Educational innovation, development and discussion at ETH

Weshalb Moodle?

Auf den Beitrag zum neuen Moodle-Design in diesem Blog im Januar diesen Jahres haben wir viel Feedback erhalten. Dafür möchten wir uns herzlich bedanken. Gerne möchten wir Ihnen im Nachgang mit diesem Blogbeitrag aufzeichnen, was eigentlich hinter Moodle steckt und weshalb sich die ETH Zürich für Moodle als strategische Lernplattform entschieden hat.

Seit rund 10 Jahren betreibt die ETH Zürich die zentrale Lernplattform Moodle. Anders als andere Plattformen (z.B. EduApp) ist die Software Moodle ein Open-Source-Projekt. Vor über 20 Jahren hat ein Universitätsstudent aus Perth mit den Arbeiten an einer Software begonnen, um die Lehre über Distanz zu verbessern bzw. überhaupt erst zu ermöglichen. Martin Dougiamas hat dabei die Software von Beginn an offen gestaltet. So ist der komplette Source Code frei verfügbar, mehr noch: als Open-Source-Projekt fliessen immer wieder Ideen und Softwarecode in das Werkzeug ein.

Moodle bietet viele Schnittstellen, um individuelle Erweiterungen zu programmieren und andere Systeme anzubinden. Die Software ist modular aufgebaut, was es ermöglicht, neue Funktionen hinzuzufügen, ohne den Core-Code zu verändern.

Wer programmiert Moodle

Die Entwicklung des Core-Codes wird vom Headquarter vorantgetrieben, das Niederlassungen in Perth und Barcelona hat. Zur Zeit umfasst das Headquarter rund 75 Personen. Es gibt zusätzlich einige über die Welt verteilte Entwickler, die sich ebenfalls beteiligen. Meistens sind diese bei grossen Universitäten angestellt (auch an der ETH Zürich arbeiten zwei Entwickler für Moodle, dies vor allem im Bereich Onlineprüfungen). Zur Zeit hält Moodle weltweit einen Marktanteil von über 50% für Higher Education. Dies ist umso erstaunlicher, da es mit Blackboard, Brightspace und Instructure grosse Firmen gibt, die mit ihren Produkten an diesem Markt auftreten. Einige spannende Zahlen zu Moodle (Stand Mai 2019):

  • Registrierte Moodle-Installationen: über 100’000
  • Nutzerkonten: über 150 Millionen
  • Quizfragen: über 1.5 Milliarden

Entwicklungen in und für Moodle

Die ETH Zürich hat sich wie oben erwähnt, vor einigen Jahre für Moodle entschieden. Dies hatte verschiedene Gründe, dazu gehören: Die hohe Anpassbarkeit auf individuelle Bedürfnisse, eine sehr aktive und grosse Community, der Open-Source-Gedanke und einiges mehr.

Die ETH Zürich beteiligt sich in diversen Bereichen in der Moodle-Community. Speziell im Bereich Onlineprüfungen entwickeln wir didaktisch verbesserte Fragetypen (kPrime, Single Choice,…) und andere Erweiterungen (Ressilienz-Plugin bei Netzwerkstörungen) und stellen diese den anderen Nutzern – ganz im Open Source Gedanken – zur Verfügung (https://moodle.org/plugins/browse.php?list=contributor&id=91386 and https://github.com/ethz-let)

Das Moodle HQ hat einen klar definierten Entwicklungsplan und eine entsprechende Roadmap. Dies erlaubt es, frühzeitig eine stabile Serviceplanung zu machen. Die Roadmap ist öffentlich: https://docs.moodle.org/dev/Roadmap

Die zwei funktionellen Updates des Moodle-Cores pro Jahr werden an der ETH Zürich nach einigen Wochen installiert und damit auch die neuen und verbesserten Funktionen unseren Studierenden und Dozierenden zur Verfügung gestellt. Dieses Vorgehen ist auch aus Sicherheitsperspektive sinnvoll, da damit auch allfällige Bugs und security issues beseitigt werden.

«Lieber Support, ich habe einen Fehler entdeckt!»
«Lieber Support, ich habe eine tolle Idee!»

Vorteil einer Open-Source Software ist ihre Anpassbarkeit. Man kann grundsätzlich alles verändern. Da wir immer wieder die neueste Version des Core-Codes einspielen, verzichten wir darauf, diesen lokal bei uns zu verändern. In einer Community unterwegs zu sein, heisst aber eben auch, nicht direkten Einfluss auf die Entwicklung des Core-Codes zu haben. Wir sind sehr dankbar, von unseren Studierenden und Dozierenden immer wieder wertvolle Vorschläge zu erhalten. Sofern wir diese nicht direkt auf unserem System – ohne Veränderung des Core-Codes- umsetzen können, geben wir diese gerne in die Community weiter. Leider ist dieser Prozess allerdings nicht immer von Erfolg gekrönt.

Es gibt im Moodle Universum natürlich auch viele andere Entwicklerinnen, die Plugins ebenfalls Open-Source zur Verfügung stellen. Grundsätzlich lassen sich diese auf alle kompatiblen Moodle-Installationen installieren. Allerdings empfiehlt es sich hier, zurückhaltend zu sein. Einerseits weil jedes zusätzliche Modul die Software komplexer (und langsamer) macht. Andererseits muss sehr genau geklärt werden, wie häufig ein Plugin aktualisiert wird. Denn falls ein Plugin nicht mehr gewartet wird, was durchaus passieren kann, ist es irgendwann nicht mehr kompatibel. Dann muss man sich als Moodle-Anbieter entscheiden zwischen Plugin behalten und Moodle veralten lassen oder Plugin löschen und Moodle aktualisieren – beides eher suboptimal. Wir an der ETH haben einige Plugins im Einsatz, so beispielsweise Gruppenauswahl (Universität Lausanne)Scheduler (Universität of York), Open Cast (Universität Münster), evaluieren aber sehr genau, ob wir das Risiko des oben genannten Problems möglich klein halten können.

Fragen oder Kommentare? Wir freuen uns, mit Ihnen hier über darüber zu diskutieren!

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Using Polybook to create interactive lecture notes together

As a depository of digital lecture notes the Polybook has been popular among ETH teaching staff for some time. In Polybook instructors can enrich conventional lecture material with interactive elements such as quizzes and videos, and question students on particularly important material. This increases student engagement with the material and improves knowledge uptake.

From Data Collection to finished Excursion Report

The very name “Polybook” is an indication of this tool’s many functions and the large number of books and lecture notes which are stored there.

Using Polybook it is possible to work together on lecture notes or documents and to give them an ordered structure and presentation. Access to individual books is steered via a Moodle link, ensuring that all students in a course have access to its books.

The Polybook is part of LET’s eCollab Service, and can be used in a number of collaborative scenarios. These include:

  • Author and publish texts collaboratively: In Polybook students can author texts from group or project work either alone or collaboratively, and then make them accessible to others. These texts can be augmented with images or interactive elements such as quizzes and videos. Polybook can also be deployed for preparation or wrap-up of lectures and seminars.
  • Peer review / peer assessment: Student or working group texts or projects can be exchanged with other student groups and assessed. The results can be used for revision purposes.
  • Learning journal: Learning processes can be published by students or student groups for purposes of self-reflection or the evaluation of a group process.
  • Interactive lecture notes: Polybook can be deployed in place of conventional lecture notes, with additional possibilities: students can use interactive elements, or create them themselves; and they can discuss the material via the comments function.

Do you teach at ETH? Have we sparked your interest? How to Polybook contains comprehensive instructions on how you, as teaching faculty, can set up Polybook in Moodle and take the first steps towards collaborative or interactive lecture notes. We would also be happy to provide personal guidance on implementing a collaborative scenario or using Polybook: please contact Melanie Walter, the person responsible for the eCollaboration service. We look forward to working with you.

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Case study – Peer Review Food Chemistry Laboratory – Writing reports


As part of a series of case studies, staff at LET sat down to have a conversation with Prof. Laura Nyström and Dr. Melanie Erzinger from the Department of Health Sciences and Technology to discuss their food chemistry laboratory project.


What is the project about?

We introduced a new way to write lab reports, combined with a peer review method to foster collaboration and critical thinking skills among students. In the past students did not have clear criteria as to what makes a good report. Assistants also needed too much time to read the reports and give repeated feedback. Thus we looked for a way to help assistants spend less time on the review process.

We transformed the format of our Food Chemistry Laboratory Course (Food Science, BSc level, 4th semester) from a classical lecture format with lab exercises to a blended learning format. With new videos, we can achieve better coverage of basic knowledge (i.e. security, handling of equipment).

What motivated you to initiate the project?

Student numbers have increased over the past 10 years and we have been losing too much time in covering basic knowledge repeatedly. Using concept videos, students will be able to review key topics on their own. Overall, we also wanted to make the entire course more attractive. A key intention was to develop student skills in report writing and improve report quality.

How did you do it?

We defined additional, clear quality criteria for a good report. During a first round students give each other feedback, such that final review by teaching assistants and lecturer approval involve less effort. For each experiment, every student has to review another student’s report. In total, each reviews four reports over the semester.

Students don’t get a grade for the peer review (semester performance in the lab course is also ungraded). They have one week for each of the four peer reviews, and must complete each by the respective set deadline. They answer various questions related to the quality of the respective report (these involve five aspects plus overall feedback; see the annex at the end of this case study). Students do not “grade” the reports, but give feedback in their own words.

Assistants are aware of what is asked in the reports and are therefore able to provide targeted and helpful feedback in the lab which addresses the quality criteria for reports.

We provide the students with online material on how to write reports (short videos, documents etc.). Previously we had a short lecture with examples. Until now, however, we did not train them in conducting proper peer reviews. We have now realised that we need to do this (especially for Bachelor’s degree students), and will include peer review training with the short lecture next year.

Did you have the support you needed for the project? Is there additional support you wish you had had to help you to achieve your goals?

We learned about a module inside our LMS for administering the peer-review process (“workshop module” in Moodle). It would have been helpful to have had practical tips from others, but apparently not many lecturers have used this tool. Although the general instructions were useful, it took quite some time to learn all the aspects of the tool.

Please describe some of the key outcomes of the project.

Various things changed for the better. Students learned a lot by reading and reviewing the reports of their peers. They gained important input for their own reports. For many it was the first time they had had to give feedback in such a structured way. They also had to find a way to critique something in a good, constructive manner. Overall, students were introduced to a new way of critical thinking and took important first steps in this skill, which is important for their later careers.

We can say clearly that through the new review method we were able to improve the quality of reports and reduce the time needed by lecturers to grade them.

How did the project impact learners or the way in which you teach?

In general the peer review method was well received in the BSc course, and we used the same approach in an MSc-level course. We therefore realised that Bachelor’s degree students need more help and training in peer review than Master’s students.

Overall we saw that the blended learning approach and the peer review methods work to improve our courses, addressing the above-mentioned challenges of lack of student preparation and the need to constantly repeat basic knowledge. Students themselves clearly realised the value and potential of better collaboration, peer feedback and critical thinking skills.

What lessons learned do you want to share with your colleagues?

Not every cohort is the same. While things worked quite well in 2017, in 2018 fewer students adhered to the schedule and deadlines – even though everything was communicated and documented in the same way as in the previous year.

What are your future plans for this work? How do you plan to sustain what you have created through the project?

More and more assistants will become competent in providing full reviews of the already peer-reviewed reports. Currently lecturers still have to do this. Lecturers will thus gain more time to be present in the labs and to give 1:1 feedback to students in the lab and online.

We will definitely create some training material for assistants for this purpose, but it is not available yet. We also want to create a short, ready-to-use document about giving feedback in our specific context: what is constructive feedback, what are the do’s and don’ts? Students, assistants and fellow instructors can use it.

We are interested in learning whether other lab courses at ETH do something similar, and how. We also need to improve the support situation with the Moodle review tool “workshop module”. We will continue to work with it, but it is a bit tricky sometimes.

One additional idea is to make the videos interactive. Students will see in-built questions in the videos which they have to answer right away.

Additional notes regarding resources and tools used.

  • We used a programme called Labster to create virtual labs in some cases to extend the experience to experiments which were not doable in reality in our labs.
  • We learned from other courses and departments regarding effective feedback (ETH “Foundations of Teaching and Learning” course).
  • To conduct the peer review we work with the “workshop module” in Moodle.
  • To make the videos interactive we will work with the new Moodle “interactive video suite” plugin.

Student voices:

What is your opinion about this course and the peer review process (lab reports). How has it influenced your learning process?

Robert Spiess: I think peer-reviewing was a great way to see other students’ work. It gave me the opportunity to experience and compare different ways of writing. I could always detect things that I wanted to include in my reports. At the same time, I could see in which points my reports were better, where my advantages were.

I think this procedure is particularly useful when writing. But the reports should not be too long, because, otherwise, students have to spend too much time on their own report and neglect, as a consequence, the peer-reviewing of someone else’s report. Other courses usually required longer reports. But if the reports were shortened, the method could also be applied in other laboratory courses (such as in the food processing or in the biotechnology lab course).

Aline Candrian: I’m glad I did the course, I think it gives students a first impression of laboratory work. The lab report writing is an essential part of the course to understand the experiment and the obtained data. The peer review approach was fine, even though nobody was eager to do them. VERY little time was invested into peer review by most groups, as far as I’m concerned. Of course, sometimes you could benefit from your peer’s feedback but most of the times we didn’t act on them. That’s probably because it was our first time writing (semi-) real reports. We didn’t really know what we were doing and you mostly think you know better than others, especially if someone reviewed your report who you rate less familiar with chemistry.

At the same time you’re well aware that you know nothing about report writing, so how can you evaluate someone else’s work?

Additionally, motivation was minimal since you were just glad to be done with writing your report. Having to assess another report and then correct your own report again was just another ‘burden’. So, altogether, I would say report-writing was a crucial part of the course but peer review not so much since we had no experience at all. I think peer review makes more sense in the courses in our last semester.

Making the students just do a peer review on the last report might work. They’ll see how it works, they’ll have had written a few reports (and got more familiar with it) and might be more confident in providing feedback. But I’m not an expert, it may not work the way I envision it, what do I know 🙂

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New topics for Refresh Teaching 2019 announced

Since 2015, the Educational Development and Technology unit (LET) at ETH has been running lunch-time seminars designed to provide short insights into innovative teaching at ETH.

These events feature ETH teaching staff speaking and sharing their own ideas and experiences with didactic initiatives. Each event includes an opportunity for attendees to ask questions and discuss ideas among themselves. After the discussion, an optional lunch is provided which creates more time for networking and exchange.

The topics for 2019 have now been announced and include many relevant topics such as “Assessment drives learning”, “Interactive videos” and “Data literacy”. Each year, the topics are crowdsourced both from attendees of previous events, Educational Developers in the departments, as well as LET staff who scan current trends in the higher education teaching world.

Following the individual events, the presentation materials are uploaded on the Refresh Teaching website along with additional relevant resources and photos to help document the event.

ETH staff interested in attending a Refresh Teaching event can check the website for the current presentation topics and are asked to register for catering purposes.

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Conference: What works in teaching and why

ETH will host this year’s Swiss Faculty Development Network’s (SFDN) annual conference on 22 February 2019. SFDN is the professional association of faculty developers in Switzerland. Its main objective is to “build up the teaching and learning capacity in higher education institutions in Switzerland.” LET, the ETH unit for Educational Development and Technology, has been a member for many years.

SFDN Logo. A red sillouette of Switzerland with a white cross where the words SFDN Swiss Faculty Development Network appear.

The SFDN annual conference is where people involved in higher education from all around the country meet, present examples of their practice and discuss their conclusions for student learning. The title of this year’s conference is “How research on learning contributes to university teaching practice” and is intended to stimulate discussion on how robust investigations are needed to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching practices.

Prof. Dr. Springman, ETH Rector will welcome participants and Prof. Dr. Manu Kapur, Chair of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich will present the keynote address on the topic of: “From the Science of Learning to the Design of Learning ”.

For a fuller description please see the conference website.

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Impartial group assessment. Using peer review and economic theory to grade groups fairly.

In a clear case of practicing what he preaches, Dr. Heinrich Nax has applied game theory to his teaching practice. After lecturing on game theory for several years, he realised that his methods for teaching, more specifically, for assessing did not follow the very theories he was espousing and so he set out to correct this incongruence.

In his course «Controversies in Game Theory» students work in groups and are assessed based on a group project. Social tensions can develop between individual and collective interests in group interactions. One such tension, free-riding, when one person rides the coat-tails of other hard-working group members is well known. There are however additional potential problems when assessing group work such as collusion on grades in cases of peer review. To eliminate these tensions, Dr. Nax decided to implement a mechanism from economic theory to his assessments.

What triggered this approach?

Previously Dr. Nax gave the same final mark to everybody in a particular group regardless of their individual efforts as these could not reliably be assessed. From a game theory perspective this constituted a big temptation for free-riding and Dr. Nax decided to devise something that would incentivize individual efforts but without giving up the benefits of group work altogether. 

What exactly did he do?

Influenced by the article Impartial division of a dollar by Clippel, G., Moulin, H., and Tideman, N. (2008), Dr. Nax and his colleague Sven Seuken implemented the article’s mechanism in a blockchain start-up company. The mechanism enables a group to split their financial earnings through peer review between the group members. Group members decide internally what a fair allocation of earnings should be. So he decided to try the mechanism in an educational setting where the “earnings” become the finite amount of points the group works towards, the total of which is determined by the grade he allocates to the group’s total project.

The key idea of the mechanism is that individual group members don’t evaluate their own performance and therefore don’t decide how many points they themselves have “earned”. Instead they allocate relative contributions to the other group members. So in a group of three, if student A thinks group member B did twice as much work as fellow group member C, then B should receive twice as many points as C. Using a specific formula (described in the paper) all three group members reports are then aggregated anonymously to make sure the resulting grades cannot be manipulated. In other words, student A only receives the (aggregated) amount of points, that their colleagues think student A deserves.

Courtesy of Spliddit

What were the results (for student learning)?

Not only was Dr. Nax convinced that the quality of the group projects improved, but the students were happier as well. They believed that the marking was much more fair. It is unclear if this grading method decreased free-riding, however students felt that freeriders did receive lower grades, thus increasing student satisfaction in comparison to grading methods where all members of the group receive the same grade, regardless of effort or contribution.

To see this mechanism in action, visit the Spliddit website which features a demonstration tool. Those interested in learning more should read the original paper or this second (less math-based) follow-up paper or contact Dr. Nax for further information. Dr. Nax is working on a tool to make his grading plan available to other professors.

 

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New design for Moodle in January 2019

On January 8, 2019, the ETH Moodle system will be updated to a newer version as well as receive a fresh new look. It aligns more strongly with the ETH corporate design and offers a modernized framework that better supports current browsers and devices.

Moodle is the Learning Management System (LMS) of ETH. The open source online learning platform supports the development, distribution and administration of webbased learning environments thereby promoting interactive learning.

The most important improvements in a nutshell

Once the Moodle webpage is opened, all users will find themselves on the newly designed login page.

 

After logging in via AAI all users will land on the page called Site Home. Here people are presented with relevant information that is updated from time to time. Examples of such information are improvements to Moodle, important update or maintenance announcements, and links to various LET-Blog entries.

 

One click on the new «navigation icon» in the top left corner (framed in red) opens and closes the navigation at any point and any location in Moodle. This will help save space, especially on small screens.

 

On the Dashboard both students and teachers will see all the courses in which they are currently enrolled. Course teachers are able (and encouraged) to set a picture of choice which is then displayed on the dashboard. Courses without their own unique picture will display the default picture, which currently is the ETH main building. The Dashboard is also where urgent messages (such as maintenance announcements) for all users may be displayed.

 

Inside courses, people with the role of «teacher» will see a cogwheel icon in the top right corner, just under their own names. Selecting this cogwheel will open all the editing and settings functions for the course, including “turn editing on”. In the navigation on the left, teachers can see their list of enrolled course participants under the newly renamed “participants” instead.

 

An final important note: The Exam Moodle will likely be updated to the new design in April 2019.

Find out more about Moodle at ETH.

 

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Neues Moodle-Design ab Januar 2019

Am 8. Januar 2019 erhält die ETH Moodle Plattform ein frisches und modernisiertes Design. Es orientiert sich am Corporate Design der ETH Zürich und bietet einen modernen «Unterbau», der die Darstellung in allen aktuellen Browsern, Tablets und Smartphones unterstützt.

Moodle ist das Learning Management System der ETH. Die Open Source Lernplattform dient der Komposition, Distribution und Administration von webbasierten Unterrichtsumgebungen und fördert interaktive Lehr-/Lernszenarien.

Die wichtigsten Neuerungen des Designs

Beim Aufruf von Moodle werden alle NutzerInnen auf die neugestaltete Login-Seite geleitet.

 

Nach dem Login über AAI gelangen die NutzerInnen auf die Startseite von Moodle. Sie verfügt über wechselnde Inhalte. Beispiele sind Neuerungen von Moodle, Ankündigungen von Wartungsarbeiten oder Link zu Blog-Beiträgen der Abteilung LET.

 

Mit einem Klick auf das «Navigations-Icon» oben links (rot umrandet) kann die Navigation jederzeit und an jedem Ort von Moodle ein- und ausgeblendet werden – dies spart insbesondere auf kleinen Bildschirmen Platz.

 

Auf dem Dashboard finden die NutzerInnen alle Kurse, in denen sie eingeschrieben sind. Dozierende haben die Möglichkeit, das Symbolbildes ihres Kurses individuell auszuwählen. Wird kein eigenes Bild ausgewählt, erscheint das Standard-Bild (aktuell das Bild des ETH-Hauptgebäudes). Auf dem Dashboard finden sich zudem, wenn nötig, wichtige Informationen zum Betrieb von Moodle (z.B. geplante Wartungsarbeiten / Unterbrüche).

 

DozentInnen finden im Moodle-Kurs unterhalb Ihres Namens im Header das «Zahnrad-Icon». Mit einem Klick darauf öffnen sich alle Bearbeitungs- und Einstellungsoptionen für den Kurs – hinter dem «Zahnrad-Icon» versteckt sich neu das «Bearbeiten einschalten». Links in der Navigation erscheinen bei «Participants» bzw. «Teilnehmer/innen» die im Kurs eingeschriebenen NutzerInnen.

 

Ein wichtiger Hinweis zum Schluss: Die für Online-Prüfungen genutzte Moodle-Instanz erhält voraussichtlich im April 2019 das neue Moodle-Design.

Wer mehr über Moodle erfahren möchte kann hier weiterlesen.

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Learning and Teaching Fair 2018

Dr. Oded Zilberberg and Dr. Dieter Wüest using a HoloLens

This year the first Learning and Teaching Fair took place at ETH Zurich on Wednesday, 14 November 2018. The Learning and Teaching Fair 2018 was the most comprehensive internal event on learning and teaching at ETH so far and the hard work and creative teaching of lecturers was placed firmly in the spotlight. By building on the previous successes of the annual Innovedum events, a wide community of around 180 engaged individuals were able to come together for discussion, feedback and inspiration on the topic of student learning.

Photo: Heidi Hostettler

Participants, presenters and exhibition stands

In total 25 different posters featuring innovative teaching and learning projects were exhibited. The topics of the posters were wide-ranging but all of them featured innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Some of the projects included a Hololens or Virtual Reality demonstration. Others focused on specific didactic techniques, such as flipped classroom and peer-review. (A full list of the posters can be found in the exhibition guide.) Many of the projects featured were made possible with grants made through the Innovedum fund, a special fund which the Rector, Dr. Sarah Springman, presides over. Prof. Andreas Vaterlaus, Vice-Rector for Curriculum Development, provided insight and advice into how teaching staff can access this funding for innovative projects.

The Proceedings of the Learning & Teaching Fair were published in the special edition and first issue of the ETH Learning & Teaching Journal. The Proceedings contain summaries of the projects exhibited at the Fair and for selected projects, details concerning their implementation at ETH and analyses in view of promoting student learning. The ETH Learning & Teaching journal is also available as an open online journal at www.learningteaching.ethz.ch. It will release two issues a year and extend calls for contributions to all persons involved in learning and teaching at ETH.

Photo: Heidi Hostettler

Food for thought

The guest keynote speaker, Prof. Jörn Loviscach, Professor of Technical Mathematics and Computer Engineering at the Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences provided a critical overview of the impact that digital technology can have in the classroom. He recommended staying flexible and introducing promising learning technology thoughtfully. Prof. Sarah Springman echoed this theme by reminding the audience of the importance to continuously adapt education. In a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, (what she referred to as the VUCA world) teaching staff need to be able to prepare students for the unknowable. Without ongoing innovation, education runs the risk of teaching outdated concepts using outdated methods.

Photo: Heidi Hostettler

Student powered innovation

A group of students were invited to present their own ideas for innovation related to teaching and learning. Their ideas were developed using a human-centered, rapid-prototyping method. A strong theme that emerged from their ideas, was the need not only to increase interdisciplinarity, but to make it easier to do so. (A summary of the students’ projects can be found on the Student Innovedum webpage.)

Photo: Heidi Hostettler

The purpose of the event was not only to present different approaches to learning and teaching, but also to provide an environment where reflection on the effectiveness of those approaches is most welcome. This attracted teaching staff, students and educational developers from all the departments at ETH. By bringing together people who are passionate about innovative and effective teaching, important conversations were sparked and the event organisers were able to feel proud of a job well done.

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Case study: Molegram Explorer – A mixed-reality framework for teaching drug design

As part of a series of case studies, staff at LET sat down to have a conversation with Prof. Gisbert Schneider and Dr. Jan Hiss from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences to discuss their mixed-reality project.

 

What is the project about?

The Molegram Explorer project provides a mixed-reality framework to facilitate and broaden students’ understanding of molecular structure. It is part of the Computer-Assisted Drug Design course run by Gisbert Schneider, professor in the field of the same name.

At the core of the project is the innovative hardware device “HoloLens” (comprising special glasses with 3D projection, motion sensor and environment scanning, produced by Microsoft). Users of the HoloLens see not only (real) furniture and people present in the room, but also a hologram. In our case, the virtual object is a protein that the students can explore, investigate and even walk through. They literally immerse themselves in the world of molecules.

This innovative concept presents a new way of perceiving molecular structure and facilitates new approaches to chemical structure analysis and design via human-machine interaction.

 

What motivated you to initiate the project?

This innovative project originated in answer to a call for projects on the use of the HoloLens in ETH teaching. Because we faced a teaching challenge where a 3D representation gave a very good use case, it was a perfect opportunity to apply for a pilot project using HoloLenses.

The idea underpinning our work is that this new technology can help our students to understand certain important principles of molecular structure which traditional teaching methods and media struggle to clarify. To identify or design a suitable drug molecule (the ligand) students must understand the protein’s surface, and particularly the cavities suitable for accommodating the ligand. The HoloLens device helps them visualise the regions of a protein that are accessible to the ligand.

 

How did you do it?
Three groups collaborated on this project. First, Gisbert Schneider and Jan Hiss delivered the scientific content. Guided by specific learning objectives, ETH Zurich’s Educational Development and Technology (LET) unit helped organise and facilitate the development process and provided the required hardware. Finally, a specialised software company (afca) implemented the learning app software.

The HoloLenses are used in a two-week practical course in which students experience a condensed version of early-stage drug discovery. They learn how to computationally screen a catalogue of millions of molecules to identify those that might favourably interact with a particular protein. The students perform a computational analysis and select one or two molecules from the top-ranking candidates. Then they synthesise these compounds and test their activity in the laboratory.

An important basic aspect of protein-ligand interaction is the “solvent-accessible surface”. For beginners, this molecular representation often remains an abstract concept without suitable visualization. By using the HoloLens students can now create surface representations of a protein, interact with the holographic model, and simultaneously discuss it with peers and instructors.

 

Did you have the support you needed for the project? Is there any additional help you wish you had had?

We had excellent help from the company afca who designed a user-friendly app with an elegant interface. LET helped us with the legal aspects and provided the necessary contacts. The 12 ETH HoloLenses are stored at LET. Although we understand that HoloLenses are not easily available due to their comparably high acquisition cost, it would have been helpful to have faster and easier access to this hardware, especially when we needed to try out and check something quickly.

 

Please describe some of the key outcomes of the project.

The new tool proved to be a valuable addition to our course. It certainly does not replace traditional teaching and discussion, but it is an example of how technology can enhance the understanding of abstract scientific concepts which are otherwise hard to teach. Because students can virtually navigate the molecular hologram they gain a better understanding of the concept of protein structures and surfaces. In the learning sciences this effect is described by the principle of “embodied cognition”. We were also able to increase the attractiveness of our subject matter with this concrete visual experience. It was a kind of scientific marketing. We received several suggestions for additional projects in the context of other practical exercises. The positive feedback and the success of the pilot has driven us to expand the project with enhanced content and to reach out to other disciplines.

 

How did the project affect learners or the way in which you teach?

We observed that students became more curious, not only about the specific topic of the learning app but in general about many questions related to protein-structure-based drug design. Students certainly appreciate the new tool. The value of technology-enhanced learning apps for teaching of specific aspects in our field is obvious, and we intend to stay on this route.

 

What lessons learned would you share with your colleagues?

It is not always realistic or meaningful for scientists and teachers to address app programming and didactic concepts. Therefore, it is important to have experts from complementary fields working hand in hand. Experts on the subject matter can contribute the scientific content, and software developers can create user-friendly and visually appealing interfaces and functions. Learning professionals can then connect content with technological functions. They can also advise on how to transpose learning objectives into an appropriate and technology-enhanced learning process.

Overall, we encourage teachers to try out new methods in teaching, and there is much potential for combining proven learning approaches with new technology. In particular, teachers and students should not fear experiments that do not produce immediate success. “Productive failure” should be regarded as a natural part of the development process; it is a great way to learn.

 

What are your future plans for this work? How do you plan to sustain what you created through the project?

Based on the many positive outcomes, we plan to develop further apps. The ultimate goal is to adapt the work to a professional context by adding scientific content from our subject matter, together with advanced analysis tools. It would also make sense to develop HoloLens learning apps for selected (teaching) topics in medicine, chemistry and biology. HoloLenses are increasingly employed not only by the entertainment industry, but in business and education generally. We would welcome new, broader applications of this technology at ETH – but always with a critical double-check as to whether it actually provides added value for students compared to conventional teaching methods. In the case of Molegram Explorer, we are extremely satisfied with the learning success achieved.

 

Feedback from PhD students (Tutors)

What is your opinion about this course and the HoloLens process? How has it influenced your learning process?

Cyrill Brunner: Though it has been clear to me before since I have been doing research in that area before, the visualization of proteins by the HoloLens helped in getting a better feeling for 3D structure of a protein. My personal gain was clearly not so much as for the course participants, but that has nothing to do with the process itself, but the chosen protein (carbonic anhydrase II) which I’ve done research in before. I’m positive that application of the HoloLens process on a novel protein would have helped me clearly to get a better understanding of the 3D confirmation.

Dominique Bruns: The HoloLens is a useful next step in the visualisation of molecules. This hands-on experience allows the understanding of molecular properties, their definition and dependencies. In this regard, the application of the surface area visualisation and determination is an ideal showcase.

 

Do you think this approach could also be used in other courses?

Cyrill Brunner: Yes, indeed. The HoloLens should clearly be put into use in the lab course of medicinal chemistry as students there are already working with a 2D visualization program. A 3D full insight into what they have been studying beforehand would strengthen their understanding.

Dominique Bruns:  I appreciate the 3D perspective and interactivity enabled by the HoloLens, a characteristic that might be especially useful for people that find it difficult to see in three-dimensions. 

In my opinion, many further examples could be established and used for didactic purposes, e.g. chemical reaction mechanisms or biological folding events of proteins.

 

To find out more about how ETH teaching staff can start their own HoloLens project, visit the ETH website.

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