We’ve never depended on technology more – and that’s saying something. For decades, and increasingly with every passing year, computers and connectivity have been essential to how we learn, how we work, and how we engage with the world. With the onslaught of Covid-19, this dependency has become even more acute. Today, there’s barely a single educational or economic activity that can be completed without a computer or smart device and an internet connection.

Schools and universities have made online resources available for students for years; even courses that are exclusively run online are nothing new. But developments in the field of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) have opened opportunities for online learning that didn’t exist before. The result is a learning experience that is meaningful and effective and that, amid Covid-19, when contact teaching has ground to a halt, is nothing short of critical.

Putting the “real” into real estate learning

“At the beginning of 2019, we acknowledged that there was a need for an advanced diploma in real estate,” says Marno Booyens, a lecturer in the Department of Finance and Investment Management at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). “An advanced diploma is necessary for students who don’t have the right qualifications to pursue an honours degree, and making the course available online, we realised, would allow us to cater for a larger cohort of students.”

But Marno and his team wanted to use this chance to create something entirely novel: a programme that used some of the latest technological innovations to facilitate and improve students’ understanding. “We wanted a product that was interactive, engaging and immersive, one that used gamification and 3D renderings and simulations to bring students into direct contact with the course’s content.”

And so the team, made up of both content and technical experts, set to work. They developed a continuous storyline, designed avatars, styled and scripted animated videos, rendered spaces in 3D, and created augmented reality environments that students could access virtually. Real-life scenarios that focused on specific outcomes were produced: students had to valuate and manage properties, demonstrate their knowledge of real estate law, and control various financial procedures.

“As students move through our fully integrated gamified course, they have to make certain decisions, and every one has its own set of repercussions,” says Gerard van Hoek, the programme’s technical advisor. “And that’s part of what makes our approach so unique: the extent to which every detail is woven together to produce deliberate outcomes that help students learn.

“The final product is groundbreaking – there’s nothing like it in the real estate education space – and it works so well that students’ level of retention is very high. For the first half of 2020, the pass rate among our 94 students was around 90%.”

Seamless integration, continuous adaptation

“This is the first time I’ve ever been involved in a programme where all eight modules are seamlessly integrated,” says André Kruger, a lecturer and programme manager in the Department of Finance and Investment Management, and the course’s content manager. “If students are busy with module eight, they have to use skills and knowledge acquired in module one. And at the course’s summit, they play a final game that brings together everything they have learnt.”

What’s more, these modules are always evolving. In traditional learning environments, curriculums can be cumbersome to change. Once course material has been developed, it often remains in place for years at a time. The very nature of UJ’s Advanced Diploma in Real Estate, however, means that new information can be added as soon as it becomes relevant. In the last few weeks, for example, an entirely new section has been uploaded on how Covid-19 has affected property management.

“We’re developing content on demand,” says André. “And that means that our students have access to the very latest information on issues such as sustainability, climate change and Covid-19, all of which are part of our regular updates. Static content is a thing of the past.”

Propelled into the future

The Advanced Diploma in Real Estate was developed prior to Covid-19 and was always intended to be available online. This meant that, when the pandemic hit South Africa in March, the course was able to continue as planned. And its 4IR-focused tools, particularly its various simulated environments, have enabled students to learn as normal. Quite accidentally, the course has come to embody the evolution of education.

But that isn’t to say that the journey has been without its challenges. Students are still learning to adapt to the new system and the team regularly receives technology-related queries. “We were expecting this,” says André. “We realise that our students are adjusting to new ways of thinking and working, and we’re here to support them through this process.”

Going forward, the team is hoping to pre-empt questions that students might have by providing automated responses. There’s always a way to use the technology at their disposal to improve students’ experience, they believe, and with so much of the groundwork already laid, these additional tools are likely to be relatively easy to implement.

Online learning and remote learning are two very different things. While much of the world’s institutions have scrambled to make content available virtually in order to facilitate remote learning during Covid-19 (with varying degrees of success), programmes that have been specifically designed for online purposes have flourished. As the Advanced Diploma in Real Estate continues to evolve, it will employ the new and limitless learning resources made available by 4IR. In the Covid-19 era, these tools will make all the difference in the world to graduates entering the marketplace.

“As students move through our fully integrated gamified course, they have to make certain decisions, and every one has its own set of repercussions,” says Gerard van Hoek, the programme’s technical advisor.

“And that means that our students have access to the very latest information on issues such as sustainability, climate change and Covid-19, all of which are part of our regular updates. Static content is a thing of the past.”

“We realise that our students are adjusting to new ways of thinking and working, and we’re here to support them through this process.”