"The nice thing about the online environment is that students from other institutions also watch and give feedback. This makes the feedback more honest and valuable."
Students learn virtual pleading with PleitVRij
At Utrecht University, law students emerge from a classroom in their gowns. They practise pleading in a virtual environment. This way, they can practice their speaking skills in a realistic way and learn from each other. Their first reaction; 'what a cool experience!'
How it began
Several years ago, Sylvia Moes (Innovation Manager VU Amsterdam) and Gert-Jan Verheij (Educational Technologist RUG) were thinking about how Virtual Reality (VR) could be used to let students meet each other 'live'. Together with team Visualisation (Center for Information Technology RUG), they looked further into the technical feasibility and began the search for a good application.
It became law school. After reviewing with lecturers Hedwig van Rossum (VU), Adriaan Wierenga and Wilbert Kolkman (both RUG) from the law faculties, there was a resounding and enthusiastic 'yes!' to jointly write a project proposal for the Open and Online Education Incentive Scheme. The PleitVRij project was honoured and could start with a grant from the Incentive Scheme.
Closer to reality with VR
Moes is driving the project together with Adriaan Wierenga (current project leader, senior lecturer/researcher and coordinator student court RUG). Moes: "Students plead in the virtual setting before a judge they have never met before. This makes the experience closer to reality. The nice thing about the online environment is also that students from other institutions are watching and giving feedback. This makes the feedback more honest and valuable. Because students can watch the recordings back and study the feedback, they can better prepare for their final plea."
"I can say that what we are doing is unique," adds Wierenga, "CIT is one of the world's most technologically advanced and leading centres of excellence in this field and this virtual environment does not yet exist in this capacity for education anywhere in the world. And the fact that within that environment you can communicate live and interactively with someone, wherever they are, is revolutionary!"
Pilot phase with students from VU, RUG and UU
In 2019, the project ran in pilot phase among students from the RUG and the VU. In early 2020, lecturer Emanuel van Dongen from the UU was also supposed to join with 800 students. Unfortunately, Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works; all universities went into lockdown. An extension of the project was requested so that UU could still experience PleitVRij in June 2021.
Moes: "We see what it does to the students. They find it exciting and interesting and greatly appreciate the effort put into it. But teachers are also enthusiastic, seeing their students perform under pressure. Very valuable. Teachers also learn from each other about the way they have shaped the subject. It really works as an intervision tool between teachers."
Wierenga: "The project really has added value. Students find speaking skills very exciting and we would like to give them more opportunity to gain experience. Within the curriculum, there is often a lack of space for this, however important we think it is. Within law school, universities are limited in the time that can be spent on communication skills. There are high requirements for substantive knowledge, also from the professional field. Within all those requirements you operate, but the time is limited to what you can do. The advantages of this technique are enormous. If you create a setting where a student can plead by himself with glasses on and where other students can watch from anywhere in the world and give feedback with a special accompanying app, you give students the tools to practise whenever they want."
"What I really like about the project is the cross-institutional learning of students as well as teachers. We really build bridges between different institutions"
New plans for PleitVRij
The project has been a success, with both teachers and students finding it an added value to education. Moes: "We would like to scale up the project. We still have many wishes, such as making the system even more flexible by being able to watch and plead at home. For this, we could lend glasses. In addition, we would like to give a choice of courtrooms."
Interest has also been expressed from other disciplines where communication skills play a major role and students have to perform under great pressure. The basis has been built so that with some modifications, the system can be used there too. That way, it is affordable and scalable. In the long term, you can even think of many more interesting applications, but then we need to have more bandwidth at our disposal.
Wierenga: "What I really like about the project is the cross-institutional learning of students and teachers. We really build bridges between different institutions. We are even planning to submit a new proposal to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. We aim to deepen and broaden this project. With new technological innovations and educational innovations. AND we will research the effectiveness of the project. What has the use of technology contributed to student development. Does he or she perform better? Are skills better developed? We also want to make more connections in the professional field. And, of course, we hope that more teaching appointments will connect!"
PleitVRij is a virtual environment that gives students the chance to practise a plea in a courtroom. This room - the oldest courtroom in the Netherlands - is photographed 360 degrees, containing a layer in which audience and judges are filmed. This allows students to look around with VR glasses on for a lifelike experience.
In the virtual courtroom, you can see judges and other attendees writing, nodding and looking around. But truly innovative is the addition of live video footage within the virtual environment. The presiding judge, anywhere in the world, sits in front of a green screen and is streamed into the virtual environment. This allows live interaction between the judge and the student within this virtual courtroom.