WMU News

Weinreich unveils unique, computer-driven teaching tool

June 1, 2004

KALAMAZOO--A new teaching tool that uses the convenience and linking ability of computers has been unveiled by an assistant professor at Western Michigan University.

The new computerized tool, called Virtual AGE, is the result of three years of work by an interdisciplinary team of university professors at Western Michigan University and George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

The effort, supported by a three-year, $326,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, has been shepherded into being by Dr. Donna Weinreich, director of the WMU Gerontology Program. Weinreich unveiled results of the three-year project recently at the 30th Annual Meeting and Leadership Conference of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education in Richmond, Va.

Virtual AGE, which stands for Active Gerontology Education in a Virtual environment, provides user-friendly assistance to educators in the form of a rich library of online learning objects--chunks of discreet information--that can be easily incorporated into courses by any educator with Internet access. Though much of the content is geared toward gerontology, the online program offers a rich learning environment that can be used by educators in other disciplines, mainly within the health and human service field.

"Anybody can come into this environment and use it to teach whatever they want," Weinreich says. "It is an educator's tool providing learning objects that can be integrated into online as well as traditional didactic course work."

Virtual AGE is not "distance education." Rather, it provides an online environment designed to aid the development of interdisciplinary team competencies and expand the reach of an instructor's influence. It was developed in response to the increasing demands placed on both faculty and students, providing a resource that is not dependent on "brick and motor" facilities.

Even educators who are not adept at using the Internet can use Virtual AGE, which is designed to be "transparent" to the user.

"We're not asking anybody to change the way they're teaching," Weinreich says. "But we're giving them another avenue to incorporate our learning objects into what they're already doing. What we have developed is flexible and robust for the novice or the technologically seasoned."

Students work online in interdisciplinary teams, and assignments promote good team membership and identification of appropriate team behaviors. A mechanism developed by the project to encourage and support these goals is the electronic patient medical record. This learning object emulates traditional paper and pencil medical records found in hospitals and long-term care facilities across the country. Student teams are assigned to complete the medical record and develop a care plan based on their asynchronous online interactions with a client.

This project allows team members to work at a distance. For example, this semester WMU students worked with students from the collaborating institution, George Mason University. The project has been designed to eliminate the constraints of geography and allow students to work together based on the professor's or instructor's course goals regardless of location.

"They really do have a real person with whom they are interacting in this environment," Weinreich says. "It's the student's job to get the information from the client to complete the medical record and create a care plan. This approach gets students away from the typical paper-and-pencil approach to case studies and introduces the variability and uncertainty associated with interacting with people in the clinical setting."

Creating Virtual AGE was a team effort as well. WMU faculty and staff who assisted Weinreich are Sandra Glista, master faculty specialist in speech pathology and audiology; Shawn Nelson, computer information specialist in the WMU College of Health and Human Services; David Orchanian, faculty specialist in occupational therapy; Dr. Maija Petersons, professor of family and consumer sciences; John Stanford, coordinator of instructional media in physician assistant; Ellen Van Arsdale, faculty specialist in nursing; and Brian Wilson, director of music therapy. Faculty assisting outside WMU included Catherine Tompkins, director of the BSW program at George Mason, and Molly Davis, director of the MSW program at George Mason.

At the moment, a total of 22 students are taking part in Virtual AGE at both WMU and George Mason University. Now in the second half of its third year, federal funding for the project ends June 30. However, as required by conditions of the grant, the project will continue through self-sufficiency mechanisms planned into it. Weinreich expects a bright future for Virtual AGE and its collaborators as it takes on a national presence.

"I'm looking for people who want to collaborate on learning objects and use the environment so the project continues to grow," she says.

For more information, call Donna Weinreich at (269) 387-2647.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

WMU News
Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
269 387-8400