May 24, 2018

Open and remote labs from the UK Open University

The Open University’s remote access electron microscope set-up

On my recent visit to the UK Open University, I had the privilege of a guided tour of the Open University’s remote labs. These allow students to log on from anywhere and conduct experiments remotely. The tour was courtesy of Professor Nick Braithwaite, Associate Dean (Academic Excellence), Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.

Note that remote labs are somewhat different from simulated online experiments, where students interact by entering data or clicking and dragging on screen items. With remote labs, the equipment being operated is real, with the students actually controlling the equipment in real time as well as recording and interpreting data. 

The OpenScience Laboratory

The OpenScience Laboratory is a means of conducting authentic and rigorous investigations using real data and is globally available. It is an initiative of the Open University and the Wolfson Foundation. It includes:

  • Remote Experiments
  • Virtual instruments and interactive screen experiments
  • Online field investigations
  • 3D Immersive environments
  • Citizen Science
  • Research and development 

There are altogether more than 50 self-contained open educational resource modules in experimental science, in the OpenScience Laboratory, each taking somewhere between one to three hours of study to complete.

As an example, there is an experiment to identify what causes variation in species of heather on English moorland. It is a combination of an online video recorded on site in English moorland and guided student activities, such as taking simulated measurements and calculating and interpreting data. The video is divided in to 23 parts, showing how measurements are made in the field, how to calculate slope, water flow, and organic soil depth, and how to take simulated measurements, to test the hypothesis that different types of heather are associated with different levels of slope in moorlands. This took me a couple of hours to complete.

The heather hypothesis

The OpenSTEM labs

The Open STEM Labs are part of the OpenScience Laboratory project.

The OpenSTEM Labs connect students to state-of-the-art instrumentation and equipment for practical enquiries over the internet, where distance is no barrier and where access to equipment is available 24 hours a day.

Students and teachers access the equipment via a web browser through which they can view the experiment, send real-time control commands, monitor real-time performance and download data for subsequent analysis. Using remotely accessible hardware for laboratory and exploratory studies, ranging from electronics to chemical synthesis and from microscopes to telescopes, students are able to access the various instruments and other remote controlled resources virtually anytime from anywhere with an internet connection.

The new facilities are available to students studying Open University modules and may be available by subscription to other institutions of higher education.

Figure 1 below indicates the relationship between the Open Science Labs, OpenSTEM Labs and remote labs.

The Open University’s remote labs

Below are links to some of the diverse range of equipment available. Simply click on a link and this will take you to that experiment’s landing page, as seen by the OU’s students. Here you will then be able to access the equipment. Please note that you may have to book a session if all pieces of that equipment are being used by others. If you do book a session you should enter the experiment through the booking system at the allotted time. This will take you straight through to the equipment. (Not all these are currently operational at any one time and you may need to register first to get access).

The OU also has scanning electron microscopes, an auto-titrator, and a radio telescope available on request from those with direct experience of these curriculum areas. Please email OpenSTEM to arrange access and further briefing.

A student’s desktop view of the eye of a fly seen through the OU’s electron microscope. The student can manipulate the electron microscope to get different degrees of magnitude.

Many of the remote lab experiments are part of the Open University’s MSc in Space Science and Technology.  This includes student remote control of a model ‘Mars Rover’ operated in a mock-up of the surface of Mars.

The OU’s model of the Mars Rover

Comments

The Open University has added a new set of quality online resources in experimental science and technology to those currently offered by, among others:

I would welcome suggestions for other sources for high quality OER in experimental science and technology..

However, many more are still needed. We are still a long way from being able to build an entire high quality experimental science or technology curriculum with open educational resources. As well as increasing quantity, we need better quality resources that enable student activity and engagement, that include clearly understandable instructions, and that result in a high level of scientific inquiry. The Open University resources meet these standards, but not all other OER in this field do. Also there are issues of scalability. One needs enough students to justify the investment in software, production and equipment, especially for remote labs and quality simulations. Sharing of resources between institutions, and between departments within institutions, is therefore highly desirable.

Thus there is still a long way to go in this field, but progress is being made. If you teach science or engineering I recommend you look carefully at the Open University’s resources. It may stimulate you not only to integrate some of these resources into your own teaching, but also to create new resources for everyone.

Meeting the challenge of online degrees for the professions

 

Tina the Avatar from Drexel University’s nursing program. Tina not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated.

Chatlani, S. (2018) Navigating online professional degrees – potential and caution, Education Dive, March 21

In previous posts, I have pointed out the challenges of getting online qualifications recognised by professional associations, for instance:

The Chatlani article though shows how some institutions have worked with professional associations to obtain recognition.

Which institutions have received recognition from professional associations?

Chatlani looks at several institutions who have succeeded in getting their online professional degrees recognised. These include:

  • Syracuse University College of Law
  • Western Governors University College of Health Professions
  • Faulkner University’s Masters of Science in Counseling
  • The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law

To these institutions I would add a couple of Canadian examples:

Some of these programs are not fully online, but are hybrid, with a good deal of online learning however.

How to get online professional degrees recognized

First, it ain’t easy. It’s no good just trying to convert your on-campus content into an online version. You have to do much more to satisfy professional associations – and quite rightly, in most cases.

The biggest challenge is providing a satisfactory online context for experiential learning: enabling students to apply what they have learned in an online environment that is ‘real’ enough to transfer to an actual workplace. Typical examples would be:

  • use of video, computer simulations, and augmented or virtual reality to teach procedures and/or motor (hands-on) skills
  • use of remote labs/equipment that students can manipulate online
  • ‘virtual’ offices, companies or workplace situations that mirror real companies and their work
  • online development of inter-personal skills through one-on-one online monitoring
  • use of synchronous as well as asynchronous delivery: Syracuse designed their law program so that 50% of each online course will be in real time with students and professors interacting just as they would in a residential program, with intense Socratic dialogue in real time
  • on-campus evaluation of specific skills, such as counselling, even if they are taught online.

In addition to providing appropriate experiential learning, there are general quality issues to be addressed:

  • secure validation of student identity and online assessment;
  • investment in ‘best practice’ online course design, which will involve using learning design and learning technology specialists;
  • opportunity for substantive interaction between faculty and students; 
  • close monitoring of student activities;
  • extensive training of faculty in online teaching.

This is rather a daunting list, even if not all of these requirements apply to all professional training.

Will it be enough?

One has to look to motive here for moving online. One motive is a scarcity of professionals (or more likely, a coming scarcity). This is one major reason for Queen’s University’s Bachelor in Mining Engineering. A shortage of professionals pushes up the costs of professionals and  a shortage of professionals may mean that there are unacceptable delays in court cases (as in Canada), for instance. Offering programs partly or wholly online enables those working or with families to study more flexibly and in the end results in a larger pool of professionals.

Another motive is cost: the cost of traditional, on-campus professional degrees is often so high that many who could benefit from such programs are just unable to afford it. The hope is that online programs can bring down the cost without losing quality.

Chatlani interviewed Christopher Chapman​, CEO of AccessLex Institute, a legal education advocacy group, who argued the hybrid degree option is necessary to make becoming a lawyer more accessible and possibly less expensive:

Truly experimentation in legal education is critical to the long-term future of the field and lawyers. This could allow for the development of better pedagogy and allow for scaling where schools may be able to eventually lower their price point.

However, often professional education does not necessarily scale easily as it may require fairly small class sizes if quality is to be maintained. This is not to say there are no economies of scale: once a simulation or a virtual reality environment is created, it can be used many times with many students, but this often means not only a heavy up-front investment, but also a sophisticated business model that allows for return on investment over several or even many years.

It is worth noting that none of the example institutions above are what might be called elite institutions, who have dominated education for professionals in law, medicine and engineering for many years, and whose alumni are often the ones who set accreditation requirements for the professional associations.

And this is the problem. It benefits existing professionals to limit the number of new professionals by making existing labour scarce. If the people who are responsible for accrediting educational programs for professional recognition benefit by keeping the market restricted and themselves come from elite institutions with no experience of online learning, then online professional programs become a huge risk for the departments planning to offer them and for the students who sign up for them.

The best approach is to ensure the support of the relevant professional associations before investing heavily in such programs. The worst case scenario is to spend lots of money on developing such programs only for students to find that they still cannot get a well paid professional job with their qualification.

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

 

One reason we are not getting enough engineers in Canada: the professional associations

The CN Tower in Toronto: construction supervised by an engineer originally from Iran

From nearly 2,500 posts over nine years, none has generated so many comments as Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? 

What you will see from the comments from readers is a deep and widespread frustration at the lack of recognition by Canadian professional engineering associations of any courses or programs taken by distance. This is now getting to the point where it is becoming a national scandal. Rather than your having to read through the 120 comments or so on this post, I will summarise them for you.

Accreditation as a professional engineer in Canada

I am not an engineer by background, so please correct me if I am wrong about the process. But this seems to me to be how it works.

In order to obtain work as a professional engineer in Canada, most employers require you to be accredited through the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB). However, this means applying to one of the provincial accreditation agencies such as the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) or the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), who assess your qualifications and issue membership to their organisation.

These organisations are groups made of of professional engineers and educators (usually Deans of Engineering Schools in universities and Institutes of Technology), so it is a self-regulating process. Usually the minimum qualification for membership is a four year bachelor’s degree in engineering from a Canadian university or its equivalent (i.e. a university in the USA whose engineering program is recognized by the U.S. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

The decision about what foreign qualifications will be accepted is entirely at the discretion of the Canadian professional associations. This is not unlike other professions in Canada, such as teaching, medicine or nursing.

The professional association will require an individual to take further qualifications if it deems the existing qualifications do not meet the standards set.

Engineering and online learning in Canada

Until very recently, there were no fully online undergraduate courses, let alone degree programs, offered by Canadian universities in engineering. That is beginning to change. For instance:

  • Queens University, Ontario is now offering a fully online Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology. This program is particularly directed at those already working in the mining industry. Queen’s University is one of the oldest and most well-established public universities in Canada;
  • McMaster University, Ontario, is developing an online B.Tech (mainly software engineering) in partnership with Mohawk College. Students can take a diploma program from Mohawk then take the third and fourth year courses from McMaster University. Although the campus-based B. Tech. is well-established and successful, the online version is still in development and not yet available at the time of writing. McMaster University is another well-established Canadian public university with an outstanding reputation in engineering, especially in the automative and steel industries;
  • Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia, offers a one year online B.Tech Manufacturing degree. It is available to students with technology diploma programs from colleges across Canada which have an articulation agreement in place with CBU providing for immediate advanced standing in the BET (Manufacturing) program. Students complete the B. Tech program via distance format in as little as one academic year.

These are the only online programs in engineering from accredited Canadian universities that I know about. If you know of others please let me know.

In addition there are more (but not many) accredited universities in the USA that offer fully online engineering degrees, for example:

  • the University of North Dakota (a highly respected state university) has been offering a range of engineering courses (civil, mechanical, petroleum) mainly or fully online for several years. 
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics)

Will these qualifications be recognised?

Here’s what Queen’s University states about its Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology:

The BTech program is unaccredited. Graduates seeking professional licensure would need to apply to write the Board Exams in mining engineering. In Ontario, the application would 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.

Neither the McMaster nor the Cape Breton web sites provides any statement about professional accreditation.

What do the professional associations say about online or distance learning?

The Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) stated in 2016 that

  • ‘PEO does not recognize online or distance education.’

Similarly from APEGA:

  • ‘The current Board of Examiners practice is that they do not recognize distance learning programs.’ 

So frankly, don’t bother to take an online program in engineering in Canada if you want to be a professional engineer.

Determining eligibility: obfuscation and confusion

Furthermore the whole process of identifying from the professional associations whether an online program would be accepted is circuitous and unhelpful. One reader of my blog wrote and told me that he had written to APEGA to ask whether the University of North Dakota engineering degree would be recognised as a qualification towards membership of APEGA. Here is the response he received:

 
The eligibility of any courses you’ve completed will be determined by our Academic Examiners. If the courses were completed in Canada, you will need to submit the transcripts for them to be reviewed. If they were from outside of Canada, you will need to obtain an Academic Assessment Report from World Education Services (WES).

In other words, spend several thousand dollars in tuition fees, THEN we will tell you whether we accept your qualifications or not.

Note that the UND program had already been accredited by the ABET in the USA. Alberta’s APEGA was in fact prepared to make an exception for this degree, but this was not acceptable to Ontario’s PEO. Discussions were to continue with the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, but I could find no record of such discussions in a search of their recent documentation. So who knows whether or not the UND degree will be accepted by which provincial association?
 
Or let’s say you are a recent immigrant with an engineering degree from another country. In Alberta, the Alberta Council for Admissions and Transfer (ACAT) is the official body that provides information on admission requirements to engineering programs in Alberta universities and colleges. If you go to the ACAT web site to find out whether you degree would be accredited in Alberta, you are referred to another web site, The Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials. They then refer you back to APEGA.

Why it’s a scandal

Without obtaining a P.Eng. from the professional engineering association in a particular province, it is difficult if not impossible to get a job as a professional engineer. Of course such associations are important to ensure that engineering is being done professionally. Nobody wants their bridges to collapse or car parks on shopping malls to crash into shoppers below (Oh, wait – both of those did happen recently in Ontario).

Why we need high standards in engineering qualifications: Elliott Lake shopping mall collapse

But are these organizations making it unnecessarily difficult for people to qualify as professional engineers? From the 120 comments or so to my blog, there is strong evidence that they are. Yet at the same time we have great hand-wringing from employers, especially, about the lack of qualified engineers.

Let’s be clear about this. This engineering gap is not going to be met purely from high school leavers going into engineering programs at conventional universities. The demographics mean that many of those already working at the technical level in engineering will need upgrading and further qualifications, many while still working – hence the brave but unaccredited program from Queen’s University in mining engineering. Presumably employers will take these graduates even if the PEO holds its nose and sniffs at them because the program was done online.

I heard recently on CBC radio there are currently 18,000 engineers in Canada who came from Iran, one of whom was the supervisor for the construction of the CN tower in Toronto. We will need more engineers from immigrants who should be able to upgrade their existing engineering qualifications online while working at a lower level, without having to start from scratch.

I am not arguing that all engineering can be done fully online. Hands-on experience with equipment and laboratory work are essential. However, increasingly we are seeing co-op programs where employers provide that hands-on experience, often with more advanced and newer equipment than the universities have. Furthermore, more and more engineering is itself virtual (automation for driverless cars, for instance). Simulations and animations are increasingly replacing hands-on training. All the theoretical components of an engineering degree can be handled just as well online, and probably better, than in a face-to-face lecture class.

APEGA and PEO, like many professional bodies, are basically a closed shop or guild that restrict entry to create shortages so that members then can charge higher fees. More importantly they are often run, on a voluntary basis, by older engineers who are blissfully ignorant of new developments in engineering education. At a time when we need more highly qualified people we need greater flexibility in accepting credentials from other countries and more openness to online and distance education qualifications.

It’s time the professional associations in engineering realised that this is the 21st century and recognized appropriate online qualifications.

MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer

 

This week I spent three days at the MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium) conference in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the theme: ‘Realizing the Dream: Education Becoming Available to All. Will the World take Advantage?’.

Because there is so much information that I would like to share, I am dividing this into two posts. This post will focus mainly on the activities reported from around the world, although many of these projects are related to or supported by MIT faculty and staff volunteers.

My second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic, will focus on what MIT is doing to support technology-enabled learning, mainly at home.

But first some words about the conference.

LINC

The Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) is an MIT-managed international initiative that began in 2001 and is operated by a growing team of MIT faculty, student and staff volunteers. 

The mission of the LINC project is: With today’s computer and telecommunications technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth or wealth of parents.

LINC was the brain-child of Richard Larson, Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.

The conference

LINC 2013 was the sixth conference on this theme organized by MIT. It presented a range of topics, technologies and strategies for technology-enabled learning for developing countries, and raised a number of questions about the implementation of learning technologies within developing countries. There were over 300 participants from 49 countries.

The conference was supported by MIT, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Fujitsu, enabling many participants from developing countries to be supported in their travel and accommodation.

I report below just a selection of the many sessions around the theme of technology-supported education in or for developing countries, and I apologize that for space reasons, I can’t give a full report on all the sessions.

MOOCs

The conference started with a session on four perspectives on MOOCs, with four speakers making short 20 minute presentations followed by a Q&A panel with the four speakers fielding questions from the audience. I was one of the speakers in this session, and because the session deserves a whole report on its own, I discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Sufficient here to say that Sir John Daniel made a point reinforced by speakers in other sections that open and virtual universities have been delivering mass credit-based open learning in developing countries for many decades before MOOCs arrived.

The state of technology-enabled education around the world

The future direction of virtual universities

John Daniel’s point was picked up in this session, when Presidents/Rectors from Tec de Monterrey’s Virtual University in Mexico, the African Virtual University, and the Virtual University of Pakistan described the activities of their institutions. In each case, these projects are reaching very large numbers of students in their own countries or region (around 100,000 each), but each institution has its own sets of challenges as well, especially in reaching the very poor or disadvantaged. However, each of these institutions seems to have a sustainable funding base which promises well for the future.

Bakary Diallo, Rector, African Virtual University

Reaching poor young men in Latin America

Fernando Reimers, the Director of the International Education Policy Program at Harvard, discussed the challenges that youth face in developing countries, particularly adolescent boys and young men, who are turned off by traditional teaching methods that neither fit their learning styles nor prepare them for the skills and knowledge needed in today’s workforce. He pointed out that less than 1% of the poorest 10% in Brazil have Internet access. (Similarly, in Mexico, less than 5% of socio-economic groups C, D and E currently have Internet access, and these three groups constitute almost two-thirds of the population.)

National educational policies and educational reform

Robin Horn discussed a World Bank project, SABER, which stands for A Systems Approach to Better Educational Results. The World Bank has found that often educational reform initiatives fail to gain traction in many countries because they do not align with existing government policies (or put another way, without changing policies, the reforms will not gain traction.) By looking at countries that have successful educational outcomes, and comparing their policies with the policies in other developing countries, it is hoped to identify barriers to educational reform. One example is telecommunications policies. An over-regulated, government controlled access to bandwidths can lead to high Internet costs due to lack of competition, whereas loose or unregulated government policies allow for competition resulting in both increased access and lower Internet costs (Canadian government: please note). Mike Trucano at the World Bank is identifying policies that appear to facilitate or inhibit the application of learning technologies in developing countries and this will be added to SABER in the near future.

The SABER website is packed full of data and analysis and makes fascinating reading for policy aficionados, and certainly my experience is that in all countries (not just developing countries) government policies do have a major influence on innovation and change in education. However, at the same time, ‘top-down’ strategies for increasing the use of learning technologies rarely work (South Korea may be an example of this – see below). In other words, government policies can foster or inhibit educational reform, but the reforms themselves will often have to come from or be supported by those close to the action, the teachers, parents and other stakeholders who will gain most from the changes.

Reaching the poor through educational TV in Brazil

Lúcia Araújo, the CEO of Canal Futura, an educational television network in Brazil, described the extensive use of ‘open source’ educational television and support materials that are being used by teachers throughout Brazil to support their classroom teaching. The programs are freely accessible through public television stations throughout Brazil, and almost 100% of homes in Brazil have access to television, a reminder that in many countries there are still better alternatives than the Internet to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged.

Online universities in Korea and SE Asia

Okwha Lee from Chungbuk National University in South Korea gave an overview of national educational technology developments in South Korea. In terms of sheer scale of online learning South Korea is one of the world’s leaders, with 21 cyber or online universities alone serving over 100,000 Korean students. The South Korean government plays a heavy hand in financing and managing national educational technology initiatives, through KERIS (the Korean Education and Research Information Service), and some of its centralization of data collection and top-down policies have provoked both hunger strikes and a national teachers’ strikes. South Korea has also invested in the ASEAN cyber university, which will include students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mynmar, with plans to extend it later to other ASEAN countries. Initially students will access programs through local e-learning centres.

Using Intranets to lower the cost of online learning in Africa

Cliff Missen, Director of the WiderNet Project and eGranary, gave a fascinating talk based around access to online learning in Africa. The WiderNet Project is a nonprofit organization, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that is dedicated to improving digital communications to all communities and individuals around the world in need of educational resources, knowledge, and training. Cliff Missen’s focus was on the high cost of Internet access for learners in developing countries, pointing out that while mobile phones are widespread in Africa, they operate on very narrow bandwidths. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Programs requiring extensive bandwidth, such as video lectures, are therefore prohibitively expensive for most Africans.

The WiderNet solution is the development of local Intranets linked to an extensive local library of open educational resources, the e-Granary project. The eGranary Digital Library — “The Internet in a Box” — is an off-line information store that provides instant access to over 30 million Internet resources to institutions lacking adequate Internet access. Through a process of copying web sites (with permission) and delivering them to partner institutions in developing countries, this digital library delivers instant access to a wide variety of educational resources including video, audio, books, journals, and Web sites. This means setting up local servers and terminals, and even building a small wireless station to cover the surrounding community, but not necessarily linked into the wider Internet. This cuts down substantially on the cost of accessing digital educational resources.

MIT BLOSSOMS: Math and Science Video Lessons for High School Classes

This project has developed over 60 short videos to enrich science and math high school lessons, all freely available to teachers as streaming video and Internet downloads and as DVDs and videotapes. The videos are made in short sections, with stopping points for student and teacher activities built into the videos and supported by the teachers’ guide to each video

What makes this program particularly interesting is that many of the videos have been developed in developing countries, through partnerships between MIT and local schools and teachers, and with local presenters, often from high schools themselves. The videos are of high quality, both in terms of content, which is guaranteed by oversight from MIT professors, and in production quality. There is a strong emphasis in relating science and math to everyday life. For examples see: How Mosquitoes Fly in Rain (made in the USA) and Pythagoras and the Juice Seller (made in Jordan).

As a result, these videos are also being increasingly used by schools in the USA as well as by schools in developing countries. Although some of the programs are made in the native language of the country where they are made, they are also provided with English sub-titles or with also a voice-over version. By developing programs with local teachers, programs can be fully integrated within the national curriculum, and MIT BLOSSOMS team has also shown how each video relates to individual US state curricula.

What MIT is doing in technology-enabled learning

This session focused on MIT’s other activities in technology-enabled learning. I will discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Parallel sessions

In addition to the above plenary sessions there were also 72 presentations, each of roughly ten minutes, in parallel sessions. I cannot possibly report on them all, but I will report on two that I found really interesting .

Taylor’s University, a private university in Malaysia, is using the iPad for teaching foundational engineering. The iPads are used to access  iBooks and electronic study materials that have been specially developed by the School of Engineering to support and enhance the students’ learning. Many of the animations and applications were specially developed by final year undergraduate students, working with their professor, Mushtak Al-Atabi. There is a video on YouTube that includes a good demonstration of how the iPad is used.

The second was presented by Ahmed Ibrahim in behalf of a team of researchers from McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada. They investgated through interviews “sources of knowledge” for students entering a gateway science course. The found that the most common source of ‘physics’ knowledge for the students is the teacher, followed by the textbook and other sources such as the Internet – what the researchers called testimony. Few students used deduction, induction or experimentation as means to ‘verify’ their knowledge. Thus the students did not feel empowered to be able to generate valid physics knowledge by themselves and  they have to turn to experts for it. In other words students are taught about science, rather than doing science, in high schools. They concluded that instructors need to use instructional methods, and activities that promote deeper learning, more conceptual knowledge construction, and more sophisticated epistemological beliefs. In other words, stay away from information transmission and focus on activities that encourage scientific thinking. Although this is a general finding (and based on a very small sample), it is significant for what I have to say in my next post about MOOCs and teaching science.

Conclusions

This was one of the most interesting conferences I have been to for a long time. It brought together practitioners in using technology-enabled learning, primarily in science, math and engineering, from a wide range of countries. As a result there was a wide range of approaches, from the highly ‘engineering-based’ approach of MIT with a focus on advanced or new technologies such as MOOCs, to practitioners tackling the challenges of lack of access to or the high cost of the Internet in many developing countries.

In particular, Internet access remains a major challenge, even in newly emerging countries with dynamic economies, such as Brazil, Mexico, and India, especially for reaching beyond the relatively wealthy middle classes. Even in economically advanced countries such as Canada, wideband access, needed for video-lecture based MOOCs for instance, is problematic for many disadvantaged groups such as the urban poor or for remote aboriginal reserves.

I was therefore interested to see that non-Internet based technologies such as radio, broadcast television or DVDs are still immensely valuable technologies for reaching the poor and disadvantaged in developing countries, as are Internet-linked local learning centres and/or Intranets.

Lastly, despite nearly 80 years of aid to developing countries, finding technology-enabled solutions to increasing access to education that are long-term and sustainable remains a challenge, especially when the aid is generated and organized from developed countries such as the USA and Canada. Local partnerships, cultural adaptation, use of appropriate, low-cost technologies, teacher education, and institutional and government policy changes are all needed if technology transfer is to work.

However, there is clear evidence from this conference that in many developing or economically emerging countries, there are local individuals and institutions finding local and appropriate ways to use technology to support learning. It will often start in the more affluent schools or in universities, but as the Internet gradually widens its spread, it begins to filter down to lower income groups as well. Indeed, in some areas, such as mobile learning in Africa, there is innovation and development taking place that exceeds anything in the developed world, in terms of originality and spread amongst the poor and disadvantaged.

The MIT group behind LINC has done a great service in providing a means for participants from both developed and developing countries to share experience and knowledge in this area.