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How digital technology is ushering in a new age of learning

How digital technology is ushering in a new age of learning

Digital disruption is driving education outside the boundaries of the classroom and into a host of new online opportunities

More and more educators are ditching the chalkboards and opening their physical classroom boundaries in favour of digital learning.

Embracing the 21st century in this way may seem like an obvious step, but there’s more to it than that; the world is paying attention to Australia’s innovative use of technology in education.

The 2014 Global Innovation Index shows education placed Australia in the top 10 performing countries, helping to move our overall ranking up from 19th place last year to 17th this year.

Here, we look at how digital learning is shaking up the industry.

The MOOCs movement

The University of Tasmania’s massive open online course (MOOC) on dementia care from the Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre is one of the most successful in the country, and has one of the highest completion rates globally, according to its CIO, Jeff Murray.

“We had 20,000 [people participate] the first time, a similar number the second time, and we are in the later stages of the [next] offering of the course,” he says.

From the success of this MOOC, the university created an online Bachelor of Dementia Care, attracting 1000 applications. Murray says nearly all enrolments were a result of the MOOC.

“The success rate of conversion of MOOC to online course also puts our MOOC as one of the most successful globally,” he claims.

Picking the right course to attract a large number of students was key to making this conversion, he continues. The last thing you want to do is offer something that people can find online elsewhere or through another university doing MOOCs.

Murray notes most courses globally have failed to convert for institutions, and have therefore been a cost. He advises other institutions to choose something they are internationally recognised in, a need that is niche and globally required, “and you will find your MOOC is a successful route for adoption of new online courses”.

Another university embracing MOOCs is Swinburne University of Technology. It has its own MOOCs running on the Blackboard learning management system, as well as online courses on the Open Universities Australia’s Open2Study platform.

Each time a MOOC is run, it receives about 1000 registrations, according to former professor, Gilly Salmon, pro vice-chancellor, learning transformations, who has been the most involved with MOOCs at Swinburne.

“We are reaching cohorts of students who may not have considered university learning. And I think from the numbers you can see, that they are hungry and ready for it,” she says.

MOOCs offer the opportunity for universities to raise their profile on a global scale and market their courses. If the content is compelling enough, they hope to convert participants into paying students.

However, the activity doesn’t come without its challenges.

“We often have to justify what we are doing in terms of business cases, the same as anyone does. So that is the main challenge – what is the benefit from it, what is the purpose of it? It’s a question asked all the time,” says Salmon.

“It’s mainly about reputation building and outreach to a global community. But not everyone is going to be able to build a business case around this that will be accepted. I think that’s the big challenge than it just being free because you can’t see where the monetisation or justifiable benefits come from.”

Having a strong business continuity plan and ensuring systems can accommodate large numbers of students accessing online material is another challenge, Swinburne’s CIO, Derek Whitehead, says.

“It’s extremely important to have a learning management system available to students 24 hours a day,” he says.

“We mainly maintain our own data through our onsite server infrastructure. But we are, like all other universities, looking at other kinds of arrangements – mostly cloud-based arrangements. For the last four years, we had a hosted version of Blackboard, for example, and that has worked well for us.”

Murray has had to accommodate up to 6000 concurrent users from 20,000 participants in a MOOC. Working with the vendor, Desire to Learn, and its data centre in Melbourne, virtual servers were used to help scale up to meet demand.

Sourcing open source, copyright-free material for a MOOC can be a major issue, says Richard Constantine, CIO of Flinders University, which also runs a number of MOOCs using OUA’s Open2Study platform.

Under the Copyright Act, material used in a public MOOC cannot be licensed or be material used in private lecturers and classes. So Constantine tapped into the uni’s library resources and the knowledge its staff had around sourcing materials consistent with the Act.

Delivering education online as opposed to face-to-face in a classroom also requires a huge shift in thinking and design. As there is no physical interaction with online courses, Constantine says MOOCs need to be highly visual and multimedia rich to keep students engaged.

“It’s also about what the key messages are, and how many messages you want to deliver in that segment – keep it down to maybe three or four. There are a whole lot of studies that show people’s attention spans [nowadays] are about six minutes [on average]. So if you really want to engage students or learners, have five-minute videos or sessions… and then reinforce the learning,” he adds.

“You have to actually change the way you deliver the lecture; you can’t just sit there for an hour and spill it all out like you use to.”

At the University of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT) educates the educators on how to develop course content specifically for online, including looking at how to maintain engagement to prevent dropouts, Murray says.

Turning libraries into makerspaces

Interacting with new technologies is also a core focus across several Australian schools. To do this, book repository libraries are being transformed by several institutions into makerspaces, allowing students to tinker and experiment with technologies and learn in a non-structured environment.

One of the first schools in Australia to transform its library is St Columba Anglican School in NSW. Its director of e-learning, Matt Richards, says his year 9 IT students are developing first-person shooter games for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, while year 3 students are designing electronic controllers for games.

The makerspace also consists of MaKey MaKey kits, Bo and Yana robots, Leap Motion 3D controllers, a 3D printer and scanner, Chromeboxes and old computers students can take apart and hack into franking machines to make them better.

Michelle Jensen, president of the School Library Association of NSW, is also creating a makerspace in Hoxton Park High School’s library. It consists mostly of six Raspberry Pi devices and a 3D printer. Students are taught how to code and program through combining the Raspberry Pi with the game Minecraft.

“A lot of children don’t know about programming, so using Raspberry Pis is one way of getting them to look at how to program because it is open source,” she explains. “When they are working in Minecraft, there’s another screen they can see that has all the code.

“They write some code in the computer and it turns on a light on the sandwich board,” she says.

“I like to just teach them the basics first… then it’s self-directed learning. That’s what the makerspace movement is about – letting kids tinker, explore, fail, and kids learning from each other – and me facilitating that and giving them access to these kinds of [tools].”

Richards agrees the role of the teacher nowadays is to be the facilitator. “A lot of the searching for and processing of information happens outside the classroom because that is more effective. Then the in-class time is used for communication and answering questions and helping each other.

“Information is retained if people actively search for it. This is why we are using things like ‘20 per cent time’ and ‘genius hour’ to encourage students to seek information because they are actually interested in it, and it has a real-world implication.”

Jensen says a lot of students are not allowed to play with these kinds of technologies at school, where it is seen to be a distraction. “We need to stop blocking them and thinking it’s a bad thing,” she argues.

“That’s where the library can be a centre for teaching kids to use information in a way that is responsible and in a place where they are [supervised] while they are using it, while giving them freedom to make mistakes and maybe fail.”

Richards says makerspaces are a way of encouraging computational thinking, a vital skill needed for jobs in the future.

“The national curriculum [in Australia] has a great focus on computational thinking. They are realising this is a crucial skill for future careers because the workplace is changing and new jobs are being invented every year,” he says.

Next up: Collaborative, connected classrooms

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Tags Open Universities AustraliaSwinburnedigital learningJeff Murraymassive open online courseWicking Dementia Research and Education Centre

More about Flinders UniversityGoogleLeap MotionMacquarie UniversityMotionOpen Universities AustraliaSwinburne UniversitySwinburne University of TechnologyTechnologyUniversity of Tasmania

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