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Virtual spaces: The future of eLearning and technology

Volume 7 Number 11 November 14 - December 11 2011

Lyn Toh unravels four unique projects by University staff and students who have changed the future of electronic learning with their unique brand of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Thanks to bright ideas and a spark of technology innovation, space is anything but the final frontier when it comes to virtual learning. Three separate teams comprising University staff have been awarded more than $600,000 in research grants from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, which will fund eLearning projects to change the way that knowledge is shared, taught and transferred in the higher education sector.

Associate Professor Raoul Mulder, Dr Jon Pearce and Dr Chi Baik (Zoology, Information Systems and the Centre for the Study of Higher Education) received $219,000 for their project, ‘Promoting student peer review in Australian tertiary education’. The project aims to promote student peer review across the higher education sector by making an online peer system (‘PRAZE’) developed at the University of Melbourne available to students and teachers at any university in Australia.

Associate Professor Raoul Mulder says that what made the project exciting was seeing how the system not only improved learning outcomes by making feedback on assignments by student peers easier, but also reduced the complexity and workload of administering peer review for academics.

“Before we developed PRAZE, manual management of peer review was an onerous task – perhaps even impossible in large classes. We worked closely with members of the University’s eLearning team to develop a system that is easy to use, so students can now appraise one another’s work anonymously and efficiently.”

Dr Wally Smith, Associate Professor Hannah Lewi, Dr Shanton Chang and Dr Andrew Saniga (Information Systems and ABP) received $212,000 for ‘New tools and techniques for learning in the field: studying the built environment’. The team proposes to explore new opportunities for fieldwork by using mobile phones and related technologies which are being test-driven across three universities in Australia. Here, the benefits and limitations of mobile platforms will be examined, with students and academics designing content to be accessed in a variety of field activities in urban landscapes.

“We came to this idea by thinking up ways for students to mix abstract knowledge with real-world experience while overcoming practical obstacles – a walking tour with a human guide becomes too difficult against the noise of a city! As groundwork, we have developed prototype iPhone Apps: a guide for the Shrine of Remembrance, a teaching guide for the subject Formative Histories and a prototype iPad guide of the Royal Botanic Gardens for the subject History of Designed Landscapes,” Dr Smith says.

Associate Professor Gregor Kennedy, the University’s Director of eLearning, together with colleagues at Macquarie and CSU, received $220,000 to work on a Macquarie-led project, ‘Blended synchronicity: uniting on-campus and distributed learners through media-rich real-time collaboration tools’. The project aims to bring together face-to-face and geographically-dispersed students by engaging them in real-time, media-rich learning experiences using video conferencing, web conferencing and virtual worlds.

Technology has proven to be more than beneficial for this team, whose members largely developed the project through Skype conversations. Having worked with one another previously, Professor Kennedy said that the cross-collaboration with other universities was very beneficial as it allowed researchers to tap into a range of teaching methods across Australia.

“We are trying to determine how to make the best use of media-rich collaborative learning to bring together dislocated and dispersed learners. The team is made up of colleagues who have been working together in various ways over the years.

“Given we have different backgrounds and are from different universities, collectively we have multiple approaches to teaching and learning to draw on. We see this as a distinct advantage in the project.”

Within the student and alumni community, Mr Kym Huynh, a graduate of Law and Commerce has also made waves with a learning platform for real-life face-to-face classes known as WeTeachMe which connects aspiring teachers and students over a variety of topics and knowledge. By using the online platform, people can now learn anything from martial arts to new languages and make a profit from their passions by utilising the tools freely available to make the process of knowledge transfer effortless, frictionless and fun.

Together with four other student alumni Ms Demi Markogiannaki, Mr Martin Kemka, Mr Cheng Zhu and Mr Rowan McSweeney, Mr Huynh said that the vision for WeTeachMe goes beyond providing a business service to transforming the way that knowledge and education are perceived and delivered.