October 23, 2017

Molecular Workbench receives $2.5 million from Google

© The Concord Consortium

The Molecular Workbench (MW) software:

  • Is a modeling tool for designing and conducting computational experiments across science.
  • Provides an authoring system for instructional designers to create and publish model and simulation-based curriculum materials.
  • Delivers an interactive learning environment that supports science inquiry
  • Is free and open-source.

Google announced today that it will award $2.5 million to the Concord Consortium (a nonprofit educational research and development organization based in Concord, Massachusetts.). This grant will allow their award-winning Molecular Workbench software and curriculum ‘to scale to reach millions and will pave the way for groundbreaking, deeply digital curricula that serve as an innovative model for the “textbook of tomorrow.“‘

The grant from Google will enable students to use browser-based devices will be able to use Molecular Workbench to study the science of atoms and molecules by experimenting with sophisticated computational models and collect real-time data via probes and sensors. These activities will provide examples of next-generation, deeply digital curricula.

The Molecular Workbench is well worth a look. I played around with it for quite a while. The interface and software is still a little clunky, but should improve considerably with the extra funding. This is an interesting example of web-based, dynamic open content.

Online simulations for bomb dispersal

New Security Learning (2011) Virtual training for bomb dispersal experts, Issue 8

A German company, szenaris GmbH, has developed a virtual reality simulation for the three remotely controlled explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robots tEODor, Telemax and PackBot EOD. While the simulation programme itself runs on almost any standard PC or laptop, the three virtual robots within it are steered via the original control devices.

The standard Remote Controlled Vehicle Simulation consists of two mobile or stationary computer workplaces for trainee and instructor and the control device for the robot. While the trainee gets the perspective of the simulated vehicle’s camera or the robot in the virtual environment shown on its monitor, the instructor is also offered training management software.

 With its help he can select a specific simulation area out of a pool of 13 different scenarios such as cars, buildings, airplanes and different kinds of terrains.

Report on Online Educa Berlin 2010

The report summarizing the Online Educa Berlin 2010 conference earlier this month concluded:

‘A new paradigm of learning emerged during the sessions attended by a record number of 2197 participants from 108 countries: Leaders in business, education and research were urged to fundamentally change the learning culture of their organisations. It was felt that only an open climate that nurtures learning will enable companies, schools or institutions of higher education to adapt to the ever increasing dynamics of competitive global markets…..

A new learning culture that takes advantage of digital technologies is also urgently needed in education. This became very clear in the ONLINE EDUCA debate, chaired by the former British MP Dr Harold Elletson. An overwhelming majority of the audience voted in favour of the motion that “The public sector has failed to use ICTs effectively in education and training”.

As I wasn’t there, I’m struggling to understand exactly what this ‘new paradigm of learning’ means, but it sounds good. I’m all for changing the learning culture – but to what? I need more details, or is this a general phrase to capture a wide variety of interesting developments that are different from traditional teaching? Would anyone who was able to attend like to attempt a definition of this new learning culture? I’m hoping for something more precise than ‘better and more use of technology.’ Alternatively, if someone will offer me a plane ticket to Berlin for next year’s conference…..

There is also a full report on sessions on serious games and simulations, showing a number of applications within the corporate and vocational sector, including police training, wine management, law, economics and literacy history. These sessions certainly looked interesting.

For more on the outcomes of this conference, see also video recordings from the conference

Innovative e-learning in the Vancouver area

I worry about the often negative tone of many of my posts. It was therefore a great pleasure to attend the joint Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) and Vancouver Community College (VCC) ‘Online showcase’ at JIBC in New Westminster, just south-east of the City of Vancouver, and see demonstrations of some great uses of e-learning for education and training.

The showcase provided an opportunity for local universities and colleges to demonstrate what they are doing regarding online learning. There were presentations from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia Institute of Technology, University of British Columbia, JIBC, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and VCC. I wasn’t able to see all the presentations, so my apologies to those presenters that I missed.

JIBC: Emergency management

JIBC is a unique education and training institution, Canada’s leading public safety educator. It provides training for police, paramedics, prison staff, probation officers, and so forth. It is partly funded by a grant from the BC provincial government and student tuition fees, but most of its revenues comes from training contracts with its main clients. The JIBC offers a range of applied and academic programs that span the spectrum of safety – from prevention to response and recovery. The JIBC’s main campus is located in New Westminster, but regional campuses allow students to study closer to home. It has a long history of using technology for the content and delivery of its programs.

The JIBC’s Emergency Management Division offers over 50 courses in this area, covering topics such as Incident Command, Emergency Operations Centre, Exercise Design and more. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver provided a challenge in terms of emergency response preparation, involving over 20 municipalities, several local police forces and the RCMP, fire and ambulance services, the Canadian (and US) military, and a host of other agencies, depending on the nature of the eventual emergency.

Jerome Rodriguez and Rosamaria Fong gave a demonstration of the materials created not only for the formal courses in emergency management offered by JIBC, but also made publicly available over the Internet and through mobile technology, such as iPhones and iPads. These resources enable all services involved in emergency response to have common and shared information about procedures, contacts and terminology. Indeed, you can see these materials by logging in to My Emergency Management Resources. The mobile learning component was assisted by a grant of $130,000 for the Inukshuk Fund, but a condition was that the material must be open access.

The Emergency Division has created open access resources such as downloadable forms that need to be completed in emergency situations, short 2-3 minutes videos of the various functional units in an Incident Command System, interactive walk throughs of a virtual emergency scene (clicking on ‘bubbles’ around the scene describes the functions of each of the units represented by bubbles), and some short video news reels of accidents or incidents to be used in training exercises. Some of these materials can be repurposed – for instance, the fire in the virtual walk through below could be moved to a high rise building and the ‘bubbles’ reconfigured.

A virtual walk through of an emergency scene © JIBC, 2010

The Division also offers WCDM 2010 – an “Immersive Simulation Technology” Workshop. Although delivered in a classroom, the immersive simulations make use of technologies such as mock video newscasts, Blackberry messages, and plotting first responder movements into GIS-enabled smart-phones using Google Earth. None of these reseources replaces the formal training provided by the JIBC, but these are low-cost, open access materials that are now available for use by training organizations across North America.

JIBC: Corrections

The Corrections and Social Justice Division trains professionals who work with adult and youth offenders in institutional and community settings, to manage the risk they pose to the public. It also trains individuals who work with families going through separation and divorce.

Rob Chong emphasised in his presentation the importance of context in designing programs. Part of the mandate of his division is to train 500 probation officers and 1500 prison guards scattered across the province. To do this, the division uses a mix of online and face-to-face learning.

There are three elements to the courses: self-study, with learners interacting with Blackboard, JIBC’s LMS; guided learning, with learners interacting with an instructor; and cohort learning, with learners interacting with other learners. Learners generally access their materials in the workplace, in prisons and local probation offices.

One example he gave was of personal safety awareness training for probation officers. Short video clips are used of simulated/acted situations, and in a self-study mode, learners are asked for how they would respond to the situation. These posts are collected then the learners meet with their managers in local offices to discuss the scenarios. As well as Blackboard and video clips, 360 degree interactive images are used, so the whole context can be seen (for instance, the design of the reception area in a probation office to highlight security). Also used are Webinars via Adobe Connect, for instance for training in interview skills. The aim is to ensure that the design and delivery of the teaching matches the context in which the learning will take place.

UBC: Using social media in a formal course


One of the courses in UBC’s fully online Master in Educational Technology is ETEC 522, Ventures in Learning Technology, taught by David Vogt and David Porter. To enable students to understand the success of entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial ventures involving learning technologies, the course provides an online immersion in global learning technologies products, services and initiatives in public and commercial domains. ETEC 522 is delivered from a venture and market analysis perspective, with a particular focus on emerging markets and real-world ventures. Jeff Miller, the instructional designer for the course, gave a presentation on ‘Creating coherence with social media.’

Quite apart from the subject matter, there are a number of innovative elements in this course. First, even though UBC is the home of WebCT, this course does not use a learning management system, but WordPress and MediaWiki, because the students as much as the instructors are creating content. Second, student’s ‘final’ work is public. Their final assignment is a multimedia ‘pitch’ for an e-learning product, service or business. These ‘pitches’ may take the form of slide or video presentations. Some of the videos can be found on YouTube. (Jeff made the interesting comment that ‘universities should be like kindergartens: students’ work should be posted on the wall.’). The ‘open’ part of the course can be seen here.

One of the challenges Jeff mentioned is drawing the line between open and closed aspects of the teaching. Although the ‘scholarship’ is public, non-registered viewers can ‘see but not touch’. The interaction between instructors and students is private; the finished work is made public. Another challenge  is archiving students’ work in a secure way while enabling it to be used by new students in the current  version of the course. For instance, the course makes use of students’ work in earlier versions of the course. (I will be writing a review of a new book on ‘Content management in E-Learning’, which looks in detail at the question of content management in e-learning.)

It is clear that moving away from a learning management system offers lots of opportunities for student engagement and student generated content, but there are also challenges in ensuring coherence and the management of their workload. This course is truly dynamic, changing each year, and continually pushing the frontiers of e-learning.

UBC: Designing online courses in science for non-science students

All UBC Arts students must take at least six credits in science as part of the Bachelor of Arts. This results in large classes for a limited number of online science courses. Most popular are the courses in Earth and Ocean Sciences, some with over 200 students per course section. Each course will have a senior instructor, usually a tenured faculty member, supported by up to four teaching assistants (usually graduate students).

The design challenge is to create science courses for students with little or poor numeracy and quantitative skills for large online classes. Chris Crowley, Josefina Rosado and Sunah Cho from UBC’s Office of Learning Technology described how they used Flash 3D images and animations within Web CT Vista to help students understand the scientific principles that explain coastal upwelling in oceans.

The senior instructor role was identified as facilitator, stimulator, monitor, subject specialist, and evaluator.

Despite the value of using interactive graphics and simulations to improve understanding, I had many questions, both about the policy (good intention but can you really train someone in science in two one semester courses?) and the design. For instance can you teach science without an understanding of and experience in experimental design?

Emily Carr University of Art and Design: Science 202

Jane Slemon offers an interesting online version of a course also offered on campus called: Heart, Mind Health: Learning from the Human Body. This course offers comprehensive understanding of the shape and function of the organs of the human body and invites creative consideration to the metaphors relative to the body that abound in culture, language and design. She showed some of the outstanding student work inspired by their understanding of human biology, reflected in metaphors of asthma, dyslexia, autism, HIV, and other areas of human suffering.

Vancouver Community College

Karen Belfer presented on VCC’s online automotive collision repair course for unqualified apprentices in the work force. (Fewer than 50% complete full-time apprenticeship training in BC, resulting in large numbers of unqualified tradespeople in the BC workforce.)  VCC used to offer this program over seven weeks on campus, requiring 30 hours a week of class attendance. This caused many problems for both apprentices (who often lost wages and unemployment insurance and would have to travel to Vancouver) and employers, who had to manage without staff during this period. The course, which is 80% theory and 20% practice/hands-on), was redesigned for study over 16 weeks online (mainly while learners were at work) and the last two weeks full-time on campus in Vancouver. Here they are tested in their practical skills, and assessed on their knowledge.

Although VCC used its Moodle LMS for this course, it found apprentices are not prepared for large amounts of reading, so efforts were made to the use industry standard online content with a high graphics, video and audio content, and to reduce the amount of text through the use of audio, video clips, graphics and cartoons, with a good deal of online interaction with materials, such as moving online objects. This hybrid course has proved to be very successful, bot with employers and learners.

Some reflections on the showcase

1. I find such ‘show and tell’ sessions extremely valuable. They reflect what people are actually doing now, and you need to see what has been created and how the program works to fully evaluate it. Such sessions are also extremely valuable for showing faculty and instructors what is possible using learning technologies. Unfortunately, there were not many instructors present during this showcase, most being instructional designers.

2. The session also emphasised the value of having learning material publicly available. Open resources provide a good indication of the quality of the course or program. I think all institutions now offering hybrid or fully online courses should have ‘sample’ resources of each course on their course web sites, so potential students can be better informed about the courses they are having to make decisions about. Also, the open educational resources in both the Emergency Response and ETEC 522 courses are very different from the very didactic and lengthy OER’s offered by MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the Open University, or from meta-tagged learning objects, and hence, in my humble view, are very much more re-usable.

3. In almost all the cases, the course designers were ‘stretching’ the functions of an LMS, or, in one case, going outside it altogether. Flash animations and short video clips were evident in several of the cases. Video now is cheap and easy to make, and adds considerable value to courses, particularly where process or procedures need to be demonstrated or where authenticity is required for training purposes. LMSs are still useful for helping students and instructors to organize learning, but they need increasingly to accommodate more multimedia functions. The main limitation of LMSs is that they require time-consuming adaptations or additions and specialist multimedia staff if students are to freely create and organize their multimedia learning. However, going without an LMS and relying entirely on web 2.0 tools presents challenges in enabling both students and instructors to manage their work within a formal course structure.

4. These cases showed a mix of approaches to the design of courses, and emphasised in particular the importance of designing for the context of learning. The diversity of learners’ needs, and the wide range of technologies now available, challenges the idea of ‘standardized’ course design, such as the traditional ‘ADDIE’ model of course design. The most innovative of the cases (Emergency Response training and ETEC 522) both used very dynamic, almost ‘on-the-fly’ course design, taking advantage of learning opportunities, new technologies and changing contexts as they arose. Interestingly, though, these courses still used project management and instructional designers.

5. The only thing missing for me in these cases was some formal evaluation of their success, partly because they were often work in progress. It could be argued that building in evaluation from the start would slow down innovation, but if the ‘system’ is to change, it will be really important to have good data and information about the success or otherwise of such projects.

I would like to end by congratulating Tannis Morgan (JIBC) and Karen Belfer for organizing this showcase. It’s made me much more optimistic about the future of e-learning heading into a new year. I believe that BC Campus has recorded the showcase, and if so, I will let you know how to access this when it is ready.

For other excellent posts (well, theirs are excellent) on this showcase see Tannis Morgan’s:

Showcase Wrapup – Extended LMS

Showcase Wrapup-Instructional Design

and Leva Lee’s Online Course Showcase

Simulations in paramedical training

The Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) offers a range of applied and academic programs that span the spectrum of safety – from prevention to response and recovery. The JIBC offers Canada’s only Bachelor’s Degree in Fire and Safety Studies, which had 80 students enrolled from across Canada and other countries in 2007/08. In 2007/08, JIBC instructors were in more than 160 communities in BC delivering basic and advanced programs to 11 BC Government ministries and 200 municipal agencies. Student numbers are over 32,000 annually, with more than 6,000 students in online programs. Although its headquarters is in New Westminster, just south-east of the City of Vancouver, 47% of JIBC students live outside Metro Vancouver and Victoria.

JIBC has a long history of online and distance learning. In particular it has a lot of experience in developing low cost digital simulations. I invited Ron Bowles, a specialist in JIBC’s School of Health Care, to describe some of the work he is doing.

Ron Bowles

Curriculum, in its traditional sense, refers to the structure and documents that describe a course – its goals, objectives, content, lessons, and evaluations. William Pinar (2004) changed the way we look at and talk about curriculum when he posed curriculum as an active process –the lived experience, the course (or path) that we run. In this sense, our learning activities, including simulations, are the paths that we, as instructors and course designers, create – the roads that lead our learners from where they are to where we want them to be.

Simulations are constructed experiences which replicate, in some fashion, selected elements of authentic or “real” worlds. Educational simulations often focus either on contextualizing or integrating previously-learned skills and knowledge. In other words, whatever “it” is – simulations help us put “it” all together and/or try “it” out in a more or less realistic way. In many applied fields, simulations are critical steps on the path to professional practice.

Online simulations use multiple forms of media to create “virtual” worlds where users (learners) “perform” actions. The range of online simulations is vast, from simple text-based case studies to avatars interacting in immersive 3D environments. Indeed, when we hear about online simulations, we tend to think of complex multimedia environments.  But online simulations need not be rich, extensive, nor expensive to be effective. Simple simulation-based online activities can dramatically enhance learners’ engagement with content and foster significant learning.

The School of Health Care at the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) develops and delivers recruit and ongoing education programs for paramedics. Paramedics in Canada must master the assessment and management of over 200 injuries and conditions. Generally, learners study these conditions in texts, then practice assessing and managing selected “calls” in classroom-based simulations before encountering “real” patients in a hospital setting. Finally, in the practicum, recruit paramedics put “it” all together in “real” ambulance calls under the direct supervision of experienced practitioners.

While this path is certainly effective, it is also somewhat narrow. Recruit paramedics perform perhaps 50 simulations in their programs, and participate as partners or patients in another 100 or so. They encounter a few dozen patients in their clinical rotation and perform somewhere between 50 and 150 ambulance calls in their practicum. The selection of simulations in the curriculum necessarily focuses on common types of calls (such as heart attacks) or uncommon calls that have high consequence of error (such as emergency child-birth). Thus, learners do not get opportunities to practice many of the 212 conditions they study. Put in the context of the pathway metaphor – simulations in our curriculum pretty much stick to the main roads (as “effective” and “efficient” curricula should, some might argue).

Online simulations provide an opportunity to both enrich the learners’ overall journey and create “side trips” to explore more fully the range of injuries and conditions paramedic recruits must master. The JIBC has developed a number of integrative simulations that focus on overall management of common injuries and conditions <click here for a sample: http://access.jibc.bc.ca/logic/programs/pcp/06_CC_250/06_CC_250e_LA_01_p9a.htm > , including, even, management of a multiple patient situation <click here to view: http://access.jibc.bc.ca/logic/MCI/MCI_Media/MCI.htm >. These simulations use a “turned-based” architecture in which learners encounter multimedia information followed by an action-based question: “what would you do next?” The scenarios have a “preferred path” with branching at critical decision points. Critical errors lead to poor outcomes (e.g. the patient deteriorates or dies).  Incorrect or suboptimal choices between these branch points trigger “wrong-answer feedback” then loop learners back to make better choices. These online simulations parallel classroom simulations, both in their emphasis on integration and contextualization and in focusing on common calls and high-risk situations.

These simulations are relatively simple and inexpensive to develop. However, their cost becomes prohibitive when implemented across the breadth of the paramedic curriculum. The Primary Care Paramedic program currently has over 20 of these simulations. While they have enriched the learners’ journey, they have merely widened the existing path. Learners are still left on their own to explore the fields and forests of their discipline.

Even simpler simulations, however, can be used to practice precursor components of a complete ambulance call. For each injury or condition, paramedics must memorize a definition, internalize a list of signs and symptoms, be able to recognize and distinguish these key features on “real” patients, and adapt the principles of managing each condition to the situations in which they encounter it in the field. Each of these steps lends itself to short online “mini-simulations” – similar to the skill stations and drills that learners use to master the psychomotor skills they employ in classroom-based “full simulations.”

The JIBC has developed a series of these short, repetitive case-based learning activities, including term/definition drills, < click here for sample drills: http://access.jibc.bc.ca/logic/programs/pcp/08_CC_252/08_CC_252e_LA_04_08.htm >. case-based application drills, and, finally, short scenarios in which the learners identify the condition and choose an appropriate set of management actions. <click here for sample drills: http://ccess.jibc.bc.ca/logic/programs/LaOGIC/PCP220/03PrimaryDrills/220Drill2Launch.htm >.

Simple, cost effective learning activities such as these enrich the learners’ journey and provide opportunities that simply aren’t available in a time-constrained classroom. These online “drills” provide footpaths and stepping stones to the areas in-between the main roads of the curriculum. While they are, on their own, relatively simple learning activities, they encourage learners to better explore, engage, and seek connections across the breadth and depth of their disciplines. Such opportunities allow us to see learning as more than a journey and consider curriculum as a potential space of exploration that includes, but is not bounded by the paths we create.


Pinar, W. F. (2004). What is Curriculum Theory? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Many thanks to Ron for this. If you have any questions about this, please contact Ron directly at: rbowles@jibc.ca