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No one’s really cracked the use of the web to create an enriched learning environment.

Sure, universities and schools will put up content under a content management system (CMS), but that’s mostly a one way push, with students being unable to save (and just as importantly get back to) the important bits for them. The links between content and discussions around that content are also usually in different places – completely unconnected.

Bringing the academic/teacher into such a frame mostly means that they might provide an update at the end of the semester.

But privately financed Dunedin company OceanBrowser is on the cusp of launching a web-based application that it hopes will revolutionise how students learn, interact, save notes and discuss online documents.

Its OceanBrowser 3 program, to be released in beta form this month, won the 2010 Otago Business Excellence Awards, Research and Innovation Prize.

OB founder Rodney Tamblyn established the parent company in 2004, and provided contract IT services back to Otago University where he’d spent 10 years in learning and technology roles.

Frustrated with the limitations of what is currently available, and concentrating on Dunedin’s medical school, OceanBrowser’s development team have built a system that is easy to use. ‘We build on the skills users are already familiar with such as cut and paste, drag and drop and make these work seamlessly between the desktop and web environment.

Even though the documents produced by OB 3 may be beautifully laid out, with headings, paragraphs and pictures as we see as commonplace, “our difference is the way we construct the documents and the novel way we have of storing information,” says Tamblyn.

“We store information as individual elements that are linked together to form the document you see on screen. This allows us to extend the information in the document in clever ways, and enhance the study experience depending on how users want to use it.”

For example, students might highlight a paragraph for later review, or ask a question about parts that they don’t understand. Not only can the program point the student to where more information on the subject might reside, but the lecturer can be alerted, and add more information at the simple click of a button. Depending on the set-up, the question could be sent to a teacher’s smart phone, allowing them to send an answer then and there with a voice recording if they like.

“We’ve set out to create a learning environment that genuinely assists our students,” says Tamblyn. “It’s a big idea project, and technically challenging to realize.”

Another feature of the software is that students can ‘grab’ a summary of all the results for a study topic (over the preceding months for example). This includes content the student has highlighted while studying, discussion topics and questions/answers, tweaked lecturers notes and feedback – essentially everything that’s relevant.

A formatted essay can then be written building from this information, and most importantly for post-graduate students in particular, the citations back to the original source materials is documented at the bottom of the paper.

The roll out and commercialisation of what is still a beta product will be relatively organic he says.
The web application will be suitable across a range of learning environments, but initially OB is concentrating on the higher end where students have specialised needs.

The company will learn from its initial deployment in, and probably expand to other educational areas and markets as it perfects the product.

“We’re targeting users who have real problems, and want real solutions,” says Tamblyn.

“We’re going to provide them with that, and from that success and understanding and the experience gained, will figure out how to take OceanBrowser 3 from there.”