• Dr Sarah Jones

Hands-off hands-on learning

This famous teaching philosophy has always been central to what I think about education:

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn

Benjamin Franklin


Experiential learning is so important. For many years, I taught and led journalism programmes. How could I possibly expect students to graduate with core skills in news reporting if they had never reported the news? Or perhaps more interestingly, conduct an interview if you are from a generation reluctant to dial a telephone number.


The battles to create authentic experiential learning opportunities changed altogether in March 2020.


When lecturers, technicians and students were sent home, one of the most challenging aspects for educators like myself, was creating those same learning experiences. These are critical to the students’ success and ultimately their entry into working life.


One student quoted in the UK Government report into the experience of students in 2020 articulated it perfectly:

“..as a clinical course our hands on practicals being cut crucially short this year. It isn’t a case of will the medics, dentists and vets of this year come out as less trained individuals but a question of how much poorer will their practice be. The future care of humans and animals will suffer.”

It’s great that students were able to witness labs online, some getting a much better view than they would do before – there’s no heads blocking their view online after all – but watching is not enough.


Students graduating, defining the future direction of industries, will have missed out on hands-on learning.


That needs to be fixed.


Creating the hands on


There have been extraordinary examples of educators bringing in new technologies, experimenting with them and creating unique educational experiences.


Some of my favourites have actually been a bit more old-school. Colleagues of mine in Engineering at DMU created the ‘lab in a box’. By bringing together core materials that a student would need, colleagues shipped out boxes, which then allowed students to continue key practical, experimental work. Students still had a hands-on experience and met learning outcomes. It didn’t matter to them that the labs were closed. They could meet a lecturer virtually and go through all the kit in their lab in a box and do all the experiments they needed. The key takeaway here, is students were more engaged. They were more hands on than they would have been in a normal teaching environment. This was the corner we were forced into through necessity, but where is the opportunity now to push further in this direction?


I often get asked about when educators should use technology, particularly immersive tech like VR, to enhance learning. Should we be putting all students in VR headsets? Should architecture students be designing sustainable buildings through Augmented Reality?


Jeremy Bailenson is a legend in this space. As Director of the Human Interaction Lab at Stanford he’s conducted a wealth of research on augmented and virtual reality solutions. He has led a clear message of when the tech should be used, listing the following situations;


· Expensive

· Dangerous

· Impossible

· Rare


It’s clear how all four can be valuable reasons for using technology in the classroom. But for our practical subjects, especially science and lab work, a virtual approach could be invaluable for students if a situation is expensive or dangerous.


Research conducted about VR use in the pandemic, showed that 37.2% of those surveyed used the technology for education (Ball et al 2021)


There are numerous examples of this including the work at Glasgow where they used 3D visualizations of proteins. As Neil McDonnell reported, the Professor saw the visualization in a different way, spotting something that he hadn’t seen before in its structure.


Lecturers in Radiography in Australia used VR as a response to the lack of placement opportunities for their students. Placements were suspended so VR became the alternative assessment point for students. They had used the tech in the classroom before but this was at an unprecedented level.


“VR, then, played a critical role within our institution in order to ensure students were not disadvantaged any more than necessary and able to progress in their undergraduate degree.”

Christopher M Hayre and Andrew Kilgour 2021


In doing so, they found the importance the tech could have for widening participation for students who found it difficult to manage the physical agility side of the programme and access to placements which were previously restricted. But although it opened up opportunities and ensured valuable learning experience, it didn’t expose students to the cultural side of being in a clinical environment.


Interestingly the research above showed it improved access, where many of the concerns, my own included, revolve around access to the technology and the digital divide.


The immersive tech sector is undoubtedly growing with headsets becoming more standalone and economical. PwC’s Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2021–2025 has predicted an annual growth rate of 30%. Still the digital divide is real with the World Economic Forum finding that 3.7 billion people worldwide are still not connected to the internet.


There are workarounds and tech solutions don’t have to be hugely expensive.


Let’s take Professor Shafi Ahmed as an example, often known as the Virtual Surgeon. He pioneered the first VR operation in 2016 with students all over able to watch with just their smartphones and a cardboard headset. He’s gone further with virtual collaborations with surgeons in India, the UK and the US all interacting in a virtual operating theatre. The reason for this is to better train doctors all over the world – opening up the doors to educational experiences.


At an even more basic level, I can remember back in 2016 when I was desperate for my journalism students to feel confident in reporting big breaking new stories. The problem was they couldn’t always be in that place and didn’t have any press credentials. I went to a protest with a 360-camera. I captured it as if I were there. Two weeks later, the students got a message from their “news editor”. They had to go to this protest and then had 1 hour to file a report. Through a cardboard headset that is what they did.




I love technology and am always curious as to what is next and how we can harness this to create educational experiences, but we do need to think about staff too. Ensuring upskilling and a passion for enhancing your own teaching practice is critical if any hands-on hands-off approach is going to work.


I’ve got to thinking about this as a partner of the Merck Human Progress Campaign. The last two years in particular have shown us that it is not always easy to pursue human progress in troubled times. You can find out whether and to what extent the pandemic has changed us in this field here in Merck's Human Progress survey - you can also take part in the study yourself. Your poll results are added to the existing results of previous participants in real time.


There is always a great way to move forward and think about things in a different way. That usually starts with simply asking “why?”.


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