August 14, 2018

Why is innovation in teaching in HE so difficult? 4. Integrating online and distance learning into the mainstream

Blended learning: what makes it innovative? Image: Erasmus+

This is the fourth and final post in this series. The previous three were:

Is it really so difficult?

A strong case could be made that at least in North America, higher education systems have been very successful in innovation. For instance, over the last 15 years, online learning has become widespread in most universities and colleges.

In the USA, one in three students now takes at least one distance education/online course for credit (Seaman et al., 2018). Although campus-based enrolments have been static or declining in the USA over the last few years, fully online enrolments have grown by about 5% over the last four years. 

In Canada, online learning in credit based courses has increased from around 5% of all enrolments in 2000 to around 15% of all enrolments in 2017. For the last four years, online enrolments have been increasing at a annual rate of between 12-16% in Canada, and nearly all universities and colleges in Canada now offer at least some fully online courses (Bates et al., 2017). 

However, that is one area where Canada differs from the USA. In the USA, online education is concentrated in a much smaller proportion of institutions in the USA than in Canada. In the USA, 235 institutions command 47% (2,985,347) of the student distance enrolments, but represent only 5% of all higher education enrolments in the USA (Seaman et al. 2018). Basically, some institutions, such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State University, have become expert in scaling up online learning to a position where it has become large-scale and self-sustainable.

Then there are MOOCs. Many universities around the world are now offering MOOCs, with over 20 million enrolments a year. There may be criticism about completion rates and lack of accepted qualifications, but nevertheless, even – or especially – the elite universities have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon.

Also, Contact North’s project, Pockets of Innovation, with nearly 200 case studies, has identified that there are many individual instructors in colleges and universities adopting innovative uses of technology in their teaching, mostly independent of any institutional strategy.

However, probably the greatest impact of online learning on teaching in higher education is just getting started and that is the integration of online learning with classroom teaching, in the form of blended or hybrid learning. Bates et al. (2017) found that almost three quarters of institutions in Canada reported that this type of teaching was occurring in their institution. However, two thirds of the institutions reported that fewer than 10% of courses are in this format. In other words, integrated online learning is wide but not yet deep.

And this is where perhaps the biggest challenge of successful innovation lies: ensuring the high quality integration of online and classroom teaching. But we shall see that there are also concerns about how well campus-based institutions with no prior history of credit-based distance education have moved to fully online courses and programs as well.

The challenge of moving from a single mode to a dual mode institution

The most recent issue of the journal Distance Education, edited by Mays, Combrink and Aluko (2018) is a special edition dedicated to the theme of dual-mode provision, and in particular how previously single mode (i.e. solely campus-based) institutions are responding to the particular demands of distance education provision, and whether the quality and effectiveness of such provision is at risk. The editors of this edition believe:

such a decision will necessarily call for the revisiting of an institution’s assumptions about how people learn, how staff should work and how resources should be allocated and what policy changes are needed if quality is to be maintained or enhanced and the offerings sustained.

The articles in this special edition raise a number of questions such as:

  • is the blurring of the boundaries between on-campus and distance learning a good thing?
  • does the concept of distance education remain relevant?
  • are established models of distance education sufficient to inform the design, development and delivery of new kinds of provision, or are new models emerging (or needed)?

In particular, the editors are concerned that:

  • there is a real danger that in the convergence of modes of provision the unique quality concerns of distance provision, regarding, for example, the issues of access, success and cost, and the implications for how people learn and work, may be lost.

Interestingly, the special edition then looks at a series of case studies of the move from single to dual mode not drawn from North America or Europe, but from sub-Saharan Africa, where the motivation to move into distance learning has been driven mainly by changes in demand patterns (too many potential students; not enough institutions).

Application of an innovation adoption framework

Of these case studies, by far the most interesting is the article by Kanwar et. al, of the Commonwealth of Learning, which applies Wisdom et al.’s (2014) innovation adoption framework to provide a qualitative meta-review of barriers to adoption of open and distance learning (ODL) in conventional higher education institutes in Cameroon, Kenya and Rwanda. 

The framework has four key elements (which build on Everett Rogers’ earlier work on the diffusion of innovation):

  • external environment, e.g. national policies and funding, infrastructure/external physical environment
  • organisation of the adopting institution, e.g. institutional policies, organisational structure, leadership
  • nature of the innovation, e.g. complexity, cost, technology 
  • individuals, e.g. skills, perceptions, motivation, value systems of staff and clients affected by the innovation.

Kanwar et al. then used this framework to analyse the content of existing reviews of the adoption of ODL in the three countries. The findings are too detailed and complex to review here (the results varied between the three countries), but the study clearly identified some of the key barriers to adoption in each of the three countries. I was in fact thrilled to see an evidence-based theoretical model used to evaluate innovation.

More importantly, the study resulted in nine recommendations for successful implementation of ODL within campus-based institutions:

Government

  • develop national level policies and funding to encourage the adoption of ODL
  • establish national-level quality assurance mechanisms, equally for on-campus and distance programs
  • strengthen national-level IT infrastructure

Institutions

  • create institutional policies and clear implementation plans for promoting and supporting ODL
  • establish a centralised and autonomous ODL structure
  • develop a clear costing model for ODL and establish secure forms of funding/business models
  • build staff capacity and provide incentives to faculty to engage in ODL
  • promote research into the effectiveness and outcomes of ODL
  • ensure equivalency in the status and qualifications of ODL students

Comment

It would be a mistake to ignore this publication because the cases are drawn primarily from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the issues addressed in these articles will resonate with many working in this field in North America and Europe.

I think the editors are right to be concerned about how well ‘conventional’ institutions are handling the adoption of distance and online learning. For many faculty, moving online is merely a question of transferring their classroom lectures to a web conference.

I was at a Canadian university recently where the design of a ‘blended’ executive MBA was being discussed. The ‘plan’ was to make one of the three weekly lectures in each course available instead by a 90 minute synchronous web conference. One professor insisted that all students had to watch the lecture at the same time so they could discuss it afterwards. No consideration was given to either the context of the students (working businessmen with a busy schedule and family) or to the pedagogy or research on video lectures. Even worse, the faculty were not listening to advice from the excellent specialists from the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.

At another Canadian university which has been running excellent distance education program for years through Extension Services, there is no plan or strategy for e-learning on campus, other than a proposal to distribute the specialist instructional design staff from Extension to the campus-based academic departments (which wouldn’t work as there are not enough specialists to go round each faculty). This also ignores the fact that these specialists are needed to run Extension’s own very successful non-credit programs, which bring money into the university.

So looking down the list of recommendations suggested by Kanwar et al., I can immediately think of at least a dozen Canadian universities for which most of these recommendations would be highly relevant.

I would differ on just a couple of points. There has been a long tradition of dual-mode institutions in North America, especially in universities with a state- or province-wide remit, at least in their early days. In Canada, Queen’s and Guelph Universities in Ontario, Memorial University in Newfoundland, the University of Saskatchewan, Laval University in Québec, and the University of British Columbia are all examples of mainly campus-based institutions with very successful distance programs. The distance education programs were the first to adopt online learning, and gradually, some of the best practices from distance education have been incorporated into blended and hybrid courses.

However, even in these universities, the move to more integrated online and face-to-face teaching faces challenges. UBC for instance did move its distance education staff from Continuing Studies to join a strengthened Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology that also included faculty development. Other institutions have still to make that move in a strategic and careful manner. And the big issue is how do you scale from supporting online courses for 15% of the students to supporting blended learning for all students?

The real issue lies with faculty and especially departments moving to blended or hybrid learning that do not understand the need for learning design or the needs of students who are not on campus all the time. The integration of online and campus-based learning will often highlight the inadequacy of prior campus-based teaching methods. There is much that campus-based faculty can learn from  distance education, in terms of more effective teaching.

At the same time, I don’t think distance educators have all the answers. The Pockets of Innovation have plenty of examples of campus-based faculty thinking up innovative ways to integrate online learning and new technologies into campus-based teaching. My experience in designing online courses was that the best ideas usually came from a highly expert faculty member with a truly deep understanding of the subject matter (see my previous post on VR in interactive molecular mechanics for a good example). I believe that we will need new models for designing blended and hybrid courses, even though distance education has some sound principles that can guide such design.

So in conclusion, innovation of itself is not sufficient: it has to be effective innovation that leads to better outcomes, in terms of access, flexibility, and/or learning effectiveness. Innovation is unlikely to be effective if it merely moves poor classroom teaching online, which is why innovation will remain difficult in higher education.

Over to you

Do you have examples of poor practice in moving to offer distance education courses for the first time, or attempts at integrating online and classroom teaching? 

Even better, do you have examples of where this has been done successfully? What are the lessons you have learned from this?

References

Bates, T. (ed.) (2017) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2017 Vancouver BC: The National Survey of Online and Distance Education in Canadian Post-Secondary Education.

Kanwar, A. et al., (2018) Opportunities and challenges for campus-based universities in Africa to translate into dual-mode delivery, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2, pp. 140-158

Mays, T. et al. (2018) Deconstructing dual-mode provision in a digital era, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United StatesWellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group

Wisdom, J. et al. (2014) Innovation adoption: a review of theories and constructs, Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Sciences Research, Vol. 41, pp. 480-502

Book review: Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries

A mobile school for Delhi street children run by Butterflies. Click to see video

Latchem, C. (2018) Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries Springer: Singapore

The author

I was about to review this book when I was informed of the death of Colin Latchem, its author.

Colin was an Australian consultant, researcher and writer in the field of open and distance learning.  In the 1970s, he was a pioneer in the UK in the development of educational television and learning resources for universities.

He emigrated to Australia in 1982 to become head of the Teaching Learning Group at Curtin University, Perth, a centre responsible for academic staff development, educational technology and open and distance learning. Over the years he became the ‘go-to’ person about open and distance education in South East Asia. He received the Charles A Wedemeyer award in 2002 for best book of the year on open and distance education. He was also co-editor of the SpringerBriefs series on Open and Distance Education. He was formerly the Asia-Pacific Corresponding Editor of The British Journal of Educational Technology.

Colin was a good friend and colleague whom I have known for over 40 years. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to celebrate a true scholar and gentleman than to review his final work.

Definition of open and distance non-formal education (ODL NFE)

Latchem does not provide a precise definition of non-formal education, but distinguishes non-formal learning from informal learning (the spontaneous, incidental acquisition of knowledge) and formal learning provided by schools, colleges and universities. Non-formal learning sits somewhere in between, concerned with providing lifelong learning in support of social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education. It may be provided through NGOs, international or government agencies, employers or social organisations such as community groups.

In open and distance education most of the teaching is conducted by some provider removed in time and space from the learner, using content and approaches that are openly accessible, enabling learners to learn individually or collaboratively at the time and place of their choosing.

The importance of open and distance education for non-formal education

 Some of the figures Latchem provides about the need for non-formal education are staggering: 

  • 263 million children and youth did not have access to schools in 2014
  • 130 million girls are denied the right to formal education, and are four times more likely to be denied education than boys of the same socio-economic group
  • 758 million adults aged 15 years and older remain illiterate, of which two-thirds are women 
  • there are 60 million refugees or displaced persons without access to formal education
  • it would take an extra US$40 billion to provide 12 years of education for all in the developing world, but international aid today is 4% lower than it was in 2010.

Other groups outside the formal education system in developing countries include people with disabilities and people imprisoned. It is of course still the poorest socio-economic groups who have the least access to formal education in developing countries, despite often heroic efforts by national governments.

Latchem argues that conventional face-to-face methods can never meet the scale and extent of the knowledge and skills building and social and behavioural change needed to meet the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goals. Open and distance education non-formal education (ODL NFE) is the only way to meet these needs until formal educational provision becomes globally available to all, and even then ODL NFE will still be needed on a large scale.

However, Latchem claims that there has been little prior research into the effectiveness of ODL NFE in developing countries. What little prior research that has been done indicates that previous attempts to use open and distance learning for non-formal education in developing countries were piecemeal and ineffective, mainly consisting of short-term pilots lacking sustainable funding.  

Latchem concluded that a review of current practice and progress in this field was long overdue and hence the central concern of the book is about identifying ways in which open and flexible forms of lifelong learning have increased social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education.

The structure of the book

There are four parts to the book:

  1. Background to the study, which examines the Global Development Agenda, and introduces the reader to prior research, and the main elements of ODL NFE.
  2. A fairly brief description of the main technologies and media currently in use in ODL NFE, including radio, television, mobile learning, OERs and MOOCs, telecentres, and traditional and performing arts.
  3. A more extensive review of areas in which ODL NFE has been mostly successfully used. These include:
    • out-of-school children and youth
    • adult literacy, ESL
    • gender equity
    • disabled, refugees, prisoners
    • health care, safe water, sanitation and hygiene
    • agriculture and agribusiness
    • small and medium-sized enterprises
    • education for sustainable development
  4. A conclusion, including actions needed

My main takeaways

Firstly, the size of the challenge in providing education for all. I agree with Latchem that although the long-term goal should be formal education for all, in the short-term this will be impossible for many years in many developing countries, and that non-formal education will continue to be critically important in helping to fill the gap, and that open and distance learning is a valuable, cost-effective means to provide this. (It is also cost-effective means to provide formal education, as well, but that is another book).

Second, though, I was blown away by the many cases Latchem provides of successful ODL NFE projects. The book is filled with over 180 cases and urls to video links which demonstrate the applications. I was particularly impressed by the extent and value of telecentres, and the criteria needed for them to succeed. There are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Third, while cost and access remain a major barrier, I was impressed by the extent to which the Internet and ICTs (particularly mobile learning) are being successfully used in many developing countries. I was also impressed with the use of more traditional media, such as puppets, theatre, song and dance, highlighting the importance of cultural adaptation to local needs. Again I believe there are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Nevertheless, while these success stories are encouraging, there are often systemic difficulties that hinder the implementation of ODL NFE. Latchem identifies the following:

  • over-dependence on international aid agencies/NGOs
  • lack of sustainability due to overuse of short-term, small scale pilots and insufficient funding
  • lack of learning pathways from informal to non-formal to formal education
  • the need for a systematic approach/a national strategy for non-formal education
  • lack of reliable broadband connection in rural areas where NFE is most needed
  • lack of content in local languages
  • lack of research and evaluation of projects in terms of outcomes.

Latchem then ends with a set of nine action steps that are needed to advance the ODL NFE agenda.

In summary

This book benefits enormously from being written by a single author, rather than a series of articles by different writers. This provides the book with a coherent and consistent message.

I cannot say how thrilled I was to see so many wonderful projects attempting under great difficulty to make the world a better place. Most of these were firmly community-based, and locally designed and maintained, if often with some international assistance. It is one of the most optimistic books I have read for a long while.

It also highlights the naïvity and wrong-headedness of many Western approaches to the use of technology in developing countries, such as believing the importation of American MOOCs (or whatever is the latest technology) is a sustainable solution to education for all. There is a role for MOOCs, but are best developed locally in local languages, for instance, and more importantly, embedded in a local organisation and infrastructure that makes the material likely to be used effectively.

Some of the early content will be familiar to most readers of this blog, but the real target for this book are policy-makers in developing countries trying to tackle the challenge of education for all. This book provides powerful evidence of the role that open and distance education non-formal education can play in making education for all a reality. This is a fitting end to a wonderful career – thank you, Colin.

Free online courses on English for Syrian refugees

FutureLearn’s Basic English 1: Elementary. Click on image to access course.

FutureLearn (2018) New free online courses launched to help Syrian refugees continue their education FE News.co.uk, June 8

Kings College, the University of London, has partnered with FutureLearn, the U.K. Open University’s MOOC platform, to deliver a series of twelve new free online courses to assist refugees affected by conflict in the Middle East. The first two courses, Basic English 1: Elementary, and Basic English 2: Pre-Intermediate, start on June 18.

The courses are a result of an interesting project called PADILEA, which stands for The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access, whose partners are King’s College, LondonKiron Open Higher Education (Germany), FutureLearn in the UK, Al al-Bayt University in Jordan and the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. The PADILEA project will provide blended academic programmes, including Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), targeted online learning, and classroom-based learning to displaced students who are in refugee camps and other communities.

While the course content is specifically designed for people affected by the Syrian crisis, they are open to all people in the region and beyond for free. Learners can join the courses from any device, computer or smartphone with an internet connection. The courses will also have Arabic translations.

Comment

This is an example of the huge potential of MOOCs to improve accessibility to education and meet some very pressing needs. The PADILEA MOOCs are more focused and targeted than many other MOOCs but still have a large potential audience and have a very important goal. Professor Bronwyn Parry at King’s College perfectly captured the significance of this project:

In the scale of the enormity of the ongoing conflict in the region, English courses may seem a relatively small affair but access to education is absolutely vital and offers opportunity and hope for an entire generation whose lives have been devastated by war and displacement.

I have already reported on Kiron University’s efforts to help refugees with online learning. In some ways, online learning for refugees is like a band-aid for someone who is bleeding to death. It can only help reduce some of the effects caused by more fundamental political and economic issues that still need to be urgently addressed, but nevertheless band-aids are still useful when you are bleeding.

I hope though that eventually a more long-term and stable solution will be found for the education of the millions still stuck in refugee camps hoping to transition to a more normal existence – or better still, remove the need for refugee camps in the first place. 

The current madness in online learning: case no. 2

Keith Devlin, Stanford University, who offers a MOOC on mathematical thinking. Is there a bias of white male presenters in MOOCs?

Baker, R. et al. (2018) Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment, Stanford CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, CEPA Working Paper  No. 18-03

Yesterday I ranted at the high costs in the UK of online programs aimed at part-time, working people. Today, I want to look at a recent study from researchers at Stanford University reporting racial bias in online discussion forums.

First let’s report the facts: what did the researchers say? (Please read the report for yourself if you are uncomfortable with my comments about their conclusions).

Main finding

They report:

this study provides what we believe is the first evidence of the possible presence of racial and gender biases among students and instructors in online courses. 

First, it provides novel and fundamentally important insights into a rapidly proliferating type of learning environment. In 2013, 25 percent of all postsecondary students took some or all of their courses online. This fact has equity implications given that students enrolling in less selective colleges make up a larger fraction of the online student body online. Even in K-12 education, more than 300,000 students exclusively attend online schools, with as many as 5 million students having taken at least one online course….

Because our study relies on fictive student identities, it cleanly isolates behavioral effects due to instructors and unequivocally rules out mechanisms related to student reactions to a particular instructor.

…a comment from a White male is a statistically significant 5.8 percentage points more likely to receive a response from an instructor than non-White male students. The magnitude of this effect is striking. Given the instructor reply rate of 6.2 percent for non-White male posters, the White male effect represents an 94 percent increase in the likelihood of instructor response.

This is a pretty damning criticism of online learning. How did they come to this conclusion?

Methodology

We tested for the presence of racial and gender biases in these settings by creating fictional student identities with racial- and gender-connotative names, having these fictional students place randomly assigned comments in the discussion forums, and observing the engagement of other students and instructors with these comments.

We situated our study within 124 Massive Open Online Courses…..Critically, we also believe there is credible external validity to conducting this study within MOOCs because their basic design features (e.g., asynchronous engagement, recorded lectures, discussion forums) and their postsecondary content are widely used in other online courses.

Using fictive student identities, we placed eight discussion-forum comments in each of the 124 MOOCs. Within each course, eight student accounts were used to place one comment each. The eight student accounts each had a name that was connotative of a specific race and gender (i.e., White, Black, Indian, Chinese, each by gender); each race-gender combination was used once per class…..By observing the responses to our comments by instructors and by students in the course, we can identify any difference in the number of responses received by our student accounts that were assigned different race and gender identities.

Fifty eight percent of the courses in our sample were taught by either one White male instructor or a teaching team of exclusively White men….White students were 5.9 percentage points more likely than non-White students to respond to one of our comments when that comment was assigned a White name….We find that White women were over 10 percentage points more likely to respond to a post with a White female name than non-White women.

My comments

This study has received a lot of attention, being reported in many different outlets. The main reporting suggests that discussions in online learning are strongly biased, with more attention being paid to white male students by instructors, and white female students more likely to correspond with or respond to other white females.

I don’t dispute these findings, as far as they apply to the 124 MOOCs that the researchers studied.

Where the madness comes in is then generalising this to all online courses. This is like finding that members of drug gangs in Mexico are likely to kill each other so the probability of death by gunfire is the same for all Mexicans.

MOOCs are one specific type of online learning, offered mainly by elitist institutions with predominantly white male faculty delivering the MOOCs.

Furthermore, the instructor:student ratio in MOOCs is far higher than in credit-based online learning, which still remains the main form of online learning, despite the nonsense spouted by Stanford, MIT and Harvard about MOOCs. In an edX or Coursera MOOC, with very many students, it is impossible for an instructor to respond to every student. Some form of selection has to take place.

In most credit-based online courses, discussion forums are much more tightly managed by instructors. Many using best practices try to ensure that all students in their online discussion forum are as fully engaged as possible in the discussions. This is just not possible for an instructor to ensure in very large MOOC discussions forums. Also to imply that their findings will also apply to k-12 online courses is even more ridiculous. Their statement that the basic design features of MOOCs are widely used in other online courses is just not correct.

So yes, because of the very nature of most MOOCs, I am not surprised to find racial and gender bias in the discussions forums. I am sure that if one looked closely enough, one would probably find some instructors in credit-based online courses show either conscious or unconscious bias, but I would need to see evidence drawn from this context, not from a completely different context such as MOOCs.

Once again, we see faculty from Stanford assuming that MOOCs are the standard for online learning, when all along they have been a mutant, and so it is not surprising to find mutant behaviour in them.

Have we reached a tipping point in teaching science and engineering online?

A remote lab used by online physics students at Colorado Community College

This post lists several new developments in delivering science and engineering online. These developments join a list of other efforts that are listed below in the reference section that suggest we may be reaching a tipping point in teaching science and engineering online.

USA: The University of Colorado Boulder’s Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

UC Boulder is offering a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering (MS-EE), a MOOC-based online, asynchronous, on-demand graduate degree in the autumn, with additional curricula rolling out in 2018-19.

The degree will have a “modular and stackable structure”, according to the university, meaning that students can select about 30 subjects that best suit them as they move through the programme. Each of the 100 courses on offer will feature in-depth video content, reading materials and resources and assessments, and many will also “bring the laboratory experience out of the Engineering Center to students around the world” by “inviting students to apply their knowledge using hardware and software kits at home”, the university said.  

The university has already designed kits for the course on embedded systems engineering – a field in which a computer is designed and programmed to perform predefined tasks, usually with very specific requirements. For this course, students will be sent a circuit board with an embedded system that can plug into their laptop and will form the basis of assignments. The results of the tests will then either be sent automatically to the lecturers or entered manually by students. The technology also means that technical assignments can be machine-graded immediately, with students receiving instant feedback. It allows students to retake assignments as many times as they want.

The home kits will cost in the range of “tens of dollars” rather than thousands of dollars. Overall the degree will cost around US$20,000, which is half the price of the equivalent on-campus programme.

Individual courses can be taken for a single academic credit, but they can also be grouped into thematic series of 3-4 credits, stacked into standalone CU Boulder graduate certificates of 9-12 credits, or combined to earn the full 30-credit degree. Each course addresses professional skills while providing content at the same high quality as the university’s traditional on-campus master’s degrees.

CU Boulder faculty have custom designed each course. Courses feature in-depth video content, curated readings and resources, and assessments that challenge students to demonstrate their mastery of the subject area. Many courses bring the laboratory experience out of the Engineering Center to MOOC students around the world, inviting students to apply their knowledge using hardware and software kits at home. 

However, the program has still to be accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), and no information was given as to whether it will be accepted by ABET, the accreditation agency for professional engineers in the USA. This will be critical, as in the past, very few engineering programs with online components have passed this hurdle

Also the notion of MOOCs being not only open but free seems to be a thing of the past. US$20,000 for a degree may be half the cost of the on-campus course, but I suspect many potential students will want to be sure that they can get full accreditation as a professional engineer before laying out that kind of money.

Nevertheless, this is a bold venture by UC Colorado, building on its previous excellent work in offering open educational resources in science through its PhET project. Founded in 2002 by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman (now at the University of British Columbia), the PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder creates free interactive math and science simulations. PhET sims are based on extensive education research and engage students through an intuitive, game-like environment where students learn through exploration and discovery. It will be interesting to see how much the MS-EE program draws on these resources.

Queen’s University’s online Bachelor in Mining Engineering Technology

Queen’s University’s new Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology (BTech) program combines technical expertise with the managerial and problem-solving skills the industry needs from the next generation of mining professionals, in a flexible online learning format. The university provides a very interesting rationale for this program:

Canada’s mining industry is facing a retirement crisis that is only set to worsen over the next five to ten years. With the most experienced part of the mining workforce leaving, new opportunities will open up for the next generation of mining professionals.

This program was developed as a result of discussions between the university and the mining industry in Ontario. The web site indicates the type of position open to graduates with typical salaries.

Graduates of any Engineering Technology or Mining Engineering Technician diploma who have completed their diploma with a minimum 75% average or individuals with at least two years of study in a relevant science field are eligible to enrol. Upon successful completion of the bridging program, students enter the final two years of the four-year degree program. Each year includes a two-week field placement in Kingston and Timmins. Students receive block transfer credits for the first two years of the program.

Students can study full-time, or work full-time and study part-time. This allows students to adjust their course load at any time during the program.

However, the BTech program is unaccredited. Graduates seeking professional licensure will need to apply to write the Board Exams in mining engineering. In Ontario, the application will go to the Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO). As with applications from an accredited program, graduates would also need to write the law and ethics exam, and complete the required supervised work experience program in order to be considered for licensure.

It will be interesting to see how the two programs work out. Both ABET in the U.S. and professional engineering societies in Canada have up to now denied accreditation for any degree programs with a significant online component, a necessary first step to taking the professional exams. But the Queen’s program has been built specifically to respond to the needs of employers. I will be very interested to see how the PEO in particular responds to graduates from this program wanting licensure as professional engineers – or will the employers just ignore the professional association and hire the graduates anyway?

Image: The Fraser Institute

More online virtual labs for science and engineering

Drexel University Online has an excellent series called Virtually Inspired, which like Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation

is an ongoing research project to uncover the best of breed technology-enhanced online courses and programs indicative of the “Online Classroom of the Future.”

Online Virtual Labs for Science and Engineering showcases three examples from Chile, India and Denmark of online virtual labs that provide hands-on experiential learning.

LAB4U, Chile

The Lab4Physics mobile app enables students to use various built-in tools to measure gravity or acceleration in real-time with a built-in accelerometer. They can study speed, velocity, distance or displacement using the built-in speedometer. With the sonometer, students can study waves, amplitude, time and other physics phenomenon.

Coming soon, the Lab4Chemistry app will helps students learn spectrophotometric techniques. Students can use the built-in camera as a spectrophotometer or colorimeter to analyze samples wherever they may be. By taking pictures of droplets of different concentration and optical densities, they can create a calibration plot to measure a material’s transmission or reflection properties.

Each app has pre-designed experiments. For example, a student can swing their phone or tablet like a pendulum to learn how oscillation works.

Students and teachers alike can download the app, experiment, analyze and learn with pre-designed guided lab experiences and step-by-step instructions. For those who lack Internet access, the experiments and tools can be downloaded to use offline, even in airplane mode.

Students, teachers, and institutions from primary, secondary and tertiary institutions across Latin and South America are taking advantage of Lab4U.  Most recently Lab4U has expanded their work to Mexico and the United States.

Virtual labs of India

Virtual labs of India is an initiative of the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development. Its objectives are:

  • to provide remote-access to labs in various disciplines of Science and Engineering. These Virtual Labs will cater to students at the undergraduate level, post graduate level as well as to research scholars

  • to enthuse students to conduct experiments by arousing their curiosity, helping them learn basic and advanced concepts through remote experimentation 

  • to provide a complete Learning Management System around the Virtual Labs where the students can avail the various tools for learning, including additional web-resources, video-lectures, animated demonstrations and self evaluation.

  • to share costly equipment and resources, which are otherwise available to limited number of users due to constraints on time and geographical distances.

Anywhere from four to twenty-five labs are offered per discipline area. These areas include Computer Science & Engineering, Electrical, Mechanical, Chemical, and Civil Engineering, Biotechnology and Biomedical engineering, and more.

Virtual Labs Simulations from Denmark

Labster is a Danish company with offices in Bali, Zurich, London, and Boston, as well as Copenhagen. 

Labster offers fully interactive advanced lab simulations based on mathematical algorithms that support open-ended investigations. They combine these with gamification elements such as an immersive 3D universe, storytelling and a scoring system which stimulates students’ natural curiosity and highlights the connection between science and the real world. All that is needed is a computer or laptop and a browser to perform advanced experiments and achieve core science learning outcomes. 

Labster currently has more than 60 simulations covering a wide range of topics including Parkinson’s Disease, Viral Gene Therapy, Eutrophication, Lab Safety, Animal Genetics, Tissue Engineering, and Waste Water Treatmen. Some simulations are available in virtual reality with the addition of a VR headset.

Labster is being used for on-campus teaching at many high-reputation universities, including MIT, Harvard an UC Berkeley.

Where is the tipping point for recognising online science and engineering degrees?

We now have a wide range of examples of not only online courses, but online tools that provide experiential learning and experimental situations in science and engineering fully online. When will the professional associations start recognizing that science and engineering can be taught effectively online?

It needs to be remembered that the teaching of science, and in particular the experimental method, was invented, more or less from scratch, by Thomas Huxley in the 1860s. There was so much opposition to the teaching of science by the established universities of Oxford and Cambridge that Huxley had to move to the Government School of Mines, where he began to train teachers in the experimental method. That institute eventually became Imperial College, one of the most prestigious centres of higher education in the world.

However, it is now another century and another time.

The U.K. Open University developed low cost, ingenious experimental kits in the 1970s that were mailed to students, enabling them to do experimental work at home. Today the Open University has the online OpenScienceLaboratory.

Dietmar Kennepohl at Athabasca University, who helped develop and design much of the experimental work for Athabasca University’s distance education programs in science, has written an excellent book about how to teach science online.

Students can now access and control online remote labs and equipment that do actual experiments or demonstrations in real time.

We have online simulation kits that can be downloaded, enabling students to build and test circuits, videos that demonstrate chemical reactions, and virtual reality environments that enable students to explore DNA mutations.

The only thing that stops us offering fully online, high quality science and engineering programs now is the conservatism of the professional associations, and the ignorance about the possibilities of online learning, and the fear and conservatism, of the majority of science and engineering faculty.

Further references

Bates, T. (2014) More developments in online labs, Online learning and distance education resources, May 8

Bates, T. (2013) Can you teach lab science via remote labs?Online learning and distance education resources, April 22

Bates, T. (2009) Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? Online learning and distance education resources, July 5

Kennepohl, D. and Shaw, L. (2011) Accessible Elements: Teaching Online and at a Distance Edmonton: Athabasca University Press

PhET (2018) Interactive simulations for science and math Boulder CO: University of Colorado

The Open University, The OpenScience Laboratory, accessed 22 February, 2018