2022 Education Guide: From simulations to VR to robots, B.C. post-secondary institutions keep the best of edtech

Post-secondary institutions throughout B.C. are leveraging new technologies to make schooling more affordable, flexible, accessible and engaging.

Jessica Swinney

Credit: Adam Blasberg. Preparing to be an X-ray technologist, BCIT student Jessica Swinney needs to learn in person as well as online

Educators across the province are leveraging new technologies to make schooling more affordable, flexible, accessible and engaging

Jessica Swinney started studying toward her new career in September 2020, the first autumn of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her school, BCIT, was like most institutions in the province—scrambling to deliver courses safely amid an unprecedented public health crisis.

Most college and university students switched to online classes and virtual meet-ups instead of attending lectures and tutorials. But Swinney is learning to become an X-ray technologist, or radiographer, through BCIT’s two-year medical radiography diploma program. Studying remotely can’t teach her what she needs.

Diagnostic imaging is a hands-on, face-to-face career. Health-care workers can’t give someone a CT scan over Zoom. They work closely with patients and operate computerized machinery, which means students like Swinney must learn to do so, too. So with masks and other safety protocols in place, she and her classmates studied via a blended delivery, combining both online and in-person learning.

On some days, Swinney stayed home and used a virtual classroom platform called Bongo, which enables students to watch video demonstrations and have discussions with each other. For theoretical classes, she says, “I don’t think it made a difference to me whether we were sitting in a hall with our instructors versus online at home.”

But to learn practical skills, she went to BCIT’s Burnaby campus a few days a week to get her hands on medical equipment and use simulation labs.

Educators across the province are leveraging new technologies to make schooling more affordable, flexible, accessible and engaging. B.C. colleges and universities are using new tools to enhance how students learn—not just to navigate the health crisis. As Swinney’s experiences illustrate, that’s changing student life both inside and outside of the classroom.

sidebar 1James Rout oversees teaching and learning resources for BCIT’s 50,000 students and their instructors, as his school’s associate vice-president, education support and innovation. He’s also a doctoral candidate in SFU’s educational technology and learning design program. His team’s role at BCIT includes developing and implementing new tech tools, but more importantly, it focuses on creating effective learning experiences.

“It’s all too easy to introduce some sort of technology and put that in front of your students,” Rout explains. “But unless it’s thoughtfully designed to achieve an educational outcome, that doesn’t always happen.”

BCIT students want skills they can apply in the workforce. In Swinney’s classes, she practised using X-ray machines with specialized dummies. Instructors would challenge students to solve problems like helping a patient who started choking. Some dummies have synthetic bones that simulate real ones. “We would position them and take live X-rays, and then we would view our own images of them,” Swinney recalls.

Computerized tomography (CT) scanners take 3D pictures of a body’s organs in more detail than any dummy can replicate, so she also practised in an animated virtual environment called TomoVR. Students would pull up a patient’s medical details, adjust the controls of the simulated CT machine, and run a head scan, for example. “You could actually see all the different bones that are in your skull, and the sinuses, and what it was looked like as if it were an actual CT,” Swinney remembers. “It really helped to get your head wrapped around how CT machines actually work.”

A virtual shop

Vancouver Community College started using virtual reality technology last year to help students practise automotive service skills. Brett Griffiths, VCC’s dean of trades, technology and design, is eager to demonstrate VR welding to me with an Oculus headset and controllers.

The visuals look like a budget video game when displayed on his office flat screen, but wearing the headset makes the experience deeply immersive. It feels like being in a workshop, welding—minus the fumes and burn hazards. Users manipulate the controller like an arc welder’s tool, adjusting its angle, speed and direction.

VCC is investing in 3D scanners to build a library of digitized objects like car engines or brakes, for learners to work with in VR. “We can integrate that stuff into different applications to enable students to virtually put something together, take it apart and learn about it,” Griffiths says.

Ultimately, learners need to work with real metal, but VR gear helps them get started in a flexible, safe way. “Students can just take it home in the evenings to practise their welding or painting before they come into the shop,” Griffiths enthuses, “and it helps to reduce consumable costs.”

Educators can play with an ever-growing assortment of new tech, but Tannis Morgan, VCC’s associate vice-president, academic innovation, says they should focus on choosing the right tool for each job. “Not a day goes by without a vendor trying to get in the door,” she cautions. “You have to be really careful about what is actually relevant—what is actually going to have impact for our programs and students.”

One of the best ways to help learners of all stripes: save them money. BCcampus is a nonprofit that supports teaching and learning at the province’s public universities and colleges. To that end, its open-source textbook project uses technology to make education more affordable.

The organization pays educators to create digital textbooks in their fields of expertise. They cover the most highly enrolled college and university subjects, like introductory chemistry, biology and economics. These resources are available to anyone for free, and instructors can print, reuse and modify them to suit their needs.

“All of the 25 public post-secondaries have faculty who are using our textbooks, some of them much more than others,” says BCcampus executive director Mary Burgess. “Students have saved around $27 million in the last 10 years, not having to buy textbooks.”

Flex education

Affordability is just one piece of the accessibility puzzle that educators are trying to solve with technology. Geography can create roadblocks for many students, especially in remote parts of B.C.

sidebar 2UVic educational technology assistant professor Valerie Irvine researches and teaches multi-access learning—educating students effectively whether they attend in person or digitally. Good instructors create environments for classmates to discuss and collaborate, and those benefits should extend to online participants as well. “The design matters, to make sure that the learners who are remote actually feel included,” Irvine explains.

Ironically, her department only offers its MA and PhD programs in an on-campus, face-to-face setting. “That’s what drives me nuts,” Irvine says with a laugh. “I had one person that was coming down from Kamloops…a nine-hour drive. I gave her a telepresence robot.”

The student finished the remaining weeks of the class remotely using the VGo, which looks like a parking meter riding a Roomba, with a lens and digital display on top. The machine gives users an interactive presence in the classroom.

“Your face shows up on the screen,” Irvine says. “Your eyes are the webcam that’s looking out. And you can use your arrow keys or your mouse, or even a gaming console to drive around.” Robots and teleconferencing platforms could help solve a key question for edtech researchers: “How do we design accessible, inclusive, climate-friendly options for learners?” Irvine asks.

Of course, technological solutions require adequate infrastructure and tools, and that challenge circles back to affordability issues. “The problem for some students in parts of B.C.’s North is that they have no good internet connection,” points out Hamid Shoaraee, a master’s candidate in computer science at UNBC in Prince George.

Shoaraee worked as a technology troubleshooter in the school’s teaching and learning centre, solving people’s computing problems. “For some of the services you need your laptop, but some students just use their tablet or phone,” he adds.

Grant Potter, UNBC’s e-learning coordinator, says educators must design their courses to accommodate people’s needs. “Students were using community centres, community libraries—wherever there were access points for wifi,” he reports seeing, especially early in the pandemic when campuses were closed.

Potter advises instructors to make course materials available in file sizes small enough for easy downloading, rather than use YouTube links or other tools that require steady internet connectivity. Students could store a few days’ worth of readings or videos, then return to a wifi spot to grab more content or upload assignments. “If that is going to be the reality for students, you have to construct your courses so that’s easily done,” Potter says.

Making edtech work

Technology is changing how people teach and learn in so many exciting ways that there’s growing demand for educators who can use it well. Royal Roads University, SFU, UBC and UVic offer graduate programs in educational technology and learning design, with each taking different approaches and practising much of what they teach.

UBC’s master of educational technology (MET) degree started as a certificate program in 1997 and was one of the university’s first all-online offerings, says Natasha Boškić. She was one of its first students then, studying remotely from her native Serbia, where she was working as a translator. Now Boškić is director of learning design in UBC’s faculty of education and a MET instructor.

Her career shows how technology can make education accessible, and by doing so, transform people’s lives. “At that time when I took that certificate, I don’t think anyone was necessarily thinking about using technology for teaching and learning,” Boškić recalls. “Because it was fully online, I could take it from Serbia. It was my opportunity to do something different.”

Boškić immigrated in 1999 while in the middle of her program, then completed her master’s and doctoral degrees.

The MET degree is still delivered exclusively online, attracting a large proportion of students from abroad. “We have an international population that comes from the United States, China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and Jamaica,” says Samia Khan, the program’s director.

Their outcomes reflect the diversity of their backgrounds, Khan continues: “We have students that work to develop high-performance teams, students that are involved as chief innovation officers in their organizations and people who want to build games.” Those career paths show learning doesn’t stop after graduation. Tech-savvy educators will find demand for their skills far beyond the walls of academia.

UBC’s decision to design its MET degree in a strictly online format makes it scalable and accessible to many people regardless of what time zone they live in. “We have over 430 graduate students in our program at the master’s level,” Khan says.

sidebar 3Royal Roads offers its master of arts in learning and technology (MALAT) in a blended or online format. Students who choose the blended option begin with two weeks’ residence at the lush Greater Victoria school before joining a cohort of classmates studying remotely.

Lisa Gedak chose the on-campus start in 2019 alongside five others, out of a class of 24. She says the intimacy of the residency experience is life changing. “The six of us have remained friends and have remained close—and probably we’re closer than the others—because of that opportunity,” she beams. The downside? “You do have to get used to the peacocks waking you up early, because they are right outside of your dorm.”

These days, Gedak works for Royal Roads and Kwantlen Polytechnic University from her home on Pender Island and runs a consulting business for digital learning. She’s loved innovation and electronic wizardry since she learned to use a Commodore 64 computer as a child but says the best edtech focuses on people and how they learn: “I’m most impressed by technologies that can support engagement and humanize experiences.”

Mariel Miller is director of technology integrated learning at UVic, where the team she leads helps faculty and students use tech to teach and learn. Even at a traditionally on-location university, Miller says, the lines between remote and in-person studying are blurring. “I don’t think there’s a clear distinction between online and blended, or hybrid and face to face,” she contends. “There’s just a lot of technology-mediated learning across all teaching modalities now.”

Document-sharing platforms, videoconferencing tech, chat apps and other tools enable students to engage with learning materials, instructors, and their fellow classmates with greater ease and flexibility regardless of their location. Still, Miller offers a reminder: “It’s important not to let technology drive the learning experience.”

Rout, the BCIT education innovation leader, would agree with that last statement. He chose to earn his PhD from SFU because it offered one of the few opportunities to learn about his field at a doctoral level. But it was also because he could attend classes on campus, at times that fit his full-time working schedule.

“So yeah, there’s a bit of irony there,” Rout admits of studying edtech in an old-school manner. “But as I think about it now, that just makes sense.”

“The best, most effective way to learn together is to be together—to physically be together. We’re human beings,” Rout reflects. “Conversations happen in between the cracks. We have a class and you go for a coffee, and you talk about things with your classmates. You don’t do that when you’re on a Zoom call.”