Learnings from a MOOC

By Jan Schwartz

In fall 2008, I participated in a semester long MOOC — Massive Open Online Course — through the University of Manitoba. The name of the course was Connectivism and Connected Knowledge; Stephen Downes and George Seimens facilitated it. Of the over 2000 enrollees from all over the world, I think fewer than 30 took it for credit. It was one of the most fascinating educational experiences I’ve ever had, and by the way it was free. For those interested, there is a short explanatory slide deck.

I admit to being primarily a lurker in the early part of this course because I had no idea what connectivism and connected knowledge meant, but by the end of the course I had a pretty good idea. A lurker in this instance is similar to an auditor in a face-to-face class; she is there to soak it all up, but not really to participate. There were published readings each week, but most of the learning came from other participants. We posted on Twitter, blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, and Moodle, which was the “home” platform for the course. There were even some discussions happening in Second Life. (Yes, eventually I started to participate.) In addition there was a once a week synchronous discussion on Elluminate. Continue reading

For Educational Change — Teachers Are the Key

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

This article is in response to the challenge that prompted John Adsit‘s “What Is Needed for Educational Change“: What is the one most important factor in making change work? John highlighted leadership, and Harry Keller, in “Leaders Must Be Visionary Risk-takers to Change Our Schools,” added qualities that the leader must have.

I’d be inclined to agree with John and Harry if the campus were still the center of the academic world. But it’s not. The center has been shifting to the world’s digital infrastructure, to the internet, where classrooms, schools, and colleges are being reconstructed in virtual bits rather than cement, creating “a world of ubiquitous connectivity” (Hagel, Brown, and Davison, The 2009 Shift Index: Measuring the Forces of Long-term Change, p. 11).

Continue reading

Flight of the ‘Solar Impulse’ – Educationally Relevant?

[Note: This post contains two articles, by Harry Keller and John Adsit, that were written in response to the Online Live in RealTime article by Claude Almansi. Also see John Sener‘s response to this article. -js]
Picture of Harry Keller and John AdsitBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The flight of the Solar Impulse is truly a technological tour de force. I was very impressed by the charts and virtual cockpit with the map of the plane’s progress. I didn’t even know that this amazing flight was taking place until Claude‘s note. Then I saw the headline in the NYT, “Solar-Powered Plane Flies for 26 Hours.” I have to wonder how many people see that headline and realize immediately the remarkable fact that such a flight requires flying a solar-powered plane for hours in the dark.

We see plenty of emphasis on STEM education in the U.S. these days. I am very biased toward the S (science) part of the acronym but see the importance of technology as a means of engagement. Mathematics gets enough attention on its own and can be better taught, IMO, in conjunction with science, technology, and engineering until students have enough sophistication to study things like group theory that are much more abstract. But I’m biased, as I said. Continue reading

Is It Time to Say Goodbye to Universities?

On June 8, Harry Keller shared Philip E. Auerswald’s article, “First Newspapers, Now Universities: It’s Transformation Time” (Washington Post, 8 June 2010), with the ETCJ staff. As a result, Harry and two other ETC writers, Judith McDaniel and John Sener, submitted articles responding to Auerswald:

Harry Keller, “Universities Vanishing?
Judith McDaniel, “View from an Online Classroom
John Sener, “Chill Out at a Tailgating Party

Here are the opening lines from Auerswald’s article:

The commencement season that has just drawn to a close has been, once again, a wonderful time to celebrate our enduring rituals of collegiate education.

Now prepare to say goodbye to them.

This isn’t to say that traditional four-year colleges are going to disappear overnight. They won’t…not any more than major-market newspapers have. But leaders in higher-ed have reason to pay serious attention to the disruptive changes technology has forced upon journalists and other knowledge workers: our industry is next.

[click here to read the rest of Auerswald’s article]

Encounters: ‘College for $99 a Month’

Encounters: ideas that go bumpIntroduction: This encounter begins with an idea, a “bump,” from Steve Eskow. In an email message on Sep. 2, he referred me to Kevin Carey’s College for $99 a Month: The Next Generation of Online Education Could Be Great for Students—and Catastrophic for Universities” (Washington Monthly, Sep./Oct. 2009). Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. Please participate in this encounter by posting a comment. I’ll append most or all of the comments to this page as they’re published. -js


keller40Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 3 Sep. 2009, 4:00AM: This article engendered so many thoughts that I cannot begin to write them all. Note the unfair evaluation criteria; compare with online vs. traditonal A.P. science courses. The disruptive innovation thread is large. What if many StraighterLine clones sprung up if regulatory walls were lowered, and many had lower standards — just like today’s colleges. The social benefits to students of college have been ignored in the article. How much of the tutoring and even teaching will be outsourced offshore? Will the $99 per month be sustainable as a business model? StraighterLine only offers 11 courses now, all oriented to business students; when will they be able to offer degrees? Who will support research in renaissance french pottery <big grin> if universities have to downsize? Will future college professors be able to retire on the job until they really retire as some do today? The protesting professors clearly know on which side their bread is buttered and are reacting to a threat rather than proposing rational solutions to impending change. What will happen to low-enrollment courses; will they be aggregated across states or even nations to keep them viable? Who will teach a course that only provides a small slice of $99 per student? How large will the student load per instructor be? Is the ivory-tower model dying? How will drama and science be taught? For online courses, the major costs are the design of the course (amortizable) and the ongoing cost of the instructor. Interestingly, each corporate online provider must design courses anew. Smaller providers, such as small states, purchase the curricula and resell them packaged with one of their instructors.

And so it goes. This concept goes far beyond the use of “clickers” and “smart” boards in bringing technology to education.

The topic may be too large for us to cover, but if we don’t try, we won’t know for sure.


steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, editor, hybrid vs. virtual issues, on 3 Sep. 2009, 7:14AM: Harry refers to the often-cited “social benefits” of the walled university. Apparently something of educational importance happens when the the 300 students and the lecturer and the images on the screen are together in the lecture hall in real time. Or when the 30 students and the graduate student “discuss” the lecture in real time in a 600-square feet classroom.

Jerry FarberI wish someone in our group with institutional library privileges could get us two articles by Jerry Farber: “The Third Circle; On Education and Distance Learning” and “Teaching and Presence.”

Farber’s first circle is “measurable competence.” That’s what we get in all those studies that come out, it almost seems, every other day. Those “NSD” studies.

The second circle contains those competences that aren’t readily measurable.

And the third circle contains those “benefits” that Harry mentions: the profound educational benefits that Farber and so many other attribute to the face-to-face situation.

The philosophic position behind this “third circle” is often called “the metaphysics of presence,” and this matter of the reality or the mythology of “presence” has, I think, been underreported in the literature of online and mediated and distance learning. ETC could do something about that.

Jacques Derrida wrote much–and densely–about “the metaphysics of presence.” About “logocentrism,” and the power of the Word when present, and , importantly for proponents of mediated instruction, on “phonocentrism,” the assumed differences in impact and meaning of the spoken and the written word.

Perhaps Farber’s articles could help us get a modest shared background on this matter of “presence,” and we might get help from folks in philosophy on Heidegger and Derrida and the implications of “the metaphysics of presence” for the future of online learning.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 7:22AM): The social benefits happen outside of the classroom. People make lifelong friends and set up future business relationships. They join clubs that foster success after graduation. I would never suggest (at least from my personal experience) any social benefits from sitting in a classroom.


Steve Eskow, (9.3.09, 7:32AM): Harry is not talking, then, about “learning” as the curriculum defines it, but about “social capital.” About the so-called “extra-curriculum.”

(When he was President of Princeton Woodrow Wilson wrote extensively about what he called student excitement and involvement in the “sideshows” and their lack of of interest in “the main tent”: the classroom and the curriculum.

Others here and everywhere attribute important learning enhancement and benefits from “presence”: from the living word, from the face-to-faceness of the classroom as opposed to what they see as the “distance” imposed by distance learning: the lack of this almost mystical “presence.”

Farber is one strong voice speaking for this “presence.” Hubert Dreyfus is another.

I don’t think the issue has found its way into distance learning circles, and it’s at the very center of our work, and yet largely unrecognized and unremarked.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 8:26AM): Regarding “presence”:

1. I don’t see it. Except for the very unusual show types, having a prof in the room with you gains little or nothing.

2. It’s more useful for the instructor who can gauge the impact of what’s going on by the faces (rapt or blank stares or whatever). Tools available today to online instructors can do even better than face-reading, however.

3. I often had the person who wrote the book (and in one case was writing it daily) giving the lectures. The only advantage to the class was being able to ask questions, but with 180 students, the opportunities to do so were small. Online is better in that respect.

4. Seeing professors out of their element gives little idea of what they really do. However, every first-year student cannot visit the professors as they’re working.

5. Many online students have remarked that they’re cowed in traditional classes but can open up and become involved in online classes.

Persons are important; presence is not. It will be a long time before a real, live instructor can be replaced by a machine. However, some of the work traditionally done by instructors can now be done by machines so that teaching becomes more of a mentoring or facilitating job. It becomes elevated to a real person skill.


Steve Eskow, (9.3.09, 8:49AM): Harry, it seems increasingly clear to me that many of us heavily involved in mediated instruction are unfamiliar with the large and important literature on this matter of “presence” and “the metaphysics of presence,” and unaware of the role it plays in philosophy and practice–and, importantly for our work, in the serious resistance to distance learning.

An interesting and intricate example of the power of presence thesis is MIT: hardly an enemy of technology and technology-enhanced learning. MIT is increasingly technologizing its instruction–but on campus. As far as I know, complee resistance to distance learning for its students. All MIT credit instruction, as far as I know, requires that you be “present.” On the other hand, distance learning students around the world can make arrangements to access the4 MIT “i-labs” program: lab instruction online.

Hubert Dreyfus is a philosopher who has written such important books as WHAT COMPUTERS CAN’T DO. His book ON THE INTERNET is a serious critique of mediated instruction built around the “presence” thesis.

If we want to engage the important critics of distance learning we need to know more about their position and deep concerns. That means, I think, taking their arguments seriously and engaging with them.

Farber’s articles, and Dreyfus’ ON THE INTERNET would give us a start in developing a common background on the “presence” thesis.

Or: we should know more about it before we attack. It’s serious, substantial stuff–not just anti-technology claptrap.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 10:08AM): I’d like to see the gloves come off in the discussion on this topic. Although our view of the future is hazy and dark, we can consider the effects of various futures.

Replacing the sage on the stage with the net mentor has to be a positive step. Loss of a place (secondary school or college) where people gather together ostensibly to learn but really have learning as the secondary purpose, will have repercussions. What are they? Where do those sports teams go? Will the academic part of a college evaporate leaving behind a sports program as its residue? I’m guessing that some alums wouldn’t mind, but the national fraternities and sororities will. Can they have virtual counterparts?

If students can get high school diplomas and college degrees online, they’ll be at home much more putting more of a burden on the parents. Actually going to college exposes many students to other regions and other cultures. When I went to graduate school in New York City, I had never been East of the Mississippi or ridden on a subway or been to a coffee house. I saw a woman’s purse snatched right across the street from me. I saw Jackie Kennedy going to my own drugstore. I saw Robert Preston walking to a rehearsal on a nearly empty Broadway early in the morning. I met Tom Clancy (of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy …) in a bar once. I saw Gene Kruppa practicing his drums in a nightclub in the middle of the day. All of this stuff has nothing to do with classes. It’s the other part of your education.

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. The implications of StraighterLine are very very far-reaching as are those of the entire online movement.

Science Labs Don’t Have to Cost an Arm and a Leg

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

A recent article in District Adminstration magazine discusses the aging science labs in schools across our nation and the cost of upgrading them all.

The article points out that science standards have been raised recently while lab facilities have been left to deteriorate. It says that the costs of fixing the existing labs run between $150 and $200 per square foot, meaning that an adequate lab space for 24 students will cost around $250,000 to upgrade.

In these days of plunging school budgets, this allocation of funds is simply not possible. When you add in the cost of including science labs in new school construction and count all of the schools around the country that are likely to require upgrades, the cost of fancy science lab facilities can reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, there’s another answer. Scale back the full upgrade of the lab spaces so that only inexpensive, safe, and efficient hands-on labs remain. Safety equipment may be partially eliminated. Gas would no longer be required. Bunsen burners come from the 19th century and are really archaic today. Highly chemical resistant desktops could be replaced with less expensive alternatives.

Why can we make this adjustment? Because the primary advantages of hands-on labs are two-fold.

  1. They provide a kinesthetic learning experience, rounding out the other learning in science classes.
  2. They allow students to do experimental design and redesign, providing excellent experience in understanding the nature of science and in developing scientific reasoning skills.

Any other purpose cited for having hands-on labs either can be handled in alternate, safer, and less expensive ways or is not really necessary for high school students. The two purposes listed above are easily achieved in a facility that is no more complex or expensive than a kitchen. While such facilities are more expensive than ordinary classrooms, they fall far below the cost of a fully-equipped science lab.


What do you then do to provide the science experiences that can’t be conducted in a kitchen? After all, simulations will not do. They misrepresent the nature of science and can even deliver erroneous results. The data all come from a programmer’s pencil, which cannot represent the real world and may have other flaws as well.

To many, simulations are the “new thing.” Actually, people have been using simulations for a very long time. Uranus and Neptune were discovered with the assistance of simulations. Note that these simulations were not being investigated but were a tool being used to investigate the solar system where the real data was being collected. The recent widespread availability of inexpensive computer time simply meant that simulations could be done with less expense and in less time.

Replacing science labs with simulations has become popular with some for a number of reasons, including cost, safety, and the “gee-whiz” factor of using a computer and seeing animations. None of these are valid excuses for cheating students of the opportunity to investigate the real world.

Instead, we must find newer ways to use the available technology to provide true inquiry science experiences.  Ideally, science labs should allow students to inquire, explore, and discover. Even when this goal is only partially realized, the labs should advance the goals of understanding the nature of science and of developing scientific reasoning skills. Any other use wastes valuable class time.

It’s time to harness our country’s ability to innovate and convert new ideas into great products. My personal efforts have centered on prerecorded real experiments. Others must also have ideas that can bring us better science education for less money. The future will require no less, and we can no longer afford these show-piece science labs that don’t deliver learning value in proportion to their cost.

A Review of ‘The Opportunity Equation’

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

In 2009, a commission formed jointly by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Institute for Advanced Studies released a report titled “The Opportunity Equation.”  This report, in the strongest terms, called for improving mathematics and science education in the United States. Furthermore, it set out a series of recommendations on how to achieve this improvement.

In the executive summary, the report states:

The nation’s capacity to innovate for economic growth and the ability of American workers to thrive in the global economy depend on a broad foundation of math and science learning, as do our hopes for preserving a vibrant democracy and the promise of social mobility for young people that lie at the heart of the American dream.

The report immediately suggests that three very important societal goals depend critically on our ability to educate our young people successfully in mathematics and science. If we do not do so we may lose

  1. our competitiveness in a global economy,
  2. our democratic way of life, and
  3. hope for a better life for our children.

These are very serious statements. However, the question remains: If we concentrate much of our resources on the goal of improving mathematics and science education, will other educational goals suffer?

When the No Child Left Behind act was passed by Congress, it focused specifically on basic mathematics and English skills. With all of the mandatory testing required, curricula were revamped to spend more time on these subjects. Necessarily, less time was spent on social sciences, science, and the arts. In my opinion, that was a poor decision. It ignored, without any rationale, the importance of motivation for students being taught rudiments. It also diverted resources. For example, I visited one school whose computer labs were given entirely over to programs that drilled students on these basics and so were unavailable for science teachers or others with valid reason to use this resource.

Text image: The Opportunity Equation - Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy

In response to my earlier question about other educational goals suffering if we concentrate our resources on improving mathematics and science education, my answer is no. I believe that a balance can be achieved if we view schooling differently. The commission came to a similar conclusion:

For the United States, the “opportunity equation” means transforming American education so that our schools provide a high-quality mathematics and science education to every student. The Commission believes that change is necessary in classrooms, schools and school districts, and higher education. The world has shifted dramatically — and an equally dramatic shift is needed in educational expectations and the design of schooling.

The report goes on to suggest more specific changes. Here’s where many of my colleagues and those in the education community at large may dispute the commission:

Mobilize the nation for excellence and equity in mathematics and science education. Place mathematics and science at the center of education innovation, improvement, and accountability.

Yes, there’s a problem, but is it really that grave?  Note that the numbers of postdoctoral students in science and engineering include well over half with temporary visas, according to the National Science Foundation’s report on enrollments in 2007. Our own schools aren’t producing graduates interested in continuing their schooling to its logical conclusion in science and engineering. I was once a postdoctoral fellow and can appreciate the sacrifices these people must make to complete their education and be ready to take their places among the top ranks of science researchers in the world. They certainly will make more money elsewhere. For example, I was working in industry when I made the decision to move back to academia, and I had to take a 50% salary cut!

There are more statistics that carry with them all of the built-in problems of statistics. Mark Twain suggested the problem when he said that there were lies, damn lies, and statistics. Different people focus on different aspects of statistical reports. I have looked over some of these reports and see a growing problem. Anecdotally, a local paper publishes two columns regularly. One is called “Mind Games” and contains math and logic problems. The other is the astrology column. The former runs on alternate weeks. The latter runs every week. The former delivers useful mental calisthenics. The latter provides pablum to a deceived public. It’s truly sad to see superstition rank higher than reality.

Once you agree that our schools really do have to improve the math and science product they create, then you start looking for a solution. Can you really put math and science at the center of your school’s educational curriculum as the commission suggests?

I hold a slightly different view. Of course, I’m biased by being a scientist.

A Curriculum Based on Social Science and Science

I would like to see a curriculum that uses social science and science as its root. Both engage students in real-world ideas and challenges. Both are important to a functioning democracy and to a nation that can compete in today’s world. Both provide opportunities for learning the more “basic” skills of mathematics and communication. Both can engage students in artistic expression. Science certainly can engage students in learning mathematics, not for itself, but for the benefits it can bring to studying the world. By the way, I’m not suggesting that we eliminate multiplication tables. Arithmetic must be learned the hard way. But beyond the elements of arithmetic, the motivation for learning any more mathematics should come from real-world oriented goals.

I’m very inexpert in the social science area and so will say little. I imagine that great art can illuminate the social sciences very well. I know that communication skills are very important to social sciences as they are to science as well.

How would you rearrange a school like the one I envision?  You might extend the time spent on science and social science and have the teachers who previously taught mathematics and English in unique classes join the other teachers appropriately to support the learning of the other subjects. It would be a variant of team teaching.

Whatever the approach, we as a nation must agree to devote substantial resources to preserving those three crucial things that will allow us to continue to exist essentially as we have: competitiveness, democracy, and a better future for our children. The alternative may well be decay into just another country.

Innovation in Education: What? How?

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

What is innovation in education? How can you make it happen?

Within my focus of science education, I see little in the way of really innovative ideas being implemented in classrooms. Part of the reason has been discussed by John Adsit (“Needed – A Professional Approach to Teaching“). More on that later.

I’ll begin with where education innovations originate.

“That which has come to be, that is what will come to be; and that which has been done, that is what will be done; and so there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

And so it is with ideas. There are really no new ideas, just remixing and repackaging of old ideas. As I researched the ideas underlying the use of student science laboratory experiences in teaching science, I found a single theme repeated again and again: inquire, explore, and discover.

In many of these cases, the author did not acknowledge those who had gone before, suggesting a rediscovery rather than building on previous knowledge. What a waste! You’ll detect echoes of Adsit’s article here. If educators would just study what has gone before, they could save time and improve education.

Therein lies at least one fertile area for innovation. Seek out previous ideas that worked well in the classroom but failed to spread for some reason. Understand that reason. Find a way to overcome the problem and repackage the good idea so that it will work this time.

hallAs for inquiry learning in science, Prof. Edwin H. Hall of Harvard University was using it in 1891. He wrote a book, A Text-Book of Physics: Largely Experimental, that included his philosophy in its introduction. Reading that introduction was a real eye opener for me. Those old guys were really quite smart. I should note that Prof. Hall was famous for discovering the Hall effect.

Hall had great success initially with his idea, but it foundered. Why? The reasons are not hard to find. Hall himself states that the laboratory class sizes must be no greater than twelve students. Try to imagine that in today’s typical public schools. New York City limits class size to 34 students, nearly triple the Hall limit.

Another reason can be found in the writings of Frederic W. Westaway, a very well-known writer on science philosophy and education from the 1890s through the 1920s. He also supported the inquiry approach to learning science and wrote eloquently about the qualifications of a science instructor in the inquiry mode. Such a person must be conversant with all science subjects, not just the one being taught. The instructor must also be well-acquainted with the history of science and understand the philosophy of science.

No amount of teacher recruiting, professional development, increase in teacher salaries (a good thing for other reasons), curriculum reform, or other traditional methods of improving instruction will fix these problems – at least not in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of money. So, for over 100 years, this concept has languished. Periodically, it’s been resurrected and promoted by this person or that. Teacher workshops result in enthusiastic responses. Yet, it dies again and again. The pressures of required curriculum, tight budgets, limited and diminishing instruction time, remedial work with unprepared students, and so on prevent using this technique. Also, the teachers are not prepared for the demands of this teaching style. They haven’t the background that Westaway suggests they must have.

The rapidly and exponentially increasing computational and communication capabilities provided by today’s technology provide the best means to get out of this situation. Software can build in process and support so that teachers don’t have to be experts. Software can track student progress and success and suggest where extra effort should be expended. Administration can see whether teachers are using the tools well. I’ve implemented these ideas for online/offline science labs and found that they work very well. The best part, in some ways, is being able to make adjustments in the software rapidly. The software evolves much more rapidly than traditional textbooks or curricula. It just keeps getting better.

I can recommend this approach to innovation to anyone:

  • Research your particular area of interest.
  • Find educational approaches that have worked very well but failed to spread out into the general population.
  • Find out why.
  • Think about how technology can overcome the obstacles.

If you find a way, you could be the author of the next great education innovation.

kellerdec1808Lest you jump too quickly into innovating, allow me to add a small caution. You’ll have to get the educators who will use your innovation on board. Here’s where Adsit’s comments really come into play. Working for a school is completely unlike working for a company. The company will tell you what tools to use. You’ll be reviewed once or twice a year. Your salary and continued employment depend on the outcome of the review. Even if your job has little that can be measured objectively, you’ll still be measured.

If you invent a truly astounding education innovation that can transform students everywhere into great learners, you’ll face very high hurdles. You won’t be able simply to sell a school district on your invention. They have to get the buy-in of the teachers, who may say nice things about your idea and then go back to the classroom and continue on as though you didn’t exist. The teachers cannot be forced to use new ideas. Unless you’re relieving some real pain that these teachers feel, you won’t succeed without Herculean efforts. And failing students are not pain.

Adsit comments that a school leader was sticking to the “tried and true” methods. He was right to put that phrase in quotes. The real tried and true methods are those that have been tried and found to be true in that they work well. The methods the leader was implementing were “tried and false” instead. It’s insanity to expect doing more of the same in a failing situation will change the result.

For all of us who would like to see education progress to greater success, we have to identify the problems. That’s easy. We have to determine how to fix the problems. That’s proven to be very hard indeed. Someone once told me that education is the institution that is the third most resistant to change. “What are the first two?” I asked. Monasteries and nunneries was the answer.

Making a Case for Online Science Labs

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
10 November 2008

In my last article, I spoke of states blocking progress in online science education. California and New York proscribe the use of virtual labs for their high school diplomas. Rather than complain about this situation, the online community must find ways to work with the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) and the New York State Board of Regents (Regents) to amend their rules.

There’s much at stake here — too much to waste our efforts attempting somehow to make simulations okay as labs. Realize that if these states modify their rules, then we open up a great set of opportunities for online education.

Instead of beginning by opposing UCOP and Regents, begin where they are and work with them. I read in the UCOP position a statement that no virtual labs that they had seen were good enough to substitute for hands-on labs. Take that as our starting point.

First, make contact with these groups. Then, show them the possibility of using online labs as a part of the instructional process. What’s the best way to make that demonstration?

Because the UCOP and Regents have not seen any virtual labs that they feel are suitable, and they have seen plenty of simulations (data, objects, and phenomena generated by equations and algorithms), do not begin by showing them what they’ve already rejected. Instead, show them something completely different.

keller10nov08Remember that the decision makers are taking their guidance from scientists. I’m a scientist (chemistry) and have some ideas about how these important advisors view science lab experience. Understand that the traditional education community is very protective of hands-on labs. Any solution must include these to some extent. The exact extent should be a subject of negotiation. The College Board, for example, mandates 34 hours of hands-on time for AP Chemistry.

Use America’s Lab Report for guidance and as a possible neutral virtual meeting ground. Showing adherence to all aspects of the report will, I believe, demonstrate the required possibility.

Having established communication and demonstrated the potential for online science to succeed, engage in a dialog regarding any deficiencies perceived by the UCOP and/or Regents in the various presented alternatives. Agree that one or more, if amended, can substitute for some fraction of the total hands-on requirement. Some approach may even succeed without modification.

Overcoming any such deficiencies and presenting our case again will complete the process and open the door for online science instruction throughout the United States.

Our initial presentation should include as many innovative approaches to virtual labs as we can muster and should not include simulations as lab substitutes for the reasons stated above.

I’m aware of three possibilities for presentation. None use simulations. All use the methods of science.

1. Large online scientific database investigation. Prof. Susan Singer, the lead author for America’s Lab Report, uses this approach in her own classes.

2. Remote, real-time robotic experimentation. Prof. Kemi Jona, one of the authors of the NACOL document about online science (together with John Adsit), is working with the MIT iLab people to supply these labs to students.

3. Prerecorded real experiments embedded in highly interactive software allowing students to collect their own personal data. The Smart Science® system is the only known example of this approach. (Disclaimer: I’m a creator of this system.) Apex Learning and Johns Hopkins University’s CTY are just two organizations that use these integrated instructional lab units.

I’d be happy to hear of other approaches that are not simulations and to work with anyone who’d like to see a change in the UCOP and Regents standards for lab experience. I’d especially like to talk to anyone who has contacts with the UCOP or Regents. The sooner we start in earnest, the sooner we’ll succeed.

Simulated Labs Are Anathema to Most Scientists

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
7 November 2008

[Editor’s note: This article was originally submitted as a comment to John Adsit’s November 6 I-Blog article, “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes,” on 11.6.08.]

I completely agree with the last portion of what John [Adsit says in “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes“]. My own blogging on the subject is at smartscience.blogspot.com.

I also mostly agree with the rest of his comments.

1. Typical lab experiences are poor. However, many science teachers, using the same labs, provide great lab experiences. Online science courses must do as well.

2. John refers to an “‘integrated’ lab program” in America’s Lab Report. [The entire report is available online at no cost.] Actually, the report refers to “integrated instructional units” more than twenty times. It never uses the phrase “integrated lab program” or even “integrated lab.” It’s not the lab program that they wish to be integrated but the instructional unit containing the lab.

keller013. The question of exactly how online science courses will meet the goals is left open. That’s partly good because new technologies cannot always be anticipated. However, the range of options should be restricted a little. Here, America’s Lab Report provides an excellent guideline. Here it is.

“Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

As long as your online science labs fill this definition, you can go forward and test it against the lab goals and the integration goals.

4. Absolutely, old school thinking is blocking excellent innovation in science, especially in the lab area. The reason for this blockage is not hard to find. In addition, the blockage comes in the form of restricted means rather than ends. The blockers (e.g., UCOP) say you cannot use online labs in any form rather than specifying results that must be achieved. America’s Lab Report took the opposite approach.

The reason for the blockage clearly comes from a statement on one UC web page that no virtual lab THAT THEY HAD SEEN could substitute for hands-on labs. Yet, they steadfastly refuse to look at new technologies in virtual labs.

Here’s the problem. A plethora of virtual labs have appeared, and they’re all SIMULATED. That is, they use equations and/or algorithms to generate data, objects, and phenomena for investigation by students. This approach is anathema to most scientists. The attempts to make simulations into science labs has so turned off these scientists that now they won’t even consider ANY virtual labs.

alrYet, many people continue to attempt to create virtual labs from simulations. Instead, they should be looking elsewhere. For example, one of the authors of the NACOL report, Kemi Jona, has been working on an alternate approach: remote real-time robotic labs. They’re virtual, online, and real. They violate the rules of the UCOP, but they meet the America’s Lab Report definition and goals.

That such exemplary work is banned by California and New York is a travesty. With ever-declining budgets and schools in crisis, any valid approach should be supported.

The approach should be as good or better than the best traditional labs. The standard cannot be the “typical” labs that are so poor. They’re a “straw man” and should not be part of the debate.

I hope that someone can get the attention of the UCOP and have them look into some of the excellent alternatives to supervised traditional labs. If they end up looking at simulations, they’ll just be turned off again, and we’ll have to suffer many more years of banned virtual labs. We must present them with real innovations that don’t depend on simulated activities but use real data from the real world with highly-interactive collection of personal data by students.