The Learning Technology team at Plumpton College have recently begun working with their Learning Support team, using virtual reality as a tool to make initial experiences of college more inclusive than ever.

Learning Support team members outside Plumpton College. Including sign language alongside spoken introductions ensured deaf or hearing-impaired students could gain just as valuable experiences from VR

As a new environment for students, college presents diverse and, at times, challenging experiences for many new students. In order to be as inclusive as possible for all students, regardless of their learning status, Plumpton wanted to create a set of virtual reality introductions to different areas of the college campus, and different aspects of day-to-day life as a student at Plumpton College. Emphasising the inclusiveness of Plumpton and the vocational courses that it runs was the main focus of this project. Allowing students the opportunity to experience the college before applying or embarking on their learning journey at the beginning of the academic year provides them a chance to experience the new college environment without feeling overwhelmed, and a chance to accustomise to the change in setting. Seeing the place where they will be studying prior to attending will also ease anxiety for lots of students. Furthermore, getting current students involved allows this to be an even more impactful resource for all students, in that it pushes learning experience further, and allows more and more students to be closely involved with this type of innovative technology.

Learning Support and Sign Language

As well as producing a set of videos specifically designed for students who might need a higher level of support once they commence their studies at Plumpton, the project aimed to ensure the videos were accessible for all students. We used one of our Learning Support team members who assists students who are deaf, or have hearing loss and who use sign to communicate, to make these virtual reality videos accessible to students who might otherwise not be catered for within this mostly visual medium.

Using VR as a tool for students who have slightly higher needs requires more consideration for the actual experience of using VR, the nature of this technology as immersive and therefore perhaps overwhelming. However, including sign language into these videos is a step towards using this technology to produce inclusive teaching and learning experiences. Using VR as a method of positively impacting high needs learners especially is an inspiring use of this technology. One that could have far-reaching and profound impacts on how we teach students; overcoming the limitations of the educational structure & format when it comes to adapting learning to students for whom the traditional methods of learning are restrictive.

Welcome to Plumpton - LSA team members outside the main reception in our 360 degree video introduction

Students talking to students

Not only did the Learning Support and Learning Technology team feel it was important to highlight the opportunities for all students at Plumpton, but also that getting current students involved with this project would be inspiring to those thinking about attending, and to those students who weren't aware of Plumpton's courses.

We involved one of our current Forestry students, two of our current Level 1 Horticulture students, and one of our Level 1 Animal Management students. Having our Learning Support team member sign in the videos not only ensured that some of the students involved were able to communicate fully without their message being lost, but is invaluably inclusive for students watching these videos who are deaf or who have hearing loss.

The videos aimed to highlight not only the accessibility of Plumpton's courses, but also presented authentic student voices. There was no scripting involved, just prompting questions by our Learning Support team so that the students felt more at ease with the camera. In the same manner as the VR material Plumpton produced with the Student Union students, the ethos was that getting students talking to other students allows more authenticity into the videos, and demonstrates Plumpton's eagerness to improve and progress the learning experience of its students.

Our Forestry student with the Learning Support team, commenting on his experience at Plumpton College.

Having our Learning Support team members involved also enabled our Forestry student's experiences of Plumpton to be shared more succinctly, both with other members of staff, and also those students or viewers who are not deaf or who do not have hearing loss. In this way, these videos cross the gap that still exists between those that do not need to use sign to communicate, and those that do. Utilising the visual aspect of virtual reality as a method of incorporating our sign interpreter highlights the importance of using this kind of technology in a different way, to create inclusive, accessible experiences for all.

Ensuring VR is inclusive

The set of VR videos that were produced have been used on a High Needs Learner coffee morning in June, organised by Plumpton. This was an event for potential students and organisations that specialise in opportunities for students with higher learning support needs. The aim was to allow potential students a chance to experience Plumpton College before attending; providing informative resources that they can feel immersed in. It was also to show that this type of immersive, innovative technology has potential to empower all students, regardless of their learning needs, access to technology, and experience of college environments.

There are also plans to use these videos on social media platforms and the college website, in order to ensure that students and those that are apprehensive about the virtual technology can visit (and revisit) the college online. Social media applications like Facebook now support 360 degree footage, as do multiple online media sharing platforms. Sharing these videos online also means that young people who use social media as their main way of communication, due to its visual nature, are not ostracised from the opportunity to experience immersive technology.

Our Level 1 Horticulture students discussing the course facilities, and their experiences while studying at Plumpton College.

The implications of using virtual technology to positively impact students with higher learning needs are wide-reaching and exciting. It provides opportunities to students who might not otherwise be able to access this technology, to enrich the learning experience of all students. Immersive technology at the moment, despite being used in the classroom to great affect, is still largely visual - changing the way this technology is used to be more inclusive is a step in a potentially profound direction, both for education and for virtual technology.