Highly Commended

An Investigation into Improving Communication to Students with Enhance Remote Learning Experiences
Saif Wasim,
Ulster University

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, not only redefined our natural way of communication but also severely affected individuals’ mentality within their workplace. At the time of this development, this forced industries to resort to any form of online communication, including the education sector to utilise online platforms as such Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc. While higher education has utilised blended learning and online learning to deliver their teaching, this put online learning to the limit and beyond in order to still provide similar student satisfaction and academic performance compared to verbal, face-to-face learning experience.

While students and lecturers can have a strong rapport in an online space, lecturers can only do so much due to the lack of interactive experience in online environments. As statically stated by ONC (Office for National Statistics, the percentage of second, third, or higher students who reported being ‘satisfied’ with their academic experience dropped drastically between both the academic year which began before COVID-19 (2019-20) and the academic year which was most affected (2020-21), from 56% in 2019-20 to 27% in 2020-21. Without the practical and engagement experience, the online communication experience becomes lacklustre for all end-users, and it is highly important to maintain the drive of engagement to help inspire the future generation. This led to utilising online virtual spaces as a working environment for students to improve their attention/focus span during online teaching for the betterment of their social and mental well-being. As we continue to evolve with technology, this is important to adapt and refine engagement of online environments for the potential of the new norm for higher education.

To enhance online teaching engagement, understanding disengagement is critical. The research follows a structured 3-Dimensional Model of Student Engagement that is credited to Pickford, R., 2016. Student Engagement: Body, Mind and Heart who expanded the knowledge from the original Fredricks, J. School Engagement: Potential of the Concept. The three components of engagement are as follows:

  • Engagement of emotion (Happiness, anxiety, interest)
  • Engagement of behaviour (Effort, participation, attention)
  • Engagement of cognitive (Invested in learning, self-learning, metacognition)

The main framework is to believe that three main factors of engagement are to be met in order to successfully gain students’ attention and improve their academic performance, which it is believed that teachers/lecturers follow this similar framework for teaching. The limitation of online environments prevents these components from being implemented into teaching and leads to poor academic performance/satisfaction. 

What is the proposed solution to this particular problem? Utilising Shapespark virtual spaces to enhance the interactivity and immersive experience between students and lecturers. Shapespark is an intricate communication/visual tool used in the AEC industry to showcase

designs, virtual spaces, and refine spaces for clients. This tool can be connected to AEC software such as Autodesk Revit, 3DS Max, Maya, and other formats aligned with the range of COLLADA, FBX or OBJ. 3D models are imported to Shapespark which can hold 3D virtual meetings with clients and showcase presentations, images, and video tutorials by providing avatars, face cameras and microphones while forcing clients to move within the space. When students are familiar with their learning environment, this allows them to be more open and comfortable further allowing them to become engaged, what if the spatial environment can be recreated into Shapespark for online learning? This mentally triggers students to not only engage in their lectures but also involves students to interact with their movement of space and invest their time in learning.

In terms of methods of methodology, a case study and a focus group were conducted. The case study utilised a medium-sized spatial environment of Ulster University Belfast within the Faculty of Built Environment utilised by ATM students (Architectural Technology & Management). Creating a workflow for this research consists of the usage of laser scanning the ATM studio with Leica RTC360 Laser Scanner to capture accurate data collection of the space. This data is imported and edited into Leica Cyclone Register 360 software as this is for dimensional reference to point cloud format to generate a 3D model of the studio. These cloud points collect highly accurate references of the studio in order to further be utilised as the foundation scale for 3D space when imported into Autodesk Revit.

Revit is to be utilised like every other AEC project, to create an accurate representation of the ATM studio which includes all furniture to be self-modelled, all walls, ceilings and floors to hold the exact material map pattern, etc., with the addition of importing teaching materials into the space. Once imported into Shapespark, this takes a step further and enhances the space with more realistic lighting and materials refined. This also allows to addition of video tutorials and live-streaming presentation links for the space to be utilised as an actual teaching space which then can be shared with students to join. Conducting a qualitative focus group data collection creates a deep understanding of information/concepts generated with an open response format for both students and lecturers henceforth the method utilised.

As previously mentioned, why is communication, engagement and interactive experience important? This research is not only beneficial for Ulster University but to the whole of the UK to integrate this study into their blended learning which can overall improve communication, engagement, and students’ learning experience. For any discipline that utilises online/hybrid work, this can be beneficial for workshops, presentations, focus group collaborations, board meetings, etc., as this provides a light-hearted and immersive experience for all industries and not just building construction or higher education. This research is aimed at the betterment of work ethic, social and mental well-being to simulate and adapt online communication just as on-site, verbal, and face-to-face communication would be.

To be put into perspective, the building construction software/equipment can be utilised for so much more than utilised within their disciplinary as this research is to be an example for future generations to think outside in order to further meet their end-users requirements: “The design solutions will consider and handle concerns relating to people utilising the building or space’s social well-being, health & safety, welfare, and morality.” - CIAT.


Judges' comments

While the focus of the work was on virtual teaching environments, Saif has selected a subject area relevant to both the mainstream Architectural Technology professional and very pertinent to the future of how we all work. With a clear method and well-defined aims and objectives, this work challenges us all to learn from the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that affected business on a global scale and adapt work practices to protect our livelihoods from the impact of any future events of this type.

A methodical and well-articulated report on the use of virtual meeting environments. The Judges could clearly see the amount of work that had gone into the research. They complimented the work for its systematic approach

and natural flow from its introduction to highlighting the importance of the work through to its clear analysis and inciteful conclusions.

A good mix of information types and particularly useful renderings of virtual meeting environments clearly articulate the message of the work. The Judges particularly liked the case study which they felt further reinforced the practical approach and nature of this work.

Saif has an excellent writing style; he is clear, inciteful and to the point in his conclusions. The Judges found the report a fascinating piece of work which will be of significance to everyone in all the built environment disciplines.