Teaching and learning Unreal Engine online

By Mark Flanagan |
October 7, 2020
Online and distance education have been with us in various forms for a considerable time. 

Recently, as is so often the case, necessity has been the mother of invention, with schools needing to rapidly adapt to this as their primary mode of delivery.

Here at Epic, we have had existing tutorials, materials, and exercises, which we hope will help in virtual classrooms. We have rapidly moved our face-to-face training to streaming, which has proven to be both a challenge and an unexpected opportunity.

What follows are some considerations, suggestions, and techniques that will help others adapt and hopefully thrive in this new environment.
I love to use tricks and mnemonics as a way of teaching, so I will suggest we look at a set of strategies that I’ll call the three C’s of online learning—connecting, collaborating, and curriculum.

Building a better connection

Connection is one of the greatest ways in which a teacher can transfer knowledge, and also one of the things that many fear is lost when working online. Remember that connection takes at least two people—you can’t do it on your own. Find strategies and draw students into connecting.

The following tips may be helpful in your online classroom.

Turn on your camera
Show yourself, and don’t be a disembodied voice. Your facial expressions and body language are as important in online training as they are in a classroom.
Be authentic
Be yourself, don’t worry about being perfect, and show some emotion— if it’s what you feel. Silence can be useful for questions or comments, even if they feel awkward initially. Failures and mistakes are great teaching moments; embrace them! 

It’s great for students to see that things go wrong for everyone and a situation like this gives them an opportunity to watch how you recover. Having Unreal Engine troubleshooting skills and knowing how to find solutions are super important, so don’t be afraid to fix your problems live.

Share your stories, try not to appear over-rehearsed, and be in the moment.  We’re all in this together in our journey of discovery and understanding. 
Make spaces to handle the social side. For example, we have what we call the Coffee Corner, where at 9 AM of each weekday, we have staff and students sharing a virtual coffee and some casual conversation. Nice way to motivate people out of bed and establish a daily routine.
- Robbie Grig, Education Manager, Breda University
Keep things interactive
Polls can be helpful for learners, especially at the beginning and end of each session. Ensure polls are fun and entertaining for the students, not just informative to you. You can also offer polls at the end of each session to review optional content for the next session. Learners are often happier and more engaged if they feel like they have a voice in their learning.

Utilize virtual whiteboards to make spontaneous, graphical illustrations of key and/or complex points. Don't worry if your drawing skills are not perfect; most will appreciate the effort and the humor added to the course. A pressure-sensitive tablet and pen such as those made by Wacom can help you make better drawings.

Take it step-by-step
When you are starting out, check in with your students regularly. Give them time to comprehend, and if it’s a practical class, time to follow the demonstration.

Use the “chunking” method and segment topics to give students achievable wins throughout each class so they know they are going in the right direction and feel empowered.

Have checkpoint files
This ensures that if a student misses one point, they can pick up again and are not totally lost.
Rigging for games is like merging in traffic, make sure you take a good look around before you commit.
- Sean Spitzer, Epic Games Instructor

Virtual team collaboration

Remote working and distributed teams are common in the industry but have had less uptake in education, as the “bricks-and-mortar” nature of most universities required people to be physically present and working collaboratively in situ. 

Students have an opportunity to build skills working in remote teams as they work on projects together. Check out the video below to learn more about collaboration and teamwork in Unreal Engine.
 
Project management
Project management methodologies and tools become much more important when teams are scattered.
To avoid these conflicts and provide backup and data security, you should always use a source control or file versioning system.
- Tom Shannon, Unreal Engine 4 for Design Visualization
Version control
Version control is an absolute necessity when working at a distance, and Unreal Engine comes with two fully-integrated methods that enable people to work together on their projects using version control software like Perforce and SVN.
 
Tools and procedures
Reviewing tools and procedures is vital for ensuring that the team understands where effort is required and what is working well. Methods can vary, from the extremely high tech (synced streaming with interactive markup), through to the very low tech (screengrabs with notes).
 

Curriculum approaches for learning online 

Educators are already familiar with the different formats online and virtual learning can take and each of these formats have their advantages and disadvantages.
In our Epic-delivered training courses, we’ve had success with a blended learning model where learners can review pre-recorded material prior to joining a live class. This allows class time to be used to answer questions and go deeper, rather than using that time to deliver a lecture.

A blended learning approach also offers students more control over the pace at which they learn and the freedom to pause and go back through online content whenever they want. Students may also be able to choose the time at which they complete their online courses and the path they want to take to learn the concept.

We have a vast library of free courses and learning paths ranging from foundations to advanced Blueprint concepts that can integrate well with your current curriculum and be used for asynchronous and blended learning approaches.
Every course on Unreal Online Learning tracks the student’s progress and includes built-in assessments to ensure material is being mastered. Students can also earn skill badges to add to their profiles as they complete courses; these can be shared to LinkedIn or other social media profiles to celebrate their achievements. 

You can access the hundreds of free courses here.

Another great resource are the Unreal Engine Instructor Guides which were designed for a seamless transition from textbooks to lecture as they cover the same tools used by professional developers to ship successful games. Instructors can access these professionally authored courses to add to their current teaching materials at no cost.
 
All of these guides include game project files and example content, along with lectures, quizzes, and tests that you can incorporate into your own curriculum, are supplied under creative commons licenses, and can be freely adapted to your particular needs. You can download them all for free here.

Extra tips for students

Plan your schedule and work effectively 
Use whatever tools you like to do your project and study planning, anything from a list on paper to a sophisticated project management program, but set goals and times allotted. Think about using Pomodoro to keep yourself on track and focused.

Connect with your fellow students
Some universities may already have channels set up for this; if not, you can suggest some, or use your own favorite means of staying in touch. Isolation does not mean that you need to be isolated.

Stay in touch with staff and lecturers 
Set some time to have one-to-one talks if you can. Don’t be phased if you don’t get immediate responses from your lecturers; they are on your side, and sometimes they may not be able to reply as quickly as you would like. Follow up if you require something urgently. 

Stay up to date on school communications
Read the communications the university is sending out via email, online boards, etc. Respond when asked to do so, whether it’s a questionnaire or just a request to acknowledge a change to a timetable; it makes things much better for everyone. 

Set aside dedicated space for yourself to work
This is not always possible, but at least try to work ergonomically—don’t work from the sofa or bed unless you have no alternatives.

Take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally 
Most universities have systems in place which you can reach out to if you need. Talk to student services, make sure that you know what is going on.
Despite the challenges we are facing, many of the initiatives and novel ways of working which we are exploring and adopting today will very likely become part of our everyday lives moving forward.

Let’s learn some great new lessons together.

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