September 22, 2018

Using virtual reality to study interactive molecular dynamics

Click on image to see video

Morales, A. (2018) How Virtual Reality Can Change The Way We See Our Molecular World, Forbes, 25 July

O’Connor, M. et al. (2018) Sampling molecular conformations and dynamics in a multiuser virtual reality framework, Science Advances, Vol. 4, No.6, 29 June

The problem

As the authors state in the article (O’Connor et al., 2018):

From a modeling perspective, the nanoscale represents an interesting domain, because the objects of study (for example, molecules) are invisible to the naked eye, and their behavior is governed by physical forces and interactions significantly different from those forces and interactions that we encounter during our day-to-day phenomenological experience. In domains like this, which are imperceptible to the naked eye, effective models are vital to provide the insight required to make research progress….

molecular systems typically have thousands of degrees of freedom. As a result, their motion is characterized by a complicated, highly correlated, and elegant many-body dynamical choreography, which is nonintuitive compared to the more familiar mechanics of objects that we encounter in the everyday physical world. Their combined complexity, unfamiliarity, and importance make molecules particularly interesting candidates for investigating the potential of new digital modeling paradigms.

Until recently, building dynamic models that operate not only in real time but also in three dimensions required not only specialized virtual reality equipment, but more importantly massive amounts of computing power to handle the visual representation and modelling of highly complex and dynamic molecular activity.

The solution

However, through the use of cloud computing and faster networks, building such models has now become a reality, enabling not only such models to be represented but allowing some degree of real-time manipulation by researchers in different locations but within the same time-frame – in other words, distance research and teaching. 

In the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bristol in the U.K., Dr. David Glowacki and his team in their VR laboratory have created an interactive molecular dynamics modelling tool in the form of Nano Simbox VR, which allows anyone to visit and play within the invisible molecular world. This was made possible through a partnership with Oracle which provided the researchers access to its Oracle Cloud Infrastructure with a grant from the Oracle Startup for Higher Education programme.

The main advantage of the use of a cloud platform is to allow the scaling up of modelling from simple to much more complex dynamic nano interactions and the synchronous sharing of the virtual reality experience with multiple users.

The Nano Simbox VR app allows several people to interact at once with the digital models. Users can download the framework and choose the Oracle data center (Frankfurt, Germany; Phoenix, Arizona; Ashburn, Virginia) nearest to them for minimal network latency. 

The main aim of this particular project is to provide an intuitive feeling of the way molecules operate in multiple dimensions to enable researchers and students to have a better understanding of how nano worlds operate.

The paper published by Glowacki and his team in Science Advances describes how the iMD VR app enabled researchers to

  • easily “grab” individual C60 atoms and manipulate their real-time dynamics to pass the C60 back and forth between each other.
  • take hold of a fully solvated benzylpenicillin ligand and interactively guide it to dock it within the active site of the TEM-1 β-lactamase enzyme (with both molecules fully flexible and dynamic) and generate the correct binding mode (33), a process that is important to understanding antimicrobial resistance
  • guide a methane molecule (CH4) through a carbon nanotube, changing the screw sense of an organic helicene molecule,
  • tie a knot in a small polypeptide [17-alanine (17-ALA)].

Glowacki’s team measured how quickly users were able to accomplish these tasks using the iMD VR app compared with other platforms, and found that in all applications the VR application led to faster mastery.

Comment

This is just one instance where VR is operating at the interface of research and teaching. In particular, its value lies in providing a deep, intuitive understanding of phenomena that are otherwise difficult if not impossible to visualise in other ways.

In some ways this reminds me of the impact of the first mathematics television programs developed by the UK Open University in the 1970s, which included simulations and models of mathematical formulae and processes. This enabled students who were often struggling with the abstract nature of numerical and algebraic calculations to understand in more concrete terms what the calculations and formulae meant.

This intuitive understanding is critical not only for deeper understanding but also for breakthroughs in research and applications of science. In other words, it is a great use of media in education. 

Full disclosure

One of the co-authors of the Science Advances paper is my son, Phil Bates, who is the Oracle Computing  cloud architect who suggested Oracle Cloud Infrastructure to Dr. Glowacki.

 

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 3. Learning management systems

Reasons for using a Learning Management System

I pointed out in my previous post that the LMS is a legacy system that can inhibit innovation in teaching. Also in an earlier post I had pointed to the articles about the future of Blackboard and other proprietary LMSs, and commented that 

what surprises me is that in an age of multimedia and social media…. anyone is using an LMS at all.

This provoked an unusually large number of comments, both on my blog and on Twitter, some supporting my position and many more critical of it. 

The main critical points made were that LMSs have many advantages:

  • convenience: an LMS is the most effective way to organise teaching materials, activities, grievances, tracking students;
  • linked to convenience: it is too much to expect instructors to integrate a range of tools from scratch; the LMS is a simpler way to do this;
  • compliance and security: an LMS is safer than general, public apps (less open to hacking), protects student privacy, and allows for audit/management of grievances.

I will try to address these points below, but note that none of these advantages has anything to do with improving students’ learning – they are mainly instructor, legal, administrative and institutional benefits.

I do not underestimate the importance of convenience to faculty and administrators, and of privacy and security for students, but I would like to see this balanced against the potential learning benefits of using something other than a learning management system. I will also argue that there are other ways to address convenience and privacy/security issues.

What do I mean by an LMS?

One of the issues here is definition. You can define an LMS so broadly that even a physical campus institution can be considered a learning management system. I want to make the distinction in particular between a ‘course’ and an LMS. By LMS I mean basically the off-the-shelf, proprietary software platforms such as Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace, Moodle that are used in 90% or more of post-secondary institutions, at least in Canada. I don’t include specific platforms developed on a one-off basis for a particular institution or academic department, or by an individual instructor, as I see these more as tailored rather than bespoke. 

Until quite recently, I believed that any of these proprietary LMSs was flexible enough to allow me to teach in the way I wanted. I could post content, determine a schedule for what had to be covered each week, set student activities such as graded or ungraded assignments, communicate individually or in a group with students, set up discussion forums, choose topics for discussion, monitor the discussions, set and mark assessments, grade students, post their grades to the student information system, and give individual or group feedback, all in a secure online environment. 

However, I no longer wish to teach like that. With an LMS, I am given a tool then required to fit my teaching within the boundaries of that tool. I will shortly describe why I want to teach differently, but the essence here is that I want software solutions that fit the way I want to teach.  I want to decide how I want to teach, and more importantly, how I want my students to study, and then find the tool or tools that will allow me and them to do that. If I can be persuaded that an LMS can meet that requirement, fine, but I don’t believe at the moment that this is the case.

Why I want to change my approach to teaching and learning

Basically, in my previous approach, the focus was on me defining the curriculum/what had to be studied, the transmission of this knowledge to students, helping them to develop understanding and critical thinking about this content, and assessing the students. There was a focus on both content and skills, but a limited range of skills. In particular, I was the one who primarily defined what students had to know, and provided or directed them to the relevant content sources.

In a digital age, I don’t believe that this is any longer a satisfactory approach. I was doing most of the hard work, in defining what to read, and what students should do. They were limited in particular to writing or online multiple choice assessments to demonstrate what they had learned. Of course, students liked this. It was clear what they had to do, not just each week but often daily. They had a clear choice: do what I told them, or fail. 

I have written extensively in Teaching in a Digital Age about my ‘new’ approach to teaching and learning (although actually it’s not new – it is a somewhat similar approach I and some other teachers used in teaching in elementary schools in Britain in the 1960s, which was then called ‘discovery learning’ – see Bruner, 1961).

In essence, there is too much new knowledge being generated every day in every discipline for students to be able to master it all, particularly within the scope of a four year degree or even seven years’ higher education. Secondly, information is everywhere on the Internet. I don’t have to provide most of the content I wish to teach; it’s already out there somewhere.

The challenge now is to know where to find that information, how to analyse it, how to evaluate the reliability and relevance of that information, then organise and then apply that information in appropriate ways. This means knowing how to navigate the Internet, how to behave responsibly and ethically online, and how to protect one’s privacy and that of others. I used to do that for students; now I want them to learn how do it themselves.

I therefore want students not only to know things, but to be able to apply their knowledge appropriately within specific contexts. I want them in particular to develop the skills of independent learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and a broad digital literacy, because these are the skills they will need once they have left post-secondary education (or more accurately, skills that they will continue to develop after completing a formal qualification). 

I realise that this approach will not suit all instructors or fit well with every subject area, although I think these are challenges that most subject disciplines are now facing in a digital era.

What do I need to do to teach in this way?

I think it will help to use the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. ‘Inside’ is within the relatively safe, secure confines of the institution (I am still talking digitally, here.) To be inside you must be a registered student (or an institutionally employed instructor). What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Students can discuss with other students and their instructors maybe highly controversial issues in an open, academic way, without fear of being sued, imprisoned or ridiculed. Their work and grades are secure (unless they choose to make them public). The same applies to instructors. They can communicate individually with students or to the class as a whole, but it is confidential within the boundaries of the institution.

‘Outside’ is whatever is available publicly through the Internet. This can be open educational resources, public reports, open data, open journals, open textbooks, publicly available You Tube videos, Wikipedia, social media, such as Facebook. It can also be student blogs and wikis, student-made YouTube videos, and those parts of their e-portfolios – a record of their studies – that they choose to make public. Students may also choose to use social media as part of their studies, but they will need to know that this is public and not private or secure, and what the risks are.

For me, most student learning will be done outside: finding, analysing, demonstrating and testing what they have learned. Some inter-student discussion or engagement with external sources such as the general public may take place outside, but students will be provided with guidelines or even rules about what is appropriate for discussion in public forums. Again, instructors will vary in the amount of learning they want done outside, but in my case I would like to push as much as possible ‘outside’ without compromising student security or safety. However, managing risk is a critical part of the learning process here for student and instructor alike.

It will still be necessary to provide a structure and schedule for the course, in terms of desired learning outcomes, student activities and when they are to be completed, and assessment rubrics. These guidelines can be strict and rigid, or open and vague, depending on the needs of the students and the learning objectives.

Student assessment will be mainly through written or multi-media reporting, organised probably through e-portfolios, which will have both a private and a public section. The students will choose (within guidelines) what to make public. Assessment will be continuous, as the e-portfolio is developed.

Is an LMS necessary for this kind of teaching?

This is where I need help. I am not an IT expert, and I’m not up-to-date with all the tools that are now available. If you can show me that I can do all these things within one of the current proprietary LMSs, then that’s fine with me, but unless they have changed significantly since I last used one, I will be surprised. I will though accept that perhaps for the ‘inside’ work, an LMS might be suitable, but it has to be integrated in some way with the outside work.

Here’s where I need the feedback of my readers. Many of you have to grapple with these issues every day. What I am NOT willing to do though is to compromise my vision of teaching to fit an institutional, proprietary software platform.

So can a current proprietary LMS meet my needs?

Over to you!

Reference

Bruner, J. S. (1961). ‘The act of discovery’ Harvard Educational Review Vol. 31, No. 1, pp: 21–32.

How serious should we be about serious games in online learning?

An excerpt from the video game ‘Therapeutic Communication and Mental Health Assessment’ developed at Ryerson University

In the 2017 national survey of online learning in post-secondary education, and indeed in the Pockets of Innovation project, serious games were hardly mentioned as being used in Canadian universities or colleges. Yet there was evidence from the Chang School Talks in Toronto earlier this month that there is good reason to be taking serious games more seriously in online learning.

What are serious games?

The following definition from the Financial Times Lexicon is as good a definition as any:

Serious games are games designed for a purpose beyond pure entertainment. They use the motivation levers of game design – such as competition, curiosity, collaboration, individual challenge – and game media, including board games through physical representation or video games, through avatars and 3D immersion, to enhance the motivation of participants to engage in complex or boring tasks. Serious games are therefore used in a variety of professional situations such as education, training,  assessment, recruitment, knowledge management, innovation and scientific research. 

So serious games are not solely educational, nor necessarily online, but they can be both.

Why are serious games not used more in online learning?

Well, partly because some see serious games as an oxymoron. How can a game be serious? This may seem trivial, but many game designers fear that a focus on education risks killing the main element of a game, its fun. Similarly, many instructors fear that learning could easily be trivialised through games or that games can cover only a very limited part of what learning should be about – it can’t all be fun. 

Another more pragmatic reason is cost and quality. The best selling video games for instance cost millions of dollars to produce, on a scale similar to mainstream movies. What is the compelling business plan for educational games? And if games are produced cheaply, won’t the quality – in terms of production standards, narrative/plot, visuals, and learner engagement – suffer, thus making them unattractive for learners?

However, probably the main reason is that most educators simply do not know enough about serious games: what exists, how they can be used, nor how to design them. For this reason, the ChangSchoolTalks, organised each year by the School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University, this year focused on serious games.

The conference

The conference, held on May 3rd in Toronto, consisted of nine key speakers who have had extensive experience with serious games, organised in three themes:

  • higher education
  • health care
  • corporate

The presentations were followed by a panel debate and question and answer session. The speakers were:

This proved to be an amazingly well-selected group of speakers on the topic. In one session run by Sylvester Arnab, he had the audience inventing a game within 30 seconds. Teams of two were given a range of  existing games or game concepts (such as Dictionary or Jeopardy) and a topic (such as international relations) and had up to two minutes to create an educational game. The winning team (in less than 30 seconds) required online students in political sciences to represent a country and suggest how they should respond to selected Tweets from Donald Trump.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I suffered from such information overload from recent conferences that I had to go and lie down. It was at this conference where that happened! It has taken three weeks for me even to begin fully processing what I learned.

What did I learn?

Probably the most important thing is that there is a whole, vibrant world of serious games outside of education, and at the same time there are many possible and realistic applications for serious games in education, and particularly in online learning. So, yes, we should be taking serious games much more seriously in online learning – but we need to do it carefully and professionally.

The second lesson I learned is that excellent online serious games can be developed without spending ridiculous amounts of money (see some examples below). At the same time, there is a high degree of risk. There is no sure way of predicting in advance that a new game will be successful. Some low-cost simple games can work well; some expensively produced games can easily flop. This means careful testing and feedback during development.

For these and other reasons, research being conducted at Ryerson University and funded by eCampus Ontario is particularly important. Naza Djafarova and colleagues at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education are conducting research to develop a game design guide to enhance the process by which multidisciplinary teams, engaged in the pre-production stage, approach the design of a serious game. They have developed a process called the Art of Game Design methodology, for multidisciplinary teams involved in the design of serious games, and appraised in participatory workshops.

The Chang School has already developed a few prototype games, including:

  • Lake Devo, a virtual learning environment enabling online role-play activity in an educational context. Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios.
  • Skills Practice: A Home Visit that promotes the application of knowledge and skills related to establishing a therapeutic nurse-client relationship and completing a mental health assessment. Students assume the role of a community health nurse assigned to complete a home visit. Working with nurses and professors from George Brown College, Centennial College this project is working to establish a ‘virtual hospital’ with several serious games focused on maternity issues.

Thus serious games are a relatively high risk, high return activity for online learning. This requires building on best practices in games design, both within and outside education, sharing, and collaboration. However, as we move more and more towards skills development, experiential learning, and problem-solving, serious games will play an increasingly important role in online learning. Best to start now.

Active learning at the Royal Military College of Canada

The interior of Currie Hall, RMC

The RMC

Following my trip to the UK Open University, I visited the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, where I was a keynote speaker at a one day conference on active learning.

The RMC is the military college of the Canadian Armed Forces, and is a degree-granting university training military officers. RMC was established in 1876 and is the only federal institution in Canada with degree-granting powers. Programs are offered at the undergraduate and graduate levels, both on campus as well as through the college’s distance learning programme via the Division of Continuing Studies. It has a total of about 3,000 students, with about one-third part-time/distance and about 300 taking post-graduate studies. It is fully bilingual.

Active learning at the RMC

This was the rough theme of the conference, and it was interesting to see how the College is working to make its programs, both on-campus and online, more learner focused and interactive. I don’t have space to cover all the presentations, which without exception were excellent, so I will focus just on those that were of particular interest to me.

The importance of retrieval-practice for learning

This was an interesting presentation by Dr. Mathieu Gagnon, a psychology instructor at the RMC, basically about effective learning methods. He drew attention to research (Gagnon and Cormier, 2018) that suggests that students who spend time writing down or retrieving what they learn from reading do better in long-term retention than students who re-read the same text multiple times. Another factor is that distributed learning, where students take breaks rather than study intensively, is also more effective in long-term retention. (I hope I have got this right, as I didn’t take notes during his presentation….)

The art and science of flying

I used to have my own small plane, a Cessna 172, which I have flown from the west coast to the east coast of Canada and back. I loved flying my own plane, and although I knew about stall speeds, the use of flaps and ailerons, and so on, I never really understood the basic principles of aeronautics (which is why it is probably fortunate that I have stopped flying now because of my age).

So imagine my delight when I heard Dr. Billy Alan and Dr. Steve Lukits discuss a radical inter-disciplinary course they had designed that combined English literature (books and writing about flying) with aeronautical engineering, capturing both the beauty and magic of flying and its downright practicalities. Unfortunately the course is no longer extant (too many challenges for the administration), but surely we need more such inter-disciplinary courses in higher education. 

Wi-fi on buses

Sawyer Hogenkamp is doing a master’s thesis at Queen’s University on the use of wi-fi on school buses. He presented some staggering figures:

  • 30 million students in the U.S. and Canada ride the school bus every day.
  • 40% of Canadian school students take a school bus every school day
  • the average commute time is one hour or more in each direction

Many school districts are now putting wi-fi on to their buses that connect to their networks so students can study to and from school. This is particularly important for students in rural areas who often have no or slow speed wi-fi access at home.

Google is rolling out a program across the United States called Rolling Study Halls that includes devices as well as connectivity for use on school buses. They claim they are ‘reclaiming’ more than 1.5 million study hours in this way. 

Hogenkamp is researching the impact on learning and behaviour of students on buses with wi-fi. He stated that the first person to notify the school district if the wi-fi fails is the school bus driver, because of the impact on bus behaviour. To see a great three minute video of Sawyer’s research on bullying on school buses, see: http://www.queensu.ca/3mt/results-and-galleries/videos-2018

Active learning classrooms

Queen’s University is also located in Kingston, and there is clearly a great deal of collaboration and cross-teaching and research between the RMC and Queen’s. Several instructors from RMC, Major Vicki Woodside-Duggins, Dr. Bernadette Dechecci, Lt. Glen Whitaker, and Mrs. Annie Riel, and from Queen’s University, Dr. Andrea Philpson, discussed their use of active classrooms at Queen’s University.

In 2014, Queen’s University installed three different types of active classrooms:

  • a small classroom (capacity 45) with flexible configuration, movable chairs with arm rests for tablets or notes, and extensive whiteboard all around the room, a podium and a projector with a screen
  • a medium size classroom (capacity 70), with round tables for groups of six with power outlets and connections to several interactive displays around the walls, enabling students to work in collaboration around a table or in presentation mode to the whole class, and a podium that connects to all the screens or can be switched to just one screen
  • a large classroom (capacity 136), with rectangular tables for groups of up to eight with a monitor at the end of each table, a and a podium connected to all the monitors with can be switched to just one screen.

The medium-sized active classroom at Queen’s University

A study was conducted in 2014 (Leger, Chen, Woodside-Duggins and Riel, 2014) and found:

Overall, both student and instructors had overwhelmingly positive expectations and experiences in all three classrooms across disciplines and course levels. Initial impressions and expectations about the rooms were optimistic with students expecting “active” courses and no lecturing, and most instructors immediately changing their typical teaching approaches to adapt to the new environment. The data collected at the end of the term suggests most learning expectations were met, with students being highly engaged throughout the term as a consequence of instructors using more active teaching approaches.

I had the good fortune to present in the medium-sized classroom to faculty and staff in 2016 and can personally attest to how the configuration of the room impacts on how one presents and engages the audience. I have already written about how the increased use of blended learning will require more active classroom designs and the RMC presentation strongly reinforced this.

Five active learning exercises

Dr. Holly Ann Garnett rounded up the conference with an interactive workshop where she got everyone to try five exercises for engaging students, including:

  • ball toss
  • pass-a-problem
  • students teach the class
  • think-pair-share
  • snowball

As these are all classroom exercises, I won’t go into detail but you can find them described more fully here.

What I found interesting is that best practices in online learning provide very different student engagement activities, such as online class discussion, student mini-assignments, and online tests with immediate feedback, which I believe have the advantage of being more authentic.

Conclusion

As always, I learn more than I teach when I’m a keynote presenter. The RMC has been doing distance education now for more than 20 years and it was good to connect with some of the RMC pioneers in distance education as well as the current Dean of Continuing Studies, Dr. Grace Scoppio, who was a delightful host. But I was also impressed with the quality and the enthusiasm of all the presenters. I am very fortunate to have such an interesting job!

References

Gagnon, Ma. and Cormier, S. (2018) Retrieval Practice and Distributed Practice: The Case of French Canadian Students, Canadian Journal of School Psychology, May, 2018

Leger, A., Chen, V., Woodside-Duggins, V., and Riel, A. (2014)  Active Learning Classrooms in Ellis Hall, Kingston ON: Queen’s University