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Fighting COVID-19 My Way: Preparing for the Worst in VR, with Broadstairs College’s Tim Jackson

Today’s guest, Broadstairs College Computing Programme Director Tim Jackson, saw COVID-19 coming, and expected it to flip the education system on its head. Luckily, it was the perfect opportunity to experiment transferring the classroom to a virtual environment.

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies to explore, enhance, and individualize learning for everyone. Today, my guest is Tim Jackson. Tim has been teaching further and higher education at Broadstairs College, part of the EKC Group in Kent, UK, for over 18 years, teaching a broad range of topics, including network design and management, data security, project management, games design and development, and more. Recently, robotics and virtual reality, where he has built two specialist VR lab environments with the help of some of his students. His involvement with Educators In VR enabled him to be an active participant within the inaugural Educators In VR International Summit that took place in February 2020, as one of the track leads for diversity and accessibility. Since then — and due to recent events — Tim has now taken his teaching in VR further, by delivering his entire teaching timetable of 21 hours per week within the Altspace VR and ENGAGE virtual reality platforms. Now, Tim is regarded as one of the few educators who is regularly and consistently delivering quality technical and vocational teaching within an active VR environment. Thanks so much for joining me today, Tim.

Tim: Good morning, Julie. Really nice to be here. How are you?

Julie: I’m great, thanks.Why don’t you start off by introducing yourself and just a little bit about what you’re doing at Broadstairs College.

Tim: Sure. Okay. Well, I’m the program director for Higher Education Computing Courses at Broadstairs College, which is a fancy title. Basically, what it means is that I design and I run the programs. And these are specifically for learners who are learning at degree level. So year one and two of a degree, specializing in computing. I’ve been at the college for quite a while. I actually love what I do. It’s a real passion of mine, teaching. And more recently, we’ve had a fairly new principal, he’s been with us a couple of years now, called Kurt Salter, stunning guy. He really gets what we’re trying to do and he’s been so supportive. So these last couple of years, he’s been able to allow me to develop some resources that really have enhanced the students’ experience at the college. More recently, that’s been things like robotics and virtual reality, which are elements that I’ve been able to bring into my higher education programs. And of course, the students didn’t really need much convincing to get involved. So, yeah, it’s been quite a ride these last couple of years. But more importantly, the last six months have been quite stunning, if you can call it that. And the last three months. Yes, very scary.

Julie: Yeah. I guess first, just making a statement about how amazing it is that your colleagues support you, that your superiors support you and see the potential of this technology in the education system.

Tim: Absolutely. And I think if you can go in and have a clear justification as to why you’re doing what you’re doing and most importantly, how the students are going to benefit from it, then I think any manager is going to listen to you. A dear friend of mine and colleague of Educators In VR, Daniel Dyboski-Bryant, once said to me, he said, “You know, the best way to convince a manager is, you can go in and tell them all day long how brilliant it’s gonna be. Just go in and put a headset on them, and wow them,” he said, because then they’ll see what students will see, and then they’ll realize how important the technology is. Great bit of advice. [laughs]

Julie: Yes, absolutely. And maybe we can take it back a couple months now, and tell me what was the status of your classroom with the students that you have today? What was it like three months ago, before we went into COVID lockdown? Tell me about what the classroom environment was like, and how you were teaching then.

Tim: Well, it was very different. Obviously, it was a physical environment. I could see the students in front of me. We were able to interact at a verbal level. I was using an interactive whiteboard to deliver sessions. I love drawing. I will draw all over an interactive whiteboard all day long. And now I’ve learnt how to do that in VR. So I’m very happy about that. And it was always in one place. You had a classroom. And I think that’s the difference with VR. You have to set these environments up, and you take for granted the fact that you can just walk into a physical classroom and deliver something. And the students were very comfortable. They had their own seating positions, they always sat in the same place. We could see what was happening with Coronavirus. We were a little bit concerned about it. We kept being told everything’s fine, don’t worry. And it was very, very strange because we could see it coming, but we couldn’t understand how it was going to affect us. So we carried on as if nothing had happened. And then one week it started becoming apparent that it was going to be a problem. And the week leading up to the lockdown was quite strange, because we knew we weren’t going to be there the week after. And we knew that things were going to change rapidly. And during that week, the students and I sat and planned and think, how are we going to do this? How are we going to be able to carry on with the learning? Because nobody knew how long it was going to be. And at that point, we had started toying with the idea of virtual reality, because it was going to be an assessment later on in the year. So we started talking about it. We’d been into Altspace, we’d been into ENGAGE. We’d had a few sessions in there, just looking around. The students were very comfortable, they were happy with that. They said, “Hey, why don’t we go for that?” And I said, yes, let’s do it, because I know that we can. And in one weekend — Julie — one weekend I took every single session and turned it into a VR session. So that first thing on Monday morning, I had 50-odd students in the same place at the same time in virtual reality, introducing what we were about to do. And it was — for me — a very special and emotional moment.

Julie: Incredible. That’s amazing that you transformed so quickly. And–

Tim: I didn’t sleep. [laughs]

Julie: [laughs] No, I can imagine not. But see here that the students were part of that planning…

Tim: Oh, absolutely.

Julie: It is incredible to not only include them. Maybe– can you tell us how old the students are? I know it’s at higher education, but they’re later teens.

Tim: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. They have to be over the age of 18 to be in higher education. And generally that– the two groups I have are between the ages of around about 18, to probably mid to late 20s. Sometimes I have students who are a little bit older, more mature. But this year they’re more sort of like 18 to 25, 26 maybe. But they’re a great group of kids. And I love working with them. And just to pick up on a point you just set, Julie, I think for me, I think it’s important to include the students in your planning. I think it’s important to say to them “What you think is going to work for you best?” because then they start to own it, and they start to become part of it. And then they believe in it, and then you’re more likely to get success from them. And I do that with them all the time. All the time. And I think it’s so important. And they feel important because of it. They feel special because of it. And then they are tied into it. And they were with me from day one. Absolutely.

Julie: So tell us then. Okay, so now we’re in lockdown and you’ve got– you said almost 50 students. Is that correct?

Tim: On the very first session, what I did, I brought everybody together. I brought all the groups together that I have. And I wanted to have an introductory session. I wanted to say, look, this is not going to beat us. We are here together in VR. We are going to take your learning forward and we will stay here as long as we have to. Whether it’s for the whole duration, whether it’s for a few weeks, because nobody knew. Little did we know it’s going to be for the rest of the academic year. I just wanted to have that starting point. On the weekends, not only was I transferring everything into VR, I wrote a little presentation for that Monday morning session. And I called it “Fighting COVID-19 My Way” and it was all about being in VR, and what the etiquette is, and what our plan is, and what the timetable was going to be, because I changed their timetable. You can’t sit there in VR for like three hours straight like you can in a classroom. So I changed it into one hour chunks, with a 15 to 20 minute break in between. And they were so on board. Oh, my goodness. They just said, come on, let’s do this.

Julie: Which platform did you use right away?

Tim: The very first one, I used ENGAGE, because I wanted to use a particular environment — the lecture hall environment — in ENGAGE, which for me was very important, because it was very similar to what we’d had in real life. And I wanted that to be the focal point, the transition between real life and virtual reality life. I wanted them to remember that moment, to say this is where we’re meeting now. It looks familiar to you, because it looks real to you. But now we’re going to move forward. So we have sessions in a coffee shop. We’ll have a seminar session in a conference room. We just mix up the different sessions and just have fun, and they love it.

Julie: Have you started changing the environments to be more– less school centric? So to speak?

Tim: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The only session that I did was that was school like was that very first session, which was a lecture hall. I’ve never been back in the lecture hall since. It’s always been something else.

Julie: That’s great.

Tim: So I try to keep– it’s not that I want to keep it informal, I want to keep it comfortable.

Julie: And interesting, too. Interesting and immersive, and have those environments relate back to some of your lessons, I’m sure, to some degree. Now, tell us about some of the challenges that some of the kids might have had, and if you could overcome them, and how you helped them through it.

Tim: That’s a really good question. [laughs] We do a lot of this in 2D, so it’s in pancake mode, it’s flat screen. And the reason that I’m able to do what I do, is because as part of their HE studies, the college have agreed that we will loan laptops and whatever equipment the students need, we will loan it to them for the duration of their studies with us, whether it be for the one year course or the two year variant. So I knew that every single one of them had a good quality laptop. And we’re talking 500 British pounds for a laptop, 16 gig of RAM, it wasn’t slow. So I knew that I’d be able to put them into VR and push them a little bit, and the equipment they had would do the job. And I think that was very important for me. And those laptops are what I call a leveller, you always worry that when you’re doing something a little bit special like this, how are the students going to be able to access it? Do they have an old laptop or an old PC? Is it a family PC that people always want to get hold of? Is there a problem with the Internet connection? We try to iron those out straight away, and the laptops they had were very important and allowed us to do that. So that’s how we got round that one, really. And it was fortuitous that we already had that in place. And I think that was part of my planning. Because we had the laptops, I was able to do this. And then, of course, I had to convince my managers, because everyone was saying, “Right, okay, use Teams, use email, use whatever you can to keep in touch with your students, phone them every day if you have to.” And I’m saying, “Um, actually, can I just be with them for the whole day in VR? They can see me, I can see them. We can talk in real time. Can we just do that?” And they’re looking at me thinking, what’s that about? So I had to explain to them why, and what it was, and kind of show them. And they said, “This is just amazing. We didn’t even know you could do this.” And I went, “Yeah.” So now they’re looking a lot of what we’re doing. And they’re talking about we’ve now — as a college — going to try and put a strategy in place for distance learning, if anything like this were to ever happen again. And I’d like to think that maybe they’ll look at some of the– well, I *know* they’ll look at some of the work I’ve been doing. I know that my principal will, he’s really dead keen on what I’m doing. And maybe that may form part of the college’s guidelines. Who knows?

Julie: That leads me to another question and conversation that I’ve been having with some other leaders, and even Caitlin Krause, who you graciously introduced me to. We’ve had a couple of great conversations, absolutely. And we’ve talked about how kids check in for the day — or shall I say “students”, I don’t want to say “kids” — how do students check in with you for the day? Do they– I know you adjusted their timetable, but do they go into VR and say, “Good morning, Mr. Jackson?”

Tim: [laughs] Nothing so formal.

Julie: How do they say say hello or — I guess — acknowledge that they’re present for the day?

Tim: What they normally do, they just turn up to my session. They just– they spawn at any point in the VR environment, and just go, “Morning, Tim.”

Julie: They show up. [laughs]

Tim: And that’s what I get. And I’m thinking, “All right. Okay.” The problem I have is that obviously they can create an avatar in any style they want. And of course, they tend to use their gaming tags. And I’ve got no idea who they are. So the only reason I know who they are is by their voice. And then I started to associate their avatar with their voice, with their name. And then I was able to do things like a register. And I was able to look up into the class to see this class filled with avatars: robots, and strange people with like bright blond hair– the bright, bright blonde hair was fine. It was just the style they had, it was really freaky. But I was able to then recognize them. And I was then calling out the register and I knew exactly where they were and I was able to place them. And the really interesting thing: do you remember I said a minute ago that I said in real life, when you were in the classroom, they came in and they had their particular seats?

Julie: Yes.

Tim: In VR, within a week, they had a particular space they wanted to stand in — or sit in, depending on what environment we were in — in VR.

Julie: That’s so interesting.

Tim: They took ownership of it. They believed it to be true, and related it to their real life.

Julie: So interesting. And I guess a different perspective for you as well, just kind of looking out at this classroom — who used to be humans — in front of you. And now there are all these different robots and–

Tim: Strange creatures and–

Julie: Strange creatures, but also probably hosting a little bit of character from each of those students that you could identify them, whether it be like spiky blond hair, or just a very robotic type character. They took the time to customize it to who they are. I guess you kind of feel a little bit more of their personality this way.

Tim: Yes, absolutely, 100 percent. And it was quite interesting, because some of it, you look it and you think, “Oh, yes, I know who that is.” And you could tell. And sometimes they’d catch you out and you think, “Oh, I’m not quite sure about that.” And then you’d see that there was another side to them, that you’d never realize that was there, that you would probably never know about if you had your lessons in real life.

Julie: That you’re actually getting to know your students more–

Tim: At a deeper level.

Julie: –through VR at a deeper level, than you were in the classroom standing right in front of them.

Tim: Exactly. So much has come out of this, so much. It’s been a very interesting psychological experiment, as well as a technological experiment. And the things that I found out about my students — and about myself, actually — I’m absolutely gobsmacked. And I think the potential for VR in education is much bigger than we realize it to be. And I think it’s when we start having experiences like this, we start to realize, “Hang on. There’s something going on here that we can tap into.” Can I just mention one thing you’re saying about registration?

Julie: Yes, please.

Tim: I didn’t have a formal– well, I did have a formal registration, I’d call their names out, but I kind of knew who was gonna be there. And I could see. But here’s the interesting thing. I mean, these guys, they’re good students, okay? All my students are good students. And their attendance — okay, you get the odd sickness and all that sort of thing — their attendance is probably sitting around about 90 to 95 percent, which is pretty good. Pretty good, okay? I’m telling you now, the minute we went into VR, we’re now hitting attendance rates of nearly a 100 percent, because no matter how they feel, they will always put on a headset, or open up their laptop and engage with it, because they don’t want to miss out, because they enjoy it, because it’s so much fun.

Julie: And that should be the way learning is.

Tim: Yes, absolutely.

Julie: Well, I wish we could end on that amazing note, but I do want to know more.

Tim: Yes, please do.

Julie: How the students transition in their productivity? So you’ve got them there. And I’m interested in the productivity, and also how your evaluations of them are going.

Tim: Right. Okay. Well, I mean, they did amazingly well, actually. They transitioned very, very well and very quickly. I think it helped that we’d had maybe two or three sessions in VR already, not formal teaching sessions, just– I like to call them assimilations sessions. Let’s just jump in and have a look around, jump off the walls if you want to, get it out your system. So when we actually went into VR to teach, they’d already got out of that “Oh, what does this do? Why does this happen, and how do I do this?” They got out of that habit. So they were there to learn straight away. And I think what was interesting was, within the first two weeks of us being in VR, I was already setting exercise work for them. I think within the first three weeks I was getting them to do presentations in virtual reality, which they’d never done before. And some of them really hate presentations. And it was interesting, because I asked them afterwards, how did you feel about that, giving a presentation in VR, and difference to real life? Because they really scare you in real life. And they said, “You know, it wasn’t as bad, because we knew that they were there, but they weren’t in front of us.” There’s lots of hidden little gems that we can pick up from trying different things in virtual reality, just to see how the students react. But they’ve done amazingly well. All of them are capable of hosting in VR. They’re capable of moderating in VR. So they’ve got that skillset as well. They’ve done their presentations in VR. There’s more to come, as we come to the end of the academic year. They’ve really fitted in well, and I’m really, really pleased.

Julie: Do you think these students are going to want to go back to the classroom, full time?

Tim: [laughs] Interesting you say that. I actually had one of them say to me the other day, out loud — it was totally free will, I didn’t challenge, I didn’t ask for any feedback — he just came out with it and he said, “You know what, Tim?” He said, “I’m gonna really miss being in VR.” And he said, “And I never thought I would say that, but I really like it in here, and I feel comfortable.” And I thought, wow, that’s a massive turnaround.

Julie: It really is something that education systems need to — even yours, Broadstairs College — they need to consider how they move forward in the next academic year of transitioning in-person classroom lessons into– are they fully in VR, or is it half in VR and half in the classroom? And I guess time will tell on how we roll back into what school is like and the education systems are going to be like, after we get through a little bit more of this pandemic stage. But we all knew that the education systems needed to be revamped or re-looked at, and students are learning differently. But this situation has forced us — especially your classroom — into this methodology of teaching now. I feel like it might be tricky to go back to the old way.

Tim: I must say that I did plan — at some point this year — to have some lessons in VR, because I could see that working with Daniel [Dyboski-Bryant] and Lorelle [VanFossen] in Educators In VR, I could see there was a real potential here, and there’s a dream of one of their colleagues who’s no longer with us — Chris Long — about this borderless classrooms, having classes around the world that we could sit in on. And I could see that vision, I could really feel it. And so I wanted to do something in VR. I wanted to see if it was possible, but it was only ever going to be maybe one or two sessions, because you have to be careful you don’t stray too far from the path. Which is really odd, because then this virus came along and forced the issue, absolutely forced the issue, smashed the timetable debate. And I said, “Right, that’s it, I’m going to do it.” And I told my managers and they looked to me and they said, “Yeah, go on then.” So I did.

Julie: [chuckles]

Tim: And now, when they start talk about planning for next year, they look at me and they say, “Yeah, you’re all right, aren’t you?” [laughs]

Julie: [laughs]

Tim: I’m telling you now, if they say to me in September, “Tim, we’re thinking we’re going to do online for the first semester,” I’m going to say “No problem. I’m already prepped. I’m ready to go.”

Julie: Incredible. So what is your advice to teachers, to learn and kind of transition their thoughts to doing what you’re doing? And obviously, you did it in a very fast pace. You were already kind–

Tim: One weekend.

Julie: [chuckles] Yeah. We don’t expect every teacher to–.

Tim: No. [chuckles]

Julie: –transform as quickly. I always talk about, we need champions in schools to be able to pursue the implementation of this, but maybe just outline a few things that you suggest teachers should take on themselves.

Tim: I think the first thing is that I already thought that I’d like to do this. It was already in my mind. I just didn’t know exactly how and when. If you’re going to do it, just do it. Don’t think twice about it. Just choose your platform and go for it. I’ve chosen two platforms, because they’re very different and they give me different things. And then become familiar with those platforms. Go and have a look at them, see what the functions are. Go and spend a little bit of time in that. You don’t have to be in a VR headset. You do it on a laptop. And I think if you’re hosting a session, a class, do it on a laptop, rather than in a 3D headset, because you’ve got more control that way. Let the students be in a VR headset if they want to be. You don’t need to be, because you’re there as the provider more than anything. So get a half decent laptop. Get your platform set up on there and go and play. Then go and speak to your superiors, okay? There’s no point going to talk to them, if you’re not comfortable with what you’re doing, because it will go wrong. So if you’re going to put yourself out there and say, “Hey, I want to make a difference of these students, I want to offer them something that’s a little bit unusual.” Be confident. Be sure you have the skillset behind you. Doesn’t take long to get familiar with these platforms. Then go to your superior and say, “Can I show you what I can do?” And then give them a little bit of a demo, and show them and say, “This is what I can do with my students.” And have a good rationale as to why you’re doing it, and most importantly, how the students will benefit from it. Once you’ve got that, then actually the move over to VR is reasonably straightforward, because you can put presentations into VR. You can have discussion seminars. You can have private one-to-one tutorial discussions with students. We use Discord as well, which gives us a little bit of a communication channel at the backend of it, as well. So we can talk to each other, I’m posting stuff on there all the time. I use the college system, which is Moodle. So it’s not just one thing, it’s a combination of things. But you have to be sure before you start how you want to do it, okay? And what your endgame plan is. I think once you’ve got that straight in your mind, then you’re able to move forward and put it into place.

Julie: Amazing. That’s a great way to end off our podcast session today. Thank you so much, Tim, for joining us today. And we do have an exciting week for you, being a part of the Virtual and Augmented Reality Global Summit. I’ll be speaking as well. But I know you have a panel coming up.

Tim: Yes, I’ll be there.

Julie: Yeah. If anybody’s listening on Tuesday,. Tim is speaking in the future smart digital ecosystems in a post-COVID era. And that’s Tuesday, June 2nd, at 10:30 in the morning. So you’ll be able to share your insights there.

Tim: UTC. Make sure you know what timezone that’s in, okay? [laughs]

Julie: It’s about 4:30 in the morning for us in Eastern Standard Time Zone. [chuckles] But that’s OK. It’s going to be a great week of some great conversation. So thank you so much, Tim, for joining me today on the XR for Learning podcast.

Tim: Thank you for inviting me, Julie. I’ve really enjoyed being here today and talking with you.

Julie: Keep inspiring other teachers to follow in your footsteps, because I think what you’re doing is incredible.

Tim: Thank you very much.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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