A post-secondary leader shows which way to the future.
GUEST COLUMN | by Steven Tom and Kathy Strang
As technology permeates all aspects of life, it’s no surprise that its importance in the education space continues to grow. Recent innovations allow institutions to enhance students’ learning experiences and provide them with authentic practice to build workplace and life skills. Leveraging the partnership of technology teams, instructional design experts, and faculty subject matter experts has allowed us to create virtual environments with safe, unique situations for students to gain experience with real-world issues and challenges, enabling them to be better prepared for their post-degree endeavors.
‘Leveraging the partnership of technology teams, instructional design experts, and faculty subject matter experts has allowed us to create virtual environments with safe, unique situations for students to gain experience with real-world issues and challenges…’
Through partnerships with innovative technology platforms, Walden University has implemented cutting-edge solutions into several degree programs to further support the student journey as we continue to advance our approaches to professional practice throughout the learning experience. For example, Mursion mixed-reality simulation software allows students to engage and problem-solve with various virtual avatars and environments. And our pilot program, Linda, a digital human built using technology from Soul Machines, can help learners practice their interpersonal skills through dialogue and communication with a virtual avatar that reacts to verbal and non-verbal cues.
Tech to Improve Preparedness for High-Touch Careers
Many of our students pursue degrees in high-touch career fields, including social work, nursing, early childhood care and education, and human resources – all of which can impact the trajectory of people’s lives. Whether you are a nurse delivering difficult news to a patient and their family or a social worker helping a child and their guardians navigate the foster system, a high degree of emotional intelligence and sensitivity is critical.
We understand the complexities of these careers, and by incorporating technology-backed platforms into the curriculum, students can practice challenging scenarios in a safe environment. These simulations allow students to develop the critical thinking, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills needed for success in their careers in ways that online environments did not support in the early days.
Mixed-Reality in Curriculum
Walden began piloting mixed-reality online simulations in 2016 in its education programs as one of the first institutions to use Mursion simulation software and simulation specialists in a fully online environment. Both students and faculty quickly recognized its benefits, and we signed a licensing agreement and expanded simulation scenarios across multiple programs, including Master of Science in Education and Master of Science in Human Resource Management. Since then, Walden has been recognized for innovative digital learning advances in higher education. In 2022, the U.S. Distance Learning Association awarded Walden the Innovation in Higher Education Award, and 2018, Walden won the Online Learning Consortium’s Effective Practice Award and Eduventures’ Innovation Award.
Each simulation begins with an introduction to the scenario by a host avatar who ensures the student is ready and understands the session’s goals. During the online experience, avatars react to the student choices in real time by providing varying degrees of challenge or guidance based on pre-designated performance objectives. A single trained Simulation Specialist, who has worked closely with program-specific subject matter experts to understand the nuances of their roles and the simulation scenario, controls each avatar’s verbal responses and movements (body language).
Once the student has successfully addressed each objective, the simulation ends, and the host avatar leads a reflection exercise. These exercises provide a personal review of how well the student believes they did, what they could improve, and how this exercise will help in real-life workplace interactions. Additionally, professors either review students’ recordings and provide feedback or have students conduct a peer review on the discussion board to provide constructive feedback.
‘Once the student has successfully addressed each objective, the simulation ends, and the host avatar leads a reflection exercise.’
One graduate student studying Industrial and Organizational Psychology felt that this exercise “gives you that perspective of sitting in a meeting with clients and understanding body language and tone of voice to help build that communication and rapport with each other.” Another graduate student studying Human Resource Management shared that Mursion prepared him to “think on my feet” because he had minimal exposure in his field.
Mursion is consistently improving the simulation experience—from more diverse avatars and environments to a more streamlined scheduling portal—and the Walden academic programs continue to develop creative and engaging scenarios for students to learn through authentic practice.
Asynchronous Practice with AI-Powered Digital Humans
In addition to Mursion, Walden is piloting Linda, a digital human, to help learners develop their expertise in emotionally challenging counseling situations like domestic violence. For professionals in social work, counseling, and healthcare, understanding that engagement and communication are both verbal and non-verbal helps foster greater empathy and better interactions. Linda, a digital human-powered counseling simulation launched by the Adtalem innovation team, utilizes technology created by Soul Machines, harnessing AI technology to generate animated avatars that mimic real-life situations, allowing learners to repeat exercises and try new tactics while interacting with a digital human. Walden was an early adopter of Soul Machines’ platform.
Through the powerful learning tool, participants receive the following:
- Interactions with Linda through their webcam for real-time feedback and analysis of non-verbal cues that generate true-to-life reactions from the digital human. If a participant smiles or appears uninterested when asked a tough question, Linda reacts negatively while explaining her situation.
- Linda is also designed with natural language processing enabling participants to engage in more dynamic conversations. The conversation can flow naturally, providing in-depth practice for these emotionally charged situations in a controlled, safe environment.
- In addition to the non-verbal and verbal reactions that the digital human demonstrates, the team incorporated real-time feedback that accompanies the experience to provide reinforcement and guidance as participants progress throughout the simulation.
- Learners can practice with Linda anytime and repeat their experiences multiple times to explore different responses and approaches. Linda does not require a human to curate its responses.
With growing awareness of the critical role emotional intelligence and empathy play in health care, platforms like Linda can make meaningful contributions to students’ success in these caring professions. This technology strives to prepare students for realistic scenarios to help build their skills and improve sensitive communication methods.
We will continue incorporating innovative simulation technology into our programs and curriculum that increases our students’ preparedness and effectiveness. Mursion and Linda are examples of how we can help students practice the principles of their study areas and prepare them for emotionally challenging and sensitive situations. As simulation technology evolves, we will explore new opportunities in this realm and expand the reach of these tools across more programs and students.
Steven Tom is Chief Customer Officer and Senior VP, and Kathy Strang is Senior Director, Product Development and Classroom Design, for Adtalem Global Education. Adtalem is the parent organization of American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, Chamberlain University, Ross University School of Medicine, Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine and Walden University.