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.

Virtual reality for midwives: an Australian example

Connolly, B. (2018) How virtual reality is transforming learning at the University of Newcastle, CIO, 8 March

This article includes a couple of nice, short videos demonstrating the use of AR and VR in a University of Newcastle nurses’ program in Australia.

The first one, below, demonstrates the use for breech positioning and placenta replacement (click image to play):

University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

The second demonstrates a neonatal resucitation scenario when a newborn baby stops breathing.

University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

These are very good examples of the power of AR and VR to enable students to practice and learn in a safe environment without danger to patients. The technology is accessible via mobile phones or tablets so students can practice in their own time as well as in the VR studio with an instructor.

What would be useful to know is the cost of producing such VR applications and the number of students that make use of the equipment over the length of a course – in other words, what is the return on investment, compared, with, for example, traditional video? What are the added benefits? Do learning outcomes improve? We need much more research into these questions.

 

Virtual Reality and education: some thoughts

I spent a very interesting evening this week at a Vancouver VR Community event at Mobify‘s headquarters in downtown Vancouver. Mobify is a provider of progressive web apps for e-commerce and has a really cool area for events such as this one, with lots of open spaces.

Vancouver is part of a growing North West Pacific Silicon Valley, and there are now over 500 members of the Vancouver VR community, which indicates how much activity and development are going into VR, at least in this region. 

The event was a mix of show and tell, and an opportunity to play with and experience some VR programs. Most of the applications available to play with at the VR event were typically combat games (including a very realistic one-on-one boxing encounter) but I was more interested in possible educational applications (although the boxing app might come in useful on a dark night on campus).

I particularly enjoyed using Google Blocks, a free software program for developing 3D models, that was being demonstrated by  Scott Banducci who runs a company that hosts VR events (VRtogo). With the headset on and a couple of hand-operated panels that include a colouring palette and tools for moving and stretching objects, it was easy even for a novice such as me to create in a few minutes a really cool 3D model of a plane. There is an excellent introductory video on the Google Blocks web site that explains the process. 

This was my first visit and I hardly knew anyone there (I was the oldest person by at least 40 years). I was hoping to meet someone from one of the many educational institutions in the Vancouver area who might be interested in using VR for teaching and learning but most of the people there not surprisingly were developers or producers of VR. Nevertheless this seems like a great community of practice and I strongly recommend anyone in the Vancouver area interested in the educational use of VR to join. The next event is at Mobify at 6.15 pm on August 22.

In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts about the use of VR, for what they are worth.

  1. VR is not just a fad that will disappear. There are already a large number of commercial applications, mainly in entertainment and public relations, but also increasingly for specific areas of training (more on that below). There is already a lot of excellent, off-the-shelf software for creating VR environments, and the cost of hardware is dropping rapidly (although good quality headsets and other equipment are still probably too expensive for required use by large numbers of students).
  2. What killed earlier two-dimensional VR developments such as Second Life for widespread educational use was the high cost and difficulty of creating the sets and contexts for learning. Thus even if the hardware and software costs for VR are low enough for individual student use, it is the production costs of creating educational contexts and scenarios that are likely to inhibit its use.
  3. Thus most suitable educational applications are likely to be where the cost of alternative or traditional ways of learning are too expensive or too dangerous. In particular, VR would be good for individual, self-learning in contexts where real environments are not easily accessible, or where learners need to cope with strong emotions when making decisions or operating under pressure in real time. Examples might be emergency management, such as shutting down an out-of-control nuclear reactor, or defusing a bomb, or managing a fire on an oil tanker. However, not only will the VR environment have to be realistic, as much attention will need to be paid to creating the specific learning context. The procedure for defusing the bomb and the interaction between learner and the virtual bomb must also be built in to the production. Thus VR may often need to be combined with simulation design and quality media production to be educationally effective, again pushing up the cost. For these reasons, medicine is a likely area for experiment, where traditional training costs are really high or where training is difficult to provide with real patients.
  4. Having said that, we need more experimentation. This is still a relatively new technology, and there may be very simple ways to use it in education that are not costly and meet needs that cannot be easily met in traditional teaching or with other existing technology. For this to happen, though, educators, software developers, and media producers need to come together to play and experiment. The VR Vancouver Community seems to me to be an ideal venue to do this. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see Bad Cookies Pictures VR horror movie when it comes out! Now that will be an immersive experience.

And since originally posting this, I have been directed to the blog post of Ryan Martin, a trainer on Vancouver Island, who has come up with a more comprehensive list of ways to learn through VR, with some excellent links.

If you know of other examples and are willing to share them, I will add the links to this post.

 

Using 2D virtual reality for online role playing

Lake Devo friendship 2

Koechli, L. and Glynn, M. (2014) Diving into Lake Devo: Modes of Representation and Means of Interaction and Reflection in Online Role-Play IRRODL, Vol. 15, No.4

Djafarova, N., Abramowitz, and Bountrogianni, M. (2014) Lake Devo – creation, collaboration and reflection through a customizable online role-play environment Online Learning Consortium, 2014

Introduction

This is the second of a series of blogs spotlighting the work of the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto, in developing innovative online learning initiatives. The first post provided a broad overview of the online learning initiatives at Ryerson.

Lake Devo

Lake Devo was designed by the Centre for Digital Education Strategies at The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education in 2009 to support online role-play activity in an educational context. Lake Devo is essentially a simplified virtual reality tool that is easy to use by both instructors and students.

Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios. Role-play activity is captured and published as a 2-D “movie” that a group of learners may review, discuss, debate and analyze in Lake Devo’s self-contained debrief area. Lake Devo’s chat tool allows users to check in with each other “out of role” while they are using the tool.

Examples of work produced by learners in Lake Devo can be seen here.

My interest in Lake Devo is that it is a relatively simple way for learners to construct role playing activities for developing a range of skills. The two papers listed above provide a full description of the project. I have worked with the project team to produce this summary.

Why Lake Devo?

Lake Devo was designed for several reasons:

  • instructors found that role-playing using a text-based learning management system was limiting;
  • many instructors lacked familiarity with other possible tools such as 3D virtual worlds;
  • instructors could not commit the time required to learn and integrate most standard 3D virtual worlds into their teaching.

The Lake Devo website was designed to provide an infrastructure for online role-play activities, while allowing for flexibility so that it could be used across disciplines, as well as in multiple delivery formats (e.g., fully online, hybrid, class-room).

Lake Devo is named after an outdoor pond outside the Chang Building in Toronto used by Ryerson students for skating in the winter. The pond was funded in part by the Devonian Foundation of Calgary, hence its nickname by students.

An experiential and constructivist rationale

Lake Devo was designed to meet the following goals:

  1. Provide experience with the knowledge construction process.
  2. Provide experience in and appreciation for multiple perspectives.
  3. Embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts.
  4. Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process.
  5. Embed learning in social experience.
  6. Encourage the use of multiple modes of representation.
  7. Encourage self-awareness of the knowledge construction process.

The project team set out to develop an environment that offered a middle ground between text-only online role-play environments and highly complex 3D virtual environments. They deliberately chose not to design a fully realistic world in which to interact, but rather an environment for role-play dialogue that would offer added channels of expression to support interpersonal communication, as well as an integrated debrief area. In other words, Lake Devo was developed to be a minimalist virtual world that was relatively easy to use while retaining the key characteristics of role playing. In particular it offers:

  • Simple visual and audio modes of representation such as avatars, background images, and sound effects
  • An integrated debrief area that includes a shareable, multimedia artifact, and a forum for discussion

Creating a role play exercise in Lake Devo

There are several steps or stages in developing a role play exercise in Lake Devo:

  • an instructor works out the learning goals and process by which students will use Lake Devo to meet these goals;
  • a ‘community’ must be created, usually a class of students; their names are entered into a database;
  • groups of students within the ‘community’ are either randomly assigned or specified by the instructor;
  • a group leader is identified;
  • learners are issued passwords to access their project;
  • each group member creates a visual representation, or avatar, of his or her role-play character using the Character Creation tool, which allows customization from a menu of physical attributes such as skin tone, hair colour and style, clothing colour, and facial features, from a library of images;
  • the group agrees on a time to meet synchronously online to role-play;
  • the group members participate as their avatars in a spontaneous dialogue by typing in their comments, which forms a “script.” Text during the scripting can be entered as speech, thought, or action;
  • learners may select sounds from a built-in library to insert in the script;.
  • a Backstage Group Chat area assists learners in planning the role-play and discussing logistics as the role-play unfolds;
  • the role-play dialogue is automatically saved, but each learner may edit his or her character’s dialogue after the live role-play activity;
  • once a group has finalized their role-play, they publish it to their Lake Devo Community list in the form of a 2D narrative movie;
  • the movie format allows all to participate in the debriefing, which occurs in a discussion area below each movie.

In most cases, a Lake Devo exercise is a graded, sometimes culminating, project that takes place in the latter half of a course, with a number of weeks allowed for scenario development, planning and, ultimately, the synchronous role play activity and debrief.

What has it been used for?

Lake Devo has been used by instructors and students in the following areas:

  • Interdisciplinary Studies,
  • Retail Management,
  • Fundraising Management,
  • Early Childhood Studies,
  • Food Security,
  • Entrepreneurial Mentoring.

Lake Devo has been used by a total of ten online instructors, for at least eight different courses, involving over 35 sections of students. Instructors have also been involved in user testing for the environment, as well as in demonstrations of the environment for fellow faculty.

Cost

The Lake Devo system was designed internally by staff from the Centre for Digital Education Strategies at Ryerson. It is available for use by instructors and/or students at no cost.

Students and instructors require no special software or equipment to make use of the Lake Devo environment. Internet access and creative ideas for role-play scenarios are all that is needed.

There are some minor ongoing maintenance costs for the Digital Education Strategies Unit. With respect to the use of the site, the main cost then is the up-front instructor time to design their own Lake Devo learning activities.

Feedback

Student reaction has been collected and feedback overall has been positive. In particular both instructors and students have found it easy to use.

While student satisfaction with the features of the environment has remained consistent, the Digital Education Strategies team has adopted a continuous improvement approach to the design of the environment and has fully revised the environment over the past 5 years, in keeping with student feedback. Examples of student responses can be found in the graphic below.

Lake Devo student response 2

Further information

Instructors from other institutions may use Lake Devo. They can request access through the site by completing the “sign up for an account” form on the web site.

For further information please contact either maureen.glynn@ryerson.ca or lkoechli@ryerson.ca