UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science


Virtual, not Distant. New opportunities in Education arise at ICS.

8 February 2021

VR at UCL - Institute of Cardiovascular Science

Back in October 2020, when students were allowed to come back to campus, teaching rooms looked very different to the ones which were left abruptly 7 months before. In order to keep everyone safe, new protocols were put in place to safeguard health and wellbeing of every member of our community. Two-metre distancing, changes to room set-ups, face coverings, presence of sanitising wipes and hand gel became very familiar to the UCL community. On-line teaching quickly became the new normality and compensated exceptionally for the reduction in our face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless, the student experience was very different to the one before and, at ICS, we started to think how to address this change.

CARD0003 Congenital Heart Disease – Fundamentals led by Prof Andrew Cook is a key module on our teaching programme, and takes students through the structure of the heart from normality to complex congenital disease, in 10 weeks. Before the pandemic, the module was delivered through a series of lectures alternated by hands-on anatomy lab sessions and demonstrations with 12-15 students per session. This year, saw a rapid move to pre-recorded lectures and on-line demonstrations as for other modules, along with an 30% increase in undergraduate student numbers. Face-to-face anatomy lab sessions were going to be a challenge to deliver given the significant reduction in numbers of students allowed in the specialist teaching space at any one time.

In these exceptional circumstances, it was time to think of new solutions. The team of the Centre for Clinical Cardiovascular Engineering over the past couple of years had pioneered research based on Virtual Reality (VR). VR generally provides an experience in which the user is completely immersed in a simulated environment by means of a VR headset. VR can be applied to expand educational learning environments by combining research and teaching improving results of science education. The project led by Dr Claudio Capelli and the PhD student Endrit Pajaziti embraced such technology and designed an original solution to allow trained clinicians to explore patients’ anatomical models and tailor treatments. Soon we realised the VR potential for training clinicians and students in the first place. We had tested such solutions on individual courses, but with the new measures coming in place in Term 1, it was time to upgrade our capacity. With the support of the Institute and Faculty, 20 headsets were purchased for delivering teaching content to our 3rd Year, iBSc medics, and Masters students thereafter. At the same time, we worked to redesign our app, upgrading to a virtual room which could house multiple students and tutors along with the specialised 3D heart models. Following Reading week, on the 17th of November, we were ready to host the first of a series of 16 virtual lectures. Although strict COVID risk assessments were in place physically, in the virtual space, our students were no longer constrained by the current restrictions and were offered a unique access to the anatomical models. 40 students observed, handled and explored cardiac models differing perspectives under the guidance of tutors.

Feedback was overwhelming positive, one student commenting that this was the coolest and most valuable experience I’ve had. I felt as if everything I have been learning all came together made complete sense”, while others said “Exciting - helps so much to understand”; “Very impressed – it was as useful as the lab sessions, if not more”

And it’s not over, as plans for Term 2 are well underway. VR again will be used by Professor Cook and will also be used on our CARD0006: Microvascular Biology module, led by Dr Paul Frankel. To achieve this and to reduce the feeling of distances imposed by the current lockdown, we have dispatched headsets to our Masters students who will have the opportunity to connect to the VR environment from their own homes.

We hope that, for a while, students will recover the perception to share safely the same space again. Importantly, this technology offers a new perspective on things, not only for students, but for the tutors and for teaching delivery. We will soon organize a VR workshop for raising staff awareness and we will continue to exploit their adoption beyond the pandemic constrictions. Hopefully, we will not need to wait too long.

With thanks to: Endrit Pajaziti, Nikos Zavaropoulos, Kan Yan Chloe Li, Silvia Schievano, Paul Frankel, Andrew Cook and Claudio Capelli


Study at the UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science:  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/cardiovascular/study 

MSc Cardiovascular Science  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/prospective-students/graduate/taught-degrees/cardiovascular-science-msc

iBSc Cardiovascular Science https://www.ucl.ac.uk/cardiovascular/study/ibsc-cardiovascular-science