Social Work Students Swap Textbooks for 3D Avatars: Meet Mia, Your Digital Case Study

In an age where Zoom fatigue and online disengagement plague universities worldwide, the University of South Australia (UniSA) is blazing a new trail in education. Their Bachelor of Social Work course has swapped traditional textbooks for 3D avatars, pushing the frontiers of what we call ‘classroom experience.’

The avatar at the centre of this pedagogic evolution is Mia, a digital character whose life journey students follow from infancy to adolescence. Created as part of the ground-breaking “Mia Project,” she serves as a virtual learning case study to train budding social workers for real-life challenges.

Steering this initiative is Dr Fatin Shabbar, a lecturer in UniSA’s Justice & Society unit. According to Dr Shabbar, the transition to avatars is not merely cosmetic but tackles the fundamental issue of student engagement, particularly in the digital age. “Students entering universities today have been reared in a digital milieu. They identify more with interactive, augmented and virtual realities than the chalk-and-talk methods or even online PowerPoint slides,” explains Dr Shabbar.

This holds especially true in fields like social work, where the gap between textual learning and practical application is notably wide. Traditional written case studies, according to Dr Shabbar, are inadequate for teaching the nuanced emotional skills and human understanding essential in social work. They simply can’t mimic real-life scenarios where professionals must make rapid judgements and form human connections.

Mia isn’t just a figment of digital artistry. She’s a well-thought-out educational tool created in collaboration with digital and learning designers and an academic developer. Her personality and script were meticulously drafted by Dr Shabbar, and her voice is lent by an older child. Students engage with Mia through a series of specific vignettes, witnessing her complex and often challenging behaviour. These 3D, animated, immersive scenarios offer insight into the impact of complex trauma on child development and guide students on appropriate responsive measures.

It’s akin to a cartoon but with a distinct, serious educational agenda. Dr Shabbar describes it as “engaging, relational, and realistic,” sentiments echoed by the overwhelming positive feedback from students. They not only find the course material more engaging but also appreciate the ‘safe space’ to explore sensitive topics around working with children.

Even as the program proves successful, the possibility of its expansion looms on the horizon. Dr Shabbar envisions this technology finding utility in other disciplines like teaching and nursing. However, this would be contingent on receiving sufficient funding.

Universities globally are grappling with the same challenge: how to evolve their teaching methods to meet the demands and expectations of a new generation of students. UniSA’s Mia Project may be an Australian initiative, but its implications are universal. In innovatively merging technology with pedagogy, the project not only makes learning more engaging but also prepares students to be ‘work ready’ upon graduation. As the digital age surges forward, it’s clear that the world of education is shifting too, and perhaps it’s time we all started paying attention.




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Maria Irene
Maria Irene
Maria Irene is a multi-faceted journalist with a focus on various domains including Cryptocurrency, NFTs, Real Estate, Energy, and Macroeconomics. With over a year of experience, she has produced an array of video content, news stories, and in-depth analyses. Her journalistic endeavours also involve a detailed exploration of the Australia-India partnership, pinpointing avenues for mutual collaboration. In addition to her work in journalism, Maria crafts easily digestible financial content for a specialised platform, demystifying complex economic theories for the layperson. She holds a strong belief that journalism should go beyond mere reporting; it should instigate meaningful discussions and effect change by spotlighting vital global issues. Committed to enriching public discourse, Maria aims to keep her audience not just well-informed, but also actively engaged across various platforms, encouraging them to partake in crucial global conversations.


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