July 19, 2018

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.

Stanford University to be fully online by 2025?

A Stanford sophomore experiences the virtual world at its Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Today I have received a tip from a close colleague that Stanford University is planning to build a partnership with Alphabet Inc., the owner of Google, to enable Stanford to become a fully online global university by 2025. 

Because the university is on an Easter break, it was difficult to find anyone at Stanford to verify this rumour, but the planning seems to be quite advanced. Apparently a highly confidential strategic planning committee has been working for some time on a plan to convert all programs at Stanford into a fully online format, using advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR), and data analytics (DA), technologies in which both Stanford and Google are world leaders.

This will enable Stanford to offer fully accredited degrees to many thousands of students worldwide at a fraction of the current tuition fees, which are currently just under $50,000 a year. Once fully online, the low tuition fees, estimated be around $1,000 a year, will be made possible by a highly innovative business plan being worked out jointly by Stanford and Google. Stanford plans to sell that part of the campus that will no longer be needed for teaching purposes. The Farm, as it is affectionately known, is over 8,000 acres, located close to Silicon Valley. With real estate currently selling at approximately $65 million an acre in Stanford, just selling off half the land will provide sufficient capital for the investment needed to convert all programs into an online mode, leaving the other half of the land for research and administrative purposes. The partnership with Google will allow Google to use data analytics from student online activity for commercial purposes, which will more or less cover the operational costs of online delivery.

I did manage to get hold of a couple of the committee, who asked not to be named as they are not authorised to give information on this project. However, both were very excited. ‘We won’t have to sack any of the current professorial staff, as we still need their subject expertise’, said one. The other said he was really looking forward to developing the first fully augmented reality engineering degree. ‘This could have huge implications,’ he said. ‘Imagine designing a whole bridge without actually having to physically test it! It’s only ever been tried once before without VR and it didn’t work.’ The Director of Stanford University’s Division of Continuing Studies said, ‘You know, it’s not such a big deal. We’ve been delivering online courses in our division for nearly 20 years, so we do know what we’re doing.’

Others outside the university I talked to though were not quite so sanguine. A spokesperson from WCET was concerned about how the accreditation or professional bodies would react. ‘It’s one thing for the university to give degrees; it’s quite another to get recognized by the Accreditation Boards for Engineering and Technology, who in the past have not accepted any online qualifications. But, hey, it’s Stanford, so who knows?’

My personal view is that it still has to get through Stanford’s Senate and Board of Governors. This will be the real test. However, if it is successful, this model will be totally disruptive of the rest of post-secondary education worldwide. If Stanford can scale its model, it could be not just a global university, but THE one university for the whole world. How cool would that be? 

In the meantime, enjoy April the first.

Virtual reality for midwives: an Australian example

Connolly, B. (2018) How virtual reality is transforming learning at the University of Newcastle, CIO, 8 March

This article includes a couple of nice, short videos demonstrating the use of AR and VR in a University of Newcastle nurses’ program in Australia.

The first one, below, demonstrates the use for breech positioning and placenta replacement (click image to play):

University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

The second demonstrates a neonatal resucitation scenario when a newborn baby stops breathing.

University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

These are very good examples of the power of AR and VR to enable students to practice and learn in a safe environment without danger to patients. The technology is accessible via mobile phones or tablets so students can practice in their own time as well as in the VR studio with an instructor.

What would be useful to know is the cost of producing such VR applications and the number of students that make use of the equipment over the length of a course – in other words, what is the return on investment, compared, with, for example, traditional video? What are the added benefits? Do learning outcomes improve? We need much more research into these questions.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: The Fraser Institute

More online virtual labs for science and engineering

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

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

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

LAB4U, Chile

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual labs of India

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Labs Simulations from Denmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, it is now another century and another time.

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

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

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

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

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

Further references

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.