In the latest instalment of My Job in Higher Ed, our conversation with Gaute Rasmussen delves into the significant role virtual reality has the potential to play in the future of higher education. Gaute also explains how learning styles should be seen as situational; sometimes VR is a more appropriate method than textbooks for teaching concepts - and vice-versa. With this in mind, Gaute is a firm believer in working alongside subject matter experts to augment the teaching experience.
Gaute Rasmussen has worked in higher education for the past eight years and finds a sense of purpose in delivering virtual reality solutions for educational outcomes.
University of Newcastle's vision is to create a better future through a focus on innovation and impact. As an innovation specialist, what does a typical day in the office look like?
This is one of the more difficult questions because the short answer is there is no typical day. We’re in an area where things change so much and they change every day. Even if you have a plan for how the day is going to be it’s not always how the day turns out.
But there are some consistent structures for each day. The most obvious is that we follow a scrum / agile methodology. Every day, the development team has a stand-up meeting to talk about what we’ve done and what we’re going to work on for the upcoming day.
The common theme of the agile methodology is that we all work on the same projects, but we make sure we get together every day to ensure we communicate and discuss handovers from one task to another. When somebody’s working on a task, and they need help from someone else in the team, it’s helpful to have that stand-up discussion to share feedback and ideas.
We also make sure that we keep in touch with our stakeholders throughout our projects. We do this for two reasons. Firstly, we want to make sure that what we’re making suits their needs. The sooner we get feedback from them, the easier it is to change what we’re doing and make it something that can work for them. Secondly, we are not the subject matter experts (SME).
We’re experts in technology, but we need more expert knowledge for whatever academic area the application is trying to teach. The SMEs are invaluable in lending us their expertise in these areas so we can try to pass that on to the students through the application.
What are the most challenging and most rewarding parts of your job?
The most challenging part is dealing with uncertainty. We do try and stay on the cutting edge of technology and we often work on things that no one has worked on before which means there are often no references as to how to deal with a particular problem that may arise.
If you’re working day-to-day on something normal, for example, a front-end for a payroll database and you come across a problem, chances are someone has encountered this problem before. You can look this up and solve such issues without reinventing the wheel. The challenge with what we do day-to-day with AR, VR and AI is that the best practices might not exist yet.
That being said, this is also the most rewarding part of the job: being able to put something out there that is unique and original. Producing something that hasn’t been done before and seeing the application of these to academic situations is incredibly fulfilling. Sometimes when we deliver VR solutions to students for their academic purposes, their first reaction is usually, “wow, that’s so cool” - and that’s because of the technology.
It’s interesting and it’s captivating to them and because of this, they learn and grasp concepts a lot faster than if they were to use traditional learning methods. So, seeing them learn using the technology that we’ve designed is always rewarding.
Can you give us a quick overview of some of the AR, VR and AI projects that your team has produced and how these are impacting educational outcomes?
It’s going to be difficult to give a “quick overview”, but I’m happy to share some examples!
a) One of the programs we worked on is an application to help resuscitate newborn babies. For nurses and midwives, it can often be a very confronting situation to have to save a struggling new born baby after they are born. It’s a classic case of “I might have read about it, but what do I do now that it’s happening in real life?”
The VR solution fully replicates that machine and simulates the different scenarios that happen after a baby is born. This includes things like understanding what is happening with the baby and what the symptoms indicate, talking to a doctor to understand what is going on and communicating that to the baby’s parents.
When they have done this exercise in VR, they are a lot more confident in handling these situations in real life than if they were to just read it in a book. The idea is, before you go out on the field, you practice handling situations that may arise. And virtual simulations provide a great way for students to practice some of these intangible skills.
b) We've also been working on a virtual anesthesia. For dental students it’s important to understand situations beyond what is visible to them in a patient. If they are to provide anesthetics, they typically have a needle but have no idea how far they need to insert them. A student usually just practices this on an orange first, then straight away they practice on another student - another human being! In virtual reality, we try to simulate this situation, take away the skin, so you know where the nerves are, know where the tooth is and where to insert your needle.
It’s a lot less daunting than practicing on another student and it gives you a practical understanding of how to handle real-life situations with patients.
c) Another example is illustrating how a baby is formed. We enable students to understand how the baby grows within the womb and how it’s supposed to look at any given time. For example, when a mother is 37 weeks pregnant, you know what to expect as to where the baby’s head is supposed to be, what’s happened in past weeks and what they can expect to happen in coming weeks.
The actual 3D visualisation of what is happening makes it so much simpler for students to understand how the anatomy of the entire pregnancy process works and how the baby evolves leading up to childbirth. As a student, you know what’s happening right before childbirth and what symptoms to look out for.
What are your thoughts on the future of learning? Do you think virtual reality will be the future?
There are situations when face to face is more appropriate and there are situations where book learning, video, or audio are more appropriate. To me, it’s about figuring out which technology is more appropriate in different situations.
VR is not always great at teaching from the ground up – if you’re just trying to learn dates of historical events, for example, reading a book can be as effective. But if you want to give the student the experience of standing on the battle field, then VR is better. And probably more memorable. And VR is much better at practicing a particular action, or procedure. Reading about something isn’t nearly as good as doing it. And that’s where VR can really shine.
What are the top 3 things that a university should know if they are to be at the forefront of high tech educational innovation?
1. Be ready to spend money - lots of it!
2. Be ready to invest very broadly. Don’t just go after one technology, go after many of them.
3. Figure out what works out of your technologies and double down on them. Fail cheap and learn fast!
My job in higher ed is a monthly series. Take a look at our other interviews.
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