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Digital Media in Mining Education

Digital technologies are taking over university teaching and changing the ways in which academic knowledge is disseminated. At the Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE) of RWTH Aachen University, Aachen/Germany, the transfer of knowledge and principles of professional practice in mining is enriched by using innovative, digital communication media.

Authors/Autoren: Nils Schlatter, M.Sc., Nina M. Küpper, M.Sc., Univ.-Prof. PhD Bernd G. Lottermoser, Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE), RWTH Aachen University, Aachen/Germany

1  Digitalisation of mining education

Currently, universities are exploring, trying and expanding new digital approaches of teaching and learning in the Covid-19 crisis. However, great progress in the digitalisation of university teaching has already taken place before Covid-19 and associated campus closures at German universities. At the Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE) of RWTH Aachen University, Aachen/Germany, digital tools such as learning platforms, learning videos, interactive videos, 360° videos and images, e-tests, and lecture hall voting systems have been used for years. Investments have also been made in two real-time training simulators to show students the virtual operation of mining equipment in actual mines and in a safe environment (Figure 1).

Fig. 1. Training simulators at the Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE) of RWTH Aachen University, giving students a real-istic experience with virtual mining equipment. // Bild 1. Trainingssimulatoren am Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE) der RWTH Aachen University, die Studierenden ein realistisches Erlebnis mit virtuellen Bergbaumaschinen geben. Photo/Foto: MRE

Digital media do not serve their own purpose, but they are instruments for achieving strategic goals of university teaching. The principle of learning and teaching at the MRE pursues subject-specific objectives and curricular developments that form the action framework for digitalisation in teaching. In this context, face-to-face courses can be enriched with digital elements, courses can be redesigned into a blended learning (BL) format with a sensible mix of face-to-face and online phases, or courses can be conducted completely online or virtual. This article presents two innovative digital media for mining education that have been independently developed by MRE staff and are used in the curriculum: the VR-Mine and the digital mineral collection.

2  VR-Mine

The rapid development of hardware and software in the field of virtual reality (VR), as well as falling prices for VR equipment, are leading to an increased use of VR applications in higher education, which is also shown by the steadily increasing number of publications on this topic (1). Until now, the affordability of hardware for VR applications has prevented widespread use. With the market launch of Oculus Rift in 2013, so-called head-mounted displays (HMD) became more affordable, enabling immersion in the virtual world (2). With these, complex VR applications are possible and demanding and otherwise potentially dangerous activities can be trained in a safe environment. Dry technical topics, such as occupational safety and especially mine safety, can be internalised in a playful way through experimental learning. Various publications have shown that VR applications in specific scenarios have an advantage over conventional teaching methods, especially when complex contents are to be taught (3, 5). It is pointed out that in most publications on VR in teaching, user satisfaction has been used as evidence higher learning rates than with conventional learning methods. In future, it will be important to clearly demonstrate this added benefit and establish VR in higher education teaching (1).

Mining education requires the ability to visualize space and can require a lot of 3D visualisation. In 2018, with support from EIT RawMaterials, the development of a virtual underground mining environment, the VR-Mine, based on the scheelite deposit in Mittersill/Austria, began at the MRE (4, 6). This teaching tool is currently further expanded, integrated into the teaching and anchored into the curriculum. Such a tool enables students to virtually explore an underground mine and thereby promote spatial process understanding, cooperative forms of learning, as well as self-determined learning. The VR-Mine is an opportunity to get to know practical work in a safe environment. Special focus is placed on the topic of mine safety, as this lends itself to VR applications and is an important component of the training of mineral resources engineers. The developed VR-Mine offers the ideal environment to experience mine safety topics in a safe environment and to sensitise students to safety risks. The focus is on safety-conscious behaviour and risk assessments. This will better prepare students for potential safety hazards that may occur in their future work in underground mining (6).

2.1  Evaluation of the VR-Mine

Fig. 2. Live transmission of the first VR exercise as part of an online subject in the MSc European Mining Course at RWTH Aachen University. // Bild 2. Liveübertragung der ersten VR-Übung im Rahmen einer online Lehrveranstaltung im MSc European Mining Course an der RWTH Aachen University. Photos/Fotos: MRE

In the summer semester of 2021, the first VR exercise took place in the VR-Mine, not in presence due to the pandemic, but in live transmission using Zoom (Figures 2, 3). The students could see the transmission of the HMD on their screens, were able to follow the user via an external camera and give hints or instructions. The 15 participating MSc students, who were mainly enrolled in the MSc European Mining Course, were requested to complete a quiz on the demonstrated topic after completion of a VR-Mine sequence and ask questions.

Fig. 3. Screenshot of the VR-Mine, showing the entrance to the virtual Mittersill mine. // Bild 3. Screenshot der VR-Mine mit dem Portal des virtuellen Bergwerks Mittersill. Photo/Foto: MRE

In order to improve the VR exercises and to identify weaknesses and strengths of the teaching format, a two-stage evaluation was carried out. In the first part of the evaluation, at the beginning of the course, the students’ interest in new technologies and the content of the mine safety exercise, as well as their expectations of the VR exercise, were surveyed. Statements were to be made about experiences with VR technologies in the private and university sectors. The second part of the survey followed at the end of the event and dealt with the evaluation of the exercise. Furthermore, suggestions for improvement were requested. Finally, an assessment of the expected development of courses, especially the use of VR, was to be made. In total, four quiz blocks with single- and multiple-choice questions were completed in the exercise. In the first section, information about the Mittersill mine, such as the raw material extracted there, was asked, which had previously been presented in a video shown in the VR-Mine. The second quiz block was related to a practical section of the VR-Mine, in which the appropriate protective equipment for working underground had to be selected. The topic of the third quiz block dealt with safety risks in the Mittersill ore mine. They were asked, e. g., about the greatest risk during underground work and the correct use of an oxygen self-rescuer. After completing a practical task in the VR-Mine, the fourth quiz block dealt with identified safety risks.

Fig. 4. Selection of evaluation results of the VR exercise at the beginning of the exercise (first line), after the exercise (second line) and on the topic of mine safety (third line). // Bild 4. Auswahl der Evaluationsergebnisse der VR-Übung zu Beginn der Übung (erste Zeile), nach der Übung (zweite Zeile) und zum Thema Grubensicherheit (dritte Zeile). Source/Quelle: MRE

A selection of the evaluation results is shown in figure 4. Both, before and after the exercise, the majority of students confirmed the importance of practical application for the learning process. Since students are interested in new technologies and want a change from the usual course structure, there is a willingness to actively participate in VR exercises. In addition, a more frequent use of VR is expected in the future. The students are clearly interested in the topic of “mine safety” and would like more information about this subject area.

Suggestions for improvement include a more realistic representation of the digital mine environment, an enlargement of the information fields to increase user-friendliness and the integration of special situations in the VR-Mine, such as acute danger situations or accidents. For the future, the students outlined a development towards more VR-based teaching.

2.2  Further development of the VR-Mine

Experience shows that some people suffer from cybersickness during VR applications. A well-known effect is motion sickness, which can lead to nausea, and people react differently to VR applications. With a higher resolution and a higher frame rate, the potential for cybersickness is lower (7). Therefore, different models of HMD should be tested to gain experience and apply it to future courses. This would make it possible to target individuals who are particularly susceptible to cybersickness. To reduce this, it is also recommended to limit the duration of VR exercises to a maximum of 15 min (5). The teleportation function implemented in the VR-Mine is also helpful. If longer distances are covered in VR by walking without moving the feet, the effect of cybersickness is particularly strong. This effect is reduced by teleportation (7).

Furthermore, it has been shown that an environment that is as realistic as possible creates the strongest immersion and thus the greatest learning success. A particularly realistic environment is also desired by the students and can be improved in future by expanding it with additional 3D models. Since modelling itself is time-consuming, 3D models offered on online marketplaces are a good alternative. With these, a more appealing environment can be created within a very short time, which in turn strengthens the immersion and thus optimises the course and increases learning outcomes.

Due to the pandemic, the use of the VR-Mine has only been possible to a limited extent so far, which is why further, more detailed evaluations will take place in the future with comparison groups to which only conventional teaching methods are available. Work is also continuing on expanding VR content and integrating it into other subjects. Specifically, the VR-Mine will be expanded to include further scenarios, such as the drilling and blasting cycle.

3  Digital mineral collection

Mineralogical collections traditionally explain the significance of minerals and rocks in specialist exhibitions and hand pieces. Now there are also several national and international web portals, where minerals and rocks can be researched online. These portals provide digital 2D or 3D images of collection specimens and accompanying information. However, these portals are mainly information portals and do not allow interactive learning.

Since 2017, an interactive online display collection of minerals, ores and rocks has been developed at the MRE and is used for online teaching. The aim is to teach students the basics of raw materials using real hand pieces. In the meantime, the first publications of similar projects have appeared, which again illustrates the need for such an interactive, digital mineral display collection (8, 9). Students are given the opportunity to view the most important minerals, ores and rocks interactively on an online platform using 360° views (https://schausammlung.mre.rwth-aachen.de/).

Fig. 5. Selection of minerals chosen for 360° views in the digital mineral collection. From left to right: fluorite, native copper, native silver, wulfenite, zircon, muscovite and quartz. // Bild 5. Auswahl von Mineralen für 360°-Ansichten in der digitalen Mineralsammlung. Von links nach rechts: Fluorit, gediegen Kupfer, gediegen Silber, Wulfenit, Zirkon, Muskovit und Quarz. Photos/Fotos: MRE

Figure 5 shows a selection of minerals, for which 360° views, detailed views and descriptive texts can be found on the website. In addition, there are helpful supplements to the methods of mineral and rock identification.

Fig. 6. Effect of fluorescence shown in the digital mineral collection using the example of aragonite. On the left, photographed at daylight, in the middle using long-wave UV light (approximately 365 nm) and on the right placed under short-wave UV light (approximately 254 nm). On the website, you can switch between illuminations using a slider. // Bild 6. Effekt der Fluoreszenz am Beispiel von Aragonit, dargestellt in der digitalen Mineralsammlung. Links fotografiert unter Tageslicht, in der Mitte bei langwelligem UV-Licht (ca. 365 nm) und rechts bei kurzwelligem UV-Licht (ca. 254 nm). Auf der Webseite lässt sich mittels einem Schieberegler zwischen den Beleuchtungen wechseln. Photos/Fotos: MRE

Examples are animations on fluorescence (Figure 6) and the presentation of different lustre of minerals (Figure 7).

Fig. 7. Representation of different lustre of minerals in the digital mineral collection. From left to right: silk, glass and metal lustre. // Bild 7. Darstellung unterschiedlichen Glanzes von Mineralen in der digitalen Mineralsammlung. Von links nach rechts: Seiden-, Glas- und Metallglanz. Photos/Fotos: MRE

Learning at virtual exhibits offers the possibility to deal with the handpieces independent of location and time. In addition, by combining the digital collection with the freely available plug-in H5P, collaborative handpiece approach in the Moodle learning room of the RWTH learning platform is possible in the form of visualised, interactive contents. H5P offers, e. g., the possibility of creating visualised content such as assignment tasks, sequence tasks, index cards or cloze texts.

This means that the digital collection can be used effortlessly in online, synchronous teaching with direct feedback and is a good substitute for classroom exercises. Furthermore, asynchronous e-tests, which can be used by the students in a self-determined way, are possible. Students and teachers can use statistics to track learning progress. The use of the digital collection in combination with face-to-face instructions on hand specimen identification will represent considerable added value in future, as students are offered the opportunity to repeat exercise contents at home at their own pace.

3.1  Evaluation of the digital mineral collection

In order to improve the digital collection and especially its use in teaching, was evaluated in two stages in the summer semester of 2021, which made it possible to document developments. In the exercises, students were provided with visualised, interactive content using H5P. 18 students from various Bachelor and Master degree programmes took part in the evaluation. At the beginning of the first evaluation, the students’ previous knowledge of analysing rocks and minerals was asked, with over 60 % of the students stating that they had already carried out this topic in face-to-face lessons. The aim of the first survey was, among other things, to find out the students’ expectations of the digital mineral collection. The students assumed in particular that they would learn about mineral properties through the digital collection and that they would gain a better understanding of theoretical principles. In order to compare the degree of agreement between the students’ expectations and their actual experiences, the same statements were asked again during the second evaluation, after completing the exercises. The students especially agreed with the statement that the understanding of theoretical basics could be improved by using the collection.

Another goal was to determine the learning success. The students confirmed above all the deepening of their theoretical knowledge as well as an increased interest in this subject area. Furthermore, an evaluation of the exercise concept was carried out. In particular, the scope of the collection was valued positively. In addition, the students would like to see similar digital learning tools in other courses. The selection of examples considered was praised. However, the students would have liked more support during the analysis of the rocks and minerals, as well as an implementation as a classroom event. The digital implementation was nevertheless considered an adequate substitute. Overall, the work with the digital mineral collection was described as exciting, efficient and forward-looking and was perceived as an innovative and supportive form of learning.

3.2  Further development of the digital mineral collection

Although the mineral collection was used more intensively during the pandemic, it will not be a substitute for teaching with real handpieces, as it does not allow any haptic experiences. The use of identification tools such as hydrochloric acid or a streak plate cannot be implemented using digital tools either. However, the mineral collection is very well suited for asynchronous learning. Students can follow up and comprehend learning content at home, as well as independently educate themselves beyond the course content.

4  Summary and outlook

Good teaching is core business of higher education institutions and nowadays needs to be enriched by meaningful digital media. The MRE has been using digital teaching tools such as learning platforms, learning videos, interactive videos, 360° videos and images, e-tests, and lecture hall voting systems for years. Investments have also been made in the virtual representation of mining equipment and actual mines with real-time simulators. In addition, innovative mining teaching tools have been developed independently at MRE: the VR-Mine and the digital mineral collection. Evaluations show that the effective and targeted use of digital media will make learning more varied and interactive for mining students. In future, innovative communication media will continuously reshape academic teaching, learning and knowledge production in mining education.


This work was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and is part of the MyScore project 57516716. Preliminary versions of the VR-Mine and the digital mineral collection were initially financed by the Stifterverband, EIT RawMaterials and the state of North-Rhine Westphalia.

We would like to thank Daniel Makschakow (student assistant, MRE, RWTH Aachen University) for his active support during the delivery of the first VR exercise (Figure 2). Johannes Emontsbotz has provided textural information on the VR-Mine for this publication, and former and current MRE staff (Dr.-Ing. Markus Dammers, Dr.-Ing. Felix Lehnen, Dr.-Ing. Tobias Braun, Lars Barnewold, Marjan Knobloch, Rudolf Suppes, Yannick Feldmann, Johannes Emontsbotz) have taken part in the development of the existing VR-Mine and digital mineral collection.

References / Quellenverzeichnis

References / Quellenverzeichnis

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Authors/Autoren: Nils Schlatter, M.Sc., Nina M. Küpper, M.Sc., Univ.-Prof. PhD Bernd G. Lottermoser, Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE), RWTH Aachen University, Aachen/Germany