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3D Virtual Environments and Interdisciplinary Student Teams

By David Griffin

Almost all modern professional work environments require employees to perform successfully as part of interdisciplinary teams. The work of product engineers for example, is often directed by a project manager, facilitated by logistics planners, budgeted for by finance personnel and overseen by a marketing group. Communication between team members is key, as is an understanding of the roles and responsibilities held by all. The importance of well-functioning interdisciplinary teams is perhaps nowhere as obvious as in healthcare. From physicians to auxiliary staff, coordination between team members is vital to provide patients with the care and services they depend on.

Consequently, in recent years there has been increased interest in how to instil the requisite skills in healthcare workers during their training. This has coincided with the rapid advancement in three-dimensional virtual environments (3D VE). 3D VEs can be used to create authentic replicas of real-world scenarios, enabling communication and collaboration in real time within interdisciplinary teams. Inhabiting avatars allows students to have a sense of physical presence and togetherness in the environment, despite being separated in reality by space and time zones. This also provides the added benefit of enabling students to work with those from other institutions and cultures, as they will inevitably be required to do in real life.

A recent study by Liaw et al. (2019) explored the design and use of a 3D VE to facilitate collaborative learning between healthcare students. According to the authors, this was the first study of its kind. A virtual hospital was created using Unity 5 virtual environment software (Unity Technologies, San Francisco, CA). Twenty-nine participants had the opportunity to partake in the study, inhabiting the virtual roles of healthcare staff (physicians, nurses, pharmacists etc.), patient and facilitator, from the comfort of their desk chair in a university computer laboratory. The virtual world and communication between participants were controlled by the facilitator. The simulation lasted for three days and the specific scenario consisted of a patient recovering after surgery. All healthcare workers could move around within the 3D VE and communicate with one another verbally via headsets and non-verbally using simple gestures such as waves and thumbs-up. During the scenario, they were required to address the caregiving and discharge needs of the patient. The patient could respond verbally to the healthcare staff.

The findings from the study were fascinating and broadly positive. Almost 97% of participants reported feeling that the 3D VE helped them develop a well-performing team with other students. Nearly the same proportion reported that the 3D VE facilitated the development of good work relationships. More than two thirds of students said they would like to use the system frequently for practice and almost 97% reported feeling comfortable within the 3D VE. Some participants also found the anonymity afforded by their avatar to reduce their stress levels and allow them to think more clearly about the task at hand. This is supported by similar findings by Hammick and Lee (2014) who reported that VEs can help reduce social anxiety in learners.

There were also challenges reported with use of the 3D VE, however. Some participants found navigating and performing virtual tasks cognitively demanding. In other studies, this aspect of virtual learning has been shown to act as a distraction from the primary task, adding to the workload of the learner (Van der Land et al., 2013). Other technical issues with the 3D VE were also reported by users, with almost half reporting too many inconsistencies in the system and technical issues with communication.

Despite the challenges reported, the authors concluded that the use of 3D VE is a useful tool in the training of students for work in interdisciplinary healthcare teams. However, there is no reason why this technology should be limited to healthcare learners. It is easy to imagine the advantages afforded by this technology across a wide range of disciplines, particularly those which rely heavily on individuals making time-sensitive, consequential decisions. These might include engineering and construction, politics, social services and teacher training, to name but a few.

As virtual and augmented reality become evermore present and accessible in our daily lives, it is vital that their benefits are also incorporated into the classroom. By doing so, we may be able to better equip the workforce of tomorrow for the challenges they will face.


Hammick J.K., Lee M.J., 2014. Do shy people feel less communication apprehension online? The effects of virtual reality on the relationship between personality characteristics and communication outcomes. Comput. Hum. Behav. 33, 302–310.
DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2013.01.046

Liaw S. Y., Soh S.L., Tan K.K., Wu LT, Yap J et al., 2019. Design and evaluation of a 3D virtual environment for collaborative learning in interprofessional team care delivery. Nurse Educ. Today 81, 64-71.
DOI: 10.1016/j.nedt.2019.06.012

Van der Land S., Schouten A.P., Feldberg F., Van den Hooff B., Huysman M., 2013. Lost in space? Cognitive fit and cognitive load in 3D virtual environments. Comput. Hum. Behav. 29 (3), 1054–1064.
DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2012.09.006

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