University news – Innovative virtual field trips secure award in ‘Oscars of Higher Education’

Inspirational and innovative software that provides virtual field trips to almost anywhere in the world, developed by academics at the University of Exeter, has won a prestigious national award.

The Interactive Virtual Environments for Teaching and Assessment (InVEnTA) software, run by the College of Life and Environmental Sciences (CLES), lifted the Technological or Digital Innovation of the Year trophy at the sixteenth annual THE Awards.

The University of Exeter Business School were also highly commended for their work on sustainability in the ‘Business School of the Year’ category.

The THE Awards – widely referred to as the ‘Oscars of higher education’ – are the biggest celebration in the UK HE calendar, attracting hundreds of entries from individuals, teams and institutions from all corners of the country.

2020’s ceremony, held on the evening of November 26th, was held online for the first time, but still over a thousand people logged in to hear this year’s winners announced. 

The InVEnTA software, which uses 3D visualisation and gaming techniques to recreate environments from Africa to the Arctic Circle, was created by three senior lecturers in physical geography – Steven Palmer, Damien Mansell and Anne Le Brocq.

The software takes in information from sources including drones and handheld cameras, as well as existing datasets, to recreate environments virtually. When students and researchers are on a virtual field trip, they can walk up to signposts that launch multimedia content, while location-triggered ambient sounds help to create an immersive experience.

Lecturers first employed the tool to recreate the Russell Glacier on the west of the Greenland Ice Sheet. More recent applications have included explorations of coastal erosion in the UK and undergraduate archaeology courses.  A second mode allows students to create a virtual environment themselves, giving them the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.

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The judges said that among “an excellent set of submissions”, InVEnTA stood out “because of its potential to extend the classroom into a virtual world”.

Speaking after the awards, Dr Steven Palmer said: “We’re delighted to have been awarded the THE 2020 award for Technological or Digital Innovation of the Year.

“On behalf of the whole InVEnTA team, I’d like to thank the panel for recognising the potential of the software for expanding the boundaries of the classroom into a virtual world. We’re working hard to make the software available to other HE and FE institutions soon, so ‘watch this space’.”

The University of Exeter Business School was also “highly commended” by the judges for its work on sustainability in the “Business School of the Year” category.

The Business School took some huge steps forward in its mission to address the major challenges confronting businesses and society during 2018-19.  This includes launching The Exeter Centre for Circular Economy (ECCE), a multidisciplinary research centre focused on creating new, sustainable economic models. ECCE was awarded £1 million to establish a research hub to tackle the use of plastics and plastic waste.

The Business School’s commitment to explore the links between ecology and economics was underlined by a £1 million donation in July from Vietnam-based asset manager Dragon Capital towards a new post in biodiversity economics.

In recognition of its ongoing excellence in all areas, including teaching, research, curricula development and student learning, the Business School added accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) to its existing EQUIS and AMBA accreditations in April. This prestigious triple accreditation is held by fewer than 1 per cent of business schools globally.

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Professor Lisa Roberts, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Exeter said: “We are truly delighted to have won this THE award for Technological or Digital Innovation of the Year.  The University is committed to developing innovative ways to provide our students with the very best educational experience, and the InVEnTA software developed by our researchers is a shining light of what the University is doing.  The award is a testament not only to their commitment to our students, but also to fostering an expansive, stimulating and exciting environment to help them flourish. It is a wonderful achievement to be recognised with this award, and richly deserved.

“I am also pleased that the Business School was highly commended for their work on sustainability in the Business School of the Year category. The University community is steadfast in its commitment to sustainability, and this is a remarkable achievement by everyone involved within the Business School.”


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