August 14, 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.

 

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.

More developments in teaching science online

Screen shot from A101’s Virtual Reality of Human Anatomy (YouTube)

Matthews, D. (2018) Scepticism over Google plan to replace labs with virtual reality, Times Higher Education, June 7

The Harvard Gazette (2018) Virtual lab to extend reach of science education Harvard Gazette, June 6

It was interesting that I came across these two completely separate news announcements on the same day.

Google and Labster

The THE article is about a partnership between Google and the Danish virtual reality company, Labster. Among the 30 ‘virtual reality’ labs planned are ones allowing training in confocal microscopy, gene therapy and cytogenetics.

Arizona State University, one of the major online providers in the USA, will be the first institution to use the labs in VR this autumn, launching an online-only biological sciences degree. It has worked with Labster to develop the VR labs. Students will require access to their own VR headsets such as Google’s Daydream View, which costs US$99, used in combination with specific brands of smartphones. 

Harvard and Amgen

The second article from the Harvard Gazette announces a partnership between the Amgen Foundation and edX at Harvard University to establish a platform called LabXchange, ‘an online platform for global science education that integrates digital instruction and virtual lab experiences, while also connecting students, teachers, and researchers in a learning community based on sharing and collaboration.’ 

The term ‘virtual lab’ is used differently from the Google/Labster sense. Amgen, a major biotechnology company in the USA, is investing $6.5 million in grant funding to Harvard University to develop, launch and grow the LabXchange platform for teachers and students globally. LabXchange will include a variety of science content, such as simulated experiments, but more importantly it will provide an online network to connect students, researchers and instructors to enable ‘learning pathways’ to be built around the online materials.

Comment

It is interesting and perhaps somewhat unnerving to see commercial companies in the USA moving so strongly into online science teaching in partnership with leading universities.

Of course, the THE had to choose a snarky headline suggesting that you can’t teach science wholly online, rather than have the headline focus on the innovation itself. As with all innovation, the first steps are likely to be limited to certain kinds of online teaching or experiments, and in the end it will come down as much to economic factors as to academic validity. Can virtual labs and online science teaching scale economically better than campus-based courses and at the same quality or better?

More importantly I would expect that the technology will lead to new and exciting approaches not only to science teaching, but also to science research. Already some researchers are using virtual reality and mathematical modelling to explore variations in DNA sequences, for instance. Virtual and augmented reality in particular will lead to science being taught differently online than in physical labs, for different purposes.

At the same time, the two developments are very different. The Google/Labster/ASU partnership is pushing hard the technology boundaries in teaching science, using proprietal VR, whereas the Harvard/Amgen/edX partnership is more of a networked open educational resource, providing access to a wide range of online resources in science. Both these developments in turn are different from remote labs, which provide online access to controlling ‘real’ experimental equipment.

Lastly, both new developments are what I call ‘We’re gonna’ projects. They are announcements of projects that have yet to be delivered. It will be interesting to see how much the reality matches the hype in two year’s time. In the meantime, it’s good to see online learning being taken seriously in science teaching. The potential is fascinating.

Online learning and disruptive change at the UK Open University

The old Walton Hall on the OU campus in Milton keynes

Sturm und Strang

I’ve was in England last week,  attending the 7th eSTEeM conference at the Open University as the opening keynote speaker, only my second visit to the OU since I left nearly 30 years ago.

The Open University, described by several commentators as one of the most successful innovations in Britain since the Second World War, is currently going through an existential crisis, which culminated two weeks ago with the resignation of its Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, following a devastating vote of no confidence by faculty and staff.

The OU is facing enormous pressure, due mainly to the policies of the recent Conservative governments. Over the last six years, the government has treated the OU just the same as other, more traditional, universities in England and Wales. The government severely cut the OU’s operating budget requiring it to dramatically increase fees, and also made all part-time students (i.e. students not taking a full annual course load) ineligible for government-guaranteed, low interest loans. It also has required students at the OU, like all other students in England and Wales, to complete their bachelor studies within three years, compressing their time for study. It is expected to have a £20 million (CS$36 million) operating deficit this year and was proposing to save £100m from its £420m annual budget by cutting courses and staff.

Since the vast majority of its 200,000 students in 2012 were part-time, working adults without a first degree and who required the maximum flexibility in their studies, it’s hardly surprising that its student numbers have dropped by more than a third since 2012. At the same time it has invested heavily in FutureLearn, a MOOC-type platform which is still struggling to find a viable business model. The recent changes mean that the whole concept of open-ness and accessibility for OU students, and its unique position in the British higher education system, are under existential threat. 

To cap all this, the university itself recognises that it needs to fundamentally change its operational model. Like many other Open Universities, it has not changed fast enough to accommodate to the digital revolution in post-secondary teaching. It is burdened with a heavy legacy of a print-based design model and an expensive regional tutoring system, despite the recent elimination of all local face-to-face operations.

“We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud, a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy,” according to Horrocks. As a result the (now leaderless) executive team is working on a ‘transformational model’ for the university, which is still a work in progress.

This is the battlefield into which I parachuted this week.

The eSTEeM conference

The Open University has offered science and technology programs since its inauguration in 1971. It initially used a combination of print, home experiment kits mailed to students’ homes, and one week residential schools in the summer. The residential schools have long since gone (too expensive) although in general students loved them and at least in the early days the residential schools provided such a morale boost for students that many who would have dropped out then went on to continue successfully.

For the last seven years, the STEM Faculty/academic department at the OU has been holding an annual conference to demonstrate the scholarship of its faculty and staff. I was the opening speaker for this year’s conference, on the topic: ‘Digital learning in an era of change: challenges and opportunities for STEM teaching and the OU.’

However, as well as the very interesting STEM components of the conference, on which I will write two separate posts, there was an almost full day, well-organised workshop called ‘Digital by Design’, which focused on what the future as a whole should be at the OU. The workshop enabled a quick and close, if incomplete, ‘parachute’ view of some of the challenges the OU is facing and how academic and regional staff are responding. In this post I will focus on these general, internal challenges that the OU still has to resolve that emerged from this and other discussions in which I participated.

Online but not digital

It is clear that many of the teaching staff have not really ‘got it’ with regard to digital learning. In many cases, print still remains the core teaching technology, and where online is heavily used, it is often just a print model moved online, with a heavy emphasis on content transmission. Many in the OU are still arguing for a ‘blended’ learning model, which in this case refers to a mix of print and online, with print having at least an equal contribution.

In particular, the OU is really weak in its exploitation of the networking and student collaboration that the web offers and in its integration of social media within the design of courses. In this it is not unlike many conventional universities, but nevertheless this realisation came as a real shock to me. This was the original open, distance university, not a conventional one.

Why I am so shocked is that one of the many reasons I emigrated to Canada in 1989 was that I got frustrated at the inability of myself and others at the OU such as Robin Mason and Tony Kaye to get the OU to take online learning seriously. We had contributed to a course, DT200, in 1988 that had an online discussion forum component that had merely been bolted on to the standard 36 week print and broadcast design. The next logical step would have been to have pioneered a fully online course, but neither the university management nor the faculty were interested.

It is important to understand that the OU has a relatively small core of permanent faculty based at its headquarters in Milton Keynes who are primarily engaged in the design of courses, in particular the choice and structuring of content, and a legion of regional staff tutors who provide most of the student learning support. There is a long-established Institute of Educational Technology, where the staff have full academic status, and conduct research as well as advise the OU’s course teams on best practices in the design of distance education.

Here I am 30 years later, and there are still arguments going on about the wisdom of going fully online. This despite the fact that Gilly Salmon, who wrote a standard text on teaching online (2011), worked at the OU for several years, and despite the fact that the OU has an Institute of Educational Technology that has excellent design models developed for online learning that it struggles to get faculty to adopt. This is so reminiscent of Athabasca University and its failure to exploit the expertise of Terry Anderson and its other distance education specialists

The fixation on print as the ‘core’ medium/technology

I participated in several discussions where I challenged the focus on printed material as the core teaching technology. First though I would like to set out some of the arguments OU staff put forward in support of print.

Arguments for print

These were made mainly by OU staff to me.

  1. The OU made its reputation in its early days in the 1970s by the very high quality of its printed materials. As well as being beautifully produced and illustrated (full colour), they were and still are extremely well structured. This was recognised immediately by many faculty in more traditional universities, and the quality of its printed materials is still much appreciated by the students. If it was effective then, it must be effective now.
  2. Access: there are still students in Britain who do not have access to the Internet or cannot afford a computer.
  3. Most OU students are working and many spend all day at work looking at screens; the OU printed material provides an essential break from being on-screen all day.
  4. Students prefer to read printed material; it’s easier for study purposes and revision than searching online.
  5. If the textual material was delivered online rather than printed, the OU would be transferring the cost of print to the students, as they would want to print out the textual material.

Arguments against print

These were made mainly by me to OU staff.

  1. Online learning provides students with the opportunity of ‘any time, any place’ discussion and interaction with each other and teaching staff.
  2. Student activities and interaction with online text is more integrated and immediate than with printed text. In particular immediate feedback can be provided through online tests or automated feedback, etc.
  3. Students are not limited by the boundaries of the printed course material once they go online. Everything on the Internet is potential study material. In particular students can access open educational resources from many different sources.
  4. In order to develop the skills students need in the 21st century, we need to focus more on skills development than on the transmission of content. Online learning can focus better on the development of these soft skills, such as communication and knowledge management.
  5. Access has always been a limitation for any technology. For instance students with visual impairment or dyslexia have difficulties with print. When the OU first started, many students did not have access to the broadcasts. Most students in Britain now have access to the Internet, although in more remote areas there are still bandwidth limitations. The OU’s policy in general has been that when access exceeds 80% of the target audience, alternatives are found for the remaining students. It is wrong to deny the benefits to the vast majority of students because of the needs of a small minority which could be met in other ways.
  6. Students need to learn digitally if they are to earn digitally. Digital literacy is now a core skill required by everyone.
  7. The costs for a print-based system are very high, not just in the actual costs of full colour printing, but in the editing, and above all, the lengthy time it takes faculty and instructors to prepare, check and revise the printed materials (many OU courses take at least two years to design). Savings by going digital could be used to reduce substantially tuition fees.

The need to think digitally when designing online learning

The issue is not whether print has educational value; it does, and there may be specific situations where students may prefer to have hard copy. However, it should not be the default medium. It’s really important when designing online learning to be open to all the media the Internet enables: text, audio, video, computing, augmented reality, simulations, social media, and so on. This requires thinking digitally when designing courses, which is difficult if your first and preferred option is always print.

Of course, this is identical to the challenge that on-campus instructors face about digital learning, but instead of print, their default option is face-to-face teaching.

This is why moving to online learning requires a major cultural change and why it takes so long. However, in the OU’s current existential crisis, it does not have the time for gradual change (that should have started back in 1989). The need for change must be embraced now, ironically, not for financial reasons but for pedagogical reasons: only this way will it better prepare its students for the future. The financial pressures merely make this devastatingly urgent.

Necessary but not sufficient

Forcing change for financial reasons is unlikely to work. Making changes that are not accepted or resisted by staff is more likely to lead to failure or collapse in an organization. Even if by some miracle the (remaining) OU staff manage to pull it off, moving to the University of the Cloud (whatever that means – some kind of heaven for students?) will not meet the needs of the nation that the former OU met.

Lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity in a digital age, where the knowledge base expands exponentially and citizens need to continuously learn new content and new skills. Traditional universities do not do lifelong learning well; they are not really designed for it. The OU was, but government policies of starving financial support for part-time learners and reducing the flexibility of study to fit some 1950s view of elite higher education is going to be disastrous for the future British economy. At no time has the OU been more important to Britain. Without a radical change of government policy though its future is indeed dismal, whatever else it does.

Up next

Your intrepid online learning war correspondent will do two more posts from my visit to the OU:

  • the OU’s use of learning analytics for analysing student course evaluations
  • the OU’s use of online labs

Also I will be reporting on a conference on active learning I attended this week at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario. Buy, busy, busy. (Don’t even ask about retirement).

Reference

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

‘Making Digital Learning Work’: why faculty and program directors must change their approach

Completion rates for different modes of delivery at Houston Community College

Bailey, A. et al (2018) Making Digital Learning Work Boston MA:The Boston Consulting Group/Arizona State University

Getting blended learning wrong

I’ve been to several universities recently where faculty are beginning to develop blended or ‘hybrid’ courses which reduce but do not eliminate time on campus. I must confess I have mixed feelings about this. While I welcome such moves in principle, I have been alarmed by some of the approaches being taken.

The main strategy appears to be to move some of the face-to-face lectures online, without changing either the face-to-face or the online lecture format. In particular there is often a resistance to asynchronous approaches to online learning.  In one or two cases I have seen, faculty have insisted that students watch the Internet lectures live so that there can be synchronous online discussion, thus severely limiting the flexibility of ‘any time, any place’ for students.

Even more alarming, academic departments seem to be approaching the development of new blended learning programs the same way as their on-campus programs – identify faculty to teach the courses and then let them loose without any significant faculty development or learning design support. Even worse, there is no project management to ensure that courses are ready on time. Why discuss the design of the online lectures when you don’t do that for your classroom lectures? 

Trying to move classroom lectures online without adaptation is bound to fail, as we saw from the early days of fully online learning (and MOOCs). I recognise that blended or hybrid learning is different from fully online learning, but it is also different from face-to-face teaching. The challenge is to identify what the added value is of the face-to-face component, when most teaching can be done as well or better, and much more conveniently for students, online, and how to combine the two modes of delivery to deliver better learning outcomes more cost-effectively.  In particular, faculty are missing the opportunity to change their teaching method in order to get better learning outcomes, such as the development of high-level intellectual skills.

The real danger here is that poorly designed blended courses or programs will ‘fail’ and it is ‘blended learning’ that is blamed, when really it’s ignorance of best teaching practices on the part of faculty, and program directors especially. The problem is that faculty, and particularly senior faculty such as Deans and program directors, don’t know what they don’t know, which is why the report, ‘Making Digital Learning Work’ is so important. The report provides evidence that digital learning needs a complete change in culture and approaches to course and program development and delivery for most academic departments. Here’s why.

The report

The Arizona State University Foundation and Boston Consulting, funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, conducted a study of the return on investment (ROI) of digital learning in six different institutions. The methodology focused on six case studies of institutions that have been pioneers in post-secondary digital education:

  • Arizona State University
  • University of Central Florida
  • Georgia State University
  • Houston Community College
  • The Kentucky Community and Technical College System
  • Rio Salado Community College.

These are all large institutions (over 30,000 students each) and relatively early adopters of online learning. 

The study had three aims:

  • define what ROI means in terms of digital education, and identify appropriate metrics for measuring ROI
  • assess the impact of digital learning formats on institutions’ enrolments, student learning outcomes, and cost structures
  • examine how these institutions implemented digital learning, and identify lessons and promising practices for the field.

The study compared results from three different modes of delivery:

  • face-to-face courses
  • mixed-modality courses, offering a mix of online and face-to-face components, with the online component typically replacing some tradition face-to-face teaching (what I would call ‘hybrid learning)
  • fully online courses.

The ROI framework

The study identified three components of ROI for digital learning:

  • impact on student access to higher education
  • impact on learning and completion outcomes
  • impact on economics (the costs of teaching, administration and infrastructure, and the cost to students).

The report is particularly valuable in the way it has addressed the economic issues. Several factors were involved:

  • differences in class size between face-to-face and digital teaching and learning
  • differences in the mix of instructors (tenured and adjunct, full-time and part-time)
  • allocation of additional expenses such as faculty development and learning design support
  • impact of digital learning on classroom and other physical capacity 
  • IT costs specifically associated with digital learning.

The report summarised this framework in the following graphic:

While there are some limitations which I will discuss later, this is a sophisticated approach to looking at the return on investment in digital learning and gives me a great deal of confidence in the findings.

Results

Evidence from the six case studies resulted in the following findings, comparing digital learning with face-to-face teaching.

Digital learning resulted in:

  • equivalent or improved student learning outcomes
  • faster time to degree completion
  • improved access, particularly for disadvantaged students
  • a better return on investment (at four of the institutions): savings for online courses ranged from $12 to $66 per credit hour.

If you have problems believing or accepting these results then I recommend you read the report in full. I think you will find the results justified.

Conditions for success

This is perhaps the most valuable part of the report, because although most faculty may not be aware of this, those of us working in online learning have been aware for some time of the benefits of digital learning identified above. What this report makes clear though are the conditions that are needed for digital learning to succeed:

  • take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. This needs a bit of unpacking because of the terminology. The report argues that the greatest potential to improve access and outcomes while reducing costs lies in increasing the integration of digital learning into the undergraduate experience through mixed-modality (i.e. hybrid learning). This involves not just one single approach to course design but a mix, dependent on the demands of the subject and the needs of students. However, there should be somewhat standard course design templates to ensure efficiency in course design and to reduce risk.
  • build the necessary capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. The experience of the six institutions emphasises that significant investment needs to be made in instructional design, learning sciences and digital tools and capacity (and – my sidebar – faculty need to listen to what instructional designers tell them)
  • provide adequate student support that takes account of the fact that students will often require that support away from the campus (and 24/7)
  • fully engage faculty and provide adequate faculty development and training by fostering a culture of innovation in teaching
  • tap outside vendors strategically: determine the strategic goals first for digital learning then decide where outside vendors can add value to in-house capacity
  • strengthen analytics and monitoring: the technology provides better ways to track student progress and difficulties

My comments on the report

This report should be essential reading for anyone concerned with teaching and learning in post-secondary education, but it will be particularly important for program directors. 

It emphasises that blended learning is not so much about delivery but about achieving better learning outcomes and increased access through the re-design of teaching that incorporates the best of face-to-face and online teaching. However this requires a major cultural change in the way faculty and instructors approach teaching as indicated by the following:

  • holistic program planning involving all instructors, instructional designers and probably students as well
  • careful advanced planning, and following best practices, including project management and learning design
  • focusing as much on the development of skills as delivering content
  • identifying the unique ‘affordances’ of face-to-face teaching and online learning: there is no general formula for this but it will require discussion and input from both content experts and learning designers on a course by course basis
  • systematic evaluation and monitoring of hybrid learning course designs, so best (and poor) practices can be identified

I have a few reservations about the report:

  • The case study institutions were carefully selected. They are institutions with a long history of and/or considerable experience in online learning. I would like to see more cases built on more traditional universities or colleges that have been able successfully to move into online and especially blended learning
  • the report did not really deal with the unique context of mixed-modularity. Many of the results were swamped by the much more established fully online courses. However, hybrid learning is still new so this presents a challenge in comparing results.

However, these are minor quibbles. Please print out the report and leave it on the desk of your Dean, the Provost, the AVP Teaching and Learning and your program director – after you’ve read it. You could also give them:

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley

But that may be too much reading for the poor souls, who now have a major crisis to deal with.