BEST Network launch event – adaptive learning


I was very fortunate to be invited to attend the BEST (biomedical education, skills and training) network launch at Melbourne University on October 18th. The network is a group of members (University of New South Wales, University of Melbourne, James Cook University, University of Queensland and professional peak bodies in medicine and nursing) who are creating and pooling digital educational resources, including an image bank and virtual patients. These resources are built using the Smart Sparrow adaptive learning platform, developed at UNSW.

There were many interesting features of both the BEST Network and Smart Sparrow. Wearing my eLearning developer hat, this post will concentrate on the features of Smart Sparrow and the types of learning experiences able to be created. Swapping to my resource sharing and collaboration hat, the next post will discuss the BEST network and its features.

What is adaptive eLearning and how does Smart Sparrow compare with other eLearning platforms?

Having used several different tools with very varied levels of sophistication (Dreamweaver 4.0 (way back!), PowerPoint, Articulate Studio, Articulate Storyline) over many years to develop eLearning I was very interested in the features of Smart Sparrow and how they compare with other eLearning software packages. Articulate is a mass commercial eLearning development software which is widely used in industry in particular. Its websites states that it is used by 19 of 20 top ranked universities in the US, which makes a comparison very relevant. I do not claim to be an expert in any of the tools above and there may be features of these I am not aware of. I am very happy to be corrected if this is the case.

My comments below are based on some features I learnt about at the launch through demonstrations of some courseware already developed using Smart Sparrow and information from the Smart Sparrow website.

There are three key ’adaptive’ features in the Smart Sparrow software:

1. Adaptive feedback

There are two facets to this feature:

– feedback given when a student answers a question depends on answers chosen by students e.g. to a multiple choice question.  This is not revolutionary at all; it is a common feature of eLearning software and can be done in PowerPoint by creating branching links.

– giving the student guidance when they have reached a set number of incorrect attempts. This is a great feature and one I saw in action in the demonstrations. It is apparently possible in Storyline but is very complicated to set up, not being a generic feature of the software.

2. Adaptive learning paths

Content shown to individual students can be varied depending on their demonstrating understanding by answering a set of questions. I didn’t see enough of this to fully assess it but it sounds different from other software I have used, in which you can certainly branch learners based on a single answer but not on multiple answers as far as I am aware.

3. Adapting content

Content can be easily adapted by educators combining the analytic and authoring tools built into Smart Sparrow rather than needing to go back to developers to request changes. The newer generation of eLearning tools, such as Articulate, have been specifically designed to be relatively easy to master without needing a background in programming so the ability of easy authoring didn’t particularly excite me. The learner analytics, though, really impressed. For each question the educator can easily see the average grade, average time spent, average number of attempts and number of students attempting. For each student you can see time spent, number of attempts, answers given and score. Students also receive an email at the end of the activity with many of the same statistics so they can have a clear picture of their progress.

Other features of Smart Sparrow

Besides the power and easy access to analytics, the other feature that really caught my attention was the virtual spaces eg laboratories that can be created. The most impressive  was the virtual oxygen laboratory, in which students can pick up a pipette and add a certain amount of different reagents and see the result of their actions. This level of sophistication would obviously require time and money to a level unlikely to be possible in the veterinary sphere but it is fantastic to see what can be created. There are also some virtual patient cases which I haven’t had the chance to assess in detail yet but which could have excellent potential to be replicated in a veterinary context.

Ease of authoring?

One aspect of Smart Sparrow I cannot assess at this stage is the authoring tool.  Ease of authoring is a strength of many major commercial products as is having the advantage of support not only from developers but also from communities of users. The Articulate community in particular is brilliant and I have always found help within a few hours to any query I have posted, regardless of time of night or day. Obviously building up that community of knowledgeable users takes time and no doubt the plan is that this will develop through the BEST Network but it maybe a challenge at this early stage.

Would I like the opportunity to try Smart Sparrow in the veterinary sphere? You bet I would.

My overall impression was that this platform has significant potential to improve student learning in veterinary science. It will not (and does not claim to) replace face-to-face learning but could be an extremely valuable adjunct. The power of the analytics was the highlight for me, both for teachers and students to get a better understanding of their progress and areas of challenge. I can’t wait to try it out, although I need to clarify whether I am able to do so, given that it is currently intended for medical rather than veterinary education. I will certainly post about the experience and any results.

NOTE: Readers from BEST Network member institutions (listed above or go to can access the courseware mentioned above and many other examples by joining the network. Those from non-member institutions can also join and use/adapt resources but are not able to create their own learning.


About rebekahmcbrown

I am a veterinarian with a special interest in instructional design and developing eLearning in the veterinary and medical areas. I write teaching materials for both face-to-face and online learning as well as writing and editing articles.
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