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Virtual campus: online universities are the future of higher education

In higher education, we’ve been talking about “e-learning” for years. But, in practice, we have mostly been teaching in the same way just through different mediums; that is, delivering one-way lectures…

Getting students hands on experience through a virtual world is the next big step in education. Flickr/Mercy Health

In higher education, we’ve been talking about “e-learning” for years. But, in practice, we have mostly been teaching in the same way just through different mediums; that is, delivering one-way lectures online, posting digital lecture notes and occasionally “innovating” with quizzes.

Instead of students passively learning from a lecturer, imagine immersive online “serious” games where students can learn through practice.

Virtual patients now allow medical students at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to develop diagnostic and clinical skills through online scenarios. They can learn from their mistakes with no adverse consequences for real life patients and without the need to be at the university.

This is the kind of big leap in higher education that “adaptive e-learning” can provide.

New generation of thinking

It’s funny to think that the same basic idea that lets online gamers score points by shooting weapons in sci-fi worlds is the same that can now help medical students learn how to save real lives online.

Many of the next generation of our graduates will have honed their skills in simulated learning environments – in much the same way that pilots train on simulators before they fly.

New technology is enabling students to learn in an interactive way, which will leave the YouTube clips and web course papers of today’s online education light years behind.

Rapidly evolving online technologies, ubiquitous connectivity and powerful mobile devices mean educators all over the world are now scrambling to understand the profound “disruption” web-based mass online learning is ushering in.

And Australian universities are no exception. At UNSW, we’re starting to use an “Adaptive e-Learning Platform” – which allows students to learn exactly the same things they did in a conventional laboratory, but more conveniently and cheaply. Teachers can now create their own lessons in interactive virtual worlds with different online scenarios.

Recently, we secured investment and spun out a start-up company – Smart Sparrow – to take our ideas from the lab and into the market, and to take our virtual learning worlds beyond UNSW. New government funding will enable health educators across NSW to access Smart Sparrow’s virtual patient technology.

Learning by doing

From a pedagogical perspective, this means more effective learning. We have long known that hands-on learning by doing, rather than learning by passively listening or watching, is the key to retaining knowledge and applying it successfully.

Trials of Smart Sparrow using a virtual patient to train nurses in the use of defibrillators in an American hospital, for example, achieved an improvement in task completion times from 1.4 minutes to 1.2 minutes, where patients died at 1.3 minutes.

In teaching microscopy techniques through this method, students showed a 56% improvement on standard exam scores. More than 90% of the 10,000 students we surveyed “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they would like to use similar adaptive lessons in other subjects.

A screenshot of the virtual patient program. Author

It also means the ability to share teaching resources with anyone who has an internet connection and to deliver sophisticated training and learning modules remotely.
For those of us interested in constantly improving learning outcomes adaptive e-learning technology has a lot to offer. Students get instant, personalised feedback as they progress, so they never hit a dead end and walk away.

If students have difficulty with a particular concept, the system can take action; it can recommend a piece of suitable content, offer feedback or redirect them to different part of the activity.

But, the most interesting aspect of adaptive e-learning is that teachers can, for the first time, see exactly how students are approaching problems and identify knowledge gaps to fill. Special analytics tools plough though the massive amounts of data collected from students working in virtual worlds and turn it into information for teachers about how their students are learning.

Disruptive innovation

Hopefully, Australian universities deal with the “disruptive innovation” that comes with these technological advances by recognising their potential to improve the way we teach and learn.

But the higher education sector has a lot on its plate. Not only is digital technology giving us rich, interactive learning environments, but the internet is radically shaking up the “reach” – and business models – of educators all of the world. New players delivering courses online, often for free, have the potential to reach tens of millions of students.

Big, prestigious education brands, like Harvard and MIT, have recently announced their free Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), enrolling tens of millions of people.

In many ways, traditional universities as we know them, the bricks and mortar “factories of learning” designed to meet the education and skills needs of the industrial revolution, are already outdated. As the print industry has so painfully learned, online means of delivering “content” are efficient, interactive, engaging, instant and infinitely cheaper.

Online education will similarly challenge traditional on-campus education, both through the capacity to deliver entire courses or units remotely and by transforming – and improving – what we are doing face to face in classrooms and labs.

The next step

So far, online education has struggled to “personalise” learning: to provide feedback that makes sense to individual students, and to adapt the learning path by recognising the differences between individuals. Many of us have rejected online altogether, perceiving it as alienating and impersonal.

But, adaptive e-learning goes a long way to solving that.

Universities have decades, if not centuries, of teaching excellence behind them – that’s an extraordinary asset they need to harness with new technology.

The future of today’s universities probably lies between the “massification” of online education – in which thousands or millions more students can learn the basic and common courses on an online adaptive system – and small tutorial sessions, utilising the benefits of face to face teaching.

From such “disruption” the best education will emerge if we manage to marry the interactive, intelligent and immersive possibilities of virtual worlds and instant digital communications tools with the talents and passion of great teachers.

Dr Dror Ben-Naim is a keynote speaker at the Adaptive eLearning Forum, July 13 - an event hosted by UNSW to discuss the rapid developments in online higher education.

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15 Comments sorted by

    1. ampersat

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I suppose the question is...why do you think it would not? Some preconceived thoughts in your assessment...

      "some might recall programmed learning from the 1960s"

      Bit of a gap dont ya think? 52years? no?

    2. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN

      President of ONLINE Learning Co non-profit

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I have been involved in ONLINE education from cradle to grave for the last 17 years.
      So much improvement had been done in 17 years .

      This last attempt by MIT is the best one.
      I also believe that model should be the one .

      Knowledge should be provided by the best knowledge owners of the world .
      if it is possible. . MIT has the best assets in the world regarding knowledge.
      but MIT can share that knowledge only with 10.000 people who can pay $50,000 per year, since it is the cost of…

      Read more
  1. Jack Arnold


    Thank you for describing a possible exciting future in education.

    About 30 years ago the Education Department was offered a similar dream & declined because "computers would never amount to very much in education".

    Now the place of simulation gaming to teach scientific, business & social principles is available to any administrator with the foresight & desire to improve education.

  2. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    What e-learning as such will never overcome, Dror, is the close contact between teacher and student, and research superviser and higher degree candidate.

    I am currently preparing a paper on field-based undergraduate study for agriculture, regional development, rural clinical and other service students, where the emphasis is on practical, hands-on experience disciplined by formal academic requirements yet at once facilitated by online e-learning capability.

    Some years ago I served on the Margaret…

    Read more
    1. Dror Ben-Naim

      Adjunct lecturer, School of Computer Science and Engineering at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      I agree Gil, with everything you say.

      Too often people think that eLearning is basically all about isolating students and giving them bad experience. Well, that's not the intended point, is it?

      Let me say categorically that I believe technology can, and should augment and improve face to face teaching.

      I think our differences are in what we define as eLearning, or maybe more so - what many people have been used to think of as eLearning. If you take the view that eLearning is just about…

      Read more
  3. Charles Lawson

    Law academic

    Dror you seem to be talking about simulation activities (virtual labs, and so on). I get that and I understand how that works. What I'm not so sure about in this technological nirvana is how abstract and text based learning can be achieved. How does your technological e-lerning teach Antigone and its themes? How would the online adaptive system work in deconstructing a text? This is important as technology gurus are flogging all this brilliance without actually realising how it might work in practice for those of us who have to put it into practice. I guess I am also old fashioned too in that I'd like to see the evidence that shows the technology fix actually delivers a better outcome (however that is framed, qualified and quantified).

    1. Dror Ben-Naim

      Adjunct lecturer, School of Computer Science and Engineering at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Charles Lawson

      You are absolutely right, and I should qualify - the technology that our group have been working on specifically - the Adaptive eLearning Platform - is well suited to "well defined" domains - domains in which what is considered as "right" or "wrong" is well understood (and thus can be modelled by a computer system).

      These typically are described as STEM subjects - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (with some aspects of Medicine as well)

      With regards to discourse-based disciplines…

      Read more
    2. Charles Lawson

      Law academic

      In reply to Dror Ben-Naim

      Thanks Dror. I appreciate your directness in responding. The concerns I still have are (and I'm not picking on you specifically as I have similar concerns about other technology gurus discoursing):
      (1) The gold standard for evidence is a controlled trial. With great respect your publications are interesting but they do not show that your technological fix have improved learning outcomes. What you appear to measure is the students' opinions (that show your technology fix was engaging and conducive…

      Read more
    3. Dror Ben-Naim

      Adjunct lecturer, School of Computer Science and Engineering at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Charles Lawson

      Seems like you are interested to learn more, I would encourage you to catch a flight to Sydney and join us this Friday on the Adaptive eLearning Forum ( You could meet all the academics implementing it in their teaching and ask them about their experience.

      Regarding evaluation and evidence-based practice:
      There are two layers here, the content and the technology. PowerPoint can serve as a good example. The technology (the tool called…

      Read more
    4. Gaye Swinn

      Retired academic

      In reply to Dror Ben-Naim

      Dror, Charles’ comments point to an underlying truth, which is that learning anything worth learning, usually involves some seriously hard work. Who can argue that keeping patients safe while students learn practical skills in a virtual environment isn’t a great thing? We just have to recognise that when they’ve finished practicing they’re still only qualified to work in a virtual environment. Beyond relatively simple skills funky delivery techniques are unlikely to help much, no matter how economically attractive they may appear to supplier and customer alike. When it comes to Antigone or Wittgenstein, for example, there’s no delivery mechanism that will make the learning easier. It may be, however, that some new techniques, games in particular, might engage the jaded student enough to cause them to want to undertake the hard slog. Just as hearing a magically beautiful piece of music might cause you to want to learn to play the violin.

    5. ampersat

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Dror Ben-Naim


      Shoot. Had i known about the elearning event, im sure i would have found the time. May i ask if there is another event happening soon?


  4. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN

    President of ONLINE Learning Co non-profit

    Dear Friends
    I am too far away from Australia, but I follow what is going on in Australia regarding online learning.

    I am too excited about MITx+Harvardx project :
    Top schools
    Providing top education
    At a small fee ( May be $ 10 per coursed )
    Awarding a certificate of MITx and Harvardx
    ( May be later a degree of MITx and Harvardx )

    First course of MITx were followed by 120,000 students.
    7,157 students got a certificate mostly with grade A .
    Percentage is low but think this is the only first course .

    Exciting thing is their target 1 billion students in the world .
    Then what the other colleges in the world do ?

    I am an employer. I say we are the NET EVALUATORS of the GRADUATES of COLLEGES . If we employ that college is good. I am ready employ MITx graduates even if they do not have a degree.

    What you say ?

  5. John O'Connor

    logged in via Twitter

    Dror, Charles

    I am particularly interested in how technology impacts on the teaching of non-STEM (or STEAM – if you include Arts) subjects. Using the virtual online world Second Life I deliver a module to art & design undergraduate entirely online. The platform is ideally suited to discourse-based and practice-led disciplines because it not only provides a simulated environment in which to interact but it also has an existing community with an economy and rich in culture.

    The ability to make…

    Read more
  6. Tony Grek


    Why has the number of students learning at campus been decreasing? Is it because their parents become less afford to have their children attend colleges or universities than before? The answer is probably no. The reason of it seems the decreased population of children in industrialized countries. Why many higher education institutes have started offering online classes? They are struggling with gathering the applicants to make both ends meet in conduction of campus program. They are not happy however much e-learning students grow in number because learning fee is very cheap or free. Read more.