‘Virtual learning’ revolutionising universities

The shift to a virtual world means university students are learning in more adaptive environments.

Technology is changing the face of university education, with virtual learning now becoming an essential part of ‘hands on’ degrees such as medicine, nursing and engineering.

Rapidly evolving technology is enabling adaptive e-learning, such as virtual hubs, to become more commonplace in universities around Australia.

Dror Ben-Naim is the inventor of Smart Sparrow, an adaptive e-learning platform. According to Ben-Naim, adaptive e-learning essentially means that content can be adapted to suit individual students within a networked educational environment.

“When someone is teaching one-to-one, it’s a really intelligent and adaptive learning experience, as opposed to, for example, when someone just talks to 1000 people in a lecture,” he says.

“We think of adaptive e-learning as a suite of tools that let teachers create really amazing learning experiences – they’re intelligent, they’re adaptive, they’re rich.”

For example, students can receive personalised feedback online as they progress. Knowledge gaps can also be more quickly identified by teachers. This then allows teachers to adapt content based on a student’s level of understanding about a certain topic.

Ben-Naim says this shift to a greater focus to online education at universities is inevitable, with lecturers increasingly being put under pressure to provide education in a digital environment – in Australia and the rest of the world.

“We believe that the most important element of teaching is face-to-face and small groups and mentorship with the teacher, but economics and the demand for higher education is so big and the capacity to deliver it from traditional universities is so limited, there’s just this huge drive to go online,” Ben-Naim says.

“When a lecturer has 1000 students, it doesn’t make sense anymore to do it the old way.”

It is not only universities which are moving to e-learning platforms. The Treasury announced in September last year that it was going to adopt an e-learning system to help provide cost-effective training to staff.

However, Ben-Naim is quick to point out that the shift to online doesn’t yet represent a total revolution in education – in some cases, it is just doing old things online.

“Instead of giving you a piece of paper, we put it on a PDF and then you get it online and you still print it, so we didn’t change much there. Instead of a lecture, we still maybe do a video lecture – that’s hardly using the power of computers,” he says.

The real revolution, he says, is in computer simulations and the virtual environment.

Around six universities in Australia are currently deploying virtual labs and using technology such as Smart Sparrow.

For example, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has developed adaptive tutorials in mechanical engineering using the software which requires students to draw a graph. Using an online graphing tool, the software is able to pick up when students made mistakes and adapt their lessons accordingly.

UNSW is also making the transition from ‘wet labs’ to ‘web labs’ using an adaptive e-learning platform, which saves money by delivering content interactively in virtual worlds.

Within a year, Ben-Naim predicts Smart Sparrow will be in all universities across the country. In particular, courses in medicine, science and engineering will use the software. It is these disciplines, Ben-Naim says, that lend themselves more to learning in a virtual environment.

For example, in medical, nursing and midwifery courses, virtual patients are being used to help students learn clinical skills and make diagnoses without having adverse effects on real-life patients. Trials of the software are also being used to train nurses in defibrillation techniques at a US hospital which has allowed them to improve procedure times from 1.4 minutes to 1.2 minutes in situations where patients died at 1.3 minutes.

The Health Workforce of Australia has given UNSW $1.2 million to roll out the software to universities around Australia.

The National Broadband Network (NBN) will also help, with the rollout to enable greater access to the software than previously available.

“We see the NBN as a way to deliver high impact quality impact content to anywhere in Australia, so you don’t have to live in a big city to have access to the best learning. That is transformative,” Ben-Naim says.

“Specifically, the virtual patients which are high bandwidth smart applications will be able to deploy to any device anywhere on the continent. In that sense, the NBN is crucial for delivering high quality content education.”

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