Hands on for a digital future

18 March 2009

University of Sydney researchers are developing technologies that could eventually see 3D educational games, virtual chemistry labs, and sophisticated interactive modelling of climate change on computers in every high school classroom.

Researchers at the University's Centre for Research on Computer-supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo) are behind the development, which is based on the latest learning sciences and educational research, says Professor Michael J. Jacobson and co-director of CoCo.

"There is a growing body of evidence that learning is improved when the student is at the centre of a learning experience, actively 'constructing understandings', compared to a 'sage on the stage' approach with the teacher at the front of the room," he says.

Professor Jacobson is already in talks with Fort Street High in Petersham to trial an immersive educational game that recreates a virtual 19th-century Singapore, with graphics designed by Mark Chavez who previously worked with the Hollywood studio Dreamworks.

"Students move around the virtual island, trying to identify why people are sick by taking water samples and other scientific measurements in different parts of the city," says Professor Jacobson. "They have to come up with research questions and test their hypotheses."

Professor Jacobson has applied to the Australian Research Council to develop an Australian virtual world focused on historical events and linked to the curriculum in science and social studies.

CoCo has also just teamed up with the Centre for Learning Innovation (CLI) within NSW DET to explore how NSW students might benefit from these advances in computer technology. CoCo will help CLI with project research and advice about the latest science of learning and educational findings, while CLI will help CoCo take technology to schools in a way that meets teachers' and students' real needs.

Colin Wood from the Centre for Learning Innovation said one of the potential benefits of such technology is greater subject choice: "Subjects experiencing a shortage of specialist teachers will be able to be offered to all students irrespective of teacher availability and class sizes at their local school."

According to Professor Peter Goodyear, fellow Co-Director of CoCo, the collaboration with CLI "will develop and test high quality learning resources to address two key concerns that arise from the Rudd government's promise of a computer for every student: What will go on such computers? How will students use them to learn most effectively?

"With the national agenda for a 'digital education revolution' only beginning to emerge, this hands-on partnership with CLI will show how future technology has the potential to further transform teaching and learning," comments Professor Jacobson.

To interview Professor Jacobson, Professor Goodyear, Fort Street Principal Ros Moxham, or representatives from CLI, contact: Kath Kenny, University of Sydney Media Office on 0434 606 100.

About CLI

The Centre for Learning Innovation was created in 2004 to offer a range of services that support teaching and learning. CLI's products and key services are designed to help teachers in schools and TAFE integrate innovative learning design and the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) into their teaching.

About CoCo

Sydney University's Centre for Research on Computer-supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo), established in 2003, conducts research on how computer technology is transforming learning and teaching. It has worked with a range of partners including the Powerhouse Museum, CISCO, and Optus. CoCo will host an official event to sign a memorandum to collaborate with the CLI.

Professor Jacobson on how new technologies can enhance learning

Professor Jacobson says interactive, multi-user virtual environments are just one example of how new technologies can be used to motivate students to actively engage in scientific investigations, experience virtual historical events, and even collaborate on projects with students in their class, in other schools in Australia, or even the world.

While academically talented children will tend to do well regardless of teaching methods, Professor Jacobson says these sorts of approaches will help a "broader range of kids to do well by helping them become more engaged and motivated."

Other ideas are difficult even for gifted and talented students to learn, so CoCo is investigating other applications of new technologies in the classroom. Virtual labs, for example, with computer modeling and visualisation tools to run experiments that might be dangerous or expensive on the computer, or to "see" things that cannot be seen, such as electrons or the effects of CO2 on climate change.