June 21, 2018

Open and remote labs from the UK Open University

The Open University’s remote access electron microscope set-up

On my recent visit to the UK Open University, I had the privilege of a guided tour of the Open University’s remote labs. These allow students to log on from anywhere and conduct experiments remotely. The tour was courtesy of Professor Nick Braithwaite, Associate Dean (Academic Excellence), Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.

Note that remote labs are somewhat different from simulated online experiments, where students interact by entering data or clicking and dragging on screen items. With remote labs, the equipment being operated is real, with the students actually controlling the equipment in real time as well as recording and interpreting data. 

The OpenScience Laboratory

The OpenScience Laboratory is a means of conducting authentic and rigorous investigations using real data and is globally available. It is an initiative of the Open University and the Wolfson Foundation. It includes:

  • Remote Experiments
  • Virtual instruments and interactive screen experiments
  • Online field investigations
  • 3D Immersive environments
  • Citizen Science
  • Research and development 

There are altogether more than 50 self-contained open educational resource modules in experimental science, in the OpenScience Laboratory, each taking somewhere between one to three hours of study to complete.

As an example, there is an experiment to identify what causes variation in species of heather on English moorland. It is a combination of an online video recorded on site in English moorland and guided student activities, such as taking simulated measurements and calculating and interpreting data. The video is divided in to 23 parts, showing how measurements are made in the field, how to calculate slope, water flow, and organic soil depth, and how to take simulated measurements, to test the hypothesis that different types of heather are associated with different levels of slope in moorlands. This took me a couple of hours to complete.

The heather hypothesis

The OpenSTEM labs

The Open STEM Labs are part of the OpenScience Laboratory project.

The OpenSTEM Labs connect students to state-of-the-art instrumentation and equipment for practical enquiries over the internet, where distance is no barrier and where access to equipment is available 24 hours a day.

Students and teachers access the equipment via a web browser through which they can view the experiment, send real-time control commands, monitor real-time performance and download data for subsequent analysis. Using remotely accessible hardware for laboratory and exploratory studies, ranging from electronics to chemical synthesis and from microscopes to telescopes, students are able to access the various instruments and other remote controlled resources virtually anytime from anywhere with an internet connection.

The new facilities are available to students studying Open University modules and may be available by subscription to other institutions of higher education.

Figure 1 below indicates the relationship between the Open Science Labs, OpenSTEM Labs and remote labs.

The Open University’s remote labs

Below are links to some of the diverse range of equipment available. Simply click on a link and this will take you to that experiment’s landing page, as seen by the OU’s students. Here you will then be able to access the equipment. Please note that you may have to book a session if all pieces of that equipment are being used by others. If you do book a session you should enter the experiment through the booking system at the allotted time. This will take you straight through to the equipment. (Not all these are currently operational at any one time and you may need to register first to get access).

The OU also has scanning electron microscopes, an auto-titrator, and a radio telescope available on request from those with direct experience of these curriculum areas. Please email OpenSTEM to arrange access and further briefing.

A student’s desktop view of the eye of a fly seen through the OU’s electron microscope. The student can manipulate the electron microscope to get different degrees of magnitude.

Many of the remote lab experiments are part of the Open University’s MSc in Space Science and Technology.  This includes student remote control of a model ‘Mars Rover’ operated in a mock-up of the surface of Mars.

The OU’s model of the Mars Rover

Comments

The Open University has added a new set of quality online resources in experimental science and technology to those currently offered by, among others:

I would welcome suggestions for other sources for high quality OER in experimental science and technology..

However, many more are still needed. We are still a long way from being able to build an entire high quality experimental science or technology curriculum with open educational resources. As well as increasing quantity, we need better quality resources that enable student activity and engagement, that include clearly understandable instructions, and that result in a high level of scientific inquiry. The Open University resources meet these standards, but not all other OER in this field do. Also there are issues of scalability. One needs enough students to justify the investment in software, production and equipment, especially for remote labs and quality simulations. Sharing of resources between institutions, and between departments within institutions, is therefore highly desirable.

Thus there is still a long way to go in this field, but progress is being made. If you teach science or engineering I recommend you look carefully at the Open University’s resources. It may stimulate you not only to integrate some of these resources into your own teaching, but also to create new resources for everyone.

Short video on the impact of open content on teaching

The Open University of Catalonia has produced a short (3 minutes 45 seconds) YouTube video of me talking (in English) about how open content will change the role of instructors.

Click here or the image above to view the video 

That was 2017 in online learning

 

A workshop in St. George’s College, Windsor Castle, where Shakespeare’s first production of the Merry Wives of Windsor was performed before Queen Elisabeth 1

My experience of online learning in 2017

2017 was a very interesting year for me, if not for online learning as a whole. I have a very different interface with online learning these days from most people, more that of an observer than as a participant, which has both advantages and disadvantages, but it does give me a somewhat wider perspective, so first, here’s what I did, then second what I learned from my experience.

What I did in 2017

I had three main avenues into online learning in 2017:

  • my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. Although published in 2015, it is still going strong and has generated several activities. The English version has been downloaded over 60,000 times since it was published in April, 2015, and is now translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and the first half into Turkish (the second half should be completed soon), with further translations into Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese under way, all by volunteer translators. The book continues to result in keynotes and workshops. This year I gave ‘physical’ keynotes in Barcelona, Toronto, Halifax, Pennsylvania, Windsor Castle (UK), and a webinar to South Australia. I also did several Contact North webinars on topics from the book. These activities allowed me to interact directly with instructors and course designers engaged in online learning;
  • Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation gave me the privilege of personally interviewing instructors doing innovative teaching using learning technologies in universities and colleges in British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. In all I interviewed 23 instructors in 16 different institutions. More importantly I could see exactly what they were doing in context. However, this was still a small proportion of the more than 180 cases reported to date by Contact North;
  • leading the research team for the national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions allowed me to get the ‘big picture’ of online developments in Canadian universities and colleges. Also having to raise the funding for this project ($165,000 in total) brought me into contact with  government agencies engaged with online learning (eCampuses mainly), but also national organisations such as CICAN and Universities Canada, and commercial sponsors such as Pearson and D2L, giving me yet another perspective on agencies engaged with online learning.

Using a mobile phone and QR tags for a video of the anatomy of a dog’s heart: Sue Dawson UPEI

So what did I learn from all this in 2017?

A big leap forward for online learning in Canada in 2017

Complacency is dangerous, but Canada did pretty well in online learning in 2017:

  • most universities and colleges in Canada do at least some fully online and distance courses, enabling wider access in almost every province and territory;
  • enrolments in fully online learning or distance courses are increasing at a rate of 10%-15% per annum (although with considerable provincial variation);
  • probably about 15% of all post-secondary teaching in Canada is now fully online;
  • more and more instructors are integrating online learning into their classroom or campus-based teaching;
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions see online learning as critically important for their future; 
  • a good deal of innovation in teaching is going on at the individual instructor level;
  • a few provincial governments are solidly supporting online learning and their policies are directly resulting in more digital learning.

Innovation ain’t what you think it is

Innovation in teaching is much more than just using advanced technologies for the first time – and sometimes much less. I was struck in particular about several things from the Pockets of Innovation interviews:

  • most instructors are using new technology (or at least technology new to them) to help with a particular teaching problem or challenge, whether it’s because students don’t come to lectures because of bad weather, or because there are not enough models or samples for every student in the class to spend enough time with, or because students are dropping out of a program because the courses are not properly sequenced or coherent. Technology is best used when it helps solve an actual teaching problem;
  • often though the technology is not enough on its own; it has to be combined with an appropriate change in teaching method or policy that the technology supports or enhances;
  • successful innovation is happening mainly from the bottom up; this is because individual instructors are in the best position to judge the learning context, the learning needs, and which of the zillion new apps and technologies available is the one most likely to fit the situation;
  • the corollary is that institutional or government policies can encourage innovation but cannot predict what it will be: innovation strategy should focus on encouraging risk-taking and rewarding instructors who innovate successfully (i.e. by getting better learning outcomes) rather than privileging particular technologies or even teaching approaches (such as competency-based or experiential learning, for instance, no matter how worthy they are in their own right);
  • most successful teaching innovations are based on easily available and somewhat familiar technologies, such as mobile phones and web conferencing, rather than on ‘state-of-the art’ technologies such as virtual reality or AI;
  • government policy and funding (or lack of it) does make a difference; money talks as can be seen by the impact of government funding for online course development in Ontario and for open educational resources and open text books in British Columbia;
  • few institutions or even provincial governments have a meaningful strategy for supporting innovation in teaching, especially for diffusing innovation throughout an institution or system; as a result innovative teaching still remains in pockets rather than transforming institutions or systems.

There’s a long way to go with open educational resources

OER continue to be a hard sell for most Canadian instructors, despite strong commitment from at least two governments of large provinces. This was evident from both the Pockets of Innovation and the national survey.

This is a topic on its own, but having talked to instructors and seen how they think about teaching, here are my two cents’ worth of thoughts on why OER continue to develop much more slowly than they should:

  • when OER are being promoted, it often comes across as a cult or an ideology rather than a solution to an instructor’s teaching problem. Show instructors how OER can save them time or money. Show them how OER can best be integrated into teaching specific subjects or topics and show the teaching benefits over using commercial products (unfortunately most instructors care less about saving money for students than making their own lives easier – strange that, isn’t it?);
  • the main advantage of expensive commercial textbooks is all the supplementary materials they come with that make life easier for an instructor and students, such as worked examples or solutions, test questions and answers, and automated marking; just publishing an open textbook without linking it to supporting OER doesn’t cut it, but at the moment OER and open textbooks are often developed independently – they need to be better integrated;
  • stop thinking of OER as something different from everything else on the Internet; all open content has value, whether it is specifically designed for educational purposes or not; this means coming up with course design models that exploit open content for the purpose of developing 21st century skills such as knowledge management, analysis of source reliability, etc.
  • at the same time, if an object is meant to be educational, design it better – too many OER are poorly designed in media terms and are not clearly linked to specific learning outcomes; this means scaling up OER production so that it is more easily shareable. Instead of funding individual instructors to create subject-specific OER,  bring all the statistics instructors together, for instance, with instructional designers and media producers, first to check what’s already available and what its limitations are, then to produce better, high quality OER for statistics that everyone can use.
  • try to get experienced faculty who are nearing the end of their careers to write an open textbook as a legacy project, pulling together all their knowledge and experience over their whole career; this is likely to result in innovative, ‘breakthrough’ open textbooks rather than just providing an open version of existing textbooks, and may lead more importantly to revised and more appropriate curricula.

Instructor training in teaching remains a huge problem

One of the findings from my Pocket of Innovation interviews was that less than half the instructors based their innovation on a theory of learning or a change of teaching method to produce different outcomes, such as skills development. Without a grounding in pedagogy and a knowledge of the research into how people learn, it is impossible for most instructors to see the real potential of digital technology for improving their teaching. We still rely too much on instructional designers backstopping faculty who don’t know how to teach effectively.

Is the instructional design support model scalable for blended learning?

Even when fully online learning is only 15% of all teaching, it has been difficult to provide adequate instructional design support. When 80-90% of instructors have the potential to integrate technology into their classroom teaching the current model of faculty support will not be feasible.

One solution to this is to provide instructors with ‘on-demand’ online resources when they need them. For instance:

However useful though such on-demand tools may be, they do not replace the need for some basic grounding in pedagogical principles, which is now absolutely essential if technology is to be used well in teaching.

What next?

Well, looking into 2018 is another blog post, but of one thing I am certain: I won’t be working as hard next year as I did in 2017.

I really enjoyed everything I did, but I cannot go on doing the long-distance travel, which exhausts me.

So I wish you all a great holiday season, so that you can come back refreshed for another interesting year in what surely is one of the most exciting and satisfying areas to be working in these days.

One business case for OER examined

A video on electricity from the OpenLearn platform

Law, P. and Perryman, L.-A. (2017) How OpenLearn supports a business model for OER Distance Education, Vol. 38, No. 1

The journal: ‘Distance Education’

Distance Education is one of the oldest and most established journals in the field. It is the journal of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA) and over the years it has published some of the best research in distance education. However, it is not an open access journal, so I am providing my own personal review of one of the articles in this, generally excellent, edition. I should point out though that I am a member of the editorial board so do have an interest in supporting this journal.

Editorial

Som Naidu, the editor, does an excellent job of introducing the articles in the journal under the heading of ‘Openness and flexibility are the norm, but what are the challenges?’ He correctly points out that

While distance education is largely responsible for the articulation and spearheading of openness and flexibility as desirable value principles, these educational goals are fast becoming universally attractive across all sectors and modes of education.

The rapid move to blended and more flexible learning and the slow but increasing use of open educational resources (OER) in campus-based based institutions indeed is challenging the uniqueness of distance education in terms of openness and flexibility. It is easy to argue that distance education is now no more than just another delivery option. Nevertheless, there are still important differences, and Som Naidu draws out some interesting comparisons between the experience of on-campus and distance learning that are still valid.

A business model for OER?

In this latest issue of Distance Education, Patrina Law and Leigh-Anne Perryman have written a very interesting paper about the business case for OER based on three surveys of users (in 2013, 2014, and 2015) of the UK Open University’s OpenLearn project. First some information about OpenLearn:

  • OpenLearn is an open content platform. Initially it used samples of course content from the OU’s undergraduate and postgraduate ‘modules’ (courses) but now hosts specially commissioned audio, video and other interactive materials and short online courses including free certificates and badges;
  • OpenLearn now offers the equivalent of 850 free courses representing 5% of the undergraduate and graduate degree content;
  • 6 million people visit each year with a total of 46 million unique visitors since it was established in 2006; 
  • 13% of users go on to enquire about the OU’s formal degree programs (equivalent of about 1,000 student enrolments per year).

Law and Perryman provide an excellent review of the business cases for OER put forward by others such as the OECD and Creative Commons, then use the survey data from OpenLearn users to test these arguments. Here’s what they found:

  • provision of OER is complementary rather than competitive with the OU’s formal degree programming
  • over half the users are UK-based
  • about 20% reported a disability
  • median age was 36-45
  • about 20% indicated that English was not their first language
  • 70% had some form of post-secondary qualification
  • 16% were part-time or full-time students
  • about two-thirds of the users were ‘tasting’ or ‘testing’ content before making a decision about whether to take a formal program (at either the OU or another institution)
  • almost half (45%) used OpenLearn to find out more about the UK OU (22% had never heard of it before and altogether over half knew nothing or little previously about the OU)
  • the average cost of conversion to OER was between £1500-£2000 per course
  • 13% of OpenLearn users clicked through to make a formal enquiry resulting in about 1,000 new student registrations.

Comment

Very importantly, Law and Perryman link the growing use of OpenLearn to the sudden increase in tuition fees in the UK (£9,000 a year in general, and £5,000 per year for an OU full time degree). Students are not willing to risk this cost without being sure they stand a chance of success and have an interest in the subject. OpenLearn allows them to test this.

This is an important point. The UK government policy of very high tuition fees does appear to be negatively impacting access for many potential students, or at least making them think very carefully before committing to such a large investment. The OU in particular has lost student enrolments as its fees have gone up. There is a danger in my mind that OER can be politically used as a diversion from ‘true’ open education for credit that is available to everyone, irrespective of their means. The best form of open education remains a well-funded state system.

This leads to my one serious criticism of the article. Apart from the cost of conversion, no proper analysis of the true cost of OpenLearn is given so the title is misleading. It does not describe a business model, with full input costs and output benefits stated in monetary terms, but a business case which provides uncosted but positive arguments based on other than cost factors. 

This is a really important distinction because the business model depends heavily on adequate funding for the formal, degree programs which provide the base for the OpenLearn materials. Without that funding, and other costs, OpenLearn will quickly become unsustainable. It is not a parasite in the negative sense of the word but it can’t exist without the funding for the core function of the OU. Without a sense of the full cost of OpenLearn it remains difficult to judge whether the obvious benefits are worth the drain on the OU’s other resources, as the money has to come from somewhere.

Otherwise this is a very good article that should read carefully by anyone concerned with policy regarding the use of OER.

Online learning in 2016: a personal review


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Image: © Institute for Economics and Peace. Canada is ranked seventh most peaceful. We don’t know where it ranks though in terms of online learning.

A personal review

I am not going to do a review of all the developments in online learning in 2016 (for this, see Audrey Watters’ excellent HackEducation Trends). What I am going to do instead is review what I actually wrote about in 2016 in this blog, indicating what to me was of particular interest in online learning during 2016. I have identified 38 posts I wrote in which I have explored in some detail issues that bubbled up (at least for me) in 2016.

1. Tracking online learning

Building a national survey of online learning in Canada (134 hits)

A national survey of university online and distance learning in Canada (1,529 hits)

In the USA, fully online enrollments continue to grow in 2014 (91 hits)

Are you ready for blended learning? (389 hits)

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning (200 hits)

I indulged my obsession with knowing the extent to which online learning is penetrating post-secondary education with five posts on this topic. In a field undergoing such rapid changes, it is increasingly important to be able to track exactly what is going on. Thus a large part of my professional activity in 2016 has been devoted to establishing, almost from scratch, a national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions. I would have written more about this topic, but until the survey has been successfully conducted in 2017, I have preferred to keep a low profile on this issue.

However, during 2016 it did become clear to me, partly as a result of pilot testing of the questionnaire, and partly through visits to universities, that blended learning is not only gaining ground in Canadian post-secondary education at a much faster rate than I had anticipated, but is raising critical questions about what is best done online and what face-to-face, and how to prepare institutions and instructors for what is essentially a revolution in teaching.

This can be best summarized by what I wrote about the Conference Board of Canada’s report:

What is going on is a slowly boiling and considerably variable revolution in higher education that is not easily measured or even captured in individual anecdotes or interviews.

2. Faculty development and training

Getting faculty and instructors into online learning (183 hits)

Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals (529 hits)

Online learning for beginners: 10. Ready to go (+ nine other posts on this topic = 4,238 hits)

5 IDEAS for a pedagogy of online learning (708 hits)

This was the area to which I devoted the most space, with ten posts on ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, aimed at instructors resisting or unready for online learning. These ten posts were then edited and published by Contact North as the 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online.

Two fundamental conclusions: we need not only better organizational strategies to ensure that faculty have the knowledge and training they will need for effective teaching and learning in a digital age, but we also need to develop new teaching strategies and approaches that can exploit the benefits and even more importantly avoid the pitfalls of blended learning and learning technologies. I have been trying to make a contribution in this area, but much more needs to be done.

3. Learning environments

Building an effective learning environment (6,173 hits)

EDEN 2016: Re-imagining Learning Environments (597 hits)

Culture and effective online learning environments (1,260 hits)

Closely linked to developing appropriate pedagogies for a digital age is the concept of designing appropriate learning environments, based on learners’ construction of knowledge and the role of instructors in guiding and fostering knowledge management, independent learning and other 21st century skills.

This approach I argued is a better ‘fit’ for learners in a digital age than thinking in terms of blended, hybrid or fully online learning, and recognizes that not only can technology to be used to design very different kinds of learning environments from school or campus based learning environments, but also that technology is just one component of a much richer learning context.
Slide15

4. Experiential learning online

A full day of experiential learning in action (188 hits)

An example of online experiential learning: Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program (383 hits)

Is networked learning experiential learning? (163 hits)

These three posts explored a number of ways in which experiential learning is being done online, as this is a key methodology for developing skills in particular.

5. Open education

Acorns to oaks? British Columbia continues its progress with OERs (185 hits)

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning (113 hits)

Towards an open pedagogy for online learning (385 hits)

These posts also tracked the development of open publishing and open educational resources, particularly in British Columbia, leading me to conclude that the OER ‘movement’ has far too narrow a concept of open-ness and that in its place we need an open pedagogy into which open educational resources are again just one component, and perhaps not the most significant.

6. Technology applications in online learning

An excellent guide to multimedia course design (659 hits)

Is video a threat to learning management systems? (603 hits)

Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies (231 hits)

Amongst all the hype about augmented reality, learning analytics and the application of artificial intelligence, I found it more useful to look at some of the technologies that are in everyday use in online learning, and how these could best be used.

7. Technology and alienation

Technology and alienation: online learning and labour market needs (319 hits)

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (512 hits)

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction (375 hits)

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads (1,571 hits)

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem (474 hits)

These were more philosophical pieces, prompted to some extent by the wider concerns of the impact of technology on jobs and how that has influenced Brexit and the Trump phenomena.

Nevertheless this issue is also very relevant to the teaching context. In particular I was challenging the ‘Silicon Valley’ assumption that computers will eventually replace the need for teachers, and in particular the danger of using algorithms in teaching without knowing who wrote the algorithms, what their philosophy of teaching is, and thus what assumptions have been built into the use of data.

Image: Applift

Image: Applift

8. Learning analytics

Learning analytics and learning design at the UK Open University (90 hits)

Examining ethical and privacy issues surrounding learning analytics (321 hits)

Continuing more or less the same theme of analysing the downside as well as the upside of technology in education, these two posts looked at how some institutions, and the UK Open University in particular, are being thoughtful about the implications of learning analytics, and building in policies for protecting privacy and gaining student ‘social license’ for the use of analytics.

9. Assessment

Developing a next generation online learning assessment system (532 hits)

This is an area where much more work needs to be done. If we are to develop new or better pedagogies for a digital age, we will also need better assessment methods. Unfortunately the focus once again appears to be more on the tools of assessment, such as online proctoring, where large gains have been made in 2016, but which still focus on proctoring traditional assessment procedures such as time-restricted exams, multiple choice tests and essay writing. What we need are new methods of assessment that focus on measuring the types of knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age.

For instance, e-portfolios have held a lot of promise for a long time, but are still being used and evaluated at a painfully slow rate. They do offer though one method for assessment that reflects much better the needs of assessing 21st century knowledge and skills. However we need more imagination and creativity in developing new assessment methods for measuring the knowledge and skills needed for a digital age.

That was the year that was

Well, it was 2016 from the perspective of someone no longer teaching online or managing online learning:

  • How far off am I, from your perspective?
  • What were the most significant developments for you in online learning in 2016?
  • What did I miss that you think should have been included? Perhaps I can focus on this next year.

I have one more post looking at 2016 to come, but that will be more personal, looking at my whole range of online learning activities in 2016.

In the meantime have a great seasonal break and I will be back in touch some time in the new year.