There are growing needs for virtual laboratory simulations that can deliver “anytime-and-anywhere” learning experience that simulate authentic activities .

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has caught most of the Australian HE sector by surprise. The aggressive national as well as interstate border closures combined with one of the harshest and longest 2020 lockdowns in Melbourne were particularly disruptive to the Victorian education sector. The lockdown enforced rapid closure of all university campuses in Melbourne, while border closures literally cut many international and interstate students off their campuses.

As a strategic response to closure of campuses and cessation of conventional face-to-face teaching the university sector had to instantaneously transition to virtual learning models. This has created significant challenges with various degrees of success.

There seems to have been very little if any strategic planning to respond and adapt to such events locally, nationally and even globally in the HE sector. Outside the realm of traditional universities, on-line education has been gaining momentum worldwide. On-line education platforms with growing popularity, such as edX, have made notable progress in enhanced digital teaching. However, before COVID-19 most of the traditional universities were very slow to embrace similar digital teaching strategies and innovative approaches to distributed, any-time learning models.

Towards new virtual learning models

The Australian HE sector has traditionally focused on on-campus teaching models with little investments and strategic planning in disruptive virtual on-line education. Although digital handouts, recording of lectures, as well as increasing adoption of e-textbooks, have become common, there has been little innovation in interactive and immersive virtual learning and teaching.

The pandemic has strongly exposed the lack of strategic planning and innovations, especially given the necessity to transfer the entire content of teaching into a virtual space within a matter of several days.

As a result, the transition to on-line education in Australia has been a largely hybrid model based predominantly on asynchronous digitally recorded lectures or practicals supported in many instances by live on-line tutorials and/or discussion panels.

The lack of immersive virtual laboratory setups was particularly felt in STEM education, where practical hands-on training is critical to master the curriculum and learn job-ready skills. Passive models, such as the above, cannot provide interactive and deeper engagement with the thought content.

Asynchronous pre-recorded content precludes any ability for interactive learning in real-time, moreover students are really challenged and do not interact with each other or teaching staff. For many students, this can be a stressful and isolating experience that also tremendously impacts their practicals skills and thus future employability. This has been also highlighted by increasing number of mental health issues among students during the Melbourne lockdown.

Gamified and immersive virtual reality simulations in STEM teaching

Forced by the impact of pandemics in 2020 all Australian universities have attempted to embrace diverse virtual learning systems that can reach beyond passive consumption of thought material and introduction of interactive virtual classrooms.

The strategic initiative (described here) I led in RMIT University’s School of Science, is a premiere example of adopting latest generation immersive and interactive simulations in STEM teaching.

This innovation stemmed from growing needs for virtual laboratory simulations that can deliver “anytime-and-anywhere” learning experience that simulates authentic lab activities. To enable this RMIT University trialled, and mass deployed a technology called Labster.

Labster is the prime example of next-generation virtual teaching laboratories where gamified simulations shift crucial practical education into the virtual realm. The technology is based on a first-person gamified engine similar to the one found in blockbuster computer games.

Labster allows for high-quality distant on-line teaching where students can complete complex laboratory experiments, many of which are would be otherwise inaccessible to undergraduates. It exceeds most teaching objectives while providing a highly realistic practical skill set. Importantly, students can explore concepts and theories and experiment in a safe and highly engaging and interactive environment

The future of virtual education beyond the pandemics

RMIT was the very first Australian HE institution to introduce Labster at large scale with outstanding results in terms of student engagement and satisfaction. Technologies such as Labster offer an outstanding opportunity to provide students during lockdown with a high-quality online learning experience that is fully interactive and engaging.

With the easing of restrictions and return to on-campus teaching in 2021 proven virtual teaching technologies will have a new place to enhance the conventional models of education. The ability to teach students advanced techniques simply too dangerous or too expensive to implement on campus are examples of what virtual simulator-based laboratories can accomplish. Furthermore, using simulated labs before actually performing experiments in person is a tremendous teaching aid.

In general, HE sector should invest much more time and funding into development of cutting-edge simulated virtual-reality laboratories. We need to remember that both civilian and military pilots as well as ship commanders and even high-speed train drivers train these days extensively in virtual reality simulators. The university sector needs to embrace the best examples of the industry and transition more into the virtual realm of teaching.


Donald Wlodkowic, MSc, PhD is an Associate Professor in Cell Biology and Toxicology at the School of Science, RMIT. He pioneered and led the large-scale implementation of Labster virtual laboratory simulations in STEM teaching at RMIT. 


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