Member storyVirtual reality headsets.

Fun, engaging, and interactive: how VR changed open evenings at Gower College Swansea

Gower College Swansea's Open Class platform offers 3D classrooms and virtual reality tours, allowing prospective students to virtually visit before attending an open evening, calming any anxiety about a new and potentially overwhelming setting.

In March 2020, like all education providers, Gower College Swansea was faced with the unexpected challenge of moving online. With in-person open evenings cancelled, staff needed to find a solution to engage prospective students. They created Open Class, a platform that is enabling them to share essential information in a fun and interactive way and bring together the local community.

Kate Pearce, digital solutions manager says:

Kate Pearce profile.

“Open Class allowed the schools we were working with to easily direct their students to the college. It wasn't just about sharing course information. Given the period we were in, we wanted to share information to support with their wellbeing as well as finding the best way to introduce the college.”

At the time, Open Class was a solution to overcome a particular challenge, but it was to be the first big step on their digital journey. During the second lockdown, the college was provided funding by the Welsh Government to support digital projects. With senior management backing, Kate purchased virtual reality (VR) equipment and began working with her team to create VR tours as a new way of showing schools around the college.

Exploring VR

With five campuses, there was a lot of time and effort involved in scanning the rooms in preparation to set up tours. Armed with the camera, staff identified a room per subject and staged it as if it were a traditional open evening, highlighting anything Kate thought students would be interested in. She says:

“If there was portfolio work in the art or photography rooms, for example, we would lay it out, because when you zoom in the detail is incredible. Every circle you see on the floor represents a move of the camera so that gives you an idea of what was required from the team here.”

When further government funding became available, Kate looked at how to expand on the VR tours and decided to include a teacher for each subject area. This addition means that a simple red dot anywhere on-screen clicks through to a YouTube video of the staff member talking about their subject area. She says:

“Being able to replicate an in-person open evening as closely as possible gives students a real sense of the college.”

Another valuable aspect of having realistic VR tours was the reassurance it offered to the students. Along with facing the prospect of a new environment, a different building, a new set of teachers and fellow students, this would all be coming after months of being away from a classroom entirely. Kate says:

“I remember thinking that not only have they not had a chance to visit the college, they haven't even been in their own school for the last six months. If the anxiety for a lot of young people going back to a school they already knew was quite high, it would be even more so for those heading to a new college.”

Returning to the classroom

Even with in-person college visits firmly back in the calendar, the VR tours are still proving popular. Many students find that touring the college virtually before attending an open evening can be helpful in calming any anxiety about a new and potentially overwhelming setting.

The college is also involved with two special schools in Swansea, both working with students with cognitive and developmental disorders, and one specialising in those with additional learning needs and physical disabilities. For these schools, the VR tours have been a help to students and their parents as they manage the uncertainty that can come with periods of transition.

Working more closely with local schools and forging stronger relationships with them has been another real benefit of the project and something that Kate is keen to continue to build on. As well as the camera, two headsets were bought for each of the 18 schools the college was working with, allowing them to access the tours as often as they wanted. The VR classrooms and facilities such as the gym and the cafeteria have proved popular, along with another unexpectedly popular feature. Kate says:

“The boys especially have been quite obsessed with what’s in the vending machines, what food there is to buy, they’re very excited when they see we have Freddos! It’s great that they’re joining the tours and having fun. If they go away thinking about the college and feeling happy, if it makes them smile, then for me that’s a win.”

The college has no plans to stop at 3D classrooms and VR tours, in fact the next stage of their digital journey is already underway. The digital team is working with a developer on an app that would offer an augmented reality (AR) navigation experience around the college, using the scans already in place for the VR tours.

“It really is in the early stages at the moment so even if it doesn’t end up being of use in a college, we want to make it flexible enough that you could take that as a base, and a university could use it, or a hospital.”

With an appetite for AR and VR growing in the sector, we have recently partnered with immersive learning expert, Metaverse Learning. The partnership aims to provide cost savings to Jisc members and improve access to AR and VR learning resources within the tertiary education sector.

To any other college considering a move into the world of VR, Kate has some words of advice:

“Talk to others and use the skills and expertise within your team. Be ready to try things out and take a leap, because if it’s anything like our experience you’ll find it’s a really great digital learning opportunity for everyone involved.”

Further information