My Labster Experience: Philippos Savvides, Arizona State University

Arizona State University (ASU) launched the first online VR biology degree in the world with Labster and Google last summer. Recently, the university announced that they had now climbed up the lists to rank second in the United States for their online undergraduate degree programs and that they had also been rated as the most innovative university for the fourth time in a row.

We talked to Philippos Savvides, Manager of Learning Technologies for EdPlus at Arizona State University, to learn how the university has succeeded in creating such a highly ranked online program, and what they do to stay innovative and forward-thinking.

Savvides’ role at ASU is to identify edtech tools to use in the university’s 180+ online programs with the goal of improving learning experiences within each course: “Each course has a set of needs and requirements. We work with faculty to identify opportunities that they may have in their course to find things that they can improve, solve inefficiencies and retention issues, enhance student performance, or enable scalability," Savvides explained.

Read on to learn how ASU has managed to create a culture of innovation, why they chose to integrate Labster into their online courses, and how they ensure that new technologies aren’t just adopted for the sake of technology, but for the sake of providing high-quality, cost-efficient online education.

Creating the first online BS in Biological Sciences utilizing VR in the world with Labster

Savvides first came in touch with Labster in 2015. The interest in Labster came from the desire to use simulations as a part of an online biology course they were developing. “When I first heard about Labster, I thought it was a very ambitious project. At the time we didn’t have anything like it in our courses. The only thing that came close to was lab kits, which we used in a few science courses. But when I tried it, I thought it was a good product.” These were the types of simulations that could be used on desktop computers, as Labster VR did not exist at the time.

Savvides and his team then began to explore the option of using the simulations to deliver the lab component in the biology course; a component required for creating a fully online bachelor of science in biological sciences.

From demo to pilot: what determines good edtech?

The first step of the process was to organize a demo, where the faculty could see and experience the simulations and get a general introduction to Labster.

Savvides described how the faculty were highly involved in this process from demo to pilot: “We always defer to our instructors and faculty on the final decision on whether or not to adopt a tool. We will gather all the information, we’ll run the demo, we’ll go through scenarios, we’ll present them with all the options. But the instructor who is teaching the course, the person who will actually use the product, always has the final say,” Savvides explained.

Because there was an interest from the faculty, ASU went forward with the collaboration. As a part of the decision-making process, Saviddes and his team looked at the available information that could indicate Labster’s fit for the online courses: “When we look into adopting new technology, we look at evidence of how it improves the learning experience. We look at things like surveys, user interviews and support requests to understand how it creates value and how it addresses a specific problem. Causality, for example, on grades is very hard to show and we prefer to look at the learning experience as a whole and what the technology enables instead.” The latter was particularly the case with Labster, Savvides said: “Labster’s technology enabled us to deliver a bachelor of science degree, fully online. Before we couldn’t do that. It just wasn’t an option.”

“Labster’s technology enabled us to deliver a bachelor of science degree, fully online. Before we couldn’t do that."

Another significant factor that determined whether or not the tool would be adopted was what the research showed. “Labster publishes research in journals, and that’s very rare in our experience.” Savvides and his team looked into the research that Labster had published, and evaluated the company as a whole. “Of the companies that can create simulations, I don’t think there’s anyone who has the same expertise in-house that Labster has. I haven’t seen anyone else working in the field have this level.”

After careful evaluation, Savvides and his team went forward with the Labster collaboration. Later, the collaboration also came to involve Google and Lenovo, and that became the beginning of the project to develop the first online BS in Biological Sciences utilizing VR in the world.

Faculty and student adoption and feedback

Since the online degree program using VR was launched last year, Labster VR has been adopted not only at ASU but also at many other universities and high schools around the world.

"It’s a very unique experience, it’s engaging, it exposes the students to all these tools and lab equipment that the students couldn’t get access to before.”

In the courses that ASU have used Labster VR in so far, Savvides explained that it was well received: “The students view the product very positively. The experience is novel to them. It’s a very unique experience, it’s engaging, it exposes the students to all these tools and lab equipment that the students couldn’t get access to before.”

Amongst the professors, the technology was also well received but required training and assistance to ensure optimal teaching and learning experiences - something Labster’s support team provided the faculty with: “Of the few teachers who have used the VR simulations at this point, using the technology has gone quite well. I think this was very much thanks to the support systems we put in place. I guess that’s a testament to the systems that Labster have in place, that professors who have never used VR before were able to use cutting edge technology and still leverage all the benefits.” Savvides explained how this support function was crucial to the technology’s success: “I think building that trust between faculty and support is important so that the faculty know that if they’re not tech-savvy, someone is there to help them use the product. So that they know where to go if things break, and they know that someone has their back.”

A culture of experimentation

Although the online degree program has seen great success so far, it’s needless to say that it wasn’t easy or risk-free to develop the degree between the four companies. For ASU, it was only possible because of their open approach to innovation: “The reason we are able to do this is because of our culture at ASU. We have a culture of experimentation. One that says it’s OK to fail. And it comes from the top, from our leadership,” Savvides said. “I see that as a license to explore things. As long as you have a coherent plan, you can try things, you can evaluate it, and if it resonates with people, you can try to find a way to expand things.”

At the root of ASU’s innovative culture lies a set of values that set them apart from many other universities: “The whole motivation behind this model is access. ASU has a very high admissions rate compared to other universities in the US. It’s entirely different from other institutions that admit 10%, 5%, or even 2%. What we want to do is to revert the model. We know that if someone applies to the university and gets a degree, they can get a better job with a higher salary, they can better support their families, and it thereby improves everyone’s standard of living overall. Today, there are too many students who want to go to university, but that don’t meet admission criteria or don’t have the financial ability to do so. And we at ASU want to change that through increased access.”

It is this mission that has led to initiatives such as ASU’s Starbucks College Achievement Plan and Uber collaboration - initiatives only made possible by ASU’s online education model and infrastructure.

Online education: a sustainable business model

ASU wants to provide all qualified students the opportunity to earn their degree. With online programs, the university reaches students who might have otherwise not been able to attend and earn a degree. Their online programs have become a core part of their business model and today essentially allow unlimited numbers of students to take an education.

“Online enables us to think about education without the constraints of physical space and sometimes time. In theory, there are no limits to how many students can access education online. We have been working to put the infrastructure for this place over the last ten years and to be able to support large numbers of students. That makes us ready for these kinds of partnerships.”

“Online enables us to think about education without the constraints of physical space and sometimes time."

To read more about ASU’s online degree program and learn how students and faculty have adopted the technology, read the university’s article about launching Labster VR here and get in touch with Labster to find out how you can get started with virtual lab simulations.

This post was originally published in 2019.

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