. We are excited to hear the use cases you have found and are happy help the teachers at the University of Helsinki to experiment different kind of virtual technologies.

References:

  • Bailenson, J. (2008). Experience on Demand. What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology.
  • Dede, C. G. (2019). Designing immersive authentic simulations that enhance motivation and learning: EcoLearn. In R. Feldman (Ed.), Learning science: Theory, research, practice. (pp. 229-259). New York: McGraw Hill.
  • OECD. (2018). The Future of Education and Skills. Education 2030.
  • Slater, M. (2009). Place Illusion and Plausibility can lead to realistic behaviour in immersive virtual environments. Philos Trans R Soc Lond, 364, 3549‐3557.

Exploring the Potential of VR in Group Work

Virtual avatars sitting in a virtual meeting room

The multi-disciplinary sustainability course at the University of Helsinki tested an alternative way of completing the project work using virtual reality (VR) technology.  Students were given the opportunity to use Oculus2 virtual glasses in Meta’s Horizon Workroom application for group meetings where they planned their own course presentation. The goal of the experiment was to evaluate the usability and ease of use of the devices and the efficiency of working in virtual space.

The experiment was part of the University of Helsinki’s Global Campus project, led by EdTech Expert Jussi Wright.  The teacher responsible for the course was the university lecturer Rami Ratvio from HELSUS.  From the tested alternatives, Meta’s Horizon Workroom application was chosen for the actual use test. The program was chosen in part because of the features and its more limited ability to move, which helped to focus on meeting work instead of moving around in free space.

The students who participated in the experiment generally enjoyed the experience and found working in VR mode to be beneficial. The feeling of presence in the virtual meeting was considered to be better than in traditional video meetings, and the meeting atmosphere was felt to be more intense. However, the use of the VR glasses and the program were considered challenging at first, and it was suggested that there should be more time allocated for practice before the course begins.

The Horizon Workroom application also allows for recording meetings, sharing text and image files, and even has the option for one student to act as the organizer and update the agenda on the virtual meeting room’s wall. It’s the perfect blend of technology and organization to enhance the learning experience.

Overall, this experiment demonstrated the potential of VR technology in group work and highlighted the importance of preparing students before using such technology in class. With the right tools and training, VR technology can be a powerful tool to enhance the learning experience, collaboration and improve group work outcomes.

Message from the future

Person looking through a stand-alone window in a dystopian landscape.

Sustainable health course

This is about Global campus’ first project, the Sustainable health course by the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Helsinki.

Conceived and orchestrated by Ilkka Miettinen PhD (pharm.), the course is based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as formulated by the United Nations. Sasa Tkalcan, on behalf of Global campus, assumed the lead in crafting a lightly gamified storyline and after a few tests using drone footage, 360° images and a VR headset Sasa came up with a few mockups which served as a basis for creating a visually striking concept for the course.

Ilkka and Sasa formed a dynamic working partnership as they collaborated on the project. Sasa, having previously worked extensively with ThingLink, was well-versed in the tool’s capabilities and thus elected it as the platform for the VR components of the course. The core concept was to build a VR environment, which nonetheless would also function on a plain screen, for an introduction in which the learner encounters a hologram and is presented with an assignment. Upon successful completion of the course, the learner is reunited with the hologram in a modified environment, where they are presented with a certificate.

Hologram of a person

The project involved filming a professor in a studio to be transformed into the hologram delivering the assignment. However, in the interest of preserving the element of surprise for prospective learners, details shall remain undisclosed. The project was completed on schedule and the course was made available online on the 10th of January, 2023.