How this Singapore university is using VR and AI for learning

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Tan Shui-Min, Chief Information Technology Officer, NUS.

Imagine a pregnant woman comes into the emergency room, suffering from serious abdominal pain. A nurse has to diagnose what the issue is, but lacks communication skills due to lack of real world experience. This is a challenge that a Singapore university is trying to solve.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) is using emerging technologies such as VR and AI to create more immersive remote learning. It has so far created 17 projects that have VR and AR capabilities.

Tan Shui-Min, Chief Information Technology Officer at NUS, explains how these teaching tools will help student learning, and how the university is training staff for a digital future.

AI and VR for immersive learning

Covid-19 and social distancing means “e-learning is now very much a part of the life of students”, says Tan. NUS’s goal is to become a “borderless university” where education can take place “anywhere, anytime and through any device”. VR and AI can help.

For nurses under training, the school created an AI-powered virtual counselling application. The system shows a 3D simulation of a patient, including a pregnant woman, and a man feeling depressive feelings, reports a study on the system.

Students must interact with this virtual patient to observe their behaviour and ask them questions about the nature of their condition. This will give students greater confidence and communication skills while learning remotely, says Tan.
Image of the SafeSim Risks app from NUS

For students in the NUS School of Design and Environment, it is not practical to visit real construction sites due to the risks to health and safety, Tan explains. And so, the SafeSim Risks app was created to give students the opportunity to experience a real world construction site.

The app provides a virtual simulation of an authentic construction site, she shares. Students must identify and assess hazards and good practices on site, all while learning from the comfort of their home, says Tan.
Screenshots of the Nucleophile Point of View app

The university uses AR technology to help with theoretical knowledge as well as real world experience. The Nucleophile Point of View app allows science students to view and interact with representations of molecular structures on their devices, Tan explains.

Moving forward, NUS plans to use AI to analyse student behaviours and provide “personalised education”, she says.

This system will identify students who need more support, allow them to recognise their knowledge level, and then recommend the appropriate resources that match that level. The system provides personalised advice, helping struggling students to improve, Tan explains.

Cybersecurity innovation

With Covid-19 and the accelerated use of digital tools, cybersecurity is an area that requires attention. To keep their network secure, the university set up the ‘Bug Bounty Challenge’, Tan explains.

It challenges students and staff to hack the university’s own systems to look for vulnerabilities. In exchange, participants are rewarded with cash prizes as well as academic credits.

The 2020 challenge saw winners receive awards more than US$13,700, according to Singapore Business Review Online. after the competition revealed a total of 33 valid vulnerabilities. It improved cyberdefenses, and also raised awareness among students and staff, says Tan.

NUS formed a solutions review board, which implemented security into every stage of IT system development, says Tan. The university also improved its cybersecurity tools by analysing user behavior data, making suspicious behavior more visible to the university’s cyber defenders.

Upskilling staff

The university’s goal is to have a workforce that is “digitally adept” and skilled in a “myriad of digital tools”, says Tan. The university ran a Digital Enablement programme last year which trained 4,000 staff members on digital tools such as robotics automation and data visualisation.

It launched staff training initiatives including the use of the cloud in HR systems and data literacy training. They also launched a course in 2021 to help staff identify areas of their work where AI could be incorporated, Tan says.

On Learning Wednesdays, where staff put aside work to learn a new skill or develop technical know-how through technology lessons, Tan shares. It also runs an outreach programme, where IT staff share their expertise with alumni, Ivy League universities, and more, she says.

As remote learning continues to be the norm, universities and education centres are finding alternative ways to create real world experiences for their students. Immersive technologies like VR and AI can provide a solution.

Feature Image from NUS