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PRISE Distinguished Speaker Series - Rob Lue

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

By: James Conant, PRISE, Harvard College '21

On Tuesday June 23rd, we heard from Professor Rob Lue about his efforts to expand educational equity in the first event of the PRISE Distinguished Speaker Series. Carter Nakamoto kicked off the event with an introduction of Professor Lue, who is the faculty director of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and the Harvard Ed Portal. Professor Lue is also the UNESCO chair on Life Sciences and Social Innovation, and he teaches MCB 64 at the College. His most recent project is LabXchange, a free online platform for science education that has been up and running since January. In his talk, Professor Lue discussed some important events in his own path through science and how LabXchange helps address several problems with the current model of education for the hundreds of millions of people who don’t have the chance to attend Harvard.

Figure 1: Professor Lue demonstrates a micropipetting simulation on LabXchange.

Professor Lue began by telling the story of one of the defining moments in his science education. His high school in Jamaica had nothing in the way of lab equipment. Despite this lack of resources, his science teacher challenged him to figure out a problem and try to solve it. Professor Lue decided to work on disposing of sugarcane trash in a healthier and cleaner way. After the sugar has been extracted, there’s a good deal of fibrous matter left over that is usually burned, fouling the air and wasting the material. He thought that perhaps he could refine the leftover material into a kind of textile. Adjusting for his limited resources, Professor Lue studied the Egyptian method for making papyrus, learned the chemistry behind it, and applied what he learned to turn sugarcane trash into a rough textile, a far better alternative to incineration.

This anecdote demonstrates the kind of learning that Professor Lue wants to inspire with his latest initiative: LabXchange. He spoke next about how he developed LabXchange to work on some of the meta-problems facing education today. He highlighted scale and cost as two of the biggest issues. For the former, he explained how the “trickle-down” model of educating a couple thousand citizen leaders at Harvard doesn’t really work; we need to make a similar level of education accessible to the millions of young people around the world who can’t attend Harvard. The only way to do so is with a platform that can scale. Creating this platform does not involve building more brick and mortar schools.

Professor Lue explained that even if we “reoriented the budgets of every economy in the world to doing one thing and that was building physical schools, we couldn’t build them fast enough.”

Rather, we should invest in the educational potential of the Internet, which has the capacity to reach all those people. Professor Lue noted that just building a cheap educational platform on the Internet is not enough; you have to make it free. A $50 certificate for an online course may not seem like a huge loss given the returns one can make, but most people in this world just can’t afford to spend that much money.

Beyond accessibility, Professor Lue wanted to improve the quality of online education. He explained that traditionally, online education has followed the “hub and spoke” model, where elite institutions like Harvard sit at the hub and just broadcast information along many spokes to individuals. This doesn’t make much sense; we know from our own classes that the opportunity for student initiative is essential to learning. No matter how brilliant the lectures are, there is a limit to the amount you can learn by listening alone. Thinking back to Professor Lue’s anecdote with the sugarcane trash, this was such an important experience because the teacher gave him the opportunity to take the initiative, to find a problem and tackle it independently. Professor Lue built the capacity to personalize and take agency in your own learning experience into LabXchange. You can select modules from the expansive library of multimedia lessons to create your own “pathways” and learning goals, thus breaking down the hub and spoke model.

For the rest of his talk, Professor Lue demoed some more of LabXchange’s features via screen share. The picture above shows Professor Lue practicing micropipetting in a simulation with very smooth animation and graphics. Prospective LS1A students can look forward to doing the same this upcoming fall semester to make up for lost in-person laboratory sessions. As that clone trooper once said, the real thing will be just like the simulations. Beyond that, Professor Lue also talked about how the HSURV community can get involved with LabXchange. He encouraged that if we would like to share our incredible research with the world outside HSURV, we can sign up for an account as an educator and make posts about our work. LabXchange can be a powerful vehicle for representation.

Professor Lue gave an immensely engaging and informative talk, and we are so grateful for him taking the time to speak with us. We can all look forward to using LabXchange in the near future; the platform is really cool. Thank you Professor Lue!

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