11/16/2015 04:23 EST | Updated 11/16/2016 05:12 EST

Virtual Teaching Tools Take Learning Outside The Classroom

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Cork, Ireland

What does "learning" look like? If you had to draw a quick picture, you might sketch a teacher standing in front of neat rows of desks. It's still fair to say that the lecture format is core to many educational programs, but technology is advancing and creating opportunities for technology-enhanced and online learning to be more experiential, more flexible, and more engaging.

The educational landscape is shifting, and educational institutions must keep pace to attract tomorrow's learners. Learning -- even formal degree- or certificate-bound learning -- is happening outside classrooms, in hands-on work and interactive online forums. It's becoming more accessible -- though it's important to note that while technology has the potential to support all learners, it must be adapted with accessibility needs in mind. Methods of instruction are changing, too, and one of the most exciting developments is the application of insights from the gaming industry to education.

Virtual worlds, for example, are gaining traction as a way to engage students learning at a distance. Learners' avatars can interact in online scenarios, watching the impact their decisions have on other participants. Afterwards, groups can review a scenario, sharing feedback and identifying effective approaches. The Chang School has developed and uses Lake Devo Online Role Play in courses across disciplines to support interactivity in simulated environments. Tools and applications like Lake Devo provide a way for online learners to get more -- not less -- hands-on experience than they would in a classroom.

As Helen Farley of the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, writes in Curriculum Models for the 21st Century,

"These environments [virtual worlds] potentially allow educators to provide their students with more authentic learning experiences that more closely replicate real-life contexts through the provision of credible tasks and activities ... Carefully designed simulations deployed in virtual world environments can offer safe and economical simulations of real-world contexts that can enhance learning."

Entering a simulated environment encourages you to try new approaches. Some work and help you advance. Some fail. But when your approach doesn't work, you can pick yourself up and start again. Consider how different that is from test-driven classroom work, where failure stays on your academic record. Virtual worlds free learners to experiment, and that can lead to better solutions to real-world problems.

It's up to centres of learning to embrace new approaches that encourage critical thinking and problem-solving. Importantly, that doesn't mean accepting whatever technologies are offered. It means tailoring existing technology and building new technology expressly to serve educational ends. If what we need isn't available, we'll have to create it.

This is important to enhance learning experience and advance education. It's also important for our economy. One of the master class leaders at the upcoming ChangSchoolTalks 2016 is Tony Bates, who recently explored online experiential learning at The Chang School. Author of the (free, online) book Teaching in a Digital Age, Bates emphasizes the importance of offering the right kind of learning to support the economy of the future in a recent blog post:

"All advanced developed countries want to be leaders in innovation. Will Canada produce the researchers, engineers and managers with the right skills for a knowledge-based economy? ... Canada needs to focus much more on identifying the knowledge and skills that will be needed in knowledge intensive industries and ensure that our educational institutions know how to develop such skills. In particular are we using the appropriate teaching methods and technologies that will help learners develop these skills and knowledge?"

I agree that education must adapt to the changing needs of learners and facilitate the growth of our knowledge-based economy. Educational institutions have an unparalleled opportunity today to reshape our programs, supported by emerging technology. We've already made great strides -- and I'm confident that the best is yet to come.


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