Why would a veterinary and agricultural science lecturer use XR?

It might seem unusual for a lecturer in veterinary and agricultural science to be talking about extended reality (XR)- virtual (VR) and augmented (AR) reality. To give you some background about how and why I became involved in XR I need to compare the difference between when I was a veterinary and agricultural science student and how this differs to the current generation of students.

For me, it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I completed my veterinary degree as well as my agricultural science studies, but it is a few decades. When I completed my tertiary studies most of my classmates either knew someone who managed a farm or had relatives that knew someone on a property. This situation has now changed with many students having virtually no contact with rural enterprises and most not having any prior experience on properties before starting their degree. This is a good example of the increasing rural urban divide where there are increasing numbers of people living in major metropolitan regions and less in rural areas (1). It also reflects a greater diversity of student backgrounds from international locations where a similar rural urban divide also exists. A lack of primary production information has also been identified in primary and secondary education with groups such as the Primary Industries Education Foundation of Australia formed to improve food and fibre education (2). This increasing divide means that previous assumptions about students general understanding of food and fibre production needs to be rethought and there is increasing scope for the use of XR to enable on-site learning to enable improved learning when students visit rural enterprises.

We commenced developing virtual reality farms with 360 imaging initially looking at a display via computer screens or mobile devices. Towards the end of producing the 4DVirtualFarm site, Oculus Rift development kits became available so farms could also be viewed in VR using this method (3). Our early VR work used multiple images from a DSLR camera stitched together but have now moved to 360 cameras with multiple lenses – initially the Panono and now the Xphase Pro. A range of other projects involving 3D visualisation are in progress along with augmented reality tools for gamification. These open a range of different methods for students to visit properties virtually before, during or after visits to real properties as well as new ways to visualise animals in 3D. A good example of how this can be used was recent intensive week long online sessions “visiting” two VR properties to allow students to work in small groups to better understand how the properties functioned as they weren’t able to visit the actual properties due to COVID restrictions.
I don’t see XR as a solution to all teaching issues but it is an extra teaching tool in the teaching toolbox that can help increase understanding of a range of areas where it is difficult to get students to places due to cost, timing, biosecurity, EHS and other issues. As tools for producing XR become simpler and cheaper they have significant potential in teaching and learning.

1 https://www.accc.gov.au/system/files/Fn%20118%20-%20Hugo,%20Changing%20patterns%20of%20population%20and%20distribution.pdf, figure 3, page 7).
2 https://www.piefa.edu.au/
3 https://fvas.unimelb.edu.au/research/groups/decommissioned/cattle-and-sheep-research-and-education/research-groups/4d-farms-multimedia-education