July 20, 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.

Our responsibility in protecting institutional, student and personal data in online learning

Image: © Tony Bates, 2018

WCET (2018) Data Protection and Privacy Boulder CO: WCET

United States Attorney’s Office (2018) Nine Iranians Charged With Conducting Massive Cyber Theft Campaign On Behalf Of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps New York: U.S. Department of Justice

With the recent publicity about unauthorised use of personal data on Facebook to manipulate elections in the USA and the U.K., and the above report about Iranians hacking universities for research results and intellectual property, everyone now has to take as much responsibility as possible for making sure personal data is secure and used only for authorised purposes.

This is particularly true for those of us working in online learning, where most of our interaction with students is online. Most institutions using learning management systems provide a secure area for student-instructor interactions – security is one reason why universities and colleges pay big bucks for IT systems, and making sure our student data and interactions are kept secure is a major reason for using a learning management system.

However, there are increasing reasons for working outside secure LMSs. Faculty and students now have blogs and wikis that are more open, although most require a password to allow for content to be added or comments to be made. ‘Good’ institutions ensure that student and faculty blogs and wikis are also protected from hacking. For instance, the University of British Columbia offers web and wiki facilities free of charge for all students and faculty and provides the security to support this. This blog is hosted by Contact North, which provides stronger security than I could as an individual or through an affordable commercial agency.

The problem comes when instructors and students start using unrestricted social media tools for instructional purposes. This all becomes ‘product’ for the social media companies and their advertisers (and very valuable product, given that university and college students are more likely to be high income earners after graduation.)

I was an early adopter of Facebook, back in 2005, but within 12 months I became inactive. It was not a company I felt I could trust, even back in 2005. I have good news for Facebook addicts who are wanting to get off of Facebook – life even within the online world is perfectly manageable, enjoyable and effective without Facebook. I do still keep in touch with my family and friends perfectly well and my professional life has if anything improved without Facebook.

Here I admit to being conflicted as I am still a heavy user of Google Search (although I prefer to use Firefox rather than Chrome). I was influenced by the Google corporate policy of ‘Do No Evil’ in its early days. Now Google Search is just one part of the umbrella company Alphabet, whose corporate motto is currently ‘Do the right thing’ – but for whom? It comes down more to pragmatics than ethics in the end. I can manage quite happily and easily without Facebook – I can’t without Google Search. 

This points to the problem we have as individuals in a digital society. Our power to control the use of our personal data is quite limited. We are now at the point where government regulation becomes unfortunately a necessity. (I say unfortunately because this is likely to limit to some extent innovation and change, but then so do the semi-monopolies of Amazon, Alphabet, Apple and Facebook, at least limiting change outside their systems). 

In the meantime, WCET has come to our rescue with a very useful site which really contains all you need to know about privacy and security. As their site says:

This is not just an IT problem! A breach could occur from an unintentional action by non-technical staff or student that could expose personal or institutional data to criminals and place the institution at risk by merely using weak passwords, connecting to dangerous networks, or opening suspicious emails. All members of an academic community must be trained with data protection best practices to preserve the security of the institution.

The WCET site contains links to the following:

  • their Frontiers blog posts on privacy and security issues
  • links to relevant recorded webcasts
  • links to a number of tools and reports on improving/protecting cybersecurity.

Essential reading for us all.

Now forgive me while I go and change all my passwords. 

Infographic on Google and memory

© online colleges: first published September 19, 2011

With the permission of onlinecolleges, I will be running a series of their infographics related to online learning.

Today’s is on how Google (and presumably other search engines) impact on how we remember things – both the pros and cons.

For the full size version, click here (necessary to check the sources of the information, at the bottom of the diagram).

Online search versus $168 textbook

Photo of textbook

Schaffhauser, D. (2011) Student Research: Can Googling Replace $168 Intro to Psych Textbook? Campus Technology, February 16

11 University of Cincinnati seniors in the psychology program presented at an Educause event a comparison of the content of traditional college texts, one of which costs $168, to content they found for free on the Web. They found the online material to be as good as the material in the textbook. However, it should be noted that they were helped to search online by an instructor.

Nevertheless, given that the students were developing core skills of how to search, analyse and evaluate information relevant for their course, as well as comprehend the content, the learning outcomes are likely to be even greater.

More research needs to be done on this, but anything that satisfactorily avoids the ridiculous costs of introductory textbooks is to be welcomed.

Google’s Chrome notebook: next year’s big e-learning technology?

Photo

Google Chrome Notebook

Google’s Chrome notebook is likely to hit the markets early in 2011. A pilot version is already operating.

Key features:

Price: not determined yet, but likely around US$200

Functionality: 12″ screen, full keyboard and web browser: primarily a wireless only machine

Applications and storage: mainly in the cloud (well, it is a Google product)

Security: high – more difficult than laptops or desktops to hack

Battery life: Similar to iPad, i.e. seriously long.

For an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of the Chrome see:

Rothman, W. (2010) Why Google’s Chrome will succeed Innovation on msnbc.com, December 20

Why a game-changer?

See: Joshua Kim (2010) The B.R.I.C.I.’s, Higher Ed, & the Chrome Laptop Inside Higher Education, December 9

Joshua argues that:

The Chrome is a leapfrog tool, perfect for the people of the emerging world who are currently on mobile phones (having skipped landlines), and will soon be in the market for an affordable computer. Over the next 40 years, the vast majority of the growth in higher ed will be concentrated in the emerging world – in the B.R.I.C.I.’s (Brazil, Russia, India, China, Indonesia) and their neighborhoods. It is in these countries where the important innovations in higher education will also emerge.

Risks

There are lots of reasons why the Chrome may not make it. Rothman’s article gives a comprehensive risk analysis. Competition in the notebook field is fierce, and Google doesn’t always get the market right (e.g. Google Wave).

However, I’m with Joshua Kim here. It’s not going to be in North America but in the BRIC countries where the growth in IT technology markets as well as in innovation in higher education is going to be over the next 10 years, and the Chrome looks like a perfect fit for this market.

Google Chrome icon

Google Chrome web browser icon: click to open