Technology revolutionizes learning at Athabasca

Students can wander in space with new video game-based learning

Why look at a PowerPoint presentation about Mars in a science class when you can wander its red ridges and canyons?

Or stare at a famous painting’s two-dimensional image instead of stepping inside and chatting with the characters? A new virtual learning centre at Athabasca University in Alberta could take lessons a long way from the conventional classroom.

The distance-education school is hoping that cutting-edge video game technology can be used to sink students deep into what they’re learning.

Young people have long been able to hone physical skills through realistic video games, and the university wants to approach academics the same way, says Rory McGreal, the university’s associate vice-president of research.

Hours spent hunched over a computer perfecting how to shoot a gun or explore a virtual environment could also be spent learning how the body works or understanding the universe.

“We’re trying to harness the power of games and how we can use them to promote learning,” McGreal said Wednesday.

“What they do is they grab the students, they hold their attention, and the students learn.”

The school is launching a specialized centre in immersive technologies and plans to create its own programs.

McGreal stresses they will go far beyond a virtual classroom or computer tours of existing attractions.

Quite a few schools, including Athabasca, have already done that in the online Second Life community, but it’s really a waste of the technology, he said. Even taking art history students to a virtual trip of the Louvre would be a “primitive” use of the vast possibilities online, he suggested.

“We want to move forward ahead of that, and to get away from the classroom altogether. How about going into the photo and actually interacting with the characters in the piece of art?”

One school programmer sees students creating a virtual representation of themselves, known as an avatar, and having the ability to go anywhere or do anything their teacher can think up.

They would be accompanied by a “knowbot” as they wandered through whatever environment they were studying, said McGreal. Their online companion would tailor information to their level and present it in whatever way they learned best.

The knowbot would also eliminate the need for a pen-and-paper exam.

“What we envision is a different kind of testing, where you get up to different levels,” said McGreal.

“You’re taking a physics course, and in order to get off the Earth you have to master certain basic concepts. You get up there, you get to that level, and then you’re off the earth and you go to another planet, where there may be other physics concepts you have to master.”

Athabasca plans to develop classes using software created by Sun Microsystems, a U.S. company that has also provided the technology to a number of other universities around the world.

The schools plan to work together on programs that could break down barriers to education, said company spokesman Kevin Roebuck.

Shrinking down and popping inside the body to look at the structure of cells doesn’t require the same skill set as sitting down and memorizing from a text book.

“Kids are very comfortable with video games and multimedia and things like that, so we see it as a very powerful way to help kids learn.”

McGreal admits that some students would eventually have to log off the computer and come back to traditional forms of learning. Athabasca is already an online and distance-education school, yet some classes require hands-on labs or internships. The new technology won’t change that.

Students in computer science, education and psychology are already working on putting together the new technology.

– The Canadian Press