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.

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

Completion rates for different modes of delivery at Houston Community College

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

Getting blended learning wrong

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

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

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

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

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

The report

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

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

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

The study had three aims:

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

The study compared results from three different modes of delivery:

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

The ROI framework

The study identified three components of ROI for digital learning:

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

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

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

The report summarised this framework in the following graphic:

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

Results

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

Digital learning resulted in:

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

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

Conditions for success

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

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

My comments on the report

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

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

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

I have a few reservations about the report:

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on scaling online and digital learning

Image: Fortune.com

Chatlani, S. (2018) How to effectively scale a digital learning model, Education Dive, accessed February 13

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Chapter 7

The sources

The Chatlani article is interesting if a little frustrating, as it is a report on a presentation at a conference of unpublished research (or at least unreferenced in the article) that looks at several case studies of successful scaling of digital learning. (If this research has been published, I would really appreciate access to the report or at least a reference.)

Nevertheless the results reported by two of the researchers, Lou Pugliese, director for the Technology Innovation Action Lab at Arizona State University, and Kate Smith, vice president of academic affairs at Rio Salado College, are really interesting and worth examining.

I have referenced also the research published in Managing Technology in Higher Education on the scaling of the University of British Columbia’s very successful Master of Educational Technology, which is still running today, although originally designed in 2001. The program has undergone a number of major changes over those 16 years but the scaling model has remained largely intact.

It is interesting then to compare the results of the two studies.

The institutional cases

The research reported by Chatlani, funded by the Boston Group and the Gates Foundation, examined the characteristics of digital learning programs from six diverse institutions:

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

These institutions include some of the largest public post-secondary online providers in the USA. UCF was also one of the cases examined in Bates and Sangra.

Results

Pugliese and Smith reported the following four key findings from the study:

  • take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. This reflects the UBC MET program, which was developed as part of an institutional strategy to move towards program-based online learning. In fact several other graduate programs using the same model were developed at UBC around the same time;
  • build capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. This also reflects the UBC strategy. The MET program was originally developed as a partnership between the Faculty of Education and the Distance Education Unit of UBC’s Continuing Studies department, which provided project management, instructional design, and media production support. Several years later, UBC moved the technical and educational support from Continuing Studies into a central Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, which also incorporated faculty development, to serve the whole university. The Faculty of Education also developed its own learning technology support team.
  • provide the differential student support to succeed in fully online learning. This was a critical component of the MET model. The key here is the difference between fixed and variable costs. Course development costs are mainly fixed; course delivery costs are mainly variable, as they are driven primarily by student numbers. The key savings in scaling comes from the distribution of fixed costs across increasing numbers of students and the lower costs of using adjunct faculty. In the MET model, tenured faculty were responsible for the content and design of the courses and in some cases for online teaching of at least one section. However, most of the delivery was supported by a team of adjunct faculty supervised by tenured faculty members. Student fees (at the same rate as for on-campus courses) more than covered both the costs of development – including the hiring of the necessary extra tenured research faculty – and delivery. Scaling was possible because of the lower cost of adjunct faculty but working to a quality model of delivery that kept student-instructor ratios at 30 or less.
  • engage faculty as true partners, equipping them for success. This was also an essential element of the UBC MET model which engaged faculty from Education from the start. Everything went through normal faculty quality assurance processes, involving a total of 27 faculty consultation meetings over a period of two years before the program even started. Perhaps more importantly, the business model ensured that the bulk of the revenues went directly to the Faculty of Education, which then paid overheads for the program to the central administration. Any profits from the program were ploughed back into faculty hirings. Thus the academic department was rewarded for innovation as well as for its efforts.

Discussion

As the article points out, online learning has been around now for 20 years or more and it is timely to look at what models have been successful in scaling quality online learning – and those that have not. 

The research suggests that scaling with quality requires a delicate balance between:

  • team work involving tenured faculty, specialist online experts such as instructional designers and media producers, and adjunct instructors, with full involvement of faculty in all aspects of the design and development of the programs,
  • using adjunct faculty as instructors to support program delivery as the enrolments grow,
  • managing student-instructor ratios so that adjuncts are not overloaded,
  • ensuring the adjunct instructors are adequately trained or experienced in teaching online.

Other important factors in scaling with quality are:

  • being sure there is an adequate market demand to justify the scale of online/digital programs you are proposing: good market research is essential,
  • being confident that new entrants into the market will not have the scale or quality to capture your market,
  • being sure that there is a sufficient pool of available qualified adjunct instructors,
  • developing a multi-year business plan that will accommodate losses in the first two years in return for later economies of scale and scope,
  • a sympathetic and creative administration that will consider and encourage new funding models.

I look forward to the publication of the report and hope it will be widely disseminated.

More developments in online labs

Embry-Riddle's crash simulation

Embry-Riddle’s crash simulation

Zalaznik, M. (2014) Online labs evolve University Business, May

What’s happening

This article reports on the following developments in online labs:

  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has created an online ‘crash lab’ for students taking a Master of Aeronautical Science program. Through the online lab, students can examine ‘all the procedures leading up and through [an] accident.’ The lab, developed in partnership with Unity, uses high quality graphics and elements of video-gaming, to develop a range of skills. The next project will be to develop a virtual robotics lab where students will design and fly unmanned aircraft
  • Arizona State University is offering a fully online Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering for approximately 200 students. Students will use low cost hardware kits that enable them to build and test circuits, in conjunction with software on their computers that enable measurements to be made on a simulated oscilloscope. Online students take the same exams as the students on campus. The online program is taken mainly by older, more experienced students.
  • Henderson Community College, Kentucky, combines home kits and real materials such as  sheep hearts and bacteria with a learning management system to do experiments remotely. The kits are produced by eScience Labs and Pearson provides a biology lab  that contains a virtual microscope
  • The NANSLO project, which was reported in detail here: Can you teach lab science via remote labs?

Why is the use of online labs increasing?

The article suggests the following reasons for the growth of online labs:

  • a shortage of real lab equipment and facilities, especially for general science students
  • online labs require fewer instructors and can make greater use f teaching assistants
  • its most suitable for non-science majors who don’t need to know how to run a lab or how to operate all the equipment in a lab
  • online labs give more leeway to design their own experiments
  • students can make and learn from mistakes in virtual labs
  • online labs are being used in conjunction with on campus facilities, enabling more productive use of limited physical resources.

Resources

The article provides a very useful set of links to these projects.

 

Kindle and the Blind

‘The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind are suing Arizona State University for its use of the Amazon Kindle to distribute electronic textbooks to students, saying the device cannot be used by blind students.’ Chronicle of Higher Education (July 2)

The two articles below raise some very interesting questions about new technologies and their implications for those with physical disabilities (the comments to the journal articles are particularly vigorous).

Key questions raised:

  1. What is ‘reasonable’ accommodation for those with disabilities?
  2. Who should provide this accommodation: the equipment manufacturer (Kindle), the publisher (Amazon), or the university – or all three? To what extent should people with disabilities make the accommodation themselves?
  3. Should the Kindle be required for any student? What are its advantages for study, for the university administration, and for publishers? What are its disadvantages?
  4. What will the consequences be for use of technology in education if the litigants win?
  5. Is litigation the only – or the best – resort the blind have on this issue?
  6. Are those advocating for e-learning doing enough to accommodate people with disabilities?

If anyone is looking for some good exam questions, please feel free to use them! I’m sure I don’t have adequate answers for these questions (except perhaps no. 3), but I would sure like to hear your views on this. And I am sure there are other questions that can be raised around this issue.

Beja, M. (2009) Advocates for the Blind Sue Arizona State University Over Kindle Use Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus, July 2

Lederman, D. (2009) Challenge to the Kindle Inside Higher Education, July 6