Enhancing Educational Impact: Exploring World Environments Through 360imx Immersive Field Trips

By Marcus Wong & Strategy Planning Unit. Credits to FASS Strategic Communications, Dr Gretchen Coffman, Dr Magdeline Ng, and Steven Chow for additional information and fact-checking


Christmas came early for NUS Geography Department’s Dr Gretchen Coffman and NUS Libraries’ Digital Strategy and Innovation (DSI) team, when they clinched a Bronze at the 2023 QS Reimagine Education Awards! Considered by many as the “Oscars” of the education world, this prestigious global competition recognises and honours innovative approaches to enhance learning outcomes and improve employability, helping to shape the future of education.  

The award-winning project, titled Roots to Reefs 360, is a virtual field trip that transports participants into an immersive 360-degree experience around the unique tropical ecosystems of Southeast Asia. Focusing on students in the fields of environmental studies and conservation biogeography, the project aimed to deepen understanding of the biodiversity of tropical ecosystems, their vulnerabilities, and the importance of community-based conservation and ecosystem restoration. The project was recognized for showcasing the potential impact of 360-degree films in enhancing collaborative learning experiences and access to education in the library’s 360imx. 

“I am so proud of our team for their tireless work on this project, and collaborating so effectively to harness this new educational technology,” said Dr Coffman. “This success inspires me to keep making 360 films and inspire more NUS students and communities around the region to care about conservation!” Cluster Head for the DSI team, Dr Magdeline Ng agrees, “This is a great validation of NUS Libraries’ role in catalysing educational innovations. We aspire to transform the role of the library to be more than just a repository for books and information, and really serve as a focal point for interdisciplinary learning and dialogue.” 

Impetus for the film

The project was inspired by the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the various collaborators thinking about how they could improve access to educational field studies. “When I found out that NUS Central Library had a 360imx facility, I met the team and we instantly became collaborators,” said Dr Coffman, “The NUS Libraries DSI team is amazing, and we share the same vision for 360imx and films!”  

Dr Ng agrees. “We shared the University’s vision for developing blended learning methods and experiences, and found 360imx to be the right solution, not just based on functionality and feature set, but also evidence-based research that showed the effectiveness of 360imx in enhancing learning experiences.” 

Hang on, what IS 360imx? 

For the uninitiated, the 360imx experience is a 6-metre-wide cylindrical theatrette that enables the viewing of immersive 360-degree visuals and surround sound. The 360imx format allows students to experience content as a group, and overcomes the limitations of using Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. “VR headsets can be heavy, uncomfortable, and isolating,” says Steven Chow, Head of Digital Strategy at NUS Libraries, “Not having to leave the environs of the library, or needing to use bulky gear really reduces the barriers to accessing these collaborative learning experiences. This technology brings the learning material to life, while allowing students to interact in real time without any barriers to communication.” 

A (literal) uphill struggle 

For everyone involved in the project, this was their first foray into developing a film intended for the immersive 360imx format. And if that wasn’t daunting enough, the team had to navigate challenges at every step of the production – which makes their achievement all the more special. “We faced so many challenges,” says Dr Coffman, “Our team had to learn how to film in 360 while on shoot. Not only were we working with new technology but we were also filming in the wild deep in the rainforest and under the sea, often without access to the Internet or electricity. I had to find supplementary funding for an additional shoot in December 2022 to capture more impressive footage with my student research assistants as well as bring our 360 film in VR headsets back to show all the communities where we filmed!”  

The challenges didn’t just end with filming on-location.Some of the archive footage that we used was not optimized for the 360imx screen, and we had to figure out how to work around that, as well as making sure the new footage coming in was filmed with the correct resolution and aspect ratio,” said Chow, adding, “we also had to figure out how to fit a class of 50 students into our 360imx space, which had a maximum capacity of 12!” The team figured out how to bring small groups of students to the 360imx in their tutorial groups.  

Audience Reception 

These tremendous efforts would have been all for naught if audiences didn’t take to the finished product. Thankfully, they were thrilled and impressed with the final film, giving overwhelmingly positive feedback when the film was first screened to students in September 2022, as well as its premiere at the 20th International Ocean Film Festival in April 2023. Audiences enjoyed the immersive cinematography, remarking that this allowed them to get up close to the subjects in ways that they would never have been able to. More importantly, the film inspired audiences to take action – from wanting to find out more and visit tropical ecosystems around the region in person, to wanting to do more to support community-led restoration and conservation of these ecosystems. “Everyone was exceptionally enthusiastic about these films,” said Dr Coffman, “We’ve since been asked to show the film at other NUS events, and even for classrooms and events as far afield as Sabah, Indonesia, San Francisco, and Darwin, Australia!” 

For the NUS Libraries team, one participant’s reaction was particularly memorable. “This student was so delighted that they exclaimed ‘I can finally view 360 videos with my spectacles on!’,” said Chow, “Wearing spectacles caused this student to struggle with VR headsets, and this was the first time they were able to really enjoy the immersive experience.” Dr Ng added, “While something like user comfort may seem trivial, we see that the student is no longer distracted by accessibility issues, and can fully focus on learning. This inspires us to double down on our research into how technology can further enhance learning and access to information, thus improving educational impact and outcomes.” 

This success could not have been possible without management endorsement and buy-in. “I’m particularly grateful for the support of the Head of our NUS Department of Geography, Professor David Taylor,” said Dr Coffman. When I first showed Professor Taylor some of the 360 immersive films, he was intrigued by this new educational opportunity. He encouraged me to pursue this educational path and research related to educating students using immersive 360 films and outreach to local communities.” Dr Ng agreed, saying, “Management buy-in is so important. We couldn’t possibly achieve any of this without their support. We’re privileged that NUS leadership sees the importance of what the DSI team does at NUS Libraries, and regularly encourages us to further these efforts through our Tech Central facilities at Central Library and the new Medicine+Science Library.” 

Looking to the Future (with 360 vision) 

With such positive reception and the recognition from the QS Reimagine Education Awards, the team is inspired to continue making use of 360imx technology to enhance learning. “I’m personally hooked on the power of this 360imx immersive experience that we can bring to NUS Geography and Environmental Studies students – from first- to fourth-year,” said Dr Coffman. “I’m embarking on a new series on communities, conservation and connectivity this year, featuring eight ecosystems and communities across five countries. Even my department head is adopting the format, getting his students to film in 360 during a recent trip to Kenya!” 

NUS Libraries’ DSI team hopes that more NUS departments will be inspired by their successes and explore the use of 360imx in their teaching and research. “The use of 360imx goes beyond Geography – it’s applicable to many other disciplines. We’re already exploring more collaborations with different departments in NUS, from Humanities to STEM disciplines,” said Dr Ng. It’s our dream to develop more platforms that will have a greater impact on the way our community accesses experiences and educational resources, and empower them to make a difference in their disciplines, and our wider community. 

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