Visit to IIT Gandhinagar and Sudhair Jain

During my visit to Ahmedabad, I was able to visit the visionary Vice Chancellor of IIT Gandhinagar, Sudhair Jain, and learn more about his very interesting campus and its programs. Sudhair was incredibly friendly to me – as I had just arrived without an appointment. Despite the sudden appearance, he warmly welcomed me and my colleague Alicia Contractor, and we discussed many of his new programs in detail in his office over tea.

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Sudhair has implemented a wonderful “Foundation Program” for incoming IIT students. The foundation program takes students fresh from their high-pressure high schools, and helps them both unlearn the frantic test-taking mentality that is endemic with IIT admissions, and to learn more about themselves, their context within the society of India, and the larger dimensions of knowledge – including arts, culture and sports.

I first learned about this program from my friends Brian Brophy (a theatre professor from Caltech) and Srini Reddy ( a music professor at IIT Gh). They together taught in the program a couple of years ago, and had students performing music, acting, and exploring the region around the IIT Gh campus.  As Srini described it, he would ask his students – “what do you think?” and “what do you feel about this?” and often would receive blank stares back. He joked that students often are under the impression that they are not supposed to think and feel – and the Foundations Program helps them do both.

The goals for the Foundations Program according to the web site include:

  • Values and Ethics: Focus on fostering a strong sense of ethical judgment and moral fortitude.
  • Creativity: Provide channels to exhibit and develop individual creativity by expressing themselves through art, craft, music, singing, media, dramatics, and other creative activities.
  • Leadership, Communication and Teamwork: Develop a culture of teamwork and group communication.
  • Social Awareness: Nurture a deeper understanding of the local and global world and our place in at as concerned citizens of the world.
  • Physical Activities & Sports: Engage students in sports and physical activity to ensure healthy physical and mental growth.

Sudhair described some new programs he is introducing that go beyond the Foundation program. This includes an IIT Gh Explorers Fellowship program, which gives students a small grant to visit at least “6 states in 6 weeks” – traveling inexpensively, using non-AC trains and busses to see the country of India in depth. Some of the students are able to visit many more states, and in the process they are able to become more aware of life across India to help them become more effective as leaders and as engineers.  In a blog posting from Manaal Bhombal, Sudhair Jain describes the goals of the program:

“The fellowship is not just to give students a taste of adventure, it is to engulf them with ground level realities of our country.” When asked about how would it help students in their engineering career, he said, “As an engineer, students should model their innovations around simplifying the travails of the less privileged.”

To provide further experiences for students, Sudhair is also working on a program where they would live in a village for the summer – not to be “saviours” but to just live and learn with the people in the village to understand their concerns and life. This is also helpful, according to Sudhair, for developing graduates who can then take their education and give back to India and understand the human dimensions of science and technology.

I noticed that the blue skies above IIT Gandhinagar portended good astronomy, and I suggested to Sudhair that he should consider developing his astronomy capabilities at IIT Gh – a project I might be interested in helping with!



University of Ahmedabad and Liberal Arts

On February 22-23, I was able to visit Ahmedabad, where I was invited to speak to a group of assembled academic leaders from the University of Ahmedabad and the Manipal Group of Universities about Liberal Arts. The meeting was to envision the implementation of a new program in undergraduate liberal arts at University of Ahmedabad, which is a young university established in 2009 by the Ahmedabad Education Society (AES), a private Educational Trust. Ahmedabad University is expanding to include innovative interdisciplinary liberal arts programs for undergraduates.  Pankaj Chandra, the Vice Chancellor, was a gracious host, and took me around Ahmedabad where we discussed a wide range of topics in higher education in India. A Hindi professor from U. New Delhi, Apoorvanad, joined us for many of our wide-ranging discussions and I really enjoyed getting to know Pankaj, Apoorvanad, and the others in the panel.



Our meeting included the following participants:

Yale-NUS College – Bryan Penprase (Director, Centre for Teaching and Learning and Professor of Science)

University of Chicago –  Balaji Srinivasan

Manipal University

  • Rajen Padukone (Group President – Manipal Education and Medical Group)
  • Vinod Bhat (Vice Chancellor – Manipal University)

Ahmedabad University

  • Pankaj Chandra (Vice Chancellor, Ahmedabad University)
  • Devanath Tirupati (Dean, Ahmedabad University’s Amrut Mody School of Management (AMSOM))
  • Parag Patel (Associate Dean UG Programmes, Amrut Mody School of Management)
  • Saptam Patel (Assistant Professor – Communication Chair, BCom Programme)
  • Payel Chattopadhyay (co-Director, Center for Future Learning)

University of Delhi  – Apoorvanad (Professor of Hindi and Author)

The discussion was intense, thoughtful and insightful. We were able to develop strategies for developing a liberal arts program build upon individualized education for students, that includes dialog as a central element in pedagogy, and authentic assessments that can connect students to the larger world in their work. This would include using observations from students in presentations, writing position pieces to larger audiences for assignments, and displaying work in public settings. The larger concept of authentic assessment is vital for success, as it breaks away from exam-based pedagogy (which typically tests only lower-order learning outcomes) and allows for students to synthesize their own ideas, and to create new and original materials as part of their education.

We also recognized the need to communicate the goals and methodologies of this type of education to parents and to society, and to overtly push back against the definitions of “success” prevalent in Indian society – which tends to prioritize safe and high paying jobs as a primary consideration, often at the expense of developing student interests, and original capabilities.


Some photos of the campus are below. Ahmedabad University has an ambitious construction and hiring plan – and so the main building of the campus will soon be joined by large student center, and an arts and sciences building (currently a green field). A “maker space” is under construction and should provide a good space for students to build projects of all sorts – another outlet for their creativity, which will be a hallmark of the new University!






Astronomy2017 at the Singapore Art-Science Museum

On February 18 and 19, I was invited to speak at the Singapore Art-Science Museum during Astronomy2017, described as “Singapore’s Largest Astronomy Event.” The event was held at the beautiful Art-Science museum, a building that looks like a flower blooming out of the center of Singapore’s downtown Marina district. With my Yale-NUS College students, I was also able to share remote observations from our telescope in Chile known as LCRO. Since the event was held during the day, we were able to remotely operate our telescope and take live images from Las Campanas Observatory for the public. I was delighted to get help from our students – Jerrick Wee, Ricky George, Stephanie Chee, Gabriel Lek, and Joan Ongchoco. They were truly wonderful and did a fantastic job presenting our remotely operated telescope to groups of people who came by to see the live images. During the show we obtained images of Centuarus A, Omega Cen, and a few other spectacular Southern Hemisphere objects. Below are some pictures from the event!


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Thomas Olsson and Pedagogical Competence

During late January, NUS hosted Thomas Olsson, from Lund University in Sweden, to discuss Academic Portfolios, and a broader range of topics related to SoTL and “Pedagogical Competence” – a term that describes a larger sphere of activity that includes not just the practice of one’s teaching, but a larger range of activities that includes observations of one’s own and other’s teaching, grounding in theory, and planning for more ambitious projects that links one’s practice to larger communities of practice – either disciplinary societies, or larger groups of faculty outside of one’s immediate department.


Thomas offered a wide range of discussions that included meetings with academic developers across Singapore, members of the NUS Teaching Academy, and a focused discussion of Portfolios and SoTL over a week.  During the meetings we discussed the role of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) in promoting excellence in teaching. Thomas helped define what scholarship means in this context – and described a process of going beyond individual experience and institutions toward a more systematic set of observations of student learning, which can generate new knowledge that can be replicated and built upon. This effort can also be documented, made public, and subject to peer review – just as other scholarship in disciplines is done.

The progression from personal and local experience and knowledge toward a more public form of teaching is essential, Thomas argued, and he has made venues such as a pedagogical conference part of his work at the Engineering School at Lund. Within this conference are ~25 presentations from a wide range of faculty, who submit short papers that enter into a database. Over the years this database has become a valuable repository of the teaching culture within Lund University, and allows for a transfer of knowledge across time and courses. The program includes recordings of the talks which are placed online, as well as a “concept circuit training” where short discussions about teaching ideas.

Thomas also described how one can produce a more dynamic SoTL profile within faculty. The progression typically starts with a course that provides an “advanced pedagogical project” – which can be presented at a conference. This publication can lead to funding, which in Sweden is generously supported. The goal is to provide ways for sharing knowledge and experience – and to connect that sharing into public and scholarly presentations and publications. The goal is a “scholarly teacher” who is able to refer to literature on T&L, perform systematic observations, evaluate learning outcomes, obtain peer evaluation of their performance, as well as being an expert in their discipline and conducting their work as a professional. This definition draws from work from Trigwell et al, 2000; and Shulman, 2000.  Along the way, the professor is able to break out of what Shulman calls “the island of pedagogical solitude.” Olsson also described four functions of the Scholarship of Teaching – to provide a basis for discovery, integration, application and to improve teaching. This structure was proposed by Boyer (1990) in his work “Scholarship Reconsidered.” 

In addition to presentations in scholarly venues, the development of a Teaching Portfolio is a key ingredient in making teaching visible.  At Lund University the portfolio is evaluated based on criteria that focuses on student learning (which requires teaching based on a learning perspective, integration between theory and practice, and a practice based on sound relation to students). The subject should be taught in ways that employ strategies to support students’ work toward increasingly complex and useful knowledge. The portfolio also documents the professional development as a teacher over time, with an effort to consciously and systematically develop students’ learning, and hopefully also includes a scholarly approach to teaching and learning that includes a reflection based on practice and educational theory, and an effort to integrate research into teaching and to “making findings public with a purpose of collaboration and interaction.”  The goal of the process it to develop “pedagogical competence” which is a mix of activity that goes beyond one’s own classroom to integrate with research and the larger SoTL community, to make the results of your pedagogical practice accessible to others, and to enable it to be built upon or scaled up. The diagram below shows the schema for pedagogical competence.


The teaching portfolio should include documentation of your teaching practice, along with a description and analysis of that practice, along with evidence that includes “artefacts from teaching and learning.”  Thomas described the process as one of “concretion” – which describes significant teaching and learning situations, with a description of how you assessed and responded to the situation. A very useful breakdown in terms of “action,” “consequences,” and “results” was proposed to give a more complete description within the portfolio.  The portfolio includes a description of the teaching practice along with concrete examples from the pedagogical practice.  A good portfolio will not only describe what happened, but why, and explain observations, assessments, and a future vision of teaching.  Within Lund University, portfolios are evaluated and they incentive excellence by giving grant funding to departments with excellent faculty (as judged by teaching portfolios) as well as modest raises for faculty who produce excellent portfolios.


American Astronomical Society Meeting

After a glorious holiday in Southern California, I presented a talk and a poster at the American Astronomical Society Meeting at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Sugarland, Texas.


Our conference venue featured a miniature Alamo with a pair of gigantic cowboy booths, artificial rivers and trees, and of course a celebration of Christmas!

The meeting included a chance to learn more about what my former students had been doing – and it was wonderful to see how well they have progressed! At the meeting were Jason Rhodes (HMC ’94), who is now a chief project scientist at JPL for WFIRST and Euclid, and an amazingly nice guy; Alex and Lea Hagen (HMC ’11), who are just now finishing their PhD’s at Penn State and now world experts in interstellar extinction and galaxies, and Cameron Hummels (POM ’01), who is a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech, and author of an amazing software package for simulating quasar absorption lines from hydrodynamics data.

My presentation was a talk about the ZTF Educational programs, and more specifically our ZTF Summer Undergraduate Institute, where we take about 15 undergraduate astronomy researchers from across the country (and several countries) and form a tightly bonded cohort of future astrophysicists as they attend technical talks from Caltech professors and technicians, tour the Caltech optical laboratories, do hands-on experiments with Python, and observe with the Mt. Wilson 60″ and Palomar 200″ telescopes. Along the way we also have a banquet at the Atheneum at Caltech with a famous speaker (last year it was Aditya Sood (POM ’97), a former student and producer of the movie The Martian). We also have a lot of fun with competitive “scavenger hunts” on both Caltech and Pomona campuses, and a number of creative projects with the students. This Institute will be in its third year this year, and I have been very grateful for the help from Eric Bellm, ZTF project scientist, and a great group of Caltech postdocs, professors and engineers who supported the project, and others like Jay Pasachoff, Aditya Sood, and Sean Carroll, who have been part of our Undergraduate Institute. You can see my talk below as a PDF file.



My other presentation presented my new research on spectroscopy of the local interstellar medium, which includes a new survey of Na I absorption to map the structure of the local galaxy. This project was conducted at Yale-NUS College using the Yale SMARTS 1.5-meter telescope and CHIRON spectrograph to observe the amount of interstellar dust and gas toward over 300 hot stars within about 600 parsecs of our location, to map out the structures and clouds that comprise the “local bubble” and other nearby star-forming region. One very nice new feature from this project is the release a few months ago of nearly a billion stellar parallaxes from the GAIA spacecraft. The parallaxes have enabled me to determine with unprecedented accuracy the distances to our various stars, and by combining our catalog of 300 stars with a larger sample in the astrophysics literature, we have the capacity to provide a map of the local interstellar medium, with unprecedented accuracy and depth.  The survey and some of the preliminary results were described in my poster, which is below in both PPT and PDF formats.




Then just for fun, I include some of the pictures from the event, which is a mix of exhibitor booths, photos of the venues, and interesting slides from the talks I attended. Some of the talks I found most interesting were on primordial abundances as measured from quasar absorption lines (one of my other research programs), and a program known as “Science for Monks” that pairs scientists with Tibetan Buddhist monks for an intensive dialog on science and knowledge. In that talk, given by Tenzen, there was also a very nice depiction of Buddhist Cosmology that provides a detailed structure of that universe – something relevant to my book The Power of Stars, which is soon out in a new edition!  Lots of interesting talks, people, and gadgets at the Astronomical Society meeting!

I also include these pictures in groups – Gadgets (equipment and telescopes of interest for Yale-NUS), Telescopes and Observatories (new initiatives in time-domain astronomy relevant to my ZTF work) and Ideas (Science talks about spectroscopy, and books of interest).


Gadgets  – I am interested in getting new observatory capabilities for our Yale-NUS College, despite the terrible weather here in Singapore. My plan would be to get a small 14″ telescope which could be operated remotely, and test it on campus at Yale-NUS, then try to relocate it to a dark site in Malaysia or Thailand. If all else fails, there is a great radio telescope system available – which would be perfect for Singapore’s weather!


Telescopes – The small satellite known as CUTIE – designed by Brad Cenko for observing the universe in the UV is intriguing; also the EXPRES spectrograph for the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope – used by Deborah Fisher for exoplanet work at Yale. I also am a big fan of new robotic telescopes and saw great talks by the ASASN group, the U. of Hawaii ATLAS project ( a new pair of 0.5-meter survey telescopes), and of course the Las Cumbres Observatory with its amazing global network of 0.4, 1.0 and 2.0 meter telescopes. Below are some images from those talks.




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Ideas – Among the many interesting talks I attended, included one on new measurements of alpha-element enhancement in quasar absorption lines, which shows interesting variations of C/alpha at low metallicities, very nice Python packages for spectral typing of stars and for simulating QSO spectra, some nice results from the ZTF group, including a good talk about findings from PTF that may include a SMBH disruption event, and other interesting core-collapse supernovae, the Harvard Observing Project, which provides research observing experience for Harvard students who may not otherwise be involved in physics or astronomy (thereby encouraging them to join STEM fields), and an intriguing new book by Roger Penrose. Below are some images of those topics.

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NASA Exhibit Opening at Singapore’s Art-Science Museum

My wife Bidushi Bhattacharya was invited to give a speech as part of the opening for the Singapore Art-Science Museum’s NASA exhibit, entitled “NASA – A Human Adventure.” She presented her new Space Technology company known as BSE-space, which is developing new space technology within Singapore – through developing cube-sats, organizing “astropreneur meet-ups,” training students in space technology, and developing an incubator of space-tech companies.  Bidushi is a former NASA “rocket scientist” with over 15 years working on projects like the HST, JPL Mars rovers, the Spitzer Space Telescope, Herschel Space Telescope and the MISR observatory.

During the opening, we had a great chance to meet with other space-tech leaders, including Carter Emmart from the New York Natural History Museum (who presented the latest developments in the 3D Atlas of the Universe), and the Malaysian Lunar X-prize winner Mohd Izmir Yamin, who is working with Bidushi on new space-tech initiatives. Obviously I am proud of my wife’s amazing company – and we both are looking forward to further advances in “new space” within Singapore and Southeast Asia in the coming years! Below are some pictures from the event.

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Visit to Thai National Observatory NARIT

On November 27-29, I was invited by NARIT Director Boonrucksar Soonthornthum to visit Chiang Mai, Thailand, and to give an astrophysics talk to the staff at the Thai National Observatory (NARIT). Boonrucksar also graciously offered to host a group of our Yale-NUS College students at NARIT in March 2017 during my upcoming Observational Astronomy class. The visit to NARIT allowed me to meet with the NARIT astronomy staff, learn about their ongoing research programs, and see first hand some of the advanced capabilities in Thailand for observational astronomy. The NARIT observatory includes a 2.4 meter telescope on Thailand’s highest mountain, and the NARIT staff kindly drove me out to the 2.4-meter for a tour, in advance of our Yale-NUS College trip.

While in Chiang Mai, I had the privilege of touring several of the beautiful temples in the town. Some of these temples were constructed around 800AD when Chiang Mai was the capital of a powerful Buddhist empire. Below are some of the pictures of the temples in town.




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After a 2.5 hour drive south from Chiang Mai, we visited the NARIT 2.4-meter telescope and had a wonderful lunch at the Royal gardens nearby. These photos show some of the impressive telescopes at NARIT and the beautiful gardens.

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Talk by CMC’s Hiram Chodosh on “Strategic Innovations”

On November 22, CMC President Hiram Chodosh gave a talk at the LKY School’s Bukit Timah campus. His talk was entitled “Strategic Innovations in Global Higher Education” and a group of us from Yale-NUS College attended his talk and discussed these ideas with President Chodosh. I have known Hiram Chodosh for many years, and was especially grateful for his support and participation in our Liberal Arts in India conference in Bangalore in January 2014.


Hiram’s background is in law, so he began his talk describing some of the history of the region and in particular the judiciary in Indonesia in the post-Suharto period. He used this history to illustrate the necessity to get to “higher aims” and to get past solipsistic and self-referential approaches to find “dispositive answers” to the purposes of what an enterprise is doing. As President Chodosh put it, “strategic innovations don’t arise from pretences, they come from candid assessment and solving of challenges.” This led him to a discussion about the USA in the post-Trump era, and he wondered whether education was a “causal force” of this event, and what sort of collective responsibility education had for this.

He noted that just as the US is divided, higher education is also divided. These deep divisions in his opinion “prevent greater challenges from being solved.” These divisions “paralyse” and prevent solutions. Within the US, divisions by class, race, gender, national origin and education create biases and prejudice, according to President Chodosh. While higher education is a “comparative National Advantage” in the US,  Chodosh questioned whether “higher education’s contributions are aligned with what the world needs.” Chodosh pointed out that only half of the US believed that higher education believed that college was worth the cost and only 40% of Americans are able to graduate with a degree of Associate or above.

According to Chodosh, the education of citizens produces “the most important infrastructure” which is “grey matter.” He points out that the residential colleges (like CMC) are an “aggressive experiment in diversity” and that it is “remarkable it works as well as it does.”  Within colleges like CMC there is an emphasis on interdisciplinary research, higher value skills, and instruction designed to create more responsible citizens.

From asking opinion leaders, employers, and from his long reflection, President Chodosh has developed a hypothesis of what higher education needs to do – which he has shared with many of the CMC faculty, students and staff and which has formed a basis for his work at CMC. The hypothesis of what is most highly valued is:

“complex problem solving through leadership in collaborative settings”

This formulation points him toward instruction using mixed problems, mixed methodologies and with students working in diverse teams to “learn what you don’t know” and then use the diverse team to work together to solve problems. Interdisciplinary co-teaching as well allows professors to embody many of these qualities which he believes are most valued in the students and graduates of liberal arts colleges.

President Chodosh is excited about how the “students are way ahead of us” and he envisions a liberal arts college as a place where it is possible to “empower and channel the energy, skills, and impulses of this generation.” Chodosh also points to three core capabilities that are virtues needed in today’s world. Those virtues are:

  1. Creativity – which drives innovation
  2. Empathy – which helps one understand experience beyond one’s own and is the foundation of collaboration
  3. Courage – which is the requisite for all other virtues, and requires one to stand up for one’s principles 

These three virtues are now used throughout the CMC instructional materials, proposals, public events, and he is working toward “internalizing” these values into all that is done at CMC. Chodosh has organized workshops and roundtables on these virtues which then have resulted in a number of deliverables within the CMC campus. It was a very interesting and inspired talk, and our group from Yale-NUS enjoyed hearing the values and goals of liberal arts so well articulated!


APRU Education and Tech Form – Part II

Later in the conference we heard some very interesting talks about pedagogy – including a discussion of what is “Beyond MOOCs” and a panel discussion on flipped classes, among other topics. Below is a summary of those talks.

One notable talk was by Marnie Hughes Warrington from the Australian National University (ANU), about “Beyond Disruption: Mainstreaming MOOCs in Higher Education.” Warrington described how MOOCs followed the “Gartner Hype Cycle” which gives an envelope of “visibility” with time – and includes a “peak of inflated expectations” (2012) which is followed by a “trough of disillusionment” when bad news appears (2014), and then a “slope of enlightenment” and a “plateau of productivity” when the appropriate uses of the technology are found. The envelope (from her talk) is below.



She talked about how lectures are bad pedagogy as well, and that MOOCs in many cases embodied bad pedagogy with a new technology. At ANU they put all the lectures online, and kept track of how the students behaved within the “live” lectures and using online lectures. The “mass broadcast” approach – either in person or online – is in trouble, according to Warrington. The attendance of the students at live lectures was abysmal – even for those lecturers who were generally regarded as excellent teachers. They installed infrared counters in all the lecture halls and kept data for all the classes and their attendance at ANU.  Warrington reported that after 3 weeks an average lecture has an attendance of 30% of its students!  Some were as low as 5-10%!  The online lectures were only downloaded at a rate of about 50% and students while watching these lectures often reported “chipmunking” – a practice of playing back a lecture at 3 times regular speed (making the instructor sound like a chipmunk!).

Many faculty attribute these trends to students who are “lazy” and “inattentive” but Warrington thinks this is a fundamental shift in student behaviour that is based on their ability to learn (or lack of ability to learn) from lectures. One interesting piece of data she cited came from the EdX online learning provider. Their courses also include lectures and they are able to record how long students can watch a lecture. This data shows conclusively that for students who complete certificates online (the best and most persistent ones) their ability to watch a video peaks at about 6-9 minutes and then falls off dramatically with longer videos. Apparently a video longer than 6-9 minutes will on average be viewed for only 2-3 minutes, while the shorter ones are very likely to be viewed in their entire length – suggesting some fundamental limit in attention span for these students of 6-9 minutes!



Some of their ANU professors, such as Physics prof Joe Hope, used this sort of data to create an entire online Physics curriculum using the EdX Edge platform. They are excited about integrating these sorts of courses (with shorter lectures) with new ways of providing transfer credits for students. These online materials also can be used for on campus students for a flipped environment – freeing up time in class for more interactive work.

Incidentally the ANU decided that lectures were so unpopular and ineffective they decided to demolish six of their lecture halls on campus to enable more interactive space for different types of teaching!


A panel of experts on flipped classes also gave some interesting talks. One of the speakers describe the system one needs to create in a flipped class, which includes a set of weekly online quizzes, taken one day before class, large class review sessions with clickers, and small group active learning sessions to replace the class time formerly occupied by lectures. The basic structure of this flipped class is shown below.


The flipped environment was shown to produce better student learning as well – with improvements of marks after flipping at a level of significance of a Cohen’s d of 0.59. The panel stressed the importance of stressing what a flipped classroom is, and why it is used. To acknowledge concerns from students, and overtly address their concerns and explain the timeline and rationale for the flipped environment is very important.


The HKUST has a nice grid which can categorize modalities of instruction between an x-axis of “Individual” to “Collaborative” and a y-axis of “Asynchronous” to “Synchronous” – and then putting the various ways instructors and students are behaving on this plane.


One interesting scheme was to randomize groups of students using playing cards. In this scheme one develops groups of 4 students with a deck of shuffled cards. Each suit would specify a role for a student, and the card value would designate a team name. The four roles (shown below) from Robin Angotti (U. Washington, Bothell) include Facilitator, Resource Monitor, Product Monitor, and Equity Monitor.




Finally a talk by Stephen Whiteside from the University of Aukland in New Zealand described a very interesting paradigm for developing university ed-tech with a very clever “agile development” planning envelope. Below are two figures from his talk. The last figure is a great illustration of “design thinking” and shows the various stages of creating a new product or service – using the analysis of your audience and a design rooted in the needs and insights of users. This approach for instruction and teaching is a very valuable one and should inform most of our academic development efforts. These figures are just so beautiful – I had to include them in my post!








APRU Education and Research Tech Forum – Part I

I was invited to attend the Association of Pacific Rim Universities Education and Research Technology Forum, on 17-18 November 2016, both representing NUS and Yale-NUS. The meeting had a theme of “Sustainable Technology and Learning Across Institutional Collaborations,” and brought about 80 educational leaders from the APRU Universities to a meeting at University Town, NUS – just next door to Yale-NUS College.  The APRU was “established in 1997 by the presidents of California Institute of Technology (Thomas Everhart), University of California, Berkeley (Chang-Lin Tien), University of California, Los Angeles (Charles Young) and University of Southern California (Steven B. Sample)” [based on the description at ].

The APRU consortium has grown to include 42 leading research universities based in 16 economies, with 110,000 faculty members, and 1.7 million students. The structure of consortium centers around programs that address Sustainability and Climate Change (hosted by UCSD), Multi-hazards (earthquakes, floods and volcanoes) which are common in the Pacific Rim region, Global Health (hosted by USC), an Ageing Gerontology Series, Brain and Mind Research in the Asia Pacific, and the Education and Research Technology Forum, which was the sponsor of our meeting. Additional programs include meetings of Presidents, Senior Staff, Provosts, Deans, CIOs, and additional exchange programs for doctoral students and APRU research fellows provide opportunities for students across the region.

During the meeting we heard talks from educational leaders from NUS, the University of Auckland (NZ), USC (USA), The University of Melbourne. the University of Sydney and ANU (Australia), the University of Malaya (Malaysia), the University of the Philippines (Philippines), University of Washington (USA), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Tsinghua University (China). The international aspect of the meeting was very exciting as we heard perspectives on higher education that allowed for some cross-cultural issues. Some of the higher education issues are universal (need for improved use of technologies to enhance learning, limited resources, typical over-reliance of lecturing among faculty), and some issues had unique regional overtones. This was especially true in regards to management culture within a university, and the ways in which universities interact with their federal governments (typically through a ministry of education).

The program for the meeting is available at the site and includes both descriptions of the talks and downloads of the presentation files. Below is a summary of some of the key points from my viewing of the first morning of talks, with a sampling of some of the presentation slides.


Richard Katz gave a talk about Learning Analytics, and mentioned that “intellectual capital” in today’s economy is at a “high point of value” – more so than land, equipment and other more traditional components of capital. According to Katz, “we are living in highly disrupted times.” He then made the case for a very rapid pace of technological change in education, with avatars, online education, and other innovations changing how we do things entirely. He described a “de-peopled” learning environment, where artificial intelligence will make a much larger impact. He cited John Seeley Brown, who has written extensively about disruptive change, and mentioned that research universities “will be different in five years or we have problems.” He cited the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the various “exponential technologies” that produce accelerating change. Various educational and publishing efforts – Kahn Academy, WebMD, Huffington Post, eBay, were all mentioned as examples of how new ideas have replaced old industries. Universities however have what Cohen and March described as  “Problematic Goals, Unclear Technology, and Fluid Participation.” He also noted the slow growth in tertiary education around the world and gaps in terms of funding and access that limit university effectiveness.


Katz urged “Collective Action” that will adopt a “21st century vision and goals.” This includes “expanding the pedagogical mix” to include a mix of learning modes, adopting neuroscience developments, and developing clear technology priorities to enable “moon shots,” “road maps” and “joint investment in development and testing across universities and sectors.”  New business models were also needed, Katz suggested to enable TA’s and Adjuncts to be integrated more fully and to incorporate Artificial Intelligence “chatbots” into the learning process. In the end, universities need to “End Muddling Through” as students will outrun faculty, industry will continue to innovate, and soon the secrets of Learning and Teaching at Scale will be uncovered (with Universal Design as a key). But there is not time to muddle through, since education from others – Facebook, YouTube, – will only grow, even as “traditionalists are far too eager to label MOOCs a failed experiment.”  Instead of the traditional focus on at risk students, or flashy initiatives in professional education, he urges a more consistent focus on fast-emerging technologies such as AI, VR, AR, chatbots, etc. which are not part of the HE mainstream’s conversation.


A talk from Sandra J. Christal, from the USC Marshall Business School, described how they are “Providing Collaborative Learning Opportunities for a Global World.” She highlighted their online MBA degree program – which is entirely online, and uses the Canvas LMS as their platform. She described how they used the AT&T building downtown (away from campus) to develop their program, and had separate offices and production studios. With 6 professors, she created 9 courses in a company known as Paragon. Five of these courses were put online, using Blackboard originally. Professors were paid a small stipend, and offered to spend 4-6 hours per week with an MOU to prepare course. Their pay increased if it included a report assessing the learning in the course. The five courses were integrated, and four professors were on staff to work with the 20-22 students/year that were enrolled. The program included separate tracks in Business Taxation, Supply Chain Management, as well as an MBA and MMLIS degree. The remarkable success of the course came from a dedication to providing the same quality in their online program as the on-campus program.

Some notable technologies described include the use of a digitally connected boardroom, the Zoom platform for online multi-party conversations, “Virtual Labs” for more detailed work, and a program known as YouSeeU which also helped with online multi-party conversations.



Abelardo Pardo from U. Sydney described “the Role of Data and Feedback at Scale” as developed in their undergraduate engineering curriculum. He described a “scholarly approach” where they listened to students, and created a system to provide the right kind of student feedback to promote learning. One citation he mentioned was by Kirshner, et al, 2016 on “The Cold Left-Overs of Inquiry-Based Learning” which is quoted below:

 In 2006, Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, and Dick Clark wrote a famous/notorious (your choice) article on inquiry-based learning[1] (IBL). Well, it was actually also about constructivist[2], discovery[3], problem-based[4], and experiential learning[5]. In the article, the authors explained why, for example an inquiry-based approach is neither effective nor efficient. Since then, many articles and books have been published on the topic, both by  IBL’s proponents and opponents. Interestingly, at the same time things started to turn. IBL moved towards “guided discovery”, problem-based learning approaches added “normal instruction” in order to improve learning outcomes, and so forth….”

“What the authors of the article call ‘guidance’ includes constraining (clearly defining task size), status updating (visualising learner progress), prompting (remind a learner that something needs to be completed), heuristics (explaining how something needs to be done), scaffolding (explaining and/or “taking over” complex parts of a task) and explaining (telling how something needs to be done). These techniques actually equal a general definition of good instruction or providing quality education.”

Pardo’s program began as U. Sydney recorded lectures and they wanted to develop ways to promote better assignment completion rates among students. Pardo cited Hattie’s Visible Learning (1999) who pointed out that student learning was enhanced with these top factors:

  1. Formative Evaluation
  2. Reciprocal Teaching
  3. Feedback
  4. Spaced vs. Mass Practice
  5. Meta-Cognitive Strategies.

This is summarized in the figure below:


Pardo also cited Hattie + Temperley’s 2007 work “The Power of Feedback” as an inspiration for his program. The problem is that it is difficult to provide effective feedback (which needs to communicate complex and qualitative information) to large numbers of students. The goal for his project was to create high-value feedback – that gives guidance. This was seen not as an administrative task but as a “pedagogical necessity.” Pardo’s talk also included a description of how feedback comes at many levels – analogous to Bloom’s taxonomy. It can include these levels of feedback:

  1. task level feedback (performance or understanding)
  2. process level feedback (what to do to understand or perform )
  3. self-regulation level feedback (detecting and directing effort)
  4. self level feedback (personal evaluation and affect)

Typically instructors give the first two levels of feedback, and then help students develop their own mechanisms for the last higher levels of feedback – which could also be called “meta-cognition.”  He cited a paper by Bjork (2013) on Self-Regulated learning – Beliefs Techniques and Illusions and another by Dunlosky (2013) on study strategies. He urges an increase in personalization as a way to increase knowledge.

The work Pardo created is entitled “Generating Actionable Predictive Models of Academic Performance” and is one where they give students feedback in Engineering courses, and make use of “dashboards” to track student progress. He cited how instructors both need data on their students, and access to that data – so it is not “on Jupiter” but at their fingertips. His systems gives analytics on students, at scale, and gives feedback to groups of students, based on expert analysis. Students are broken into categories, and then these categories are given emails to these students giving them detailed feedback. The feedback helps them do better on assignments and he was able to track a performance boost which had a “Cohen’s d” measurement of 0.5.  An example of his feedback that is sent to the students is below, from his presentation slides.




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