September 22, 2018

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.

 

Some very good news for Athabasca University (and its students)

Athabasca University convocation

Graney, J. (2018) Athabasca University gets $4.9 million grant to upgrade outdated IT Edmonton Journal, June 8

One year on from the delivery of the Coates Report, an external review of the university, the Alberta provincial government has announced a one-off additional grant of almost $5 million to the university to help it overcome some of the problems it has been facing. The money is earmarked as follows:

  • $1.5 million to implement the university’s new strategic plan, which is in response to the recommendations in the Coates Report
  • $1.5 million to develop and implement a plan to improve student delivery services
  • $1.5 million to implement the university’s plan to upgrade its IT system, moving to a cloud-based system
  •  $400,000 to develop a long-range plan to renew the university’s teaching and learning framework.

The grant will enable Athabasca University to modernize significantly its digital learning environment and upgrade the existing IT infrastructure.

Marlin Schmidt, the Minister for Advanced Education in Alberta, is quoted as saying:

I am pleased with the progress made by the university to ensure that the recommendations in the Coates Report are implemented. I know these additional investments will support the university’s long-term success.

Comment

This is very good news for both the university and especially its students. It indicates that the Alberta government has confidence in the future of the university, and the funding provides necessary resources for modernizing and improving the quality of its teaching and other student services.

Once again though I am disappointed by the headline in the Edmonton Journal. ‘Athabasca University gets $4.9 million to become a world leader in digital learning’ would  have been a more accurate headline.

True, the university needs to upgrade its IT infrastructure, which was the subject of a scathing audit by the provincial auditor-general, but the majority of the funding has quite rightly gone to ensuring that the overall strategic plan is implemented, and to improving the quality of student services and the quality of teaching.

Congratulations to everyone at AU on getting this far so quickly since the Coates Report. Now you just have to do it.

 

5 IDEAS for a pedagogy of online learning

ideas-2

Guardia, L. (ed.) (2016) Next Generation Pedagogy: IDEAS for Online and Blended Higher Education. Barcelona Spain: UOC eLearn Centre.

This report aims

to provide a “roadmap” to inform strategic planning for the future of online and blended higher education, through an exploratory search and identification of trends and innovations in online, blended and lifelong learning provision globally, with a focus on pedagogy and the analysis of related institutional examples in the higher education sector.

‘Next generation’ pedagogies

The report’s executive summary provides a succinct description of emerging developments in online pedagogy, summarised in the acronym IDEAS: Intelligent, Distributed, Engaging, Agile and Situated.

The IDEAS framework presents five “signposts” on the roadmap of innovative approaches to teaching, which point to next-generation pedagogy:

  • Intelligent pedagogy is an approach to teaching in which technology is used to enhance the learning experience. Examples include using learning analytics to support course leaders in curriculum design decisions as well as to help students manage their learning, ensuring that both learners and teachers learn digital competences, creating a learning environment that is not restricted to an institutional learning management system, and the creative use of technologies such as virtual and augmented reality for learning and teaching.
  • Distributed pedagogy refers to shared or distributed ownership of different elements of the learning journey by different stakeholders in the process. It includes, at the one end of the spectrum, collaborative partnerships between institutions, and at the other, a deliberate separation of services to allow learners to select different aspects of their learning experience from a marketplace of potentially competing providers. It is possible for a single institution to have offerings at both ends of this spectrum.
  • Engaging pedagogy is an approach to curriculum design and delivery in which learners are encouraged to actively participate in the learning process. Related practices include supporting students to develop portfolios that have relevance for them outside of the classroom, involving the learners in producing content both for peers and for the wider public, creating conditions in which learners can construct knowledge for themselves, and including an element of gamification in the learning process. There is a related increased emphasis on teaching enhancement programmes for teaching staff to support them in making the learning experience engaging for learners.
  • Agile pedagogy refers to flexibility and customisation of the curriculum and the student experience. It includes personalised learning pathways and individualised support for learners, recognition of prior, non-formal learning achievements in order to widen participation and fast-track learners through programmes, responsiveness of institutions and systems to learners’ needs, and support for virtual mobility of students and internationalisation of the curriculum. All these developments also support the widening of participation in higher education, facilitating access for learners who might previously have been excluded.
  •  Situated pedagogy encompasses the idea of contextualisation of learning and emphasises the need for curricula with real-world relevance. It expands work-related learning opportunities for students, and supports.

It also provides real-world examples, drawn internationally, that illustrate each of the five developments.

This report is intended to be used as a launchpad for wide-ranging dialogue amongst stakeholders at distance teaching universities, contributing to the development of a bold vision of the impact that these institutions can have on global higher education and on society as a whole.

Emerging online practices

The five IDEAS are a useful organizational framework for summarising what in fact is a wide range of emerging online practices identified in this study, including:

  • Active learning (Arizona State University, USA)
  • Beyond the LMS: augmented reality: (University de Huelva, Spain)
  • Inter-institutional collaboration (BCcampus, Canada)
  • Digital literacy (DIGCOMP, EU)
  • Collaboration between HE institutions and employers (X-Culture, global)
  • Flexibility and personalisation (Capella University, USA)
  • Innovation as a teachable topic (MIT, USA)
  • Internationalisation (Massey University, New Zealand)
  • Learning analytics (Georgia State University, USA)
  • Non-formal and open learning (OpenClassrooms, France)
  • Recognition of prior learning (Athabasca University, Canada)
  • Faculty development (Penn State University, USA)

Comment

This report provides some intriguing suggestions for designers of blended and online learning. As the report states:

The examples of initiatives discussed ….. may be used as inspiration for course teams, departments or institutions to explore innovative practices.

It is clear that universities are going to change, not just because technology is at last beginning to radically shake up how we design courses, but also because the needs of learners are changing. In the end, the value of any new online pedagogy will be judged by how well it helps meets these needs. This report provides many useful ideas and examples that should help stimulate such developments.

Thanks to Richard Elliott’s excellent eLearning Watch for directing me to this publication

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning

conference-board-2

Grant, M. (2016) Learning in the Digital Age Ottawa: Conference Board of Canada

The Conference Board of Canada bills itself as ‘the foremost independent, evidence-based, not-for-profit applied research organization in Canada’. Its Board is made up mainly of representatives from major corporate or business organizations. So when it issues a report on e-learning in Canada, it is likely to be read across a broad swathe of corporate and governmental organizations not directly engaged in education, but with a major interest in the kinds of graduates being produced in Canada in a digital age. It is also something that Canadian university leaders are likely to pay attention to as well.

What the report is about

The introduction to the report states:

Information and communication technologies hold the potential to improve post-secondary learning by making learning more accessible and engaging. This report considers how and when e-learning may be used to improve post-secondary education in Canada.

Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

E-learning is defined (‘online learning’ is considered as being more or less the same as e-learning), it is argued that the quality of teaching drops as face-to-face class sizes get larger, and e-learning can make learning less expensive and more accessible.

Chapter 2: the 5 Ws of e-learning:

The five Ws are the what, why, when, who, and where of e-learning in Canada. The main points of this chapter are as follows:

  • E-learning uses a range of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to deliver and manage learning.
  • The inherent differences between e-learning and traditional face-to-face classroom instruction relate to two factors: organization of time and space, and use of technology.
  • E-learning is becoming more popular because it appeals to learners, is cost-effective, and its quality is improving.
  • The North American e-learning market is mature in terms of e-learning adoption, but still developing in terms of the sophistication of e-learning offerings. Other markets around the world are rapidly adopting e-learning.

Chapter 3: Post-secondary e-learning in Canada

This provides a brief summary of current e-learning provision in Canadian universities and colleges. Almost the whole of the information in this chapter is based on secondary sources. It concludes:

Canada’s post-secondary institutions have been reluctant to offer e-learning as a degree option to full-time undergraduate students; perhaps because this would compete with residential learning programs.

This chapter also argues that investments in e-learning technologies such as LMSs are considerably under-utilized, that adoption is following the path of least resistance, and for the most part, e-learning is not being used as an alternative format for younger, full-time degree students because this would undermine institutions’ need to make use of existing classroom infrastructure.

Chapter 4: Advancing e-learning

This chapter particularly looks at the perceived barriers to e-learning:

There are a variety of institutional factors that must be addressed if e-learning is to be more widely adopted in the Canadian post-secondary system. These have to do with the way capital is funded at the institutions, institution management, and the way e-learning is designed and executed.

most of the people who make decisions about funding capacity favour building more physical classes. It matters little whether this is the most efficient and effective way to conduct post-secondary education….The economics of funding capacity help to explain why e-learning adoption is low. If capacity is funded in a different way, then the economics will change.

rational capacity planning and utilization should consider optimal pedagogy and learner preferences first, followed by investing in suitable learning capacity to accommodate the volume and type of learning. Then the pricing of learning should reflect its cost to deliver.

In this chapter it is argued that there is much poor quality e-learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions, but it provides three examples of effective e-learning design and execution (from York University, the University of Alberta, and Humber College).

Main report conclusions

  • E-learning holds the potential to profoundly change the way post-secondary education (PSE) is designed and delivered.
  • From a quality perspective, e-learning may be more engaging, less passive, and more customized to different learning styles than traditional lecture-based learning.
  • There are about 1.3 million enrolments in fully online university and college courses in Canada. E-learning accounts for between 10 and 15 per cent of PSE learning.
  • Greater adoption of e-learning will happen if institutional focus on traditional classroom delivery can be reduced; faculty are adequately supported when they teach online; and e-learning design, development, and delivery practices improve.

Report recommendations (summary)

‘Based on this report’s analysis, the following recommendations are made for consideration in the [Conference Board’s] Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE) national strategy:

  1. Reduce economic barriers to e-learning adoption: Institutional administrators, governments, and benefactors need to work together to change the PSE approach to capacity planning. They need to consider how to use e-learning and blended learning to lower costs, improve accessibility, and increase quality.
  2. Tackle institutional constraints to e-learning: Faculty resistance will be broken down when more faculty members are supported in approaching their teaching responsibilities through blended and e-learning formats.
  3. Adopt excellent e-learning practices: Post-secondary institutions need to recognize e-learning instructional design as a unique discipline. They need to access these distinctive skills either through their own in-house teams or external providers. Forums need to be created for post-secondary stakeholders to share and adopt best practices in e-learning design and execution.

Comment

This is a curious report and I find it unusually difficult to comment on it. Most of the conclusions I would not disagree with, but the report has a peculiar feeling of being written by outsiders who haven’t really quite grasped what’s going on. What is going on is a slowly boiling and considerably variable revolution in higher education that is not easily measured or even captured in individual anecdotes or interviews.

The main weakness of the report is that it relies so heavily on secondary sources. It is really disappointing that the Conference Board did not do any original research to establish the state of e-learning in Canadian post-secondary education. By relying to large extent on a few selective interviews and a very limited range of previously published papers, the report suggests conclusions were arrived at early then evidence was looked for to support the conclusions. At no point does it provide any evidence to support statements such as ‘e-learning can make learning less expensive and more accessible.’ Yes, it can but we need evidence, and it would show (for instance see: Carey and Trick, 2013) that while relatively important gains in productivity can be made, there are also serious limitations to what can be done in this respect.

At the same time, it is an important report. It does make the excellent point that a great deal of investment in post-secondary education is driven by the need to maximize physical plant and that this seriously militates against the large investment needed in e-learning if it is to make a difference. Cutting ribbons on a new building is much more photogenic for politicians than enrolling another 1,000 students online.

However, when you look at the recommendations they are painfully obvious and in fact are being applied in many if not most Canadian post-secondary institutions, maybe too slowly or not aggressively enough but the report makes it clear why this is the case.

At the end of the day this report reads somewhat like the first draft of a masters’ dissertation on Canadian online learning. It does not provide the heft needed to bring about or rather accelerate the major changes I would agree that are needed in this area. In particular once again a major opportunity to provide some new, hard data on online learning, and particularly its potential for improving productivity, was missed.

Nevertheless I do hope that government policy makers, institutional leaders and corporations will pay attention to this report, because it does make clear that e-learning/online learning must be a critical component of a successful future for Canadian post-secondary education. We just need to invest more in it.

Reference

Carey, T., & Trick, D. (2013). How Online Learning Affects Productivity, Cost and Quality in Higher Education: An Environmental Scan and Review of the Literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Is networked learning experiential learning?

Image: © Justin Grimes, The Guardian, 2013

Image: © Justin Grimes, The Guardian, 2013

Campbell, G. (2016) Networked learning as experiential learning Educause Review, Vol. 51 No. 1, January 11

This is an interesting if somewhat high level discussion by the Vice-Provost for Learning Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University, USA, of the importance of networked learning as experiential learning:

the experience of building and participating within a digitally mediated network of discovery and collaboration is an increasingly necessary foundation for all other forms of experiential learning in a digital age. Moreover, the experience of building and participating within a digitally mediated network of discovery is itself a form of experiential learning, indeed a kind of metaexperiential learning that vividly and concretely teaches the experience of networks themselves.

This article might be useful for those who feel a need for a pedagogical or philosophical justification for networked learning. However, I have two reservations about Campbell’s argument which are closely related:

  • Campbell appears in one part of the article to be arguing students need some kind of academic training to understand the underlying nature of digital networking, but he is not too clear in the article about what that entails or indeed what that underlying nature is, beyond the purely technical;
  • second, I struggled to see what the consequences of the argument are for me as a teacher: what should I be doing to ensure that students are using networked learning as experiential learning? Does this happen automatically?

I think Campbell is arguing that instructors should move away from selecting and packaging information for students, and allow them to build knowledge through digital networks both within and outside the academy. I of course agree with this part of the argument, but the hard part is knowing the best ways to do this so that learners achieve the knowledge and skills they will need.

As with all teaching methods, networked learning and/or experiential learning can be done well or badly. I would like to see (a) a more precise description of what networked learning means to Gardner in terms of practice, and (b) some guidelines or principles to support instructors in using networked learning as a form of experiential learning. This needs to go beyond what we know about collaborative learning in online groups, although even the application of what we know about this would be a big step forward for most instructors.

Without a clear analysis of how digital networking results in learning, and how this differs from non-digital networked learning, networked learning runs the risk of being yet another overworked buzzword that really doesn’t help a great deal.

Despite my reservations I encourage you to take a look at this article and see if you can make more sense of it than I have, because I believe that this is a very important development/argument that needs further discussion and critical analysis.

For a more pragmatic take on this topic see:

LaRue, B. and Galindo, S. (2009). ‘Synthesizing Corporate and Higher Education Learning Strategies’. in Rudestam, K. and Schoenholtz-Read, J. (eds.) Handbook of Online Learning: Innovations in  Higher Education and Corporate Training Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.