Liverpool university students could meet tutors on virtual tropical island as aid to mental wellbeing

The University of Liverpool has been awarded almost £200,000 to develop an innovative approach to supporting the mental wellbeing of health sciences students.

A virtual reality beach. Photo: ShutterstockA virtual reality beach. Photo: Shutterstock
A virtual reality beach. Photo: Shutterstock

University students in Liverpool could soon be able to meet their tutors on a tropical beach or in an alpine meadow.

The experience will be delivered by a unique virtual reality (VR) application which is currently being developed in a collaborative effort across the city.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have been awarded almost £200,000 by the Office for Students to develop an innovative approach to supporting the mental wellbeing of health sciences students.

The app will be aimed at students undertaking clinical placements in hospitals across the North West.

Who’s building it?

The University of Liverpool’s initiative has been named the Collaborative Immersive Remote Clinical Undergraduate Support (CIRCUS) project and a number of organisations will help develop and evaluate the app.

Draw and Code, a Liverpool-based software development company will be helping design the virtual environment and the project will also be supported by Merseycare and the Innovation Agency.

What’s it for?

The premise is to provide extra support towards the mental wellbeing of health sciences students as they work in placements.

The university will be setting up steering groups starting next month including local mental health support networks and the university’s student services department, to find out how they are currently supporting nursing students and allied health professionals.

The university’s School of Health Sciences provides education and training to over 1000 people studying for health professional careers in diagnostic radiography, nursing, occupational therapy, orthoptics, physiotherapy, and therapeutic radiography.

The app, which could be used on a tablet or VR headset, will allow users to meet student support tutors in a relaxing virtual environment as well as undertake meditation and mindfulness sessions.

The project was the brainchild of Dr Pete Bridge, Senior Radiotherapy Lecturer at the University, who says the app will allow nursing and allied health students to be transported from their placement accommodation to a relaxing environment.

Dr Bridge told LiverpoolWorld it is going to be a 30-month project, which will see the software being developed and a member of staff will be employed next year specifically to reach out to students in a VR environment.

How it might help

“This is something that has never been done before at the university, VR has been hugely popular in gaming and there are general apps which can help people with anxiety, reducing the need for pain relief,” Dr Bridge explained.

“For example, someone might be placed in a field with leaves in the air and then their breathing might make the leaves dance and this relaxes them.

“The other element to this is that students will have anonymity.”

He said radiotherapy students had already been asked about the idea and said it would be nice to offload in a space without high level interventions.

“We think meeting a tutor in a virtual environment with avatars will help the students. We are not replacing face-to-face meetings, but this is a way to find out if people do need additional help and if this environment is helpful for them.

“Students might be stuck in nursing accommodation for example in a small room and might struggle on clinical placement, this particular cohort of students have had a lot to deal with during the pandemic and have spent a lot of time on screen [in a traditional way].

“We wanted to take them away from that. They might meet a tutor on a beach, see palm trees swaying or be by a crackling fire and could also talk to their peers in that environment.

“We know some students have definitely struggled with the fact they don’t get to see people or interact as much because of Covid-19.

“I have experience in the use of VR and simulation and had been worrying a lot about students in recent months so this made sense to me as an alternative way to help them.

“We have a real chance here to support student’s mental wellbeing through the use of virtual technology.”


Dr Paula Harrison-Woods, Director of Student Administration and Support said: “This project builds on our existing work to support student wellbeing through a range of platforms.

“We know that students on placement face particular challenges and require flexible and creative responses. This project provides a fantastic opportunity to enhance our support offer and trial new approaches to support.”

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