September 20, 2018

Welcome back and some news

Why get on the bus when you can study online? Students lining up at UBC – I won’t be able to get on my regular 99 bus for the first few weeks of the semester because it will be full of students. Then suddenly, they realise they don’t have to be there all day, every day. Some will even discover online learning! Then I will get my bus back.

Welcome back to all those who have been away on vacation and are just returning or have already returned to work. Here’s what I will be working on over the next couple of months.

The 2018 national survey of online learning

The questionnaire returns for the 2018 national survey of online learning and distance education in Canadian universities and colleges are almost complete, with August 30th as the final, final deadline (that’s when we will start to process data tables). Already about 60% of the institutions have responded and we are expecting another ‘rush’ of completions over the next few days. So if your institution has not completed the questionnaire, there is still time, but you will need to hurry. 

We are planning to have the results out by mid-October in time for several conferences. I will be heavily engaged in writing up the results in early September. 

Pockets of innovation

I will be visiting Manitoba the week of September 24-28 to collect some more pockets of innovation in the use of technology for teaching for Contact North. I am still finalising my schedule but if you are in a Manitoba college or university and have an interesting use of technology for teaching, and are willing to share, please let me know as soon as possible, and I will try to fit you into my schedule, which I hope to have finalised by August 31.

The University of Alberta

I am visiting the University of Alberta on August 30 to do two presentations, one to Campus St.-Jean, the francophone campus of the university (yes, there is a substantial francophone community in Alberta/Western Canada), and one for the rest of the U of A faculty. This is in response to my book, Teaching in a Digital Age.

One presentation in the morning at Campus St.-Jean will focus on why university teaching needs to change, based mainly on external factors such as a changing economy, more diverse students, and of course the need for graduates who can successfully navigate and manage a digital world.

The second presentation on the main campus in the afternoon will focus on the how, with suggestions for new teaching methods focused on skills development and the use of technology, and drawing on the Pockets of Information for examples. This presentation will also discuss some of the structural changes needed to support innovation in teaching. 

The web site

Work is about to begin on the re-design of this web site over the next couple of weeks. The main changes will be in appearance, to simplify the layout and to make navigation easier and more intuitive. I have done most of the structural changes, in terms of organisation of the pages and posts. There should not be any major interruption of service while the re-design is being done.

As part of the re-design, I am developing a personal guide to online learning in different countries, based on my experience of working there, and including some of the photos I have taken while travelling. There are short entries so far on Afghanistan, Argentina and Brazil.

Part of this ‘work in progress’ is a province-by-province guide to online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

So far I have just completed British Columbia. If you work in a BC college or university, please take a look – but remember, it is a personal, not an official, guide. If though I have missed something significant about online learning at your institution, please drop me a line (tony.bates@ubc.ca) and I will update the entry. Next up: Alberta.

As well as reporting on breaking news and developments in the world of online learning, I will also be posting on a theme over the next couple of months. I am thinking at the moment of taking a deeper look at the implications of AI and/or blockchain for online learning, but I’m open to other suggestions.

Good luck

So good luck with your teaching and research over 2018-2019 and I hope you are as excited as I am about the likely developments in online learning over the next academic year.

 

Update on my web site re-design

Downtown Vancouver in winter: I’ve added graphics to many pages, mainly using my own photos

Not very interesting, I’m afraid, but I have made some changes to the structure of my web site prior to a new graphics design, and I’d like readers to be aware of these changes. The aim has been to make search for specific resources easier and to provide eventually a cleaner home page. 

This has been quite a challenge with more than 2,500 posts over a 10 year period. A lot of the changes are boring but necessary maintenance – removing or up-dating dead links, in some cases up-dating earlier posts to take account of later developments, adding graphics, but the main work has been to provide a simplified but logical structure to make search easier and more intuitive. I was pleasantly surprised to see how much there is on many topics, but also where there are large gaps. I want this site though to be as useful as possible as source of information on online and distance education.

Let me know what you think, although the new graphic design is still to be implemented.

Simplified menu on home page

You will see I have reduced the pull-down menus to five:

  • home (front/first page)
  • latest (all posts in chronological order, latest first)
  • resources
  • about Tony Bates
  • contact

Resources page

This is now one page (instead of 10 pull-down pages), with several sub-pages (click on ‘Resources’ in the menu):

About Tony Bates

Several previous home page menu items are now integrated into this one page, with sub-pages. This is the area where I have added a considerable amount of new material:

  • short bio (the sub-page linking to a full CV)
  • my books (finalised)
  • my papers and keynotes
  • videos of my presentations or interviews with me
  • a personal guide to online and distance learning around the world.

This personal guide to online learning around the world is a considerable enlargement of what previously was a carousel of images from different countries. In particular, I am developing a guide to online learning in every province in Canada, combined with my own photographs from within these provinces, as well as a range of other countries. This is a work still in process and will be for the rest of the year.

Next

There is still some tidying up to do to complete changes to some pages, but the next big step will be a complete redesign of the page and post layouts, to give them a cleaner, more visual and more current graphic design. I hope this will be complete by the end of this month.

 

In memoriam: Ingeborg Bø

The used to say that distance educators never die, they just fade away, but alas, that is not true.

Ingeborg, who was Director of the Norwegian Distance Education Association, a trustee of the International Council for Distance Education, and President of EDEN (the European Distance Education Network) never faded away. Despite battling ALS in her later years, she was active in distance education until almost the end.

She was a pioneer of distance education, working with NKI, the Norwegian correspondence school (as it then was) back in the 1970s, which was when I first met her. She was a lovely woman, gentle but firm, who was an excellent chairwoman and negotiator. She always worked to find consensus without losing sight of the clear goals she had for furthering and promoting distance education.

I will miss her dearly. Tusen takk for alt, Ingeborg.

Québec’s Téluq in trouble

A Téluq graduation ceremony in Rimouski
Photo: courtesy of Guillaume D. Cyr

Téluq (the Télé-université within the Université du Québec System) has for many years been a major provider of university-level distance education courses for francophones.

Last Friday afternoon, the Québec Ministry of Higher Education reported that it was investigating compliance of its laws with respect to the relationship between Institut Matci, a private post-secondary institution offering courses mainly to international francophone students, and Téluq.

While this investigation is under way, the current Director-General, Martin Noël, has been suspended indefinitely. An interim director-general has been appointed, Andre G. Roy, who was Secretary-General of Université du Québec since November, 2009.

Téluq has announced that for students, it’s business as usual, and the delivery of courses will not be affected. However, the timing is unfortunate, as Martin Noël was a leading participant in discussions with the ministry about the establishment of eCampus Québec. These discussions are still to be completed before any formal decisions are made about its establishment.

It is too early to speculate, but it seems the investigation is a result of a complaint about a contract with Institut Matci (a private organisation) for tutoring Téluq courses.

 

Notice: website under redesign

This web site is now more than 10 years old, and the design has not changed over this period. In the meantime, there have been several important developments in web site design, and more importantly, there are now over 2,500 posts or pages on the site, making navigation more complex and difficult.

With the assistance of Contact North and MARSworks, work on a new design is taking place during the month of August, the quietest month in terms of traffic.

You should not see many changes until the end of the month or early September, but in the meantime I will be working to provide better indexing of the posts by topic or category, which may result in the odd old post being republished or moved to a new location within the site. I am also taking this opportunity to remove or identify dead links and to add new material and links to update old posts. It will be obvious once the new site goes live, and I will accompany this with a post explaining the changes that have been made.

The main aim of the changes is to make it easier for readers to find posts on specific topics and to access resources on the site more easily. Most of the old features though will be retained.

In the meantime, I apologise in advance for any inconvenience caused during this process. 

Journal articles and reports on serious games

Originally created by Natasha Boskic

Branston, C. (2006). From game studies to bibliographic gaming: Libraries tap into the video game culture. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 32(4), 24-29.


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31 (2), 101-119.


Baudrillard, J. (1988). Simulacra and simulations. In M. Poster (Ed.), Selected writings (pp.166-184). Stanford; Stanford University Press.


Blunt, R. (2009) ‘Do serious games work? Results from three studies’ eLearn Magazine, December 1.

This article offers evidence of game use effectiveness to academic achievements. The paper presents the results of three quantitative studies conducted at an east coast university with one first-year and two third-year undergraduate classes. The students were divided into a control group (learning without a game use) and an experimental group (learning with a game use). According to the findings and Blunt “at least in some circumstances, the application of serious games significantly increases learning.” [However, learning is not defined except as ‘performance on tests’].


Brown, J. S. (2000). ‘Growing up digital: How the web changes work, education, and the ways people learn’. Change, (March/April), 11-20.


Bronson, P. and Merryman, A. (2009) New Research: $13 Christmas gifts = 13 point gain in kids’ IQ Newsweek, December 10.

According to Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, children’s IQ will increase after a number of hours of playing carefully selected games. After 20 hours of game playing, Dr. Bunge and her team was able to determine an increase in children’s IQ. They tested kids’ reasoning abilities and their processing speed. The positive results encouraged the neuroscientists to broaden their research and look for more school participants. Newsweek blog published an article about the Bunge Lab’s study on reasoning training in local schools and their results at http://www.blog.newsweek.com/blogs/nurtureshock/archive/2009/12/10.aspx [Note: the urls are now dead – if there is another url for this, please let me know]


de Castell, S., Jenson, J., & Taylor, N. (2007). Digital games for education: When meanings play. Situated Play, DiGRA Conference, Tokyo, Japan. 590-599.


de Freitas, S., & Griffiths, M. (2008). ‘The convergence of gaming practices with other media forms: What potential for learning? A review of the literature’. Learning, Media, & Technology, 33(1), 11-20.


DiSalvo, B., Crowley, K., & Norwood, R. (2008). Learning in context: Digital games and young black men. Games and Culture, 3(2), 131-141.


Duperray, C. (2009) Combating Yellow Fever: A Serious Game eLearning Africa, No.4, March 12[Note: the url is now dead – if there is another url for this, please let me know]

The World Health Organization (WHO) in collaboration with the Agence de Médecine Préventive (AMP) have developed an immersive distance training tool using serious gaming, which is now available for physicians all across Africa. The CD-ROM offers the chance to play the role of the District Medical Officer, the epidemiologist or the virologist, and thus be an actor in an epidemiological investigation.


Eskelinen, M. (2001). The gaming situation. Game Studies, 1(1)


Flanagan, M. (2006). Making games for social change. AI & Society, 20(4), 493-505.


Hayles, N. K. (2007). Hyper and deep attention: The generational divide in cognitive modes. Profession, 187-199.


Helm, B. (2005). Educational games crank up the fun. BusinessWeek, August 23, 2005. [Note: the url is now dead – if there is another url for this, please let me know]


Jagodzinski, J. (2007). Videogame cybersubjects: Questioning the myths of violence and identification (implications for educational technologies). The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 53(1), 45-62.


Juul, J. (2008b). The magic circle and the puzzle piece. Paper presented at the Philosophy of Computer Games, Potsdam, Germany. 056-067. 


Juul, J. (2008c). Who made the magic circle? Seeking the solvable part of the game-player problem The Philosophy of Computer Games, 2008.Potsdam, Germany. (Audio recording). 


Kafai, Y. B. (2006). Playing and making games for learning: Instructionist and constructionist perspectives for game studies. Games and Culture, 1(1), 36-40.


Klopfer, E. et al. (2009) Moving educational games forward Cambridge MA: MIT The Education Arcade. A useful introduction to some of the issues around educational gaming.


Kupperman, J., Stanzler, J., Fahy, M., & Hapgood, S. (2007). Games, school and the benefits of inefficiency. The International Journal of Learning, 13(9), 161-168.


Murray, J. H. (2006). Toward a cultural theory of gaming: Digital games and the co-evolution of media, mind, and culture. Popular Communication, 4(3), 185-202.


My Thai, A. et al. (2009) Game Changer New York: Joan Ganz Cooney Center Sesame Workshop


Pivec, M. (2007). Play and learn: Potentials of game-based learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(3), 387-393.

Rice, J. (2010). New 3D Learning Book by Karl Kapp. Educational Games Research: Research and discussion concerning instructional video games. February 8, 2010.


Ryan, M. L. (2005). Narrative and the split condition of digital textuality. Dichtung-Digital, 1


Sauvé, L. (2010) Dr Louise Sauvé, the Society for Lifelong Learning and“1,2,3 Asthma” e-Learning Africa 2010 News Portal, March 31.

An interview with Dr. Fauvé about ‘1,2,3 Asthma’, a variation of Parcheesi, an ancient Indian game of crosses and circles. Each team advances to move its four virtual counters around the board. To earn points along the way, you need to answer a number of questions about asthma, how to prevent it, control it and about what triggers the attacks. Questions vary in difficulty. Video and sound clips offer additional information and widen the players’ knowledge of asthma, which affects 300 million people worldwide. Dr. Fauvé is President and General Director of SAVIE, the Society for Lifelong Learning, based in Québec


Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2005). Playable media and textual instruments. Dichtung-Digital, 1. 


Zagal, J. P., & Bruckman, A. (2008). Novices, gamers, and scholars: Exploring the challenges of teaching about games. Game Studies, 8(2). 

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

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

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

Is it really so difficult?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In particular, the editors are concerned that:

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

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

Application of an innovation adoption framework

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

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

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

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

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

Government

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

Institutions

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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 Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas

Qayyum, A. and Zawacki-Richter, O. (eds.) Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas: National Perspectives in a Digital Age Singapore: Springer, US$24+

Why this book?

This book is the first of two volumes aimed at describing how open and distance education (ODE) is evolving to reflect the needs and circumstance of the national higher education systems in various countries. A second goal is to compare how DE is organized and structured in various countries.

What does the book cover?

This first volume covers Australia, Europe and the Americas; the second book (still to come) covers Asia, Africa and the Middle East (including Russia and Turkey).

Who wrote it?

This is a well-edited book, with individual chapters written by experts within each country, following a roughly consistent structure in terms of topics. There is a main chapter for each country, with a useful second opinion from another country expert in terms of a commentary on the main chapter, as follows:

  • Introduction (ODE in a Digital Age): Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter
  • Australia: Colin Latchem (commentary by Som Naidu)
  • Brazil: Fred Litto (commentary by Maria Renata da Cruz Duran and Adnan Qayyum)
  • Canada: Tony Bates (commentary by Terry Anderson)
  • Germany: Ulrich Bernath and Joachim Stöter (commentary by Burkhard Lehmann)
  • United Kingdom: Anne Gaskell (commentary by Alan Tait)
  • United States of America: Michael Beaudoin (commentary by Gary Miller)
  • Conclusions: Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter

What’s in it?

There is some variation between the chapters, reflecting some of the differences between different countries, but most chapters have the following structure:

  • Context: most chapters start with a section that provides the wider context in which ODE operates within a country, either in terms of history or a brief description of the current higher education system as a whole. This sometimes includes how DE is funded (or not funded) by governments.
  • Enrolments and growth: each chapter attempts (heroically in some cases) to estimate just how many distance education students there are within the country and the rate of growth. What is noticeable here is how much variation there is in the accuracy or reliability of these estimates between different countries, partly because of the blurring of definitions between online and blended learning, but partly because in some countries, no-one seems to be counting.
  • Quality assurance/quality control: this describes both the regulatory framework for HE within each country and how that is applied to ODE.
  • Descriptions of specific ODE institutions: these sections describe those specialized institutions that play a major role in ODE within their respective countries.
  • OER and MOOCs. Most chapters discuss the use of open educational resources and MOOCs in their country.
  • The relationship between public and private provision of ODE. This is very useful as the relationship varies considerably between different countries.
  • The future of ODE within each country: this section looks at both challenges and opportunities.

In addition, Qayyum and Zawicki-Richter provide an excellent concluding chapter, that compares the different countries in terms of:

  • size and growth of ODE: ODE enrolments constitute between at least 10-20% of all HE enrolments in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the USA. In the UK and Germany, though, the proportions are likely to be less than 10%;
  • providers of DE: one reason reliable data collection has been difficult is because of the growth in different types of institutions providing DE: specialized ODE providers have in general increased their numbers; more campus-based institutions have become providers of ODE; and private institutions offering ODE have grown. However, this varies considerably from country to country. In the UK, for instance, ODE enrolments have been dropping at the UKOU, but possibly increasing from campus-based providers. In the USA, enrolments from the for-profit ODE providers have been dropping but increasing in the private and public on-campus institutions. What is clear is the impact on ODE enrolments of government policies regarding funding and tuition fees;
  • online vs other forms of DE: again, this differs between countries (and probably even more so in the countries to be covered in the next book). In Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK, ODE is nearly synonymous with online learning; Brazil has ‘leapfrogged’ to mobile learning;
  • the role of government: too complex to summarise here: read the chapter!
  • the function of ODE: ODE appears to play three major functions in HE systems: increasing access; providing greater flexibility to those with access; and ‘abetting in the larger digital transformation of HE’;
  • trends and future challenges: ODE on a macro level is being affected by two factors: the global growth in demand for HE; and the digital revolution. Surprisingly, though, it is less affected by globalization: ‘ODE seems to function mainly, though not wholly, within the nation state’ – except for MOOCs. This chapter has a very good discussion of these issues, particularly the differences between education as a public or private good, and ODE’s role in each.

My comments

The book sets out clearly the extent and importance of ODE in higher education. A careful reading will also indicate the importance of government and institutional policies in supporting or restricting ODE.

This and the second book in this series therefore should be required reading in any post-graduate education program. It should also be required reading by policy analysts in Ministries of Advanced (or Higher) Education. I would also recommend it to Boards of Governors and Provosts/VP Academic in any post-secondary institution. 

I look forward with impatience to reading the second volume, which for me will be even more valuable as I know so little about ODE in many of the countries covered in the second book.

If I have any negative comments, it is about what is not in the book. I think it is a pity that there is no chapter on France, Mexico or Argentina, all of which are very large countries with substantial and uniquely different distance education provision. And of course it is solely about formal post-secondary education. Other books are needed to cover international distance education in the k-12 and corporate sectors.

Also, this book will easily become outdated, given the rapid developments in ODE around the world. It took over two years from the time I was approached to write the chapter and the book’s publication. In this period, the first national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education was published, the results of which had to be hastily accommodated in the last proofs of the book.

Furthermore, the book is an open publication, and is free to download, licensed as open access under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. However, it is not expensive to buy a hard copy, and I hope if you have an an interest in open and distance education you will make this a standard book on your shelves – after you have read it!

(Note: in an earlier version of this post I incorrectly stated that it could not be downloaded for free. My apologies).

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 3. Learning management systems

Reasons for using a Learning Management System

I pointed out in my previous post that the LMS is a legacy system that can inhibit innovation in teaching. Also in an earlier post I had pointed to the articles about the future of Blackboard and other proprietary LMSs, and commented that 

what surprises me is that in an age of multimedia and social media…. anyone is using an LMS at all.

This provoked an unusually large number of comments, both on my blog and on Twitter, some supporting my position and many more critical of it. 

The main critical points made were that LMSs have many advantages:

  • convenience: an LMS is the most effective way to organise teaching materials, activities, grievances, tracking students;
  • linked to convenience: it is too much to expect instructors to integrate a range of tools from scratch; the LMS is a simpler way to do this;
  • compliance and security: an LMS is safer than general, public apps (less open to hacking), protects student privacy, and allows for audit/management of grievances.

I will try to address these points below, but note that none of these advantages has anything to do with improving students’ learning – they are mainly instructor, legal, administrative and institutional benefits.

I do not underestimate the importance of convenience to faculty and administrators, and of privacy and security for students, but I would like to see this balanced against the potential learning benefits of using something other than a learning management system. I will also argue that there are other ways to address convenience and privacy/security issues.

What do I mean by an LMS?

One of the issues here is definition. You can define an LMS so broadly that even a physical campus institution can be considered a learning management system. I want to make the distinction in particular between a ‘course’ and an LMS. By LMS I mean basically the off-the-shelf, proprietary software platforms such as Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace, Moodle that are used in 90% or more of post-secondary institutions, at least in Canada. I don’t include specific platforms developed on a one-off basis for a particular institution or academic department, or by an individual instructor, as I see these more as tailored rather than bespoke. 

Until quite recently, I believed that any of these proprietary LMSs was flexible enough to allow me to teach in the way I wanted. I could post content, determine a schedule for what had to be covered each week, set student activities such as graded or ungraded assignments, communicate individually or in a group with students, set up discussion forums, choose topics for discussion, monitor the discussions, set and mark assessments, grade students, post their grades to the student information system, and give individual or group feedback, all in a secure online environment. 

However, I no longer wish to teach like that. With an LMS, I am given a tool then required to fit my teaching within the boundaries of that tool. I will shortly describe why I want to teach differently, but the essence here is that I want software solutions that fit the way I want to teach.  I want to decide how I want to teach, and more importantly, how I want my students to study, and then find the tool or tools that will allow me and them to do that. If I can be persuaded that an LMS can meet that requirement, fine, but I don’t believe at the moment that this is the case.

Why I want to change my approach to teaching and learning

Basically, in my previous approach, the focus was on me defining the curriculum/what had to be studied, the transmission of this knowledge to students, helping them to develop understanding and critical thinking about this content, and assessing the students. There was a focus on both content and skills, but a limited range of skills. In particular, I was the one who primarily defined what students had to know, and provided or directed them to the relevant content sources.

In a digital age, I don’t believe that this is any longer a satisfactory approach. I was doing most of the hard work, in defining what to read, and what students should do. They were limited in particular to writing or online multiple choice assessments to demonstrate what they had learned. Of course, students liked this. It was clear what they had to do, not just each week but often daily. They had a clear choice: do what I told them, or fail. 

I have written extensively in Teaching in a Digital Age about my ‘new’ approach to teaching and learning (although actually it’s not new – it is a somewhat similar approach I and some other teachers used in teaching in elementary schools in Britain in the 1960s, which was then called ‘discovery learning’ – see Bruner, 1961).

In essence, there is too much new knowledge being generated every day in every discipline for students to be able to master it all, particularly within the scope of a four year degree or even seven years’ higher education. Secondly, information is everywhere on the Internet. I don’t have to provide most of the content I wish to teach; it’s already out there somewhere.

The challenge now is to know where to find that information, how to analyse it, how to evaluate the reliability and relevance of that information, then organise and then apply that information in appropriate ways. This means knowing how to navigate the Internet, how to behave responsibly and ethically online, and how to protect one’s privacy and that of others. I used to do that for students; now I want them to learn how do it themselves.

I therefore want students not only to know things, but to be able to apply their knowledge appropriately within specific contexts. I want them in particular to develop the skills of independent learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and a broad digital literacy, because these are the skills they will need once they have left post-secondary education (or more accurately, skills that they will continue to develop after completing a formal qualification). 

I realise that this approach will not suit all instructors or fit well with every subject area, although I think these are challenges that most subject disciplines are now facing in a digital era.

What do I need to do to teach in this way?

I think it will help to use the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. ‘Inside’ is within the relatively safe, secure confines of the institution (I am still talking digitally, here.) To be inside you must be a registered student (or an institutionally employed instructor). What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Students can discuss with other students and their instructors maybe highly controversial issues in an open, academic way, without fear of being sued, imprisoned or ridiculed. Their work and grades are secure (unless they choose to make them public). The same applies to instructors. They can communicate individually with students or to the class as a whole, but it is confidential within the boundaries of the institution.

‘Outside’ is whatever is available publicly through the Internet. This can be open educational resources, public reports, open data, open journals, open textbooks, publicly available You Tube videos, Wikipedia, social media, such as Facebook. It can also be student blogs and wikis, student-made YouTube videos, and those parts of their e-portfolios – a record of their studies – that they choose to make public. Students may also choose to use social media as part of their studies, but they will need to know that this is public and not private or secure, and what the risks are.

For me, most student learning will be done outside: finding, analysing, demonstrating and testing what they have learned. Some inter-student discussion or engagement with external sources such as the general public may take place outside, but students will be provided with guidelines or even rules about what is appropriate for discussion in public forums. Again, instructors will vary in the amount of learning they want done outside, but in my case I would like to push as much as possible ‘outside’ without compromising student security or safety. However, managing risk is a critical part of the learning process here for student and instructor alike.

It will still be necessary to provide a structure and schedule for the course, in terms of desired learning outcomes, student activities and when they are to be completed, and assessment rubrics. These guidelines can be strict and rigid, or open and vague, depending on the needs of the students and the learning objectives.

Student assessment will be mainly through written or multi-media reporting, organised probably through e-portfolios, which will have both a private and a public section. The students will choose (within guidelines) what to make public. Assessment will be continuous, as the e-portfolio is developed.

Is an LMS necessary for this kind of teaching?

This is where I need help. I am not an IT expert, and I’m not up-to-date with all the tools that are now available. If you can show me that I can do all these things within one of the current proprietary LMSs, then that’s fine with me, but unless they have changed significantly since I last used one, I will be surprised. I will though accept that perhaps for the ‘inside’ work, an LMS might be suitable, but it has to be integrated in some way with the outside work.

Here’s where I need the feedback of my readers. Many of you have to grapple with these issues every day. What I am NOT willing to do though is to compromise my vision of teaching to fit an institutional, proprietary software platform.

So can a current proprietary LMS meet my needs?

Over to you!

Reference

Bruner, J. S. (1961). ‘The act of discovery’ Harvard Educational Review Vol. 31, No. 1, pp: 21–32.