September 22, 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.


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.

Government cuts affect U.S. universities’ ‘world reputation’

Harvard University's Canteen

Huff Post College (2013) Most Prestigious Universities: Times Higher Education’s 2013 World Reputation Rankings, March 5

The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings employs an invitation-only academic opinion survey to provide a list of the top 100 most powerful global university brands.
The Times Higher Education publicly states that the ‘reputation league table is based on nothing more than subjective judgement,‘ and of course the rankings will be strongly influenced by the sample that the THE invites to participate. (Click here for the methodology.)

I and many others have criticized the way university rankings are done. See for instance:

Usher, A. (2103) The paradox of university rankings Higher Education Strategy Associates, March 4

Nevertheless, Phil Baty, the editor of Times Higher Education, notes that reputation of universities in the U.S. and U.K. is declining. Pointing out that the three U.S. universities to drop out of the top 50 are all publicly funded, Baty writes:

Spending cuts are clearly having a serious negative effect on the nation’s standing and ability to compete in an increasingly competitive global market. Meanwhile, East Asian institutions are enjoying serious government investment and rapidly rising prestige, which in turn are driving their knowledge and innovation economies. This is bad news for US competitiveness.

University of Toronto ranks 16, and UBC ranks 31.

The top 10:

1 Harvard University United States
2 Massachusetts Institute of Technology United States
3 University of Cambridge United Kingdom
4 University of Oxford United Kingdom
5 University of California, Berkeley United States
6 Stanford University United States
7 Princeton University United States
8 University of California, Los Angeles United States
9 University of Tokyo Japan
10 Yale University United States

European universities: re-form or die; but what about Canada?

University of Paris Sorbonne

Grove, J. (2012) Long, cold financial winter lies ahead for Europe’s academy Times Higher Education, February 9

What’s happening in Europe

This is a really depressing, bad news item. Especially in the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), universities are facing budget cuts in the region of 20% in the next year or so. For many of these countries, the entire principle of state-funded universities is under threat:

  •  in Spain, €485 million will be taken from education overall, and assistance to local authorities – key supporters of universities – will be reduced by just over €1 billion (total: US $2 billion; population 46 million). A spokesperson for Spanish universities said: ‘Universities have  [already] limited common expenditure as much as possible. But we cannot do it any longer. We have been tightening our belts for so long [and] we try to make the most of the means at our disposal, but right now we have so little leeway [to handle these extra cuts].”
  • in Ireland, university pensions are being cut by 15%. Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, believes that the current situation, which has had a severe impact on many individuals’ workloads, is not sustainable. “I think something has got to give,” he says. “People are doubling up and academics can give lectures to 1,000 people if it comes to that. But we won’t be able to correct essays or give feedback to students.  We are simply being starved to death, rather than having any dramatic blow to knock us out. It’s a case of death by a thousand cuts.”
  • the head of unit governance, autonomy and funding at the European Universities Association said that for 2012 out of 47 member countries only Norway, Finland and Germany have maintained their commitments to increasing funding for higher education.
  • the UK has already raised tuition fees to $9,600 ($15,000) a year, with a resulting drop in university applications, although to date this has been quite small (around 2%); however, since the UK government guarantees student loans, it has merely put off the day of reckoning, especially if the economy contracts, as expected, due to austerity measures, so there won’t be the jobs for graduates that they will need to repay their debts.

The need for reform

I could go on, but you get the picture. I’m not going to get into the debate about the stupidity of severe austerity measures to pay off bad bets by banks and bad decisions by governments who wouldn’t face reality, but I do have to say that particularly in Southern Europe (less so in Ireland) there is a good deal of room for increased efficiencies in their post-secondary educational systems.

Many turn out thousands of surplus graduates in law and philosophy for whom there are no jobs, while there is a shortage of skilled workers such as computer specialists, engineers and qualified workers for the creative industries. In many European countries, students pay no or very small tuition fees. No, I’m not arguing for closing down all law and philosophy departments, nor for the level of tuition fees in the UK, but in many of the southern European countries, there is almost open access for anyone who wants to go to university, which is fine, but no guarantee of a job afterwards as a result. In some countries (France comes to mind) university lecturers often have ridiculously low teaching commitments.

Unfortunately I fear though that the first to be cut will be what are considered ‘ancillary services’ such as learning technology support units (where they exist – many Italian universities have no such support), rather than looking to e-learning as one way to respond to a severe crisis.

What about Canada?

At this point, you may well be asking, ‘Well, what about Ontario?’ Canada’s largest province has its own financial troubles, with a $14 billion deficit in 2010–11 that is equivalent to 2.3 per cent of GDP. Net debt came to $214.5 billion, 35 per cent of GDP. As a result, the Ontario provincial government appointed a Commission led by an economist (Don Drummond) to advise it on developing a sustainable budget without privatization of health and education and without tax increases.

In my view, his report is excellent. First a matter of perspective. He states: ‘By current international standards, Ontario’s debt is still relatively small. We are a very long way from the dreadful fiscal condition of countries that have dominated the news in the past two years.’ However, he also points out that Ontario and Greece’s economies were very similar in 1985, and that economies can quickly spin out of control. Ontario’s is heading in the wrong direction and needs to be corrected.

One of the areas he looked at was post-secondary education. His conclusion: ‘The current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective.’ However, he does not recommend drastic cuts to funding, but an actual increase of 1.5 per cent per annum. However, enrollment growth is anticipated at 1.7 per cent while the institutions’ costs have been rising by three per cent to five per cent. ‘Just to keep the system operating as it does now, post-secondary institutions will need both more funding and more efficiency…..The current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective, as enrolment growth crowds out the funding that is available even to maintain the status quo.’

Thus the Drummond Commission recommends the following:

  1. Contain government funding and institutional expenses;
  2. Use differentiation to improve post-secondary quality and achieve financial sustainability;
  3. Encourage and reward quality;
  4. Revise research funding structures;
  5. Maintain the current overall cap on tuition-fee increases, but simplify the framework;
  6. Re-evaluate student financial assistance; and
  7. Generate cost efficiencies through measures such as integrating administrative and back-office functions.

Basically, unless taxes are increased (and per-capita, Ontario spends less on post-secondary education than most of the other provinces) then universities will have to become even more efficient. This will probably mean larger classes, or a freeze on salaries, or heavier teaching loads, or less research, or a combination of all of these and other measures. What is significant though is that compared to the rest of the government areas of responsibility in Ontario, PSE comes out quite well. Enrollment growth will continue, because Drummond recognizes that this will be needed to keep the economy growing through a better educated workforce. So Ontario, although facing significant challenges, is nowhere near being in the same boat as many of the European universities. Nevertheless, there will need to be some significant changes in the post-secondary system.

Some other provinces in Canada are facing somewhat similar, but perhaps not quite so acute, challenges as Ontario, while others are able to increase expenditure on PSE without difficulty. However, because Ontario constitutes almost a quarter of Canadian GDP, all provinces in Canada will eventually pay a price if Ontario doesn’t get its economy and government budget under control. The Ontario government will finally make the decision about what to do, and may even include some tax increases, but in terms of the mandate, the Drummond Commission has done an excellent job overall in trying to protect PSE in Ontario as much as possible.

What about online learning?

The question that arises is: to what extent can online learning contribute to enrollment growth, increased efficiency, and/or maintenance or improvement of quality in Ontario? This was not discussed in the report, but it is a question that needs to be more fully explored, at least within the online learning community. Any views you may have on this topic will be most welcomed. Meanwhile I plan to do a post on this topic at a later time.

In the meantime, feel Europe’s pain. It will be particularly the students (and potential students) who will suffer the most if the universities are unable to bring about major reforms and efficiencies, because the money just won’t be there to continue the system as it is.

The calamitous state of higher education in England and Wales


David Cameron (PM) and the Queen, with the Emir of Qatar © The Independent, 2011

I have to be careful when writing about my home country. Having decided to emigrate to Canada just over 20 years ago, a psychological phenomenon known as ‘cognitive dissonance’ kicks in. This is the way we justify our decisions. One example is to dismiss as worthless everything to do with what we rejected in making the decision, and over-praising everything about what we chose. But nevertheless, and even if I betray false consciousness, I despair about what is happening in Britain. Two examples below illustrate this:

Baker, S. (2011) Sharing information on fees ‘might be illegal’, says UUK Times Higher Education, 21 April

Institutions are warned over price-setting as MPs are asked to investigate. Universities in England setting their undergraduate tuition fees for 2012-13 could be breaking competition law simply by sharing information on costs or other “strategically significant matters”, such as support for poorer students.

The warning comes in a briefing by Universities UK on the latest legal advice about the issue, as scrutiny intensifies over the decision by a large number of English institutions to aim for the maximum level of £9,000.

Anything that allows another university to “infer or deduce a pricing or commercial strategy” could be deemed commercially sensitive, according to the briefing, including “financial projections, proposed programme expansion or reduction, and benchmarking”.

Fears over the potential for an Office of Fair Trading investigation into price-setting by universities have been heightened after a union official called on MPs to look into whether institutions were guilty of collusion.

Baker, S. (2011) Deadwood, UK: up to half of courses need cross-subsidy to survive, analysis discovers Times Higher Education, 11 May

At least a third and perhaps up to half of all university courses in the UK are loss-making, and many teaching-led universities have departments with no “meaningful existence” that are being kept afloat by profits from other areas.

These are among the findings of an in-depth analysis of university business models by The Parthenon Group, an international consultancy firm, which says that a large number of institutions have “multiple departments” that are financially unsustainable.

The company’s analysis, which uses data on university costs from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, shows that for a group of about 50 general teaching institutions, a large chunk of their activity is focused on offering five subject areas – business, IT, design, teacher training and nursing. The rest of their resources are spent on several other departments, which are “almost certainly” losing money, Parthenon says.

Mr Robb told THE that the situation had arisen because “budget-based accounting” prevails over commercial thinking; as a result, surpluses from successful courses are invested in “whatever is interesting to academics”.

Well, there we have it. In the UK, higher education is no longer a public good; it is a strictly commercial operation, and universities should operate solely as commercial businesses.

I’m not normally a neo-Marxist, but if you want evidence of the dominance of the neo-liberal agenda, here it is. For those Brits still wanting to emigrate, I’m afraid the lifeboats have already been sold (following a cost-benefit analysis).

[Thanks to Jim Ellis for directing me to this depressing news.]

See also: Has the Anglo-American Academy peaked?


Innovate or die: a message for higher education institutions

It’s funny how reports on the same issue arrive from completely different directions. These four all deal with the issue of innovation and higher education.

Baker, S. (2010) Hefce gives out extra places and takes back £20m from teaching funds Times Higher Education, June 25

Calhoun, T. (2010) Re-imagining Higher Education, Post-Recession SCUP Links Blog, June 27

Kamenetz, A. (2010) Online education an the laying on of hands Huffington Post, June 29

OECD (2010) The OECD Innovation Strategy: Getting a Head Start on Tomorrow Paris: OECD

Let’s start with a focus on the financial conditions that universities and colleges will be facing in North America and Europe over the next five years. One clear outcome from the recent G20 meeting in Toronto (apart from torched police cars and broken windows) is that governments are moving away from stimulus funding to deficit and debt reduction. This will vary from country to country. In Britain, many government departments are looking at a 25% reduction in funding. The Times Higher Education article highlights the first steps in Britain: a £20 million ($30 million) reduction in funding for university places. This comes on top of earlier cuts of £900 million ($1.35 billion) in December, 2009.However, it should be noted that $10 million was ‘protected’ for another 10,000 places, and the bulk of this money went to the Open University and the rest to ‘newer, teaching focused universities’.

The Calhoun article is an interview with Donald Norris and Linda Baer, who state that:

‘data from SHEEO (State Higher Education Executive Officers, who manage state funding to universities in the USA) demonstrate that the deficits facing states will be deeper than previous recessions, will last longer, and that there will be no bouncing back to normal like after the recessions of the past 30 years. The new normal will be diminished state appropriates, on average about 20% down over the next three years. This will require institutions not just to muddle through, but to reimagine themselves for the new normal.’ If higher education hasn’t established genuine financial sustainability through reinvention by 2020, we will have missed our chance to shape our future. Others will do it for us.

This is a multi-year campaign, not a single quick fix in response to mid-year budget cuts. It begins with establishing the need for establishing a sustainable vision for 2020 – financially, programmatically, organizational, and politically.  We expect that institutions will need to use the 2010-2013 period to launch processes of reimagination and reinvention, then progressively redirect their energies so that by 2020 they have leveraged innovations, achieved greater levels of academic and administrative productivity, fresh revenues, and an appreciation for the value propositions required in the new normal.  This is a tall order, but we cannot escape the implications of the times.

Then we have the response from the institutions. Anna Kamenetz, the author of KDIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education has an interesting blog in the Huffington Post, where she describes the negative reaction she got to her book from a panel at a conference in San Diego. Her response was:

If people who care about both quality and equality in higher education don’t get deeply involved in the use of technology to stretch the resources we have in order to educate everyone to the best of our ability and their abilities, then the future will be shaped by people with worse motives and visions.

In other words, she is arguing that public institutions will have to improve their productivity if they are to maintain quality with less rather than more money. This requires innovation in teaching and learning, the main message from our book about the strategic management of technology.

What is needed to support innovation? The OECD report argues that

‘in economically advanced countries future growth must increasingly come from innovation-induced productivity growth. Innovation encompasses a wide range of activities in addition to R&D, such as organisational changes, training, testing, marketing and design. Innovation is defined as the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, work-place organisation or external relations.’ [Does this not sound like e-learning?]

Although the OECD report is more focused on businesses, these statements apply equally well to universities and colleges. There are two aspects:

  • preparing their students in such a way that students can foster innovation in the workplace when they leave
  • ensuring that the necessary internal changes take place within institutions to support innovation in teaching. research and administration

Among the OECD policy principles for innovation are:

1. Empowering people to innovate

• Education and training systems should equip people with the foundations to learn and develop the broad range of skills needed for innovation in all of its forms, and with the flexibility to upgrade skills and adapt to changing market conditions. [In other words, faculty need to be trained in new skills, and new approaches to teaching.]

To transform ideas and inventions into innovation requires a range of activities, including organizational changes, organizational-level training, testing, marketing and design.

I believe that these policy principles apply equally well to our post-secondary educational institutions. Look also at what the OECD says about how to develop a culture of innovation and ask yourself if this would apply to your own institution:

People generate the ideas and knowledge that power innovation, and they apply this knowledge and the resulting technologies, products and services in the workplace and as consumers. Innovation requires a wide variety of skills, as well as the capacity to learn, adapt or retrain, particularly following the introduction of radically new products and processes. Empowering people to innovate relies not only on broad and relevant education, but also on the development of wide-ranging skills that complement formal education.

Does this apply to faculty?

Lastly, the OECD report also focuses on how curricula need to change to encourage the development of skills that lead to innovation in the workplace:

Formal education is the basis for forming human capital, and policy makers should ensure that education systems help learners to adapt to the changing nature of innovation from the start. This requires curricula and pedagogies that equip students with the capacity to learn and apply new skills throughout their lives. Emphasis needs to be placed on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, user orientation and team- work, in addition to domain-specific and linguistic skills. The acquisition of skills is a lifelong process; it does not end with formal education. Schools lay a base for lifelong learning, but ongoing skills acquisition needs to be encouraged. This involves recognising all forms of learning and making them visible, including through qualification systems. Rewarding lifelong learning and making it attractive may help enhance participation.

Universities, colleges and vocational training centres are essential nodes in the innovation system, both producing and attracting the human capital needed
for innovation. These institutions act as essential bridges between players –businesses, governments and countries – in broader and more open systems of innovation. They also contribute to the local quality of life and thus can help to attract the highly skilled from around the globe. World-class institutions can be the anchor for clusters of innovative activity. The major policy challenge is to recognise the essential role of universities in the innovation enterprise rather than view them, as is all too commonly the case, simply as providers of essential public goods. This requires a greater focus of policy makers on ensuring independence, competition, excellence, entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility in universities.

In short, universities and colleges are critical to developing graduates that can support innovation in the work-place. Perhaps even more importantly, though, the institutions themselves will have to find ways to innovate to provide quality services with less money. The appropriate use of technology, as with innovation in other domains, will be an essential component of that process.

So some questions, dear readers:

1. Do our (public) institutions really need to change, or is this just the usual North American hype and hyperbole?

2. If they do need to change, are they up to it? Do they have the will, skills, knowledge and attitude to make the changes necessary?

3. Is e-learning an essential component of any needed changes, or could the institutions manage the necessary changes without a heavy reliance on e-learning?

4. What is needed to bring about any necessary changes in our institutions?

Over to you.