Open Source

Gauteng, Limpopo teach in 3D

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Virtual Masifunde, a constructivist 3D virtual learning environment (3DVLE), is being piloted in schools in two South African provinces, by a team of international researchers.

The team from Australia and the US has this month begun a pilot study that will measure the impact of 3DVLE environments on learning outcomes, learner motivation, creativity and the self-esteem of grade four learners in the Gauteng and Limpopo provinces.

Learners are taught numeracy and literacy through practical applications in a virtual world. For example, they will make purchases in a supermarket or use fractions to divide a vegetable garden according to given instructions.

“This turns abstract theory into concrete reality for students,” says the project. It explains that a software application was developed that allows students to explore the virtual world, allowing them to walk about and learn practical lessons.

Minimal intervention

Project leader Denise Wood says the project builds on work undertaken by a team of researchers, aimed at designing and developing an open source accessible 3D virtual learning environment.

The project team says the study is particularly timely in light of the recent findings by the Department of Education of the low performance levels of grade three learners in the country.

“This study has confirmed that basic education in SA is under stress. The reasons are complex and include the challenges associated with supporting 11 major official languages, large classroom sizes, low levels of teacher skill, social disadvantage often associated with low parent participation and poorly resourced schools.”

The 3DVLE pilot project aims to investigate the potential of constructivist learning, facilitated through a 3D virtual learning environment designed to engage learners in collaborative, creative problem solving activities in which numeracy, literacy, life skills and creative activities are embedded in a motivating game-like environment.

“One unique feature of this learning style is that there is minimal intervention from teachers; the role of the teacher is one of facilitator and mentor supporting student-driven learning.”

Wood says the role of the teacher is not about didactic instruction, but facilitating the learner in creating their own knowledge. “In a knowledge economy, teachers need to help learners develop a love and passion for learning.”

Virtual Masifunde says these models have proved highly successful in many studies conducted around the world.

“The children observed in these experiments have been found to learn new skills collaboratively through their exploration of concepts with minimal teacher involvement.”

This project is building on foundational work already undertaken in Australia.

African reach

The initial pilot will run as a longitudinal study over a three-year period, but there are plans to extend the project to other countries in Africa if the learning outcomes demonstrate the effectiveness of the platform for inspiring young people to learn, says Wood.

She also says a 1:1 ratio of computer to learner is ideal for this project but there are currently six computers per school for this project and it is being piloted in a class of 40 students. “So the logistics are quite challenging.”

The main entities involved in the project are, among others, the University of South Australia, University of Adelaide, James Cook University, University of New England, the provincial departments of basic education and the South African National Zak'ah Fund (SANZAF).

“The initial project received funding provided by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, and the research in SA has been supported by an internal grant provided by the University of South Australia, SANZAF and the Limpopo Provincial Government.”

Siyafunda and Esquire Technologies are playing a role in the funding and installation of the computer labs in the six schools in the Gauteng pilot study.

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