Design, build and create: Engaging students as active content creators in a Virtual Reality CC Course – Nicol Pan

This issue of Teaching and Learning Connections is on innovation in teaching and learning, and the example I’m sharing is a Common Core (CC) course I taught on Virtual Reality (VR) technology under the Humanities AOI (Areas of Inquiry). The idea of the course is nothing novel. It is basically tapping into students’ innate curiosity and creativity in order to engage them in the learning process. Though in the conventional institutional setting, the course breaks a few norms on several grounds: A) On the ground of cross-faculty collaborative teaching, the course is taught by a group of academics from different disciplines and departments; B) For pedagogical innovation, the course incorporates theory and practice throughout its design, and offers students both hands-on training in the software and technologies involved in constructing VR 3D contents, and provides opportunities for learning sociocultural critique or the big theories to bear on the nuances of technological advancement; C) On the aspect of merging disciplinary or knowledge domains, the course is born out of the conviction that the pursue of knowledge and wisdom should not be limited to and bounded by a historically contingent dualism of humanities versus science and technology, and that students would benefit a great deal having immersed themselves in subjects and inquiries ill defined by divisions of knowledge domains; D) And finally with regard to the amount of resources put into the course, it is unprecedented, and all due to one person’s perseverance – Dr. Henry Lau from the IMSE Department. Each of the above mentioned four aspects would take a separate article to discuss, but this one will focus mainly on the teaching and learning innovation.

Department staff initiated pedagogical innovation

To give a little historical background to the innovation that takes place in the present context, traditionally, courses offered by individual faculties almost never cross over to other faculties, and this is not referring to students taking courses across faculties. Academics from across faculties teaching collaboratively is a bit of an unusual practice. It is a structural issue rather than an ontological one (meaning it’s not the knowledge that divides us, it’s the human made boundaries that divide us), and can only be dealt with at the structural level. This is why when the HKU Common Core (CC) curriculum came into existence six years ago, and faculties are ‘requested’ to provide broadening courses accessible to students from all backgrounds, we begin to see isolated cases of co-teaching by staff from different faculties on the same course. Just like in real life where problems are not defined nicely by discrete knowledge domains, so is the teaching of transdisciplinary subjects. However, the historical demarcations are still there alongside the newly emerged curriculum structure, especially when resources are implicated. And so it is still the individuals who counts when it comes to taking some risk and trying something new. In our case, it is the individual teachers who leveraged their existing collegial networks within the institution and were willing to reach out and made connections. Reaching out and making connection is only the first step though, the hard work begins when discussing, debating and negotiating course delivery approach, format and practice. It is a challenging process but it also provides the opportunity for pedagogical innovation and experimentation.

In our example, from the point of view of the engineering department that puts forth the course, the CC platform offers the opportunity for positive reinforcement on all fronts. And from the course co-ordinator’s point of view, he or she finally gets to introduce the technological innovation that is researched and developed behind its own laboratory doors to a wider audience.

Students as active content creators

Students taking our VR course are introduced to the latest VR systems and technologies, one of which is the result of the engineering department’s own R & D. They are then divided up into project groups of 5 to 6 students. The idea is to use the interdisciplinary projects as a platform to create the ideal learning experience that would provoke students’ natural curiosity and creativity. Students learned all the necessary technological, analytical and design skills from the course and apply them in their projects in order to come up with their own creative contents. Instead of just being fed with information and professional knowledge, students are asked to design and make their own imagined worlds, games and stories to share with others. They become ACTIVE intellectual content CREATORS. And most importantly, by studying, researching, designing and making contents for delivery, students become acutely aware of our human desires, conditions and the world we live in. Ultimately, we don’t just want our students to be smart or creative; we want them to be able to connect to other people and the outside world in a caring way. And I want to end this article with a quote from one of the student project groups’ own reflection as they completed building their 3D model of the re-imagined Kowloon Walled City:

We hope to deliver the message that a lot of things in our memories and lives were worn away by TIME and so-called PROGRESS through the VR experience of a symbolic art installation.” (see Figure 1)

Figure 1. ‘Hourglass of Memory Eraser’ by CCHU9056 students

For a complete view of the 3D model shown above, please go to

Dr. Nicol Pan
Dr. Nicol Pan

Associate Director
Common Core


This VR course would not be as successful if it was not for the team effort of all the dedicated teachers from different faculties. They are:

  • Dr. Henry Y.K. Lau (Faculty of Engineering)
  • Dr. Kal K.L. Ng (Faculty of Architecture)
  • Dr. Anita C.K. Lee (Faculty of Arts)

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