How Australia’s Curtin University is transforming the digital classroom

The Perth-based institution has been using collaborative learning spaces to better engage students and bring its classes to the world

At Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia, students and faculty members can connect with their peers on campuses in Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai and Mauritius through collaborative learning spaces.

Meanwhile, students outside Australia, including those at Curtin’s overseas campuses, have been able to access course materials and lectures in real time, as well as take part in massive online open courses from a global university that has been transforming itself to realise its vision of “learning for tomorrow”.

“Part of our strategy was to bring experts from across the globe to our classroom, and we started to transform our teaching and learning offerings and learning spaces,” said Jill Downie, academic deputy vice-chancellor at Curtin University.

Five years on, the university has made significant progress. It now touts more than 90 collaborative learning spaces that are fully technology enabled. The spaces are also fitted with workstations and screens that bring external experts into classes using document cameras and microphones.

“The rooms are set up so that you can put students into collaborative groups in a flipped classroom model, which is about having students do their own learning before they come to class, moving away from lectures towards problem solving and critical thinking in the classroom,” said Downie.

The university also rejigged its pedagogy to deliver a more collaborative and interactive learning experience, which is being powered by Cisco technology, including Cisco Collaboration, Webex, Collaboration Endpoints and Video Conferencing tools.

As a Cisco customer for the past 15 years, Curtin University continues to invest in new technologies, such as intent-based networking, to support its digital initiatives.

“We use intent-based networking to have the network do what it needs to do really simply,” said Tom Goerke, director of Cisco’s innovation centre in Australia.

“What we have is a Digital Network Architecture controller that acts as an orchestrator that tells other ‘musicians’ what to do. The underlying fabric is what we call software-defined access that supports segmentation to ensure traffic only goes to where it’s supposed to go,” said Goerke.

Curtin is halfway through its implementation of intent-based networking on campus. The project is being supported by Cisco’s Perth innovation centre, which operates a replica network to test new networking capabilities to support operations and research before they are deployed on the ground.

Greater digitisation will inevitably lead to security concerns, which Curtin is addressing with intent-based networking that will provide greater visibility of cyber threats on its network, according to Paul Nicholls, director of research partnerships at Curtin University.

“We’re also procuring a managed security service from a vendor that will provide added value for our researchers to be involved and for our students to be trained,” said Nicholls.

Outcomes and success

Downie said Curtin University has achieved several outcomes from its digital transformation initiatives, including the fact that 80% of its courses now incorporate some elements of flipped classrooms.

“We also set out to achieve scale around our teaching and learning, and we are a global university today,” said Downie. “We now distribute learning across our campuses and back again, and we’re rolling that out across various courses and programmes.”

A key factor of Curtin’s success is the scale at which digital transformation has been carried out. Downie said rather than build a handful of collaborative classrooms, which might not have progressed beyond the proof-of-concept stage, the university went all-out to implement the concept across its campuses.

By doing so, it also has been able to garner the support of students and teaching staff who could see the positive impact of the transformation on their learning and teaching. Today, 50% of high school students in Western Australia choose to go to Curtin University over other institutions, said Nicholls.

“Last year, Cisco, as our partner, also brought 100 academics from around the Asia-Pacific region to Curtin to look at what are considered best practices in terms of digital education and technologies for distributed learning,” he added.

Read more on Software-defined networking (SDN)

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