In June 2019 University of Leeds announced the launch of its trailblazing Centre for Immersive Technologies, based in the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics. Their new learning hub is “designed to harness the power of immersive technologies, to upskill the next generation and push the boundaries of possibilities in research and education.” Over 80 researchers from a range of University subjects use the centre's world class facilities to focus on five priority areas – health, transport, education, productivity and culture. We caught up with project manager, Gareth Frith, to find out more about how the School of Medicine is utilising the space and its technologies...
Hi Gareth! Firstly, how did you get into your role as Enhanced Learning Project Manager at Leeds - have you always worked in higher ed?
Very much not, actually. I worked for a handful of large IT companies for a number of years, including as an Account Manager in Hewlett-Packard for British Telecom. The work centred around solutions for landline communications and broadband - then it started to move into mobile computing. It was around that time that I segwayed into higher ed.
When I started in the School of Medicine there was a project focusing on students’ workplace learning experiences and assessments, and the benefits of storing documents on personal digital assistants. Back then the devices were pretty primitive...until Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, which is exactly what we needed!
Now we can give a medical student an iPhone when they’re in clinical practice; they can record all of their experiences and assessments on it and download them directly to their portfolio. A lot of people don’t realise that medical students spend around 70% of their time off campus in NHS buildings carrying out clinical practise and workplace learning.
I came in to develop the iPhone technology because I knew about networking and communications, and how it could be applied to the learning process.
Does this save medical students time that would otherwise be wasted on admin?
It does, and it enables us to provide feedback quickly. Previously, the student would have to wander about with a piece of paper looking for a doctor to give written feedback, which could take a couple of weeks.
Quick feedback is important because students have a very limited time in each speciality. They might be in Emergency Medicine for six weeks, Psychiatry for another six and so on, so they need to know how to improve before moving on.
We’re personalising the learning for each individual in a 250-person cohort by giving them tailored feedback as well as group-wide feedback.
Image: Dentistry students at the new Centre for Immersive Technologies.
How does the University of Leeds’ new Centre for Immersive Technologies fit into what you do?
Our students have been working in a mobile way for a few years now, and we started thinking about how we could integrate immersive technology into their academic lives.
The School of Medicine enrols cohorts of 270 students per year, so we wanted to figure out how we could get individuals into challenging areas of clinical practice more easily. Nobody in their right mind would bring 270 students into an operating theatre; realistically we can probably allow two students to stand at the back as observers, but even then they may struggle to see what’s going on.
To help remedy this, we created a virtual reality resource that mimics the histo-pathology lab and takes students through the process of getting a tissue sample assessed. (In this scenario, the surgeon may remove the tissue sample and send it immediately to the pathology lab for analysis while the operation is going on so that they can get a result quickly.)
Students can download the VR app onto their phone and using a headset, walk through a 20-minute scenario involving all the processes the histo-pathologist usually goes through. We’ve also started looking at some resources from Pearson Immersive around standardised patient cases in a mixed reality holographic way. In one example, a patient is suffering from an allergic reaction which is potentially fatal. A student group works with the tutor to diagnose and treat the condition.
We assume students still get “face-to-face” training too?
Yes, absolutely. This is all about adding to the experience - it’s not about replacing anything. We’re using VR to enhance students’ experience of areas such as pathology labs by giving them access to challenging places without risking patient safety. The operating theatre and neo-natal wards are future candidates for this type of development. Again, it’s also making the learning experience more personalised.
We’ve also read about how you’re using robotics to accelerate rehabilitation in patients - could you tell us a bit more about this?
Yes - augmented reality can be used to speed up rehabilitation in a number of scenarios. For instance, if you suffer from a stroke, there’s quite an extensive recovery process involved from a physiotherapy perspective. You can give patients a VR headset to practice their recovery exercises.
Two of our students are going to be working with stroke doctors on this next year.
These new technologies must save the NHS a bit of money…
They do because the quicker a patient recovers, the less the NHS has to put in in terms of resources. Everybody wants to get that patient better quicker, from both a cost reduction and patient wellbeing perspective.
How much collaboration is going on in the Centre for Immersive Technologies at the moment?
The whole point of having a Centre for Immersive Technologies is to accelerate collaboration and bring different groups together. One of the imperatives for the centre is to connect the diverse and very interesting things that are going on in immersive technologies in different subject areas.
Our faculty has been developing some resources for neuroanatomy training using a Microsoft Hololens (a type of mixed reality device). It’s easier to show a student the neural pathways between the brain and the fingers in virtual reality than through the dissection or prosection of anatomical cadavers.
But in order to create these resources, we need to enlist the help of a graphic designer or someone with a background in art and design. We also need an IT specialist and someone who can work with gaming platforms to develop the images.
Image: Pedestrian simulator in the Centre for Immersive Studies.
How does Leeds compare with other institutions when it comes to immersive technology enhanced learning?
I definitely think we’re ahead of the field - although I would say that!
Leeds is quite visionary, especially if you look at what Transport Studies is doing with pedestrian simulation, what Art & Design did around the Holocaust Memorial and how dentists are using holographic heads to practice with.
In the medical school, we have links with professionals who already work in the NHS and other health providers. There was some interesting research done recently around operations; it revealed that the second operation is done quicker than the first of the day.
If you think about Andy Murray going onto a tennis court, you’d expect him to warm up before playing a match. The same principle should apply to surgeons; they should be able to warm up using virtual reality before going into their first actual op.
How do you see this technology evolving in the near future?
The technology is in its infancy, to be honest.
I foresee lighter devices being developed - glasses with some kind of display in the top right hand corner of the wearer’s vision. These could be used to train or prompt people with visual instructions. This could prove popular in fields like aerospace maintenance and rail engineering.
I definitely think there’s a need for lighter, quicker and more mobile-orientated devices at this stage. No doubt we’ll look back in 10 years time at what we’re using now and think: really!
Image: Leeds is inspiring the next generation of thinkers and innovators.
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