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How virtual reality is transforming learning at the University of Newcastle

How virtual reality is transforming learning at the University of Newcastle

AR and VR technologies take centre stage at the university

The University of Newcastle is using virtual and augmented reality technologies to transform how nursing and midwifery trainees learn, and plans to tap the blockchain to support students attaining ‘micro-credentials.’

The innovations are being led by chief information officer, Anthony Molinia, who joined the university in October 2016 following the departure of Sanjay Kalra.

Since joining, Molinia has refreshed the university’s digital strategy with AR and VR technologies currently taking centre stage. The IT group has moved out of the back office and is now delivering pilots that prove the capabilities of different technologies before they are deployed across the university.

“This mindset is significant because it helps take academics along on the journey,” Molinia told CIO Australia.

“Essentially this means they can see what we are talking about and there isn’t this disconnect between IT and the [academics’] vernacular … this is what we are trying to achieve.”

Under the university’s ‘Road to Birth’ pilot project, students at Newcastle University’s School of Nursing & Midwifery – using HTC Vive, Rift Oculus and Microsoft Hololens VR headsets, a smartphone, laptop or PC – are being guided visually through the internal stages of childbearing. It is designed for use as an adjunct to the current pedagogical approaches to teaching, Molinia told CIO Australia.

The VR technology was created in 12 weeks by five internal staff inside the university’s IT innovation team and the school. The technology was part of the Sex, Science and Society MOOC at the end of 2017 and will be used by midwifery students from semester 1 this year, Molinia said.

Under another pilot, midwifery students are also using VR technology to execute neonatal resuscitation if a newborn baby stops breathing.

“Traditionally in this school, you would have to book a lab and coordinate in that lab to run a simulation. This is quite an expensive process,” said Molinia.

“Given that these are generally third and fourth year nursing or midwifery students, they are actually working and it’s difficult to timetable that in with the coordinator on campus.

“There are more generic products that we are looking to develop, those that have a practical element that require users to be hands on … or those that require repeatable, procedural-based learning. Often, you only get the opportunity to practice [these procedures] once or twice and using this technology, you can do it as many times as you like in a safe environment and with freedom of failure,” he said.

Digital disruption encourages the development of new business models across the university and options to ‘commercialise’ its innovations, said Molinia.

“We are not in the business of software distribution or licensing so we won’t go so far as to package up the product and sell it. We will look to partner with organisations that have that capability and in doing so, provide that industry link which enables them to address real problems that these types of technologies can help solve,” he said.

The university will soon pilot VR and AR technologies in areas such as conflict resolution in the discipline of behavioural sciences.

Meanwhile, the university will soon complete a blockchain pilot to help students transport their ‘micro-credentials’ across a digital ledger.

“They could then take that [micro-credential] anywhere and apply it to any university that they attend,” Molinia said.

“[Building a] blockchain requires more than one party so we will do a pilot ourselves to learn where the points of failure or points of issue are … but we will ultimately look to partner with other universities potentially through our alliance with UNSW and Wollongong University and then further afield.

“It’s about moving to the new dynamic of micro-credentialing and ‘white-labelling’ of degrees. And then you throw in the mix all of the ways in which degrees can be consumed using all of these varied technologies. It's a question of how do we ensure consistency? How do we keep a track of all this learning activity that is going on in a very disparate and sparse and cottage environment? We are thinking that the blockchain might be able to help us solve that problem.”

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Tags augmented realityUniversity of Newcastlevirtual realityBlockchainSanjay KalraAnthony Molinia

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