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Curtin joins virtual classroom movement

Video-conferencing is part of new model aimed at increasing remote students’ access. 

Nursing students in the Pilbara region now have the opportunity to attend classes through high-end video technology in a first for Curtin University.

Students who once could participate only externally are now able to take part in lectures, tutorials and group learning exercises carried out in Perth. This allows rural students the opportunity to participate in classes more than 1600km away while remaining within their own community.

“The distributed learning model, or virtual classroom, used in the Pilbara example is in response to regional workforce needs for nursing, and allows students to upgrade their skills and qualifications in a supported way, without having to travel to Perth,” Curtin deputy vice-chancellor education, professor Jill Downie, said.

The two-year pilot project is a part of the Curtin Converged concept within the bachelor of science nursing degree. Downie said the concept “uses a combination of synchronous [real-time] and asynchronous, campus-based, online, distributed, simulation, and Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs] to meet the needs of different student groups”. Nursing students within the enrolled nurse to registered nurse stream in Port Headland are video linked to tutorials in Perth.

“High-end video conferencing makes the distributed learning model possible,” Downie said, “when combined with a technology-enriched classroom, which could include the use of iPads, whiteboards and MOCOWs [Mobile Computers on Wheels].”

She said the program allows students to engage in learning activities, rather than just being observers.

“Although not physically in the classroom, they are able to interact with other students, contribute to discussions and participate in group activities,” Downie said.

Nursing student Gitte Hall highly recommends the program.

“It’s very conducive to learning because instead of just sitting there watching nature, you can now interact,” Hall said.

She said the technologies make it easier to learn and the fact the students can interact with the Perth classroom is helping the information sink in. Initially the video-conferencing was awkward, Hall added, but it now feels as though they are just “another table in the classroom at Perth”.

The response from teachers and students has been positive, Downie said. Most believe the model allows strong active engagement and, for the most-part, eliminates any barrier of distance.

The project has received $692,000 in funding from the Western Australian Government’s Royalties for Regions Program, which has been used to refurbish a learning centre at the Pilbara Institute – the region’s TAFE – and equip the centre with the video-conferencing facilities.

“Some challenges around technical connections are being addressed and providing good lessons for the future rollout,” Downie said.

An evaluation will take place next year, but there are already plans to increase numbers for the course. Downie said the target was “to make a quality Curtin University learning experience available, in real-time, to more than 1 million potential students across the globe, regardless of their location, by 2017”.

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