16 October 2023

Uni students struggling to engage with their courses might want to consider a degree in social work at the University of South Australia, where avatars are replacing text-based learning.

A groundbreaking digital storytelling initiative called the “Mia Project” has been launched at UniSA, using virtual learning case studies for Bachelor of Social Work students to help prepare them for practical, real-life scenarios.

Over the course of their degree, students track the journey of an avatar called Mia, from infancy to adolescence, witnessing her growth and development via 3D animations in a virtual workplace setting.

The storytelling approach to learning – combining interactivity, human connection and emotional engagement – is a more effective way to deliver a curriculum in 2023, according to project lead Dr Fatin Shabbar, a lecturer in UniSA’s Justice & Society unit.

“Students now entering university have grown up in a digital world and identify more with this style of interactive learning, and virtual and augmented reality, than using traditional textbooks,” Dr Shabbar says.

“Universities worldwide are struggling to engage students with online teaching and part of the reason is that students just don’t relate to traditional methods of learning that have been effective in the past.

“Social work involves soft emotional skills and understanding human behaviour. Written case studies don’t replicate well in real life, where social workers must make judgements and create connections with children.”

The avatar Mia has been created with the help of digital and learning designers and an academic developer, based on a script and personality description provided by Dr Shabbar, and using an older child to do the voiceover.

“The storyline is made up of quite specific vignettes, where students witness Mia’s challenging, often confronting, behaviour and language, and learn how complex trauma affects a child’s development and how to respond to that. It’s a bit like a cartoon but presented in a 3D digital, animated, immersive experience.”

The virtual scenarios are relevant, authentic, and engaging for students, as well as making them ‘work ready’ by the time they graduate, Dr Shabbar says.

“By engaging with a child avatar, students can experience firsthand what it is like to be a social worker.

“The interactive environment not only enhances learning, but also creates a safe space for students to explore sensitive topics related to working with children. They gain practical experience and develop the necessary social and emotional skills essential in social work.”

The feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive, with many describing it as a different and valuable learning experience, that is “engaging, relational and realistic”.

Dr Shabbar says the Mia Project could be expanded into teaching and nursing online programs, involving students from different disciplines, but this is contingent on funding.

The project has been developed in close consultation with UniSA's Teaching Innovation Unit (TIU) and a digital designer.


Media contact: Candy Gibson M:  0434 605 142 E: candy.gibson@unisa.edu.au

Lead researcher:  Dr Fatin Shabbar E:  fatin.shabbar@unisa.edu.au

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