This week we welcome Dr. Susan Aldridge, President of Drexel University Online, and Marci Powell, Chair Emerita of the U.S. Distance Learning Association, to discuss Drexel’s success in teaching and learning in virtual environments. Their story is not only “virtually inspired” and, in my opinion, just plain old inspiring as well! Thank you both for a great post,

~Lindsey Downs

Having spent the past two decades working in the online higher education space, I am proud of the progress we’ve made since the early days when course modules were little more than a series of hand-outs published and delivered online.  Back then, virtual study was, for the most part, a lonely (and shall we say, somewhat boring) experience, due, in part, to the read-only, chat or talking head video formats.  Still, for many, it was an acceptable tradeoff for the privilege of learning from anywhere, at any time.

Now fast forward 20 years and we find ourselves with an amazing array of interactive technologies at our disposal.  Technologies that can further empower us to provide our students with what research over the years has proven to be an ideal learning experience – one that is engaging and customized, authentic and measurable.  And when we succeed, our students win, because they leave us having cultivated the expert knowledge and complex skills requisite for their success.

Of course, we really need to share those success stories more often.  Because as empowering as these technologies may be, they are constantly evolving; and unfortunately, we have yet to produce much in the way of a “how-to” guide for effectively implementing, much less optimizing, them.  So in the spirit of collaborative investigation, Drexel University Online (DUO) – with my (Marci) help as an outside consultant – launched a rigorous research project, to uncover “pockets of innovation” in the technology-enhanced education arena.

Pulling the research togetherScreenshot of virtually inspired page on the Drexel University website. Shows large banner at the top of the page with words "virtually inspired."

After conducting dozens of interviews with faculty, administrators, and training officers worldwide, DUO compiled more than 70 case studies that exemplify virtual success in using some of the latest and greatest technologies to support an ideal learning experience.  But we didn’t stop there.  We created a website we are calling Virtually Inspired.  Our goal is to showcase some of the brightest minds and best practices in connected learning, and also building and sharing an evolving repository of replicable ideas.

Virtually Inspired features a series of high-quality videos that highlight some of the many ways educators are inventing the future of connected learning.  Likewise, this website will incorporate interviews with online learning experts; a section for visitors to share their own leading-edge practices; and a space for reviewing published books and articles in the field – all of which is designed to encourage ongoing collaboration, as we explore the ever-expanding frontiers of our profession.

Here is a sneak preview of three especially promising technologies we identified in our research: virtual reality, holography, and robotic telepresence.

Creating virtual worlds for real learning    Graphic image of a young male in a hospital gown sitting in a doctor's office with one shoe on. There is an empty doctor stool and medial images on the wall.

For years, educators have touted the many educational benefits of authentic learning experiences like internships and apprenticeships, when it comes to mastering expert knowledge and complex skills.  But with increasingly sophisticated skills to learn, these in-personal experiences no longer suffice on their own.  That’s why instructional designers are embracing virtual reality (VR) to enhance and, in some cases, replace them altogether, with multi-level, sensory-rich simulations and videogames.

Put simply, these VR enhancements allow students to perfect mission-critical or even life-threatening skills, by immersing themselves in a safe, but challenging environment, where they apply relevant knowledge, while considering multiple perspectives and practicing different responses.  Likewise, these virtual worlds generate a tremendous amount of data to use in assessing performance and customizing instruction.  And because they usually incorporate some sort of immediate feedback or reward, they stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain, which, in turn promotes greater engagement and better knowledge recall, over time.  Take Tina Jones, for example, an avatar developed by Shadow Health, that we use at Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions to help online nursing students sharpen their clinical practice skills from a distance.  This 29-year-old virtual patient responds just like any real-life patient, offering a unique chance for students to perform high-stakes, full-system, patient assessments – over and over, if necessary.  Their instructors observe the interaction online, using videoconferencing applications to provide face-to-face feedback around targeted areas for improvement.

Adding new dimensions with holography

Holography offers yet another great opportunity to engage students in interactive learning experiences and environments that are authentic, measurable and customized.  A hologram is essentially a three-dimensional, free-standing image, created with photographic projection and viewed with the help of special headsets or other wearable Holographic image of a male body shown, from a skeleton form to representation of muscular system.devices.  And with a little imagination, this technology can be used to enhance all sorts of learning activities.

For instance, holography can take videoconferencing to a physical level, by facilitating remote collaboration among students, faculty, and experts worldwide, in what feels like face-to-face interaction.  Students can also use holograms to conduct science experiments that are too dangerous, expensive, or complicated to perform in real life; or to complete a design project in three dimensions that can be reproduced on a 3D printer. Educators are also employing holography for hosting virtual field trips, enabling students to “visit” a national park or a natural history museum far from where they live.

With the help of a Microsoft Hololens headset, professors at Case Western Reserve University are transforming how students learn about the human body, a hands-on academic exercise that has always required physical labs and human cadavers.  But using three-dimensional holograms, they can now cut into a virtual human body to explore, experience and understand the intricacies of and connections among all of its systems – organ and skeletal, vascular and nervous – something that is much harder to teach without this digital enhancement.

Connecting students through robotic telepresence

Although videoconferencing has long been the “go-to” for connected learning experiences among students, faculty, and outside experts, robotic telepresence offers an even more effective way to personalize the interaction – particularly from a social or collaborative learning perspective.

In fact, independently mobile telebots (as telepresence robots are often called) add that all-important in-person dimension to hands-on learning activities that would normally require a physical or onsite presence.  Just ask the Duke University’s School of Nursing, where these amazing digital devices are paving the way for students in the fully online MS in Nursing program to work remotely with students in the campus-based Accelerated BS in Nursing program, as they engage in high fidelity, life-like clinical simulations.

Image of two hospital beds and a tablet attached to wheels (robotics) moving through the room.Using their tablets, computers, or smartphones to remotely control the robot, online graduate student preceptors can maneuver it around the room, while panning or tilting the iPad screen in basically any direction, to provide clinical guidance – from a distance – to onsite undergraduate students.  Equally important, they are all mastering the art of telemedicine, as they practice furnishing remote healthcare without losing that essential face-to-face patient connection.

Looking Ahead

Given the lightning speed with which technologies such as these are moving into the mainstream of academia, there is no doubt that the future of connected learning is well within our collective power to invent.  And in joining forces to create that future, we hope you will help us make Virtually Inspired both an ongoing source of ideas and a nexus for collaboration.

You may reach us at

Photo os Susan Aldridge


Dr. Susan Aldridge,
President, Drexel University Online





Photo of Marci Powell


Marci M. Powell,
Chair Emerita and Past President, U.S. Distance Learning Association

1 reply on “Virtually Inspired Website Showcases Practical Innovations”

Exciting new dimensions indeed, but I’m concerned about the accessibility of such highly visual methods.

I’m a big fan of VR for entertainment, but until we have equally effective means to engage our students with visual disabilities I think we need to proceed cautiously.

Let’s put some of that innovative thinking on the problem of more universally designed technologies that are more inclusive of all of our students.

My 2 cents.
Karen Sorensen

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