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Virtual Reality Field Trip Simulation for Occupational Medicine Distant Learners

Project Team

Aaron GriffithsF/Xual Education Services, Virtual Reality Architect

Dr Mark Newson-Smith, Course Director Occupational Medicine, Occupational & Aviation Medicine, University of Otago Wellington

Dr Rob Griffiths, Programme Director of Occupational & Aviation Medicine, Occupational & Aviation Medicine, University of Otago Wellington

The Project

The outcome is to replicate in virtual reality the experience of learning as a student group through industry site based tutorials that illustrate important learning objectives for an advance occupational medicine student. The primary goal is to promote experiential learning by exposure to study problems and learning contexts by increasing the sense of presence; in international distance learning programmes such as ours, student have limited access to group tutorials in workplaces, a teaching tool commonly used for occupational medicine higher professional training. Virtual reality offers opportunities for greater engagement in a range of academic contexts and using various techniques. Secondary goals have been a) to increase the ability of distance learning to teach clinical competencies and communication skills, and b) to grow “learning communities” through group activities in a virtual reality environment.


Occupational & Aviation Medicine (OAM) is a virtual department with staff locations ranging from Australia to the United Kingdom with USA, Canada, Dubai and Sweden en route. Students are based around the world, and practical/economic factors make face to face practicums any more often than once a year impractical. Accreditation of advanced medical training programmes requires the acquisition of clinical competencies, and OAM is developing virtual reality industrial scenarios and virtual patients in order to develop a platform for acquiring these. An air ambulance scenario was developed with the support of a previous CALT grant, which enabled students in pairs, observed by other students, to work through clinical care in the air scenarios. The occupational medicine virtual reality platform takes this a step further in that it attempts to replicate a clinical teaching tool (patients in an industrial setting) that is conventionally used in higher professional training in occupational medicine.


Working with an experienced virtual reality architect, who had developed the air ambulance platform for us previously, we have built an occupational medicine site visit field study, presenting clinical, operational, environmental, and problem-based information who will work through clinical problems as a group with at tutor and simulated “patients” in virtual reality. In order to create “presence” students “gear up” with appropriate levels of personal protective equipment and are exposed to the same auditory, visual and informational stimuli as they would during a site visit. We have built our first environment based on a previous visit, but are already collecting data and textures for other tutorials/sites. It is expected that these virtual field trips will complement and partly substitute for our existing programme of Adobe Connect webinars and group Forum Discussions in Moodle. It is our expectation that virtual reality will become an acceptable, and routine platform for teaching across all our teaching streams.


Feasibility testing is underway with actual students and in Semester 2, we intend to introduce virtual reality as a standard teaching tool. Learning effectiveness, acceptability and barriers to participation will be evaluated. The technology improves week by week, and so does the understanding of academic staff of virtual reality as a teaching medium. Academic staff will also be looking for secondary goals to be achieved with respect to developing clinical competencies and developing learning communities. As we gain more experience, we will expand the use of virtual reality in order to promote presence, development of communities of learning, teach clinical skills, with the ultimate goal of making distance learning a more connected and enjoyable experience than face to face learning.

Wider Implications

Otago University has a strategic objective of developing its global distance teaching market share for niche programmes that have international value in many of its strategy documents. In order to achieve this in high value markets, distance learning courses will need to be academic rigorous (which goes without saying), acceptable, accessible and connecting its staff and students. Platforms based on virtual reality could enable a small, South Pacific island university to achieve that objective.