Marine biology students at Newcastle given VR headsets instead of in-person practicals

Lily Holbrook reports on a new innovation for the next generation of marine biology students

Lily Holbrook
5th November 2020
Marine biology students at Newcastle University have been given virtual reality headsets to compensate for a lack of in-person practicals amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A final year marine biology student, who wishes to remain anonymous, suggested the sentiments in the year group were that of disappointment.

"We are all pretty upset to be honest, it feels like a slap in the face."

"As well as having the field trips to Mexico, Bermuda and Portugal cancelled, many students' dissertation projects have been cancelled as well. Whilst we understand that the University is trying their best given the circumstances, the least the university could do is offer us some reimbursement of tuition fees."

So far, there has been no talk of reimbursing students for the practicals they are missing. 

Degree Programme Director for Marine Sciences, Dr Sara Marsham, reported only positive feedback from Stage 2 students

Following the delivery of the first practical at the end of October, Degree Programme Director for Marine Sciences at Newcastle University, Dr Sara Marsham, reported receiving "only positive feedback from our Stage 2 students."

She went on to say that virtual practicals have been developed for students across all stages, where "a number of students even commented that they preferred the virtual practical as it allowed them to really focus on the task."

Dr Marsham continued by saying that "The University will remain open and we will continue to deliver virtual practicals during the national lockdown period."

"As soon as we return to Tier 2, in-person practical teaching will commence, even if this is during lockdown"

"While we remain in Tier 3, we cannot undertake any in-person teaching. As soon as we return to Tier 2, in-person practical teaching will commence, even if this is during lockdown."

Dr Marsham explained that some universities in the UK have been able to continue in-person teaching since September as they have remained in Tier 1 or 2 of the Department for Education system.

"Newcastle moved to Tier 3 in September as our students returned, which is why we have not yet been able to deliver any in-person teaching."

"There are no long-term plans to replace in-person practical teaching and field courses with online provision. As soon as we are able to, we will resume these activities, whilst continuing to provide virtual provision for any student not able to participate in in-person delivery."

There is speculation that the headsets may also be used to simulate field trips. In previous years, these have included overseas trips to Bermuda, Portugal and Mexico, so replicating this may prove a challenge.

When asked when field trips may resume, Dr Marsham expressed uncertainty, "I am afraid I cannot confirm which field trips may go ahead at present as that is dependent on which Tier the University is in. Until we return to Tier 2, we are unable to deliver any field trips in person."

"We don’t know if the headsets will also be used in place of vital boat work and other practicals"

The headsets, reported by some students to resemble the "cardboard drink holders you get in a McDonald's delivery" have been issued to students in Stage 2. 

Sharing their concerns over the headsets, one student expressed a lack of certainty over their purpose. "We don’t know if the headsets will also be used in place of vital boat work and other practicals," they told The Courier.

In her communication with The Courier, Dr Marsham confirmed that virtual practicals have been specifically developed for students across all stages, including virtual rocky shore and virtual boat practicals.

The same student told The Courier, "The staff have said we're technically getting more hours of teaching time this year so we shouldn't be complaining about fees. Although we were refunded for the field trips themselves, there was no consideration that many students had already bought kit from the kit list, spending possibly hundreds of pounds."

Despite initial reluctance, if it works, this new venture could transform the way science is taught. With the potential for exotic locations to be brought to the classroom for a fraction of the price, VR could revolutionise the future of fieldwork.

Featured Image: Pxhere

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AUTHOR: Lily Holbrook
MA Media & Journalism student at Newcastle University and science sub-editor for the 20/21 academic year.

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