ActivePaper Archive TECH PIONEERS AT TOP OF THE CLASS - The West Australian , 5/11/2024



With education and training in the midst of a huge digital-led revolution, WA-based entrepreneurs are perfectly placed to lead the world

Imagine if a gas plant were to pop up in the middle of Elizabeth Quay. It might be unsightly but it would certainly make for an easier commute for our flyin, fly-out workers, or for that matter, for anyone training to work on the facility.

So while the implications of opening a gas plant in heart of our city are too farfetched to contemplate, a normal office space, just a stone’s throw from the river, has been completely transformed into the control centre of such a facility.

“We had a large gas company that had to shut down,” Doug Bester of Sentient Computing explains. “And instead of training the people at the facility they were able to use a fully immersive four by four room to train them. So they saved a significant amount of money to do the onboard training in Perth as opposed to on the asset.”

It might sound like science fiction, but it’s just one example of how online learning, virtual reality and augmented reality is transforming the way we learn, causing disruption — and creating opportunities — in the multibillion-dollar education and training sector.

Mr Bester’s company is at the forefront of using virtual reality to create training programs that can give workers tangible experience and understanding without having to get on a flight, think a (virtual) oil rig on St Georges Terrace, a mine control centre in West Perth or a fully immersive safety training video for a remote mine site somewhere in spitting distance to a cafe that does slow-drip coffee.

Need to train a workforce in Perth to operate machinery that’s in the Pilbara? Sentient make that a possibility.

Those working in the field say while online courses and remote training are nothing new, the COVID years gave the sector a shot in the arm that has opened up new possibilities and, importantly, shifted public perception of what online education and training can actually do.

Mr Bester has been at the forefront of virtual reality tech and training for many years, but says there has never been a more transformative time than now.

“I said to (my co-worker) Craig, ‘what are some of the differences we’ve found since COVID?’ And he said, ‘One of the biggest differences we have since COVID, is that people are now coming to us,” Mr Bester says. “In 2019, none of that was happening. We were running around beating down doors, whereas now, people are finding us.”

He jokes that being in his 60s, his own generation is wary of using virtual reality to train for realworld scenarios, but says the future workforce are already used to operating in virtual environments.

“Millennials understand virtual environments, they live in them,” Mr Bester says. “And being able to interact in them is very, very powerful. This is a very powerful tool to be able to train, educate, form work, plan work, maintain safety and all that. It’s the perfect tool to do that. From our company’s point of view, we’re absolutely betting the farm that this is going to continue to grow and flourish in the years to come.”

Sentient Computing has been around for some time, but they are increasingly being joined in their mission to shake up the way we learn by a new crop of education entrepreneurs.

Education tech is Australia’s second largest start-up industry, sitting just behind financial tech.

Considering the country’s education and training sector was valued at an estimated $144.6 billion in 2022, the estimated valuation of the ed-tech start-up space at $2.2b, could, if anything, be seen as conservative.

Start saying things like “digital transformation” and soon you will hear another word, “disruption”, but former teacher and start-up founder Sandra Houghton cringes at the word. She prefers an alternative — “opportunity”.

“I feel it’s more a mindset shift rather than disruption, because there is more opportunity,” Ms Houghton says of the rapidly changing education landscape. “There is more opportunity for flexible learning, for personalised learning, for connection and collaboration between industry, education and learners.”

Ms Houghton jokes she is a “teacher-preneur”, the nickname given to the growing numbers of teachers who have pivoted to become start-up founders after the COVID exposed a yawning gap in services for online learning.

In 2022, together with a former colleague, Kelly Pattison, Ms Houghton established Circular Learning. Ms Houghton and Ms Pattison are both teacher trainers and learning designers and so initially their focus was developing online courses and writing curriculum for already established schools and universities, but when they attended a conference in South Korea in April last year, they realised there was opportunity to take the idea much further.

“We were invited to go and present at KOTESOL this conference where teachers are coming from lots of different places all over Korea,” Ms Houghton says.

“We were talking to some (English as a second language) teachers who were asking us whether we could design some online learning for them, and we identified that they needed more professional development.

“And that’s when we went: ‘Well, with our capabilities in digital skills and online learning and knowing what we know about online delivery, we can be in Australia and design learning for these teachers in Korea, and offer that online learning experience for them and connect them with Australian teachers, with Indonesian teachers, Vietnamese teachers, Japanese teachers’. Seoul was the spark to bring us to where we are now.”

They realised that just because they weren’t in possession of a couple of sandstone buildings that didn’t mean they couldn’t create a place for people to learn. There are an estimated 12 million ESL teachers worldwide and a growing demand for professional development and ongoing training in the field. And so Ms Houghton and Ms Pattison launched The Learning Circle a global professional development platform run off a handful of computers in Perth, targeted at ESL teachers. To gauge interest in the idea, they started out by running “hackathons” to connect with teachers and give a taste of what they could offer.

“The last (hackathon) that we ran we had registrations from 16 different countries,” Ms Houghton says. “We had teachers in London and Indonesia, Vietnam, Seoul. We realised that through online delivery, our reach is just getting wider and wider.”

So if something like The Learning Circle can just spring up from a good idea and a few laptops, and the students don’t have to get on a plane — or even a bus — to attend class, what does that mean for those university sandstone buildings? Are they already redundant?

Not quite. Many students still want that in-person learning experience and China, for example, doesn’t recognise a lot of online learning, meaning students from that country have to show up to class in person. (China is the biggest source of international students in Australian institutions, with about 152,000 students enrolled in Australia).

But as demand for remote learning grows, our universities are adjusting to the changing demands. While business is thinking about training the next generation, our education sector — cutting edge and agile in some respects, and hulking and difficult to budge in others — is grappling with how to best position itself in this new digital age.

The stakes are high, with more courses around the world now moving to online, the competition to attract the best and brightest is fiercer than ever.

In addition to educating Australia’s future workforce, universities also have to appeal to the lucrative international student market. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that in 2019-20 the international student market was worth $37.4b to the Australian economy. Maintaining pole position in a rapidly changing digital landscape is critical.

At the University of WA, associate professor Mark Pegrum, a digital education expert, says COVID had a major impact in the education space. Teachers everywhere suddenly had to upskill on a mass scale. As the dust settled, the industry suddenly found itself at the forefront of a brave new world of digital education.

“COVID accelerated a move that was already under way to more digital learning and mobile learning,” Professor Pegrum says. He explains UWA has increasingly moved towards “high flex”, a mix of face-to-face and online learning. He concedes that in the future, growing demand could see more courses available online. “One of the big changes we’ve seen is that when we do things, either fully online or in blended or hybrid mode, we really open up the possibilities for who can participate,” Professor Pegrum says.

“So people who might want to do a degree at a foreign institution, but they can’t leave their own country — they might have family commitments, job commitments, it might be financial — they can actually study with just about any university they choose, abroad. It’s really opened up that market. So, for people who are not able or willing to travel and to spend a number of years in another country to get a degree, they’re still able to obtain qualifications from foreign institutions.”

Over at Curtin University’s HIVE (Hub for Immersive Visualisation and eResearch), work is under way to figure out the best way to integrate things like augumented reality and virtual reality into training and education. “Across the university, there’s a lot of activities under way using advanced technologies in educational purposes,” Professor Andrew Woods says .

“Some of these are mainstream and already being used and others are more experimental, exploring how these technologies might be able to improve education from a student perspective, or even from a delivery perspective.”

Basically, online education is more than just a video of a lecture posted online. Curtin HIVE’s projects include things lsuch as Missions Connect, which uses virtual reality to educate people about the Stolen Generations, creating a visceral, immersive experience to allow people to gain a better understanding of the horrors of the past in a way a textbook never could.

And back to that gas plant on Elizabeth Quay. Because while the digital learning revolution is taking place across the globe, Perth’s status as a mining hub means that particular industry is reaping the benefits of WA innovation in this space.

Mr Bester at Sentient Computing says Perth is perfectly placed to become a world leader in the digital education and training world precisely because of our “real world” advantages.

“WA or Perth has this unique opportunity of being able to become the best of breed globally, for providing these kinds of services because we’re in such an ideal position,” he says. “We have fantastic universities, we have the people. We have the companies, we have the resources, they’re all here. We’re perfectly placed to really make a big difference.”