August 22, 2017

Virtual Reality and education: some thoughts

I spent a very interesting evening this week at a Vancouver VR Community event at Mobify‘s headquarters in downtown Vancouver. Mobify is a provider of progressive web apps for e-commerce and has a really cool area for events such as this one, with lots of open spaces.

Vancouver is part of a growing North West Pacific Silicon Valley, and there are now over 500 members of the Vancouver VR community, which indicates how much activity and development are going into VR, at least in this region. 

The event was a mix of show and tell, and an opportunity to play with and experience some VR programs. Most of the applications available to play with at the VR event were typically combat games (including a very realistic one-on-one boxing encounter) but I was more interested in possible educational applications (although the boxing app might come in useful on a dark night on campus).

I particularly enjoyed using Google Blocks, a free software program for developing 3D models, that was being demonstrated by  Scott Banducci who runs a company that hosts VR events (VRtogo). With the headset on and a couple of hand-operated panels that include a colouring palette and tools for moving and stretching objects, it was easy even for a novice such as me to create in a few minutes a really cool 3D model of a plane. There is an excellent introductory video on the Google Blocks web site that explains the process. 

This was my first visit and I hardly knew anyone there (I was the oldest person by at least 40 years). I was hoping to meet someone from one of the many educational institutions in the Vancouver area who might be interested in using VR for teaching and learning but most of the people there not surprisingly were developers or producers of VR. Nevertheless this seems like a great community of practice and I strongly recommend anyone in the Vancouver area interested in the educational use of VR to join. The next event is at Mobify at 6.15 pm on August 22.

In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts about the use of VR, for what they are worth.

  1. VR is not just a fad that will disappear. There are already a large number of commercial applications, mainly in entertainment and public relations, but also increasingly for specific areas of training (more on that below). There is already a lot of excellent, off-the-shelf software for creating VR environments, and the cost of hardware is dropping rapidly (although good quality headsets and other equipment are still probably too expensive for required use by large numbers of students).
  2. What killed earlier two-dimensional VR developments such as Second Life for widespread educational use was the high cost and difficulty of creating the sets and contexts for learning. Thus even if the hardware and software costs for VR are low enough for individual student use, it is the production costs of creating educational contexts and scenarios that are likely to inhibit its use.
  3. Thus most suitable educational applications are likely to be where the cost of alternative or traditional ways of learning are too expensive or too dangerous. In particular, VR would be good for individual, self-learning in contexts where real environments are not easily accessible, or where learners need to cope with strong emotions when making decisions or operating under pressure in real time. Examples might be emergency management, such as shutting down an out-of-control nuclear reactor, or defusing a bomb, or managing a fire on an oil tanker. However, not only will the VR environment have to be realistic, as much attention will need to be paid to creating the specific learning context. The procedure for defusing the bomb and the interaction between learner and the virtual bomb must also be built in to the production. Thus VR may often need to be combined with simulation design and quality media production to be educationally effective, again pushing up the cost. For these reasons, medicine is a likely area for experiment, where traditional training costs are really high or where training is difficult to provide with real patients.
  4. Having said that, we need more experimentation. This is still a relatively new technology, and there may be very simple ways to use it in education that are not costly and meet needs that cannot be easily met in traditional teaching or with other existing technology. For this to happen, though, educators, software developers, and media producers need to come together to play and experiment. The VR Vancouver Community seems to me to be an ideal venue to do this. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see Bad Cookies Pictures VR horror movie when it comes out! Now that will be an immersive experience.

And since originally posting this, I have been directed to the blog post of Ryan Martin, a trainer on Vancouver Island, who has come up with a more comprehensive list of ways to learn through VR, with some excellent links.

If you know of other examples and are willing to share them, I will add the links to this post.


Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.


My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)


  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

What I learned at Drexel University in National Distance Learning Week

A street protester in Philadelphia on election day

A street artist in Philadelphia on election day

Fear and loathing in Philadelphia

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week, I found myself in Philadelphia on U.S. Presidential Election day, and even more importantly, the day after, as the results became known. I was there, not to ‘rig’ the election, as some have rumoured, but to visit one of the leaders in online learning in the USA, Drexel University.

I’m not going to say much more about the election, except to note that as in the rest of the country, Pennsylvania was deeply split, with cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburg voting strongly for Clinton, and suburban areas, smaller towns and rural areas voting in sufficiently large enough numbers for Trump to just about win the state and its electoral votes. So the election results have caused a certain amount of fear and loathing in Philadelphia, particularly among the university community.

Why Drexel?

Drexel University is a private, nonprofit university ranked among the top 100 universities in the USA. In 2016 it was ranked the 8th most innovative university in the USA by US News and World Report. It has about 26,000 students.

Drexel University was founded in 1891 as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, by Philadelphia financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel. The original mission of the institution was to provide educational opportunities in the “practical arts and sciences” for women and men of all backgrounds. It is famed for its co-op education program and its close links to local industry and businesses, and in the past for its acceptance and encouragement of low income students. However in recent years its focus has changed, partly driven by the perceived need to increase its ranking. Today it has very high student tuition fees and a highly selective admission process.

I was there to visit Drexel University Online (DUO), an internal division within the university that serves those students at Drexel taking online courses and programs.

Drexel Online

Drexel University has more than 7,000 online students from all 50 states and more than 20 countries. It offers 140 fully accredited master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and certificate programs in a wide range of disciplines. Nursing in particular has a very strong set of online programs. Drexel was an early pioneer of online learning, offering its first fully online master’s degree in 1996.

Drexel University founded National Distance Learning Week, in conjunction with the United States Distance Learning Association, in 2007, and has won several national awards for institution-wide excellence in online education.

As part of Drexel’s contribution to National Distance Learning Week, I was invited as a guest speaker, to talk about ’21st century knowledge and online learning: re-designing teaching for a digital age.’ While at Drexel, I also took the opportunity to see what Drexel is doing with advanced learning technologies.

Advanced use of technologies at Drexel Online

DUO offers faculty a technology lending library, where faculty can try out new devices and evaluate their potential for teaching. This includes an augmented reality headset that combines a cheap ($10-$15), easily assembled cardboard frame into which a mobile phone can be inserted in front of the eyes, enabling augmented reality programs to be delivered at very low cost to the student (provided they already have a mobile phone).

DUO has also developed a very interesting web site, called, which showcases a number of innovations in online learning from institutions across North America and around the world.

Here I will describe briefly just a few of Drexel’s own innovative projects, which I hope will inspire you to look in more detail at the VirtuallyInspired web site.

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina is an avatar of a 28 year old woman in a virtual world who not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated. The teaching around Tina is broken down into 10 modules, each of which correlate with a body system that students learn about in class. The program serves not only as reinforcement for the principles taught in the course, but also to develop interpersonal skills needed by clinical professionals. Professors are able to view the type of questions asked by the student and how the student reacts to Tina’s responses. They are then able to give the student advice and make recommendations for interpersonal skill improvement.

Synchronous online teaching

Drexel is experimenting with the use of low-cost (US$450) robots (Kubi) combined with iPads to improve the ‘telepresence’ of students in online webinars. In the classroom where the instructor is located, there is an iPad for each remote student locked into a robot that each student can remotely move around the instructor’s classroom. Using Skype and the camera on the student’s computer, the student’s face appears on the iPad. In this way the instructor can see the faces and hear each individual student via the iPad, and the students at home can also see on their screen not only the instructor but also the iPad images of all the other students in the class. This system is already in use at the Michigan State University.

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Forensic investigation

Students taking a course on forensic investigation can use a branching video sequence to search for clues at a crime scene. Students can do a virtual walk around and inside a house and are asked to observe and interpret what they see, followed by a debriefing afterwards.

These are just a few of the several innovations that Drexel is experimenting with. Others include the use of video simulations in law and nursing, dealing with critical incidents in practice.

Innovation and operations

Drexel University is to be congratulated for two reasons: it has an extensive, ongoing online program that delivers a wide range of courses on a daily basis to over 7,000 students. For most of these courses, the challenges are common to all online post-secondary programs: ensuring that the programs are of high quality and that students succeed. This means applying well known best practices and procedures, using standard tools such as a learning management system, and ensuring that students are well supported by instructors.

At the same time, DUO is investing some of its energy and resources to investigating new ways of designing and delivering online teaching. This means finding like-minded faculty partners who can see the potential of new technologies and who are willing to put in the time and effort to do something different. The challenge here is to evaluate each innovation, to integrate such innovations into regular teaching, and then to ensure the diffusion of successful innovations into a wider range of courses and programs.

Getting the right balance between on-going operations and innovation is a challenge but one that Drexel Online seems more than able to handle.

And lastly, I cannot express enough my appreciation for the kindness and attention paid to me by Susan Aldridge, the Director of DUO, and all her staff during my visit. Elections may come and go, but American hospitality continues for ever.

French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ now available

French version 2

The French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, L’enseignement a l’ère numerique‘, is now available from here.

I am very grateful to Contact North|Contact Nord for providing this professional translation.

There is now also a version in Vietnamese, ‘Dạy học trong kỷ nguyên số‘, translated by Lê Trung Nghĩa of the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, available through Dropbox here.

Spanish version, translated by staff in the Faculty of Engineering, Universidad de Buenos Aires, is almost complete and will be available from the BCcampus open textbook site (as will all the translations). I will provide an announcement containing the url when it is available.

A Chinese version, translated by staff at the Beijing Open University, will be available in August, 2016.

A Portuguese version, being translated by ABED, the Brazilian Association of Distance Education, will be available in time for its Annual Congress in September, 2016.

Turkish version is currently under consideration. I am awaiting more details.

Please note: under the Creative Commons license of the book, anyone is free to translate all or any part of the book, provided it is not used for commercial purposes and I am acknowledged as the author. I am sure that without this license, the book would not have become available so quickly in so many languages. However, if you do decide to translate the book, please let me know, so I can track its use and provide updates.


EDEN 2016: Re-imagining Learning Environments

Pesti Vigadó, where the conference dinner was held

Pesti Vigadó Concert Hall, where the conference dinner was held

The EDEN conference

I have just attended the annual conference of the European Distance and E-Learning Network in Budapest, Hungary.

EDEN is one of my favourite conferences because it always has a lot of interesting people attending and it is a quick way for me to stay abreast of what is happening in European online and distance learning. I provide here an overall report on the conference, but I will do a couple of other more detailed posts on the sessions I found particularly interesting.

There were just under 300 participants. My overall impression is that online and open learning are well and strong in Europe, and is now widespread. When I first started to come to EDEN conferences in the early 1990s, there were only two or three main players, but this year there were contributions from almost every European country. With the growth of online and open learning, there are many new people each year joining the field, coming from very diverse backgrounds. EDEN provides a pan-European opportunity to enable newcomers to learn about some of the basic principles and prior research and knowledge in the field, as well as allowing for the sharing of experience and networking, and reporting new trends and developments in online and open learning.

I was the opening keynote speaker, and talked about building effective learning environments, based on my chapter in Teaching in a Digital Age. I also gave the wrap-up to the conference, on which this post is based.

A concert at the Liszt Academy of Music

A concert at the Liszt Academy of Music

Policy, planning and management

This year there was a welcome number of contributions that focused on policy and management of online, open and distance learning.

Yves Punie of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Prospective Technological Skills reported that 70 million Europeans lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills, 24% had no upper secondary education and 45% have insufficient digital literacy skills, although 90% of jobs in Europe will require some sort of ICT skills. The Institute has developed a list of key digital competencies. He noted that while 21% of universities in Europe are now offering MOOCs, most have no overall strategy for open education.

George Ubachs of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities in his presentation on The Changing Pedagogical Landscape offered an interesting vision for universities that emphasised:

  • personalized teaching and learning
  • small scale, intensive education
  • rich learning environments
  • open-ness and flexibility
  • networked education and mobility

Leslie Wilson of the European University Association commented that:

MOOCs have forced Vice Chancellors to focus on teaching and learning

This is probably a true if sad statement.

I was particularly impressed by Melissa Highton’s report on the open learning strategy of Edinburgh University. It is a highly ranked, old research university in Scotland that has aligned its approach to open education to the university’s core mission. She said:

Not being open is a risk and not being open costs us money.

Laureate University is a global private, for-profit university with over one million enrolments, and with campuses in Europe as well as North America. The leadership at Laureate has decided that the whole system will move from largely face-to-face teaching to blended learning. Alan Noghiu described the strategy that is being used and the challenges the organization is facing in implementing the strategy.

Finally, Alan Tait reported on a study by the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) on student success factors, which identified the following as critical to student success:

  • pre-study information, advice, guidance and admission;
  • curriculum or programme design that matches the needs of students;
  • intervention at key points and in response to student need;
  • assessment to support learning as well as to judge achievement;
  • individualised and personalised systems of support to students;
  • information and logistical systems that communicate between all relevant participants in the system;
  • overall managing for student success.

This seems to me to be a list that proponents of MOOCs should bear in mind, as well as those offering more formal qualifications at a distance.

The use of multimedia and emerging technologies

Susan Aldridge of Drexel University presented some very interesting examples of educational uses of virtual reality, augmented reality, serious games and holography, including examples used in forensic investigation, meteorology, and medicine. One of the augmented reality tools she demonstrated, Aurasma, is free.

Danny Arati of Intel mentioned the University of Nottingham’s The Periodic Table of Videos, where each element in the period table has a short video about it.

The Periodic Table of Videos, University of Nottingham

The Periodic Table of Videos, University of Nottingham

MOOCs and online learning

I was surprised at how much importance European institutions are still giving to MOOCs. There were by far more papers on MOOCs than on credit-based online learning or even blended learning. Even the Oxford debate this year was on the following motion:

We Should Focus in the Short Term More on MOOCs than on OER

I was relieved when the motion was resoundingly defeated, although I am still a little disheartened that open education is still mainly focused on MOOCs and OERs, rather than on the broader concept of open textbooks, open research, and open data. It was noted that MOOCs are a product while open education is a movement, and it is important not to lose the idea that open education is as much about social justice and equity as it is about technology, as was pointed out by one of the participants, Ronald McIntyre.

Learning analytics

There was an excellent workshop organised by Sally Reynolds and Dai Griffiths from the European Commission funded LACE project: Learning Analytics Community Exchange. The workshop focused on privacy and ethics issues that arise from the use of learning analytics.

This is such an important topic that I will do a full blog post on it later. In the meantime, if you are interested in this topic, see the LACE report: Is Privacy a Show-stopper for Learning Analytics? A Review of Current Issues and their Solutions.

The foyer of the Gresham Hotel

The foyer of the Gresham Hotel

Bits and Pieces

There were several other interesting activities at the conference that are worth reporting:

Pre-conference workshop for young scholars. This was an interesting forum where editors of three of the journals in the field discussed with young (or more accurately, new) scholars how to get published.

Book and wine session This informal late evening session provided an opportunity for participants to share their reviews of interesting books. This is an event that could be expanded to cover both ‘classics’ in the field, as well as books on new developments.

Posters There were about a dozen posters. Again, I would like to see more posters at conferences such as this. A well designed poster can be read in a couple of minutes and impart as much if not more information than a 20 minute oral presentation, and can be seen by everyone at the conference, unlike a presentation at a parallel session, some of which, such as the horrible ‘speed-dating’ sessions, resembled having a fire hose of information turned on you – or am I just a visual learner?

Given that so many new people are moving into online and open learning all the time, much more needs to be done at conferences such as this to encourage sessions where prior knowledge and best practices are brought to the attention of new participants.


Overall, this was another excellent conference from EDEN in a wonderful location (it is the first time I have been immersed into Turkish baths). The next one will be next year in Jönköping, southern Sweden.

Art Nouveau stained glass windows at the Hotel Gellert

Art Nouveau stained glass windows at the Hotel Gellert

All photos: Tony Bates