South West College: Virtual Worlds and Games to Create Their Immersive Online Induction Programme

Sebastián Pulido
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Dungannon, Northern Ireland

South West College has a presence in the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh in Northern Ireland with four campuses located in Cookstown, Dungannon, Enniskillen, and Omagh. Over 500 full and part-time staff service 14,000 students and work to ensure that the college continually provides both national and international education by continuously expanding their curriculum, whilst working closely with the local communities.

Today’s students are digital natives and have grown up with gaming as an omnipresent characteristic of their daily interactions. At SWC, the staff decided to take advantage of more engaging technologies like games and Virtual Worlds, once it became clear that the old induction course was not exciting enough for new students. A new student initiative was developed, called the “SWC Online Induction Programme (OIP)”, an immersive learning experience in which students can discover more about the college and the courses available.

The OIP was built around various innovative technologies, such as 360° Virtual Tours of each campus, Game Based Course Inductions, Virtual World networking and Blackboard Collaborate Sessions. The new delivery model allows for a comprehensive introduction to what lies ahead for the entire school year and has received such positive feedback from students. The concept is now in the process of being rolled out to multiple curriculum areas. Ciara Duffy, Virtual Services Manager, and Leona Hill, Software Applications Developer at SWC, shared their experience along with some best practices.

Ciara Duffy, Virtual Services Manager at South West College. Photo by: AFP Paul Faith.
Ciara Duffy, Virtual Services Manager at South West College. Photo by: AFP Paul Faith.

Using embedded games to offer a new learning experience

The OIP creates a more immersive and engaging learning experience with the simplicity of a Unity-based 2D game in which students can go through induction online and learn using gaming principles. It can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection so it’s not necessary to be physically on campus. Also, students take a quiz after each level so that their progress can be recorded.

One key feature in gaming is that in order for it to be fun, the player must overcome certain challenges so a sense of accomplishment is generated, which can, in turn, enhance learning if appropriated by course designers. This can be of lasting gratification even if the student fails repeatedly as in all kinds of games. Game-based learning is the approach Ciara and Leona took for OIP’s gameplay – the way in which the players interact with the game and how they further the plot by solving problems and getting over obstacles. This means that a player can get a sense of accomplishment while learning in the process, as there’s always a drive to get a given outcome or even a reward. The approach to gameplay with Game-based learning means that course content based on real life issues of any given subject matter can be integrated into a new learning experience.

It’s important to note that even though any kind of content can be integrated into a game with this kind of gameplay, Ciara and Leona want to make it clear that Game-based learning should only be used in cases where it offers very clear advantages over other teaching methods as an enhancement to the learning experience. For instance, there’s the 21st Century skills game in which students get to communicate with other characters in challenging real-life workplace situations. In this setting, students can try over and over again and learn from their failures without the threat of any real consequences. It should be noted that the situations in the game’s script are written and reviewed by experts and undergo a quality assurance process before release. 

Leona Hill, Software Applications Developer at South West College. Photo by: AFP Paul Faith.
Leona Hill, Software Applications Developer at South West College. Photo by: AFP Paul Faith.

Another essential characteristic is the implementation of Virtual Worlds, which are virtual environments that are populated by players, and can be independently explored at the same time by multiple users that participate and communicate with each other. This allows players to visit areas that are difficult or impossible to visit in a physical group setting, a feature that was important to be included in the OIP. Within that Virtual World perspective, students can explore their college, interact with other students, and find useful information throughout the year.

Other Blackboard tools that helped SWC build the Online Induction Programme

At every stage of the programme, Discussion Boards and Blog Posts inform students about everything they need to do to move on their own, if a question arises, it can be answered through these channels. They also learn from each other when discussing certain tasks or sharing their experiences, and that enables them to learn at the same pace. Additionally, SWC’s App which is based on Mosaic, opens a world of possibilities with mobile access to Gateway, SWC’s intranet, and the Virtual Tours, as well as full integration of Blackboard Student, allowing students to receive course notifications and access resources on the go. Blackboard Collaborate is also extensively utilized as a synchronous and asynchronous communication tool to allow students to talk live to lecturers and other students, promoting an attachment to the College and their course.

The capacity to embed other applications into Blackboard Learn has also been extremely useful for Ciara and Leona. For example, embedding Virtual Tours has provided a great way to introduce learners to a new environment, and give them access to varied information in the form of 360° panoramic visuals, immersive audio experiences, text and videos. At SWC, they realized there are many possibilities for the use of Virtual Tours within education, and that it can provide students with a highly engaging learning experience. In their case, it allows students to effectively familiarise themselves with the campus.


*Ciara Duffy, Virtual Services Manager – South West College

*Leona Hill, Software Applications Developer – South West College

*Photos by: AFP Paul Faith

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