June 18, 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.

Athabasca University’s Centre for Distance Education to close

The news

As my mother used to say when she had the goods on me, ‘A little birdie told me…’. Well, a (different) little birdie has told me that the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University is being closed on June 1 and the academic staff from the Centre are being moved into the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

What is the Centre for Distance Education and what does it do?

The Centre (CDE) has currently about 10 academic staff and several distinguished adjunct professors, such as Randy Garrison and George Siemens, and also some very distinguished emeriti professors such as: 

  • Dominique Abrioux – Former AU President
  • Terry Anderson – Former Editor of IRRODL and Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2016)
  • Jon Baggaley – Former Professor, Centre for Distance Education
  • Patrick Fahy – Former Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2017)
  • Tom Jones – Former Associate Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2017)
  • Robert Spencer – Former Chair/Director, Centre for Distance Education

CDE currently offers a Master of Education in Distance Education and a Doctor of Education in Distance Education as well as post-baccalaureate certificates and diplomas in educational technology and instructional design. It is therefore the major centre in Canada for the education and training of professionals in online learning, educational technology and distance education.

On a lesser scale, it has also been a major centre for research into distance education. The Canadian Initiative for Distance Education Research (CIDER) is a research initiative of the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL) and the Centre for Distance Education. 

IRRODL is a globally recognised leading journal published by Ayhabasca University but run mainly out of the Centre (its editors are currently Rory McGreal and Dianne Conrad, both CDE academics).

Thus the Centre for Distance Education has been a critical part of the infrastructure for distance education in Canada, providing courses and programs, research and leadership in this field.

Why is it being closed?

Good question. This was a decision apparently made in the Provost’s Office but, as far as I know, no official reason has been given for its closure and the transfer of staff to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. It appears that the programs will continue, but under the aegis of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

However, the CDE was a little bit of an organisational oddity, as it was not attached to any major faculty (there is no Faculty of Education at Athabasca) and thus the CDE made the AU’s organizational structure look a little bit untidy. There may have been financial reasons for its closure but it’s hard to see how moving existing staff and programs into another faculty is going to save money, unless the long-term goal is to close down the programs and research, which in my view would be catastrophic for the future of the university. 

Why does it matter?

Indeed at no time has AU been in greater need of the expertise in the CDE for building new, more flexible, digitally based teaching and learning models for AU (see my post on the independent third-party review of AU). In a sense, the reorganisation does move the Centre staff closer organisationally to at least some faculty members in one Faculty, but it really should have a university-wide mandate to support new learning designs across the university.

The issue of course is that it is primarily an academic unit, not a learning technology support unit, but it should not be impossible for it to be structured so that both functions are met (for instance see the Institute of Educational Technology at the British Open University). This might have meant the Centre – or a restructured unit – being either a part of the Provost’s Office or directly reporting to it, which is not going to happen once all the Centre’s faculty are housed in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

What disturbs me most is that there does not seem to have been extensive consultation or discussion of the role of the CDE and its future before this decision was made. From the outside it appears to be a typical bureaucratic fudge, more to do with internal politics than with vision or strategy.

Given the importance of the CDE not just to Athabasca University but also to distance education in Canada in general, it is to be hoped that the administration at AU will come forward with a clear rationale and vision for the future of AU and explain exactly how the transfer of the Centre’s staff to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences will help move this vision and strategy forward. The dedicated and expert academic staff in the Centre deserve no less, and the university itself will suffer if there is no such clear strategy for making the most of the expertise that previously resided in the CDE. 

Postscript

For the views of the Centre’s Director, and a response from the Provost, see the following article:

Lieberman, M. (2018) Repositioning a prominent distance education centre Inside Higher Education, May 23

Online learning and disruptive change at the UK Open University

The old Walton Hall on the OU campus in Milton keynes

Sturm und Strang

I’ve was in England last week,  attending the 7th eSTEeM conference at the Open University as the opening keynote speaker, only my second visit to the OU since I left nearly 30 years ago.

The Open University, described by several commentators as one of the most successful innovations in Britain since the Second World War, is currently going through an existential crisis, which culminated two weeks ago with the resignation of its Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, following a devastating vote of no confidence by faculty and staff.

The OU is facing enormous pressure, due mainly to the policies of the recent Conservative governments. Over the last six years, the government has treated the OU just the same as other, more traditional, universities in England and Wales. The government severely cut the OU’s operating budget requiring it to dramatically increase fees, and also made all part-time students (i.e. students not taking a full annual course load) ineligible for government-guaranteed, low interest loans. It also has required students at the OU, like all other students in England and Wales, to complete their bachelor studies within three years, compressing their time for study. It is expected to have a £20 million (CS$36 million) operating deficit this year and was proposing to save £100m from its £420m annual budget by cutting courses and staff.

Since the vast majority of its 200,000 students in 2012 were part-time, working adults without a first degree and who required the maximum flexibility in their studies, it’s hardly surprising that its student numbers have dropped by more than a third since 2012. At the same time it has invested heavily in FutureLearn, a MOOC-type platform which is still struggling to find a viable business model. The recent changes mean that the whole concept of open-ness and accessibility for OU students, and its unique position in the British higher education system, are under existential threat. 

To cap all this, the university itself recognises that it needs to fundamentally change its operational model. Like many other Open Universities, it has not changed fast enough to accommodate to the digital revolution in post-secondary teaching. It is burdened with a heavy legacy of a print-based design model and an expensive regional tutoring system, despite the recent elimination of all local face-to-face operations.

“We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud, a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy,” according to Horrocks. As a result the (now leaderless) executive team is working on a ‘transformational model’ for the university, which is still a work in progress.

This is the battlefield into which I parachuted this week.

The eSTEeM conference

The Open University has offered science and technology programs since its inauguration in 1971. It initially used a combination of print, home experiment kits mailed to students’ homes, and one week residential schools in the summer. The residential schools have long since gone (too expensive) although in general students loved them and at least in the early days the residential schools provided such a morale boost for students that many who would have dropped out then went on to continue successfully.

For the last seven years, the STEM Faculty/academic department at the OU has been holding an annual conference to demonstrate the scholarship of its faculty and staff. I was the opening speaker for this year’s conference, on the topic: ‘Digital learning in an era of change: challenges and opportunities for STEM teaching and the OU.’

However, as well as the very interesting STEM components of the conference, on which I will write two separate posts, there was an almost full day, well-organised workshop called ‘Digital by Design’, which focused on what the future as a whole should be at the OU. The workshop enabled a quick and close, if incomplete, ‘parachute’ view of some of the challenges the OU is facing and how academic and regional staff are responding. In this post I will focus on these general, internal challenges that the OU still has to resolve that emerged from this and other discussions in which I participated.

Online but not digital

It is clear that many of the teaching staff have not really ‘got it’ with regard to digital learning. In many cases, print still remains the core teaching technology, and where online is heavily used, it is often just a print model moved online, with a heavy emphasis on content transmission. Many in the OU are still arguing for a ‘blended’ learning model, which in this case refers to a mix of print and online, with print having at least an equal contribution.

In particular, the OU is really weak in its exploitation of the networking and student collaboration that the web offers and in its integration of social media within the design of courses. In this it is not unlike many conventional universities, but nevertheless this realisation came as a real shock to me. This was the original open, distance university, not a conventional one.

Why I am so shocked is that one of the many reasons I emigrated to Canada in 1989 was that I got frustrated at the inability of myself and others at the OU such as Robin Mason and Tony Kaye to get the OU to take online learning seriously. We had contributed to a course, DT200, in 1988 that had an online discussion forum component that had merely been bolted on to the standard 36 week print and broadcast design. The next logical step would have been to have pioneered a fully online course, but neither the university management nor the faculty were interested.

It is important to understand that the OU has a relatively small core of permanent faculty based at its headquarters in Milton Keynes who are primarily engaged in the design of courses, in particular the choice and structuring of content, and a legion of regional staff tutors who provide most of the student learning support. There is a long-established Institute of Educational Technology, where the staff have full academic status, and conduct research as well as advise the OU’s course teams on best practices in the design of distance education.

Here I am 30 years later, and there are still arguments going on about the wisdom of going fully online. This despite the fact that Gilly Salmon, who wrote a standard text on teaching online (2011), worked at the OU for several years, and despite the fact that the OU has an Institute of Educational Technology that has excellent design models developed for online learning that it struggles to get faculty to adopt. This is so reminiscent of Athabasca University and its failure to exploit the expertise of Terry Anderson and its other distance education specialists

The fixation on print as the ‘core’ medium/technology

I participated in several discussions where I challenged the focus on printed material as the core teaching technology. First though I would like to set out some of the arguments OU staff put forward in support of print.

Arguments for print

These were made mainly by OU staff to me.

  1. The OU made its reputation in its early days in the 1970s by the very high quality of its printed materials. As well as being beautifully produced and illustrated (full colour), they were and still are extremely well structured. This was recognised immediately by many faculty in more traditional universities, and the quality of its printed materials is still much appreciated by the students. If it was effective then, it must be effective now.
  2. Access: there are still students in Britain who do not have access to the Internet or cannot afford a computer.
  3. Most OU students are working and many spend all day at work looking at screens; the OU printed material provides an essential break from being on-screen all day.
  4. Students prefer to read printed material; it’s easier for study purposes and revision than searching online.
  5. If the textual material was delivered online rather than printed, the OU would be transferring the cost of print to the students, as they would want to print out the textual material.

Arguments against print

These were made mainly by me to OU staff.

  1. Online learning provides students with the opportunity of ‘any time, any place’ discussion and interaction with each other and teaching staff.
  2. Student activities and interaction with online text is more integrated and immediate than with printed text. In particular immediate feedback can be provided through online tests or automated feedback, etc.
  3. Students are not limited by the boundaries of the printed course material once they go online. Everything on the Internet is potential study material. In particular students can access open educational resources from many different sources.
  4. In order to develop the skills students need in the 21st century, we need to focus more on skills development than on the transmission of content. Online learning can focus better on the development of these soft skills, such as communication and knowledge management.
  5. Access has always been a limitation for any technology. For instance students with visual impairment or dyslexia have difficulties with print. When the OU first started, many students did not have access to the broadcasts. Most students in Britain now have access to the Internet, although in more remote areas there are still bandwidth limitations. The OU’s policy in general has been that when access exceeds 80% of the target audience, alternatives are found for the remaining students. It is wrong to deny the benefits to the vast majority of students because of the needs of a small minority which could be met in other ways.
  6. Students need to learn digitally if they are to earn digitally. Digital literacy is now a core skill required by everyone.
  7. The costs for a print-based system are very high, not just in the actual costs of full colour printing, but in the editing, and above all, the lengthy time it takes faculty and instructors to prepare, check and revise the printed materials (many OU courses take at least two years to design). Savings by going digital could be used to reduce substantially tuition fees.

The need to think digitally when designing online learning

The issue is not whether print has educational value; it does, and there may be specific situations where students may prefer to have hard copy. However, it should not be the default medium. It’s really important when designing online learning to be open to all the media the Internet enables: text, audio, video, computing, augmented reality, simulations, social media, and so on. This requires thinking digitally when designing courses, which is difficult if your first and preferred option is always print.

Of course, this is identical to the challenge that on-campus instructors face about digital learning, but instead of print, their default option is face-to-face teaching.

This is why moving to online learning requires a major cultural change and why it takes so long. However, in the OU’s current existential crisis, it does not have the time for gradual change (that should have started back in 1989). The need for change must be embraced now, ironically, not for financial reasons but for pedagogical reasons: only this way will it better prepare its students for the future. The financial pressures merely make this devastatingly urgent.

Necessary but not sufficient

Forcing change for financial reasons is unlikely to work. Making changes that are not accepted or resisted by staff is more likely to lead to failure or collapse in an organization. Even if by some miracle the (remaining) OU staff manage to pull it off, moving to the University of the Cloud (whatever that means – some kind of heaven for students?) will not meet the needs of the nation that the former OU met.

Lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity in a digital age, where the knowledge base expands exponentially and citizens need to continuously learn new content and new skills. Traditional universities do not do lifelong learning well; they are not really designed for it. The OU was, but government policies of starving financial support for part-time learners and reducing the flexibility of study to fit some 1950s view of elite higher education is going to be disastrous for the future British economy. At no time has the OU been more important to Britain. Without a radical change of government policy though its future is indeed dismal, whatever else it does.

Up next

Your intrepid online learning war correspondent will do two more posts from my visit to the OU:

  • the OU’s use of learning analytics for analysing student course evaluations
  • the OU’s use of online labs

Also I will be reporting on a conference on active learning I attended this week at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario. Buy, busy, busy. (Don’t even ask about retirement).

Reference

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Zuckerberg’s Frankenstein

© The Mind Reels

Prosecutor: Dr. Frankenberg, are you aware that there is a monster roaming the countryside, stealing all the villagers’ personal information?

Dr. Frankenberg: Yes, sir, I am.

Prosecutor: And is it true, Dr. Frankenberg, that you invented this monster, in your dorm room at Harvard?

Dr.Frankenberg (proudly): Yes, sir.

Prosecutor: And are you aware that your monster is going around selling the villagers’ personal information to any Tom, Dick or Harry who will buy it?

Dr. Frankenberg: Yes, sir, that’s why I invented the monster – it’s my business model.

Prosecutor: Has your business model been successful?

Dr. Frankenberg (smugly): Oh, yes, sir, it’s made me and my friends very rich. You see the monster sends all the money to me. I only need a few engineers to make sure the monster doesn’t break down – and of course some very good lawyers – so there’s a lot left over afterwards.

Prosecutor: And are you aware that the monster helped our new Emperor, Donald the Terrible, to become emperor?

Dr. Frankenberg: I was made aware of that only just recently, but of course, I had heard of the rumours much earlier.

Prosecutor: So it was not your intent then that the monster should help Donald the Terrible?

Dr. Frankenberg: Absolutely not.

Prosecutor: And are you aware that hostile tribes outside the kingdom have used the monster to attack us?

Dr. Frankenberg: Yes, of course, that’s why I’m here – but honestly, I didn’t know about this until you did. And I made the monster get them to promise not to do that – but they are hostiles and didn’t keep their promise. 

Prosecutor: It seems to me that you don’t have much control over your monster.

Dr. Frankenberg (sighs): Look, you don’t understand how this works. You design something, you throw it out into the world, then wait to see what happens. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. But there would be no way to make lots of money if you didn’t do this. If you tried to control it, you wouldn’t know what it could do.

Prosecutor: So you agree that your monster is now out of your control?

Dr. Zuckerberg (frowns, drinks water): Not entirely. We tried using chains recently, but the monster is too strong – he keeps breaking them. But our engineers are working on it, believe me.

Prosecutor: Let me put this to you: you created the monster, so you are responsible for it, but you’ve not done enough to control it.

Dr. Frankenberg: That’s a bit unfair. How was I to know it would become so dangerous? I realise it now, but anyone can be smart after the event.

Prosecutor: Some of the Emperor’s advisers are suggesting that the government should try to control the monster. What are your views on that?

Dr. Frankenberg (shrugs):Well, good luck with that. You realise the monster is not just stealing from our villagers, but from everyone’s now – he’s all over the place. But if you think you can do it, don’t let me stop you.

Judge intervenes: Thank you, Prosecutor, Dr. Frankenberg. We’ll adjourn for today, but we’ll be back in court tomorrow. Dr. Frankenberg, I hope you will take advantage of this time for some thought on how we can control your monster, because you should be aware, neither I nor the government have the slightest clue about how to do this.

Court adjourns.

 

 

 

Stanford University to be fully online by 2025?

A Stanford sophomore experiences the virtual world at its Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Today I have received a tip from a close colleague that Stanford University is planning to build a partnership with Alphabet Inc., the owner of Google, to enable Stanford to become a fully online global university by 2025. 

Because the university is on an Easter break, it was difficult to find anyone at Stanford to verify this rumour, but the planning seems to be quite advanced. Apparently a highly confidential strategic planning committee has been working for some time on a plan to convert all programs at Stanford into a fully online format, using advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR), and data analytics (DA), technologies in which both Stanford and Google are world leaders.

This will enable Stanford to offer fully accredited degrees to many thousands of students worldwide at a fraction of the current tuition fees, which are currently just under $50,000 a year. Once fully online, the low tuition fees, estimated be around $1,000 a year, will be made possible by a highly innovative business plan being worked out jointly by Stanford and Google. Stanford plans to sell that part of the campus that will no longer be needed for teaching purposes. The Farm, as it is affectionately known, is over 8,000 acres, located close to Silicon Valley. With real estate currently selling at approximately $65 million an acre in Stanford, just selling off half the land will provide sufficient capital for the investment needed to convert all programs into an online mode, leaving the other half of the land for research and administrative purposes. The partnership with Google will allow Google to use data analytics from student online activity for commercial purposes, which will more or less cover the operational costs of online delivery.

I did manage to get hold of a couple of the committee, who asked not to be named as they are not authorised to give information on this project. However, both were very excited. ‘We won’t have to sack any of the current professorial staff, as we still need their subject expertise’, said one. The other said he was really looking forward to developing the first fully augmented reality engineering degree. ‘This could have huge implications,’ he said. ‘Imagine designing a whole bridge without actually having to physically test it! It’s only ever been tried once before without VR and it didn’t work.’ The Director of Stanford University’s Division of Continuing Studies said, ‘You know, it’s not such a big deal. We’ve been delivering online courses in our division for nearly 20 years, so we do know what we’re doing.’

Others outside the university I talked to though were not quite so sanguine. A spokesperson from WCET was concerned about how the accreditation or professional bodies would react. ‘It’s one thing for the university to give degrees; it’s quite another to get recognized by the Accreditation Boards for Engineering and Technology, who in the past have not accepted any online qualifications. But, hey, it’s Stanford, so who knows?’

My personal view is that it still has to get through Stanford’s Senate and Board of Governors. This will be the real test. However, if it is successful, this model will be totally disruptive of the rest of post-secondary education worldwide. If Stanford can scale its model, it could be not just a global university, but THE one university for the whole world. How cool would that be? 

In the meantime, enjoy April the first.