Sunday, 30 November 2014

Environmental Monitoring: Alberta

At the just-concluded G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, the leaders of the 20 major economies in the world agreed to “take strong and effective action” on climate change. Still, at this critical juncture in the history of our planet, it is essential that the scientific world continue to document the dramatic climate changes occurring all across the globe.

One technological area gaining wider use is remote sensing. Today sensors are powerful and inexpensive, network access to remote data is increasing, scientific models are improving, and “big data” algorithms for crunching the numbers are more accessible. In fact, we are now able to “watch the forests breathing” in real-time from our Edmonton campus, thanks to advanced streaming analytics software we’ve incorporated into one of our research initiatives. In real time, it is possible to take the pulse of an area, whether it is the environment (land, water, air) or the inhabitants (animal, fish, insect, plant). The data can be used to assess the health of a region, understand the short- and long-term trends, anticipate problems, and devise remediation schemes. Widespread remote sensing is essential to documenting what we are doing to Mother Earth.

Nowhere is this truer than in the province of Alberta, Canada, home of the oil sands. The extraction of oil from bitumen (often called “tar” because of the similarity in appearance) has ignited a global discussion about the need for energy and the cost of obtaining that energy, both economically and environmentally. Remote sensing can be used as crucial input to the many claims that are being made by environmentalists and the media – those with and especially those without the appropriate expertise – about the real impact of this increasingly global flashpoint for the energy versus the environment debate.

As an important step forward, the Alberta government has created the arms-length Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA). Its mission is to “monitor, evaluate and report on key air, water, land and biodiversity indicators to better inform decision-making by policy makers, regulators, planners, researchers, communities, industries and the public.” This body has the mandate, senior leadership, and financial resources to make a difference. In particular, by moving the environmental monitoring responsibility from the government to an independent, scientifically based organization, we expect to see the gathering and analysis of data that will lead to impartial conclusions. Perhaps then we can move the climate change discussion above the “is it real?” debate and on to the crucial “how do we remediate it” dialogue.

In a smarter planet, the entire world would be instrumented, from the macro level down to the micro. From the rain forests of the Amazon to the ice caps on Greenland to the depths of the oceans, remote sensors could supply a steady stream of real-time data. How do we fund the placement of literally billions (more?) of sensors around the world? Simple. Remote sensing has the potential to save billions of dollars per year by identifying problems in advance and preventing them from happening.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In this case, the stakes are much higher.

[This blog posting also appears here.]

Friday, 31 October 2014

Lest We Forget

With Remembrance Day less than two weeks away (November 11), it is sad to see a reminder of wars past – and present – impact our lives. On October 20 and 22, the Canadian sense of disengagement from the terrible events happening in the Middle East was shattered. Two men, possibly feeling justified by their extreme religious beliefs, each killed a defenceless Canadian soldier. The second murder in particular shocked Canadians, as the venue was Ottawa at the National War Memorial (with the drama finally ending at the physical location that is the heart of our Parliamentary system).

Canadians were stunned; these things just don’t happen in Canada. Acts committed in the name of religious extremism happen half way around the world – on television, newspapers and web pages. But in the span of 48 hours, our sense of isolation and feeling of apathy was irreparably changed. Canada lies in the shadow of our large and powerful neighbour to the south. The United States has all too often experienced the pain inflicted by zealots. For us, the world has become a much smaller place.

The monument is surrounded by flowers, flags, teddy bears, and written messages.
Today I was in Ottawa and felt the overwhelming urge to pay my respects at the National War Memorial. It was a moving experience to see the hundreds of flower bouquets surrounding the monument, and many dozens of spectators with anguished expressions on their faces staring at the scene of the crime in silence.  Our National War Memorial, largely irrelevant to the recent generations of Canadians, has regained its place in our national consciousness.

Ceremonial guards honour the memory of soldiers past and, sadly, present.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Happy 50th Birthday Computng Science

The Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta was the first computer science department in Canada, formally coming into existence on April 1, 1964. On April 1, 2014, the Department had a small celebration to recognize their 50th birthday. On Saturday September 23, as part of the University of Alberta’s annual Alumni Weekend, the Department held a big celebration. Between 150 and 200 people attended, including alumni who travelled to the event from across Canada, many places in the United States, and even one person coming from Germany.

Attendees included faculty members Keith Smiley and Bill Adams (joining the Department in 1964), Ursula Maydell (1965), and Tony Marsland (1970). My first day was January 2, 1984 which means I have been with the Department for over 60% of its existence.

The first B.Sc. degree from the Department was awarded in 1968, the first M.Sc. in 1964 (really a mathematics degree), and the first Ph.D. in 1973. Sadly there were no members of the graduating class of 1968 present. However, one member of the 1969 class came. She is still active as a programmer, but she has a most unusual job. Her description of the job was all the more poignant given what I had heard the day before. On the Friday, the self-appointed “Geeks”, a cohort that graduated in the late 1980s, gave a presentation to the undergraduate students about the ``lessons they don’t teach you in the classroom.’’ One of the topics was the rapid pace of change in computing. They described the skills they learned when they were students – IBM 360/370 assembler, Algol 68, Pascal, JCL, Fortran, C – and stated that at best what you learn at university has a five-year shelf life. The point was that you needed to keep learning to be relevant as a computer scientist today.
Rob Enns and Derek Iversion showing off the "Geek Wisdom" announcement -- the lessons they don't teach you in the classroom.
Back to the 1969 grad. What does she do? She programs in IBM 360/370 assembler supporting a US state government that has very old software that has not been rewritten using a modern programming language. Imagine that she programs using the same tools that she learned over 45 years ago. In the field of computing, this is almost unheard of (and perhaps reflects poorly on her employer). On the other hand, for our 1969 grad, this is probably a huge windfall. There can’t be many IBM assembly language experts left in the world, so I assume she charges top dollar for her services!

One of the pleasant surprises at the event was a mock-up of Chatty Cathy, the Department's PDP 11 computer from the late 1960s. In 1970, the machine became one of the first three in the world to host the UNIX operating system outside of Bell Laboratories (where it was originally developed). For 25 years, the machine remained divorced from the passage of time, running an early version of UNIX until finally decommissioned. The machine is still around in a computer museum in Athabasca Hall, but for the 50th anniversary party, a local balloon expert recreated Chatty Cathy.
A balloon rendition of Chatty Cathy. The resemblance to the original PDP 11 is striking, including the tape drives.
The Geeks graduated in the late 1980s. They are a close-knit group of friends who stay in touch and get together frequently, despite living in various places in Canada and the United States. I knew all of them when they were students at the University of Alberta -- some of them were in the very first class that I taught in 1984. They were a social group who organized a weekly evening get-together for beer, which they jokingly called CMPUT 469. That "course" still exists to this day.

The Geeks were active in sports and had a hockey sweater created to showcase the Computing Science team. At the 50th anniversary celebration, I came dressed in the original 1985 sweater. The Geeks, on the other hand, made a new version of the sweater which they proudly wore. Why a new sweater? The old one did not fit any more. I am proud to say that my sweater still fits and even looks rather baggy on me!
A subset of the "Geeks" (photo taken by Rob Enns). From left to right Rob Enns, Chuck Daniel, honorary member Jonathan Schaeffer, Marcel Laforce, Ed Cheng, Jim Moore, Lance MacAndrew, and Derek Iverson.

The 50th anniversary party was a wonderful event. There were three short speeches: Bill Adams on the early years of the Department, me on the middle years, and Mario Nascimento on the present (he is the current Department Chair). There was excellent food, including a special round of the preferred food of hungry students: pizza. It was a time to renew friendships and fondly recall past events. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum

On Saturday August 9, I was privileged to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the soon-to-be-completed Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. It is located near Grande Prairie, Alberta (roughly a five-hour drive north-west of Edmonton). This 41,000 square foot (roughly 4,000 square meters) will open to the public in March or April 2015. Alberta is a treasure trove of fossils, and the museum is another crown jewel in the province's rich paleontology tourist offerings.

Of special interest to me is the name of the museum. All too often, public places are named after people once they die. Philip Currie, Professor of Paleontology in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, is the world's premier dinosaur hunter. He has spent his career in Alberta and made many groundbreaking discoveries using fossils uncovered in Alberta. Thus it is a fitting tribute to an amazing person that it was decided to name the museum after a living scientist. Congratulations Phil!

What follows are some pictures from the event, including some illustrious names from Hollywood and business.
I like having a personal memento for major events I attend. Here I have a chessboard and am asking the celebrities to each sign a square. To my left is Dan Aykroyd (Saturday Night Live; Ghostbusters; Blues Brothers); to my right signing the board is Fran Dresher (The Nanny).
A parade of 650 motorcycles ended at the Museum. Dan Aykroyd (not shown above) was at the head of the procession.
The famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had a presence.
Getting ready for the ribbon cutting. On the left: Eva Koppelhus (Phil's wife) in red, Dan Aykroyd (with ball cap). On the right: Phil Currie (beside the pdium), Donna Dixon-Aykroyd (Dan's wife).
On your mark, get set, cut!
The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. This picture of one end of the building does not capture the enormity of the structure. The building has a design that from a dsiatnce makes it resemble the outline of a dinosaur.
Dan Aykroyd and Donna Dixon-Aykroyd at the podium. The Aykroyds were generous sponsors of the museum.
Phil gave a wonderful speech. Eva and Phil are a team, but Eva shuns the spotlight.
Dan Aykroyd singing the blues was the featured entertainer, bringing back memories of him on film and stage with his Blues Brothers partner John Belushi.
Aykroyd is 62 years old, but can still belt out the tunes like he was 30 years younger.
John Paul DeJoria (Paul Mitchell hair products; Patron liquor), a multi-billionaire attendee.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014


Last week, the University of Alberta spinoff company Onlea was announced ( Onlea (pronounced on-lee-a) has a mission of “mindful online learning crafted with scholarship, creativity and quality.” I am one of the four founders of this exciting opportunity.

The core business of the University of Alberta is research and teaching. It is not doing the production work required to turn the content of a course into an engaging online experience. Onlea partners with universities, schools, companies, and agencies. Our clients determine and own the pedagogy. Onlea works with them to turn their material into a high-quality interactive online course. To do so, we have a talented team of people and contractors including producers, directors, cameramen, film editors, illustrators, graphic designers, script writers, makeup specialists, software developers, project managers, instructional designers, assessment specialists, and so on. In other words we take an educator’s ideas and create an online adventure that engages the learner.

Let’s say you are a professor and want to create a MOOC (massive open online course). You decide on the course and the content. You then contract with Onlea to work with you on creating the online version. We go over the material, suggest improvements, help with the script writing, suggest interactive software applications (ILOs – interactive learning objects), work on in-line quizzing (periodic formative feedback), help with course assessment (online midterms and exams), coach the course presenter(s), film and edit the course material, add in illustrations, and so on.  In other words, the material given to us by the educator is the proverbial tip of the iceberg for Onlea.

The founders of Onlea worked on the University of Alberta’s first MOOC, Dino 101. From it we learned many valuable lessons. In particular, it’s not in the University of Alberta’s best interests to employ a (large) full-time team devoted to doing the production work needed for online courses. Although a few universities do their MMOC/blended/online course production in-house, most can’t afford to do so or, quite frankly, don’t want to do so. Onlea wants to work with other educational institutions and companies to produce their courses. We will work on any kind of online learning experience, not just MOOCs. Further, we are platform agnostic.

Will I make a lot of money from Onlea? Sadly, no. The company has been created as a not-for-profit. Thus any money earned gets plowed back into the company. I have a full-time job as Dean, so my work with Onlea is restricted to my own personal time. Of course, I have to reserve a few hours each week for leisure time, else work will become all consuming.

So why I am putting in the extra hours needed to help Onlea succeed? Because I believe there is a real opportunity to make the company an international leader in the online space. Onlea is the first MOOC production company in Canada (and possibly the world). Many institutions have already expressed interest in what we can do (thank you, Dino 101). We have to leverage this to go great work and continue to innovate. As a researcher, I know how much fun it can be on the leading edge. I am not interested in being an also-ran.

In 1995, I co-founded BioTools, Inc. Sadly, the company no longer exists. We started out building software tools to do DNA and protein analysis. The products were well received in the marketplace, but we couldn’t quite generate enough ongoing revenue. The dot-com crash hit us hard and we almost went under. We reinvented ourselves by commercializing the poker-playing software developed by my research group. This was successful for a while but, again, we couldn’t quite generate enough ongoing revenue. Eventually we sold the company. I made less than $10 for every hour that I put into the company. Although the money wasn’t great, it was an interesting learning experience and an exciting journey with plenty of highs (e.g., our bioinformatics software getting an excellent review in the prestigious journal Science; the poker software being picked up by Walmart) and some major lows (e.g., laying off people; almost going bankrupt).

Hopefully Onlea will have plenty of highs and none of the lows. Stay tuned!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Potpourri of Games

In 1999, my Ph.D. student Andreas Junghanns and his wife Manuela hosted a party at their apartment in Edmonton. They invited a few faculty and graduate students over, all members of the GAMES (Games, Analytical Methods, and Empirical Studies) research group. We enjoyed an evening of playing a variety of games, eating, drinking, and socializing. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

Andreas and Manuela had a nice idea, so it had to be copied. Several months later I hosted a GAMES party. Soon, other faculty members in the GAMES group joined in. For almost 15 years now we have had several GAMES parties a year, trying to average one per month (excluding the July and August holidays). Any excuse is a good reason for having a party: a visiting GAMES researcher, meeting new GAMES students, celebrating a success, or just because we need a break. Whatever the reason, GAMES parties are popular amongst the faculty, staff, and students who are interested in games-related research (and some who just enjoy playing games).
One of many tables at a typical GAMES party.
The parties include any form of game. During any given party, you may encounter classic games (such as chess), newly published games (often from Germany), physical games (such as billiards), and video games (no shortage of choices here). The play is non-competitive; everyone participates for the fun of it. Thinking and strategy games dominate the selection; the higher the luck factor the less likely it will be played. A typical party has between 20 and 40 attendees, dominated by the graduate students. There is always plenty to eat, drink, and think about.
Michael and Shayna Bowling: May 2014 GAMES party hosts.
Michael and Shayna Bowling hosted the GAMES party held in May. During the week, Michael is a passionate, highly successful artificial intelligence researcher and the leader of our Computer Poker Research Group (CPRG). But during their leisure hours, Michael and Shayna are enthusiastic game players and game collectors. They have a large collection of games and bring their latest additions to every GAMES party.
A sample of the Bowling's game collection.
And what of Andreas and Manuela? They are both back in Germany and doing very well. When visitors from Alberta drop by, they host “small” GAMES parties. GAMES group alumni occasionally host parties around the world, including Iceland, Denver, and Silicon Valley. GAMES parties have now gone international!
What's a party without food?

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

MH370 – The Largest Maritime Search?

On March 8, 2014 Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 took off on a routine trip from Kuala Lumpur north to Beijing. Shortly thereafter, the plane disappeared from radar screens and, other than a few satellite pings, no trace of it has been found. Two hundred and thirty nine people are missing and presumed dead. There are several clues as to its whereabouts that surprisingly led south, to one of the most inaccessible regions of the Indian Ocean. Even a massive international effort involving dozens of boats, airplanes, and submarines has failed to unravel the mystery of MH370. Commentators have called this the “largest maritime search in history.” But is it?

Readers of this blog know of my interest in polar exploration. So it should be no surprise that I find a connection between MH370 and the biggest polar search in history.

On May 19, 1845 the ships Erebus and Terror departed England under the command of Sir John Franklin. Franklin and his 129 crewmembers set forth on what was expected to be a triumphant journey through the North-west Passage. Discovering a navigable route through the Canadian labyrinth of islands and ice-clogged passageways was one of the great geographical mysteries yet to be resolved. On July 25, 1845, just west of Greenland, a whaling ship pulled along side Franklin’s ships. After that, not a word. At the time, that was not a problem. After all, this expedition was expected to be away for a year or more.

As Andrew Cohn writes in Lost Beneath the Ice (2013):
But when nothing was heard from Franklin by late 1847, the [British] Admiralty worried. … Tens of thousands of worshippers filled churches across England, and the efforts to find Franklin became a cause célèbre. A massive international effort was launched... It ‘was the greatest activity the Arctic would ever witness’… Over the next dozen years, some forty ships and 2,000 officers and men would join the search for Franklin, making this ‘the longest and most expensive search and rescue operation ever undertaken.’ Between 1848 and 1853, some twenty-eight expeditions on sea and land were sent to the Arctic.

The search area was literally the entire Canadian Arctic, at the time regarded as one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Expeditions probed from the Eastern Arctic, trying to retrace Franklin’s path. Others entered from the Western Arctic, expecting him to have completed or come close to completing the North-west Passage. Yet others explored the northern reaches, thinking that he might have gone into the mythical Open Polar Sea that supposedly existed around the North Pole. The British public was hungry for news. But each expedition took many months to return home, and most took several years. There were no telephones or Internet to keep the public informed. The drama in the Arctic was played out in painfully slow motion. 

In 1850, the first trace of Franklin was found. On Beechey Island, close the geographic center of the Canadian Arctic, the Franklin’s 1845-46 winter camp was found. But no note was discovered – nothing to indicate where he went once the summer came, the ice melted, and his ships were free to continue their journey.

It wasn’t until 1854 that evidence emerged as to the fate of Franklin and his men. John Rae, on a routine mapping mission, encountered Eskimos with stories of white men who died of starvation many years before. Rae returned to England with the stories and artifacts from the lost crew. The public had to wait until 1859 to get most of the story. Francis Leopold McClintock led an expedition that was able to reach the site of the tragedy (King William Island) and recover the only surviving document of the expedition. The single page of paper told a sad tale of being hopelessly trapped in the ice and a starving crew forced to abandon ship in a desperate attempt to march south. None survived.

It took 14 years to discover what happened to Franklin’s expedition. Over the course of that time, most of the blank areas on the map of the Canadian Arctic were filled in. A navigable North-west Passage turned out to be illusionary, at least for ships in the nineteenth century.

The Franklin mystery was eventually solved, as will that of MH 370 eventually. The search for MH 370 has been ongoing for only two months. With today’s sophisticated equipment, we can only hope that the search won’t take as long the Franklin search.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Coursera By the Numbers

In a scant 2.5 years, the landscape for teaching and learning at postsecondary institutions has changed. It began in September 2011with a Standford University course in Artificial Intelligence (Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig) -- the first “massive” MOOC had 160,000 registrants and 20,000 course completions. There is a raging debate as to the academic value of MOOCs. However, there is no disagreement that MOOCS have shone the spotlight on teaching and learning in a public way and to an extent that has never happened before. And that is a good thing.

A major research university, like the University of Alberta, has the mandate to do research and teaching. At most such institutions, the former receives all the attention (and all the funding) while the latter is low profile (and often underfunded). Given all the recent media attention given to MOOCs, teaching and learning, many institutions have begun to invest heavily in transforming and even moving away from the traditional classroom experience. “Blended”, “flipped” and “experiential” are some of the popular buzzwords that describe (not-so-) new teaching techniques starting to be widely deployed.

Coursera was created almost two years ago by Stanford University professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Most people associate the company with providing the computing platform for offering MOOCs. However, many instructors are using the vast amount of content that is being put up on the Coursera site as a resource for the blended/flipped delivery of their local courses.

I am writing these words at the second annual Coursera conference, in London, United Kingdom. The venue is the University of London in a building that is literally beside the British Museum. When there’s a 15 minute break, what better way to pass the time than by walking next door and browsing (and it’s free!). How cool is that!

Daphne Koller, London 2014
Daphne and Andrew gave a tag-team presentation on the current state of Coursera and some of the company’s future directions. Some of the takeaway numbers include:
·      7 million registered users,
·      33% of users are from the United States,
·      33% of users are from emerging economies,
·      25 million course enrolments,
·      7,466 years of video watched,
·      64 million quizzes taken,
·      2.5 million peer-graded assessments, and
·      1 million course completions.

A big discussion point is the completion rate of MOOCs. The first Stanford MOOC turned out to be an exception: 20,000/160,000 = 12.5% of registered students completed the course. The latest data from a variety of sources, including multiple MOOC providers, shows that roughly 5% of course registrants complete their course. To many observers, the completion percentage is an indication that MOOCs are fundamentally flawed. However, a reality check is in order. Since there's no cost to registering for a course, many people sign up to see what it is about before making a big time commitment (so called window shopping). Coursera has broken their completion rate data down as follows:
·      5% for those who register,
·      63% who register and say that they are committed to complete the course, and
·      90% who pay ($39-$69US) for Coursera’s “Signature Track” (essentially a “credit”)
The lesson is obvious: you get what you pay for. If you plunk down money for a course, you are very likely to complete it. Not a surprise.

Andrew Ng, London 2014
The other major knock against MOOCs is the monetization model. If courses are free, how does one recoup the costs? Coursera’s Signature Track is generating revenue, mostly for Coursera but a portion goes to the participating institutions. This revenue stream is catching on. It took nine months from the start of Signature Track to generate $1 million of revenue. It took three more months to reach $2 million. The next three months brought the total revenue to $4 million. Of course, one should be careful about extrapolating this trend! Clearly there is a market for students getting a piece of paper verifying that they passed a course.

So far there are no surprises at the Coursera conference. Attendees include a mix of people ranging from university presidents and provosts at one end to interested students at the other. The conference is all about hearing the experience of learners, instructors, and administrators. Everyone has an interesting story to tell.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Perspectives on Dino 101

Last September, the Faculty of Science and the University of Alberta launched Dino 101(dinosaurs!) – our initial foray into the world of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course). As many of you will know from my previous posts, Dino 101 was to be a high-quality online course that would be offered for free to anyone in the world (credit towards a university degree required a fee). Now that the first offering of the course is complete, it is time to look back at what was accomplished and the lessons learned.

The course took almost a year to design, build and deliver and was the result of the efforts of close to 40 people in the Faculties of Science, Arts, and Education, and the University Digital Strategy group. Over 23,000 students around the world took the course including 400 University of Alberta students (for bureaucratic reasons, we had to have a cap of the number taking it for credit). Feedback on the course was overwhelmingly positive. From start to finish, Dino 101 was a memorable experience for all those involved with it.

From the beginning, we knew we could produce the best course in this domain – with our international strengths in paleontology and local expertise in educational design, assessment, and in building a rich interactive digital learning environment. As a result, we did several things that were well received, including some that go beyond what can be done in the traditional classroom:
  • We had a talented graduate student deliver most of the course material (Betsy Kruk). She served as an aspirational surrogate for the course’s sage, Dr. Phil Currie. Our intuition was that students would better relate to a presentation by one of their generation, and the feedback seems to bear this out. Of course, Dino 101 was Phil’s course and he oversaw all the content and did some of the presentations.
Dr. Phil Currie and Betsy Kruk.
  • On-location shooting at dinosaur digs in Alberta – including the bone bed in Edmonton and at the World Heritage site of Dinosaur Provincial Park and the superb Royal Tyrrell Museum.
  • Engaging interactive software applications. Interactivity is critical for keeping learners engaged.
3D Fossil Viewer (using real scans of bones in the University collections).
  • Original artwork was created specially for the course (created by Jan Sovak, internationally renowned paleo-artist).
  • Created the idea of “credit by proxy” to allow non-University of Alberta students to earn the equivalent of a University credit.
  • Built an effective online testing tool, critical for us to evaluate the learning performance of the thousands of course participants. No one wanted to do manual marking for 23,000 students!

The University's new testing tool.
From my point of view, many things were accomplished by the course offering. Some of them include:
  •  Produced an excellent and novel science course, as judged by the students taking it. The student feedback was gratifying.
  •  Enhanced the international reputation of our acclaimed paleontology group and opened the program to the world – allowing people to experience science and ancient life in a rich and open learning environment
  • Showcased the research and teaching excellence of the Faculty of Science.
  • Received provincial, national and international media attention (e.g., BBC News, Huffington Post, and National Geographic).
  • Raised our academic profile. Over 50% of the students taking the course had not heard of the University of Alberta before.
  • Marketed the course in novel ways (at least for MOOCs), finding interesting and fun ways to exploit the power of digital platforms and social media.
  • I hope that for some people, we created or re-enforced their passion for paleontology/science/learning and that this course will impact their future educational and career choices.

Some of the lessons learned were difficult. First, we discovered just how much work is involved in producing a high-quality MOOC. Yes, we learned a lot and can use this experience to streamline the development processes for our next MOOC. It doesn’t change the fact that a high-quality MOOC is expensive and requires a large team of talented people to bring a course to delivery.

Second, it took a while but we eventually “learned” the formula for a successful MOOC. The following picture, created by Jennifer Chesney, Associate Vice-President, University Digital Strategy, shows that the academic side (pedagogy) is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It is all the other things (below the water line) that add up to produce a high-quality MOOC. Nothing happens without a topic that has universal appeal (market value), the credibility to talk about it (international reputation), and the passion of the instructional and production teams to do something extraordinary.

The formula for creating a high-quality MOOC.
Finally, we uncovered several challenging aspects of  University of Alberta administrative policies. The University has rules/guidelines that were right at the time they were adopted, but have not evolved to accommodate the new reality of massive online courses. Hopefully, these bureaucratic obstacles can be quickly removed.

In January, we launched our second instance of Dino 101. The material was further streamlined and enhanced (including adding in Phil Currie’s discovery of a rare baby dinosaur. Going forward, we plan to offer the course once annually, probably in September.

I am very proud of what has been accomplished with Dino 101. The Faculty of Science and the University of Alberta are on the frontier of a new age in teaching and disseminating science.  The project represented the strong collaborative efforts of a great team of people, representative of our entire campus, who did amazing things.

What’s next? We are currently filming a second MOOC, part of a joint effort in the Faculties of Arts and Science. Two others are in the planning stage. All of them will be every bit as good as Dino 101. In addition, we are analyzing the data gathered from Dino 101 and will turn the insights gleaned from the course into research papers and into recommendations for better practices going forward.

Many people doubt that MOOCs are the future. However, the momentum towards putting more course material online and freely available is unstoppable. There is no turning back. We do not know how this will play out, but the University of Alberta needs to be a leader in inventing the future of online teaching.

Friday, 31 January 2014

My Mantra

In the early years of my academic career, I was insulated from the politics of the university and the complexity that is the research funding reality in Canada. Once I was sufficiently far enough along in my career, I started assuming leadership positions. Quickly I observed a roadblock that limited what could be achieved. I have seen this pattern over and over again, to the point where I started becoming vocal about it. The problem is simple: division instead of unity. Let me give three examples from my career.

Canada is largely decentralized in its administration. Ottawa has responsibility for some areas (e.g., national defense) and the ten provinces for others (e.g., education). So when you get an area that overlaps national and provincial interests, problems ensue. Starting in the mid-1990s I became a passionate advocate for creating high-performance computing infrastructure for researchers. Early on, it became obvious that there were problems. Ottawa had one idea of what was needed; the provinces had others. The end result was what you would expect: friction that continues to this day. The reality is that if everyone could come together and work as one, at least in the high-performance computing area we could reduce duplication, simplify processes, create a national strategy, and give better value to researchers. But, hey, we would reduce or eliminate some (very important) empires, and that would be a terrible thing to do.

In Canada, we have a variety of organizations that support some aspect of information technology for researchers (e.g., one organization is responsible for research networking; another is responsible for the high-end computing you put on the network) and a plethora of  funding agencies that provide money for IT infrastructure, software, support people, and research grants. Heaven forbid that we simplify the Canadian system and merge some of the organizations to create critical mass (instead of critical mess). We could reduce duplication, simplify processes, create a national strategy, and give better value to researchers. But, hey, we would eliminate some (very important) empires, and that would be a terrible thing to do.

As Vice Provost and Associate Vice President for Information Technology at the University of Alberta (I had the longest title of any administrator – size matters!), I was responsible for the institutional IT strategy. But there were over 50 independent IT groups across campus, each with a separate agenda, budget, and vision. The reality is that most of these groups did not have sufficient funding to accomplish their goals; they were continually in a reactive mode putting our fires, rather than being in a proactive mode and providing new value to their stakeholders. Many of these groups were unsustainable, especially in an environment of repeated budget cuts. It made sense that there needed to be some unity of purpose.  If everyone could came together and work as one, at least in the IT area we could reduce duplication, simplify processes, create an institutional strategy, and give better value to faculty, staff, and students. But, hey, we would reduce or eliminate some (very important) empires, and that would be a terrible thing to do.

How do you solve the problem? First, you need to recognize that there is a problem. This is can be harder than you think since some groups will deny that there is a problem as a way of protecting their independence. Second, you need to open a dialogue between the groups. Unfortunately, dialogue can be perceived as a threat. Finally, you need a solution. The obvious route is to merge the groups, but the political or social reality may make this impractical. There are other ways that may be as effective (or more effective) to achieve the goal of a united voice. For example, creating a vision that everyone can buy into, or creating a greater level of communication or cooperation, might achieve most of the benefits. Regardless of the solution chosen, effecting major change is rarely easy.

My frustration with the fragmentation that seems to surround the groups that I interact with led me to create a mantra that has served me well over the years:

United we grow
Divided we status quo

The phrase is simple and gets at the heart of the matter. To many people, the status quo is acceptable; resistance to change is palpable in so many areas. But the world changes and organizations/processes need to evolve. Often the only way to effect substantive long-term change is to have a united purpose and achieve critical mass. Do you want one hundred small villages or one powerful country? Which will offer better value for the stakeholders in the long run?