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The digital education revolution

10 July 20140 comments
Photograph: Mike Harrington/Lifesize

Photograph: Mike Harrington/Lifesize

Educators are increasingly pursuing creative and innovative education opportunities presented by online technologies that can link teachers and students anywhere in the world.

In a classroom in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s inner-north, last year a group of students chatted to each other while completing English language exercises.

Nothing unusual about this, except that only one of the students was actually in the classroom.

The teacher and all of the other 13 students were spread across the country from Queanbeyan to Sydney to Brisbane.

Welcome to the digital tsunami that is sweeping the education sector.

A digital explosion is occurring in education as the expectations of learners have been transformed in line with ubiquitous online technology.

Significant amounts of free educational resources are now free online and students are becoming more adept at accessing and using them.

Students now expect an experience they could never have imagined ten years ago – including fully mobile digital technology.

As a new generation – brought up with the internet and for whom digital technology has always been the norm – enters the education system, shifting expectations are progressively changing a generations-old model by which teachers impart knowledge to students.

The internet and mobile devices give extraordinary access to information from just about anywhere. Students no longer need to be in the same place at the same time as their teachers.

Monash University Learning and Teaching Professor Darrell Evans says we are now in a “disrupted” world of education.

“We must ask ourselves how we are going to tackle things differently. How are we still going to be a university in 20 years’ time if we don’t transform the way we understand education?” Professor Evans said.

Monash has attached itself to a massive open online courses (MOOC) platform called FutureLearn, launched by the UK’s Open University in 2012.

Its partners include the top UK universities as well as the British Library and the British Museum.

“Technology is an enabler. It allows us to do things we never dreamed of, but it must still be fit for the purpose for which it is used,” Professor Evans said.

“We are experimenting in the online courses world with FutureLearn and with other companies such as Pearson. It is a matter of understanding what the technology can bring to those initiatives and assessing it,’ he said.

“What will be the impact on students? What can we learn from online assessment that we can then bring back into the campus learning experience?

The education sector is still coming to terms with digital classrooms and MOOCs have catapulted the sector further down the path of digital learning.

The New York Times dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC” and the take-up has borne out the epithet.

MOOCs are typically short courses often provided by a leading educator from a top institution and they are free to just about anyone.

The classroom described earlier was one of Australia’s first fully interactive, virtual classroom and part of a trial program delivering English language lessons to clients at settlement agency AMES.

The AMEP Virtual Classroom uses the National Broadband Network (NBN) to create virtual classrooms in which students and teachers located across the country can all see and hear each other for the first time.

Within the Virtual Classroom, teachers and students who might be thousands of kilometres apart can talk to each other as well as work collaboratively in an environment that replicates a real classroom.

The project was a joint venture between the former Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.

The powerful broadband technology used in the trial allows students to work together as a class or in small groups in virtual breakout rooms; alter the layout of their screens to suit particular exercises; write discussion notes as they go, and see and speak to each other individually or collectively.

AMES Distance Learning Manager Caitlin Halliwell said the program promoted connectivity and social interaction and had the capacity to reach more students.

“We can have students and a teacher, who could all be located in far flung places, able to see and speak to each other for the first time,” Ms Halliwell said.

“The students really like the program because it’s engaging. Also, they are able to read social cues and facial expressions – an important part of conversational language skills – which is a first for online learning.

“In the past we have run distance learning programs that were basically one to one teacher student interaction. This system allows us to have up to six students to each teacher in a classroom with terrific online resources.

“Also, many students cannot get to learning centres for language lessons and these virtual classes might be their only social interaction in the English language.

“Teachers have the same options as teachers in a real class; of being able to go off in different directions. They can introduce quizzes, essays, discussions and even use songs to practice language skills,” Ms Halliwell said.

Now AMES, which has 1300 staff working over sixteen major locations, is building on the success of the trial by  implementing a state of the art integrated online learning platform that will also serve as a point of entry for clients and a way of managing relationships.

The ‘myAMES’ project will operate across the organisation’s three divisions, ensuring one client interface regardless of the services they are accessing.

It will allow professional communication, collaboration and resource sharing across all divisions and between clients and staff, including the ability to create courses and resources, conduct online meetings, classes and client conferences as well as create networking forums.