Contextualised Learning – Innovative eLearning for the Living Curriculum

What’s in it for me?

Many disciplines are fundamentally practical and also occur in environments that, traditionally are not ‘technology friendly’. This exemplar outlines some of the challenges overcome by the building construction students and staff, and the innovative way they integrated technology into the curriculum in a way that encourages learner autonomy, curiosity and engagement.

Questions you might be asking include:

  • How can I, outside of the classroom, offer just-in-time constructive feedback?
  • Is it possible to take the learning conversations to authentic contexts?
  • What happens when multimedia is used to enhance a programme of learning? and
  • What on earth are Quick Response Codes and why might they be useful?


The construction students and staff have always faced a major hurdle because the discipline is so ‘hands-on’. For example, the teachers have not always had an effective mechanism to provide students with constructive feedback and on-the-spot guidance while they are actually on the construction site. Add to this the issue that students do not usually have the access to a computer and this results in the students having to write down and / or memorise the information and instructions necessary for a practical session. This drawback can be compounded if a student does not grasp a specific concept or method as there was no opportunity for ‘on-demand’ review once on site.

What happened – 2010

In Semester 2, 2010, in response to some of these problems,  Kamuka Pati, developed the concept ‘Smartshed’ that brings the classroom to the construction site. In the video below, Kamuka gives a guided tour of the almost complete smartshed and talks about the use of mobile devices and QR codes in building construction studies.

The smartshed is a small portable shed that has a built-in back throw projector with an interactive smartboard, and it also has a built-in wireless hotspot, which provides wireless coverage to the whole construction zone. It was initially envisaged that the smartshed would provide a space for lecturers and students to discuss a concept or plan for what they were building that day. This conversation might involve students brainstorming ideas, sharing prior experience, the teacher sharing his/her experience and knowledge, and conversations with outside experts.

What happened next? (Semester 1, 2011)

It has been observed that with the space and the technology available on site and just a few metres away, the students have been encouraged to actively problem-solve, and to source solution for themselves, either individually or as a group. This has been enhanced by the ability to access the information needed to make an informed decision and to be able to capture the process.

As an extension to the initial project Kamuka is also trialling the use of an iPod and Quick Response (QR) Codes with his students (please watch this video for an explanation). Every group is issued with an iPod before a class begins. Kamuka has prepared a set of QR codes for his class and each topic (see video below for an example of one being used on site). These QR codes are pinned on the board in the construction zone and this provides students contextualised on-demand information (such as access to 3D models, videos and pictures) that helps the student gain a better understanding of the ‘what and how’ just when it is needed.

The students are encouraged to take pictures and videos as they are involved in the building process to use as part of the development of an electronic portfolios (ePortfolio) by uploading to Picasa and YouTube. Students are later supported to reflect on the process in their blog. Some students have generated QR Codes to direct interested parties to their electronic portfolios.

Below is an example QR code that links students to a YouTube video on subfloor and wall framing. If you have a smart phone, you can install a QR Reader app and give this code a go! (Works on the iPad, iPod touch, iPhone and Android phones.)


The students from the four class using the smartshed were surveyed at the end of Semester 1, 2011, and a total of 68 students responded. Student perception on the usefulness of the smartshed in learning was elicited using likert scale questions (5 – strongly agree – 1 strongly disagree). The findings from this survey are discussed below.

All the students who took part in the survey agreed to a varying degree that they found the smartshed ‘useful’ in their learning. The survey also revealed that 64% of the students (44 out of 68)  had never used a smartboard before and this was the first opportunity they had had. Anecdotally, integration of tools such as this into a course may help students further develop digital skills. This could range from learning how to use the smartboard, to learning how to search and navigate the Web for information.

The students were asked to rate the the importance of the practical and theory elements of the course. The results highlight that the students valued practical component of the course over theory. This perceived division in practical and theory outlines that the students observed a distinct division between the two components, whereas the course aims to blend the two components in the learning process. Prior to the smartshed being available theory was learned in class and practical skills were developed at the construction site probably, which may explain why the students expressed this separation. However, 92% (63 out of 68) of students noted that the opportunity to use the smartshed space helped bridge the gap between theory and practical by enabling the discussion of content (theory) within the context it was going to be applied.

Most students  (91% – 62 out of 68) agreed that the smartshed had created a flexible and engaging learning environment for them. This perception could also be credited to the fact that the students actively maintain an electronic portfolio for the duration of the course.

Some student feedback from the survey:

Student 1:

Because the smart shed is close to the site, being briefed in the smart shed in the morning I find more useful because its [sic] close to the site and the memory is fresh unlike working in a classroom off site.

Student 2:

Useful to go through things we need to do, during practical. Good to show examples of things that are needed and required during or before practical is down on site.

Student 3:

As we get taught the theory behind it and then can do a exercise [sic] straight away to strengthen the knowledge.

One of the characteristics of the living curriculum is stated as: ‘Learning is practice-focused – educating students ‘for work, in work, through work’. While the latter could be unpacked in many different ways, for Kamuka and other staff and the students, ‘for work, in work, through work’ is a critical element of the learning process. For work (building construction), in work (context) and through work (hands-on, practical and active participation) took centre stage through the integration and innovative use of learning technologies.


Kamuka Pati ( has been involved with Unitec for approximately four years now, more recently he has been part of the e-learning Community Coordinators’ team that the institute initiated two years ago. He teaches on the carpentry programme, and over this period he has observed a rapid emergence of the integration of technology within education. Kamuka believes that a key component to successful pedagogy is staying engaged with current practice and stimulating inquiry. With the support of the Community of Practice of which he is a member, he have been given opportunities to explore avenues for successful uses of technology within vocational education. Kumaka concludes by saying “A lot of new and exciting work has begun and I look forward to continuing this journey”.

Images used in this post (with thanks)

All images except those listed below, are screen grabs taken from the videos featured above. The QR code was provided by Vickel Narayan.

Creative Commons Licence

Contextualised Learning – Innovative eLearning for the Living Curriculum, Unitec NZ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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