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University of Alberta students call for end to online exam monitoring

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Some University of Alberta students are calling for an end to the use of online monitoring services meant to prevent cheating, as final exams approach.

This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the university to use remote learning, many U of A classes have used online proctoring services like Smart Exam Monitoring and Exam Lock.

They run in the background of students’ computers while they write tests, monitoring movement to flag anything that could be a sign the student is cheating.

“Fundamentally, what this software does is it tries to prevent cheating. But all it does instead is make it so that you’re more scared and the assessments themselves are less effective,” said David Draper, University of Alberta Students’ Union vice-president academic.

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Student representatives have raised concerns about e-proctoring since May.

Draper said the type of suspicious activity it flags include things as simple as students reading questions aloud, going to the bathroom or people walking in the background of the camera’s view, a problem for people living with roommates or family.

They also have led to equity issues, Draper said.

He’s heard from students of colour who say the programs sometimes don’t recognize their face, asking them to move to rooms with better lighting.

He’s also heard from students with disabilities about e-proctoring not working with accessibility programs that are provided by the university, such as screen readers.

“It sends a message to students about who is welcome within a university and who this university caters to,” Draper said.

“Online proctoring, in my opinion, does more to enforce compliance and does more to enforce structural and systemic views of what somebody should look like, rather than actually enforcing academic integrity.”

 

David Draper from the University of Alberta Students’ Union demonstrates how to log on for a remote-proctored exam and why students are concerned about the assessment tool. 2:13

Some also see it as invasive.

Inaara Kanji, a second-year criminology student, has had to use online proctoring in many of her classes this year. Privacy is often the main concern for her and other students, she said, with many questioning the security of the video recording them writing tests in their home.

“Online proctoring really just feels like you’re trying to avoid getting caught for something that you didn’t even do,” Kanji said.

University strikes task force

A blog post by University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan on Jan. 28 announced a task force on remote teaching and learning that would include students and instructors, with a goal to reduce online proctoring in the spring and summer term.

“We know that this is a challenging time for everyone and continue to remind members of our teaching and learning community to reach out if they are experiencing added challenges or barriers because of the COVID-19 emergency,” said deputy provost Wendy Rodgers on Tuesday.

Lucas Marques, vice-president external at the U of A’s International Students’ Association, said he’s frustrated the university hasn’t acted more swiftly.

Marques spent the fall semester studying from home in Brazil. The four-hour time difference was enough for him to sometimes be awake past midnight writing tests.

With some students having to do this while living in a timezone more than 10 hours away, Marques said more students are feeling fatigued and burned out this year, especially as they see the high price of their university tuition come with a seemingly declining quality of education.

“Students need help now,” Marques said. “They have midterms around this time of the year; this semester is almost ending, and just now we are starting to get some sort of talks into it.”

Some schools were worried last summer that studying from home could lead to more academic dishonesty. But Draper says from what the students’ union has gathered, students aren’t cheating more often, but are instead are getting more confused over what is and isn’t cheating.

Similar concerns about online proctoring services have been raised across Canada, including at the University of Manitoba, the University of Regina and Carleton University.

Other schools have rejected using it. The University of Calgary opted not to use online proctoring for exams this semester, citing privacy issues with technology that records people in their homes.

Increasing burden on instructors

Tim Mills, vice-president of the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta, has been teaching online for several years. He said he’s used remote proctoring in the past, but finds it too awkward and invasive.

Last fall, Mills worked in a support role to help staff use e-proctoring programs. He said the burden on instructors this year has been difficult after provincial budget cuts led to larger classes and an increased workload.

On top of this, Mills says, it’s been hard for professors to find the best way to assess their students to the same standard as the structure of their in-person courses.

“We don’t have that substantial training or the time to build up the experience to deliver these alternative formats the way we would want, or even, I think, to really understand all the ins and outs of remote proctoring,” Mills said.

 

David Draper, vice-president academic of the University of Alberta Students’ Union, worries about how often online exam proctoring is used. (CBC)

 

Draper is happy to see more students and staff raising concerns to the university, but he said the onus should be on administration to restrict use of online proctoring and promote alternatives.

And while the university’s task force is a positive step, it can only offer recommendations or guidelines, but students need to see more action, Draper said.

“It’s been eight months more or less since we started talking about these issues and we know the issues,” Draper said.

“We know the problems, we don’t need to scope them out anymore. We don’t need to do the research on it, it’s already been done.”

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Rare ‘big fuzzy green ball’ comet visible in B.C. skies, a 50000-year sight

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In the night sky, a comet is flying by Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.

Steve Coleopy, of the South Cariboo Astronomy Club, is offering some tips on how to see it before it disappears.

The green-coloured comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is not readily visible to the naked eye, although someone with good eyesight in really dark skies might be able to see it, he said. The only problem is it’s getting less visible by the day.

“Right now the comet is the closest to earth and is travelling rapidly away,” Coleopy said, noting it is easily seen through binoculars and small telescopes. “I have not been very successful in taking a picture of it yet, because it’s so faint, but will keep trying, weather permitting.”

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At the moment, the comet is located between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star but will be moving toward the Planet Mars – a steady orange-coloured point of light- in the night sky over the next couple of weeks, according to Coleopy.

“I have found it best to view the comet after 3:30 in the morning, after the moon sets,” he said. “It is still visible in binoculars even with the moon still up, but the view is more washed out because of the moonlight.”

He noted the comet looks like a “big fuzzy green ball,” as opposed to the bright pinpoint light of the stars.

“There’s not much of a tail, but if you can look through the binoculars for a short period of time, enough for your eyes to acclimatize to the image, it’s quite spectacular.”

To know its more precise location on a particular evening, an internet search will produce drawings and pictures of the comet with dates of where and when the comet will be in each daily location.

Coleopy notes the comet will only be visible for a few more weeks, and then it won’t return for about 50,000 years.


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Extreme species deficit of nitrogen-converting microbes in European lakes

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Sampling of Lake Constance water from 85 m depth, in which ammonia-oxidizing archaea make up as much as 40% of all microorganisms

Dr. David Kamanda Ngugi, environmental microbiologist at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ

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Leibniz Institute DSMZ

 

An international team of researchers led by microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany, shows that in the depths of European lakes, the detoxification of ammonium is ensured by an extremely low biodiversity of archaea. The researchers recently published their findings in the prestigious international journal Science Advances. The team led by environmental microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ has now shown that the species diversity of these archaea in lakes around the world ranges from 1 to 15 species. This is of particularly concern in the context of global biodiversity loss and the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022. Lakes play an important role in providing freshwater for drinking, inland fisheries, and recreation. These ecosystem services would be at danger from ammonium enrichment. Ammonium is an essential component of agricultural fertilizers and contributes to its remarkable increase in environmental concentrations and the overall im-balance of the global nitrogen cycle. Nutrient-poor lakes with large water masses (such as Lake Constance and many other pre-alpine lakes) harbor enormously large populations of archaea, a unique class of microorganisms. In sediments and other low-oxygen environments, these archaea convert ammonium to nitrate, which is then converted to inert dinitrogen gas, an essential component of the air. In this way, they contribute to the detoxification of ammonium in the aquatic environment. In fact, the species predominant in European lakes is even clonal and shows low genetic microdiversity between different lakes. This low species diversity contrasts with marine ecosystems where this group of microorganisms predominates with much greater species richness, making the stability of ecosystem function provided by these nitrogen-converting archaea potentially vulnerable to environmental change.

Maintenance of drinking water quality
Although there is a lot of water on our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Since much of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps, only about 80% of it is even accessible to us humans. About 36% of drinking water in the European Union is obtained from surface waters. It is therefore crucial to understand how environmental processes such as microbial nitrification maintain this ecosystem service. The rate-determining phase of nitrification is the oxidation of ammonia, which prevents the accumulation of ammonium and converts it to nitrate via nitrite. In this way, ammonium is prevented from contaminating water sources and is necessary for its final conversion to the harmless dinitrogen gas. In this study, deep lakes on five different continents were investigated to assess the richness and evolutionary history of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Organisms from marine habitats have traditionally colonized freshwater ecosystems. However, these archaea have had to make significant changes in their cell composition, possible only a few times during evolution, when they moved from marine habitats to freshwaters with much lower salt concentrations. The researchers identified this selection pressure as the major barrier to greater diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea colonizing freshwaters. The researchers were also able to determine when the few freshwater archaea first appeared. Ac-cording to the study, the dominant archaeal species in European lakes emerged only about 13 million years ago, which is quite consistent with the evolutionary history of the European lakes studied.

Slowed evolution of freshwater archaea
The major freshwater species in Europe changed relatively little over the 13 million years and spread almost clonally across Europe and Asia, which puzzled the researchers. Currently, there are not many examples of such an evolutionary break over such long time periods and over large intercontinental ranges. The authors suggest that the main factor slowing the rapid growth rates and associated evolutionary changes is the low temperatures (4 °C) at the bottom of the lakes studied. As a result, these archaea are restricted to a state of low genetic diversity. It is unclear how the extremely species-poor and evolutionarily static freshwater archaea will respond to changes induced by global climate warming and eutrophication of nearby agricultur-al lands, as the effects of climate change are more pronounced in freshwater than in marine habitats, which is associated with a loss of biodiversity.

Publication: Ngugi DK, Salcher MM, Andre A-S, Ghai R., Klotz F, Chiriac M-C, Ionescu D, Büsing P, Grossart H-S, Xing P, Priscu JC, Alymkulov S, Pester M. 2022. Postglacial adaptations enabled coloniza-tion and quasi-clonal dispersal of ammonia oxidizing archaea in modern European large lakes. Science Advances: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adc9392

Press contact:
PhDr. Sven-David Müller, Head of Public Relations, Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH
Phone: ++49 (0)531/2616-300
Mail: press@dsmz.de

About the Leibniz Institute DSMZ
The Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures is the world’s most diverse collection of biological resources (bacteria, archaea, protists, yeasts, fungi, bacteriophages, plant viruses, genomic bacterial DNA as well as human and animal cell lines). Microorganisms and cell cultures are collected, investigated and archived at the DSMZ. As an institution of the Leibniz Association, the DSMZ with its extensive scientific services and biological resources has been a global partner for research, science and industry since 1969. The DSMZ was the first registered collection in Europe (Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014) and is certified according to the quality standard ISO 9001:2015. As a patent depository, it offers the only possibility in Germany to deposit biological material in accordance with the requirements of the Budapest Treaty. In addition to scientific services, research is the second pillar of the DSMZ. The institute, located on the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd, accommodates more than 82,000 cultures and biomaterials and has around 200 employees. www.dsmz.de

PhDr. Sven David Mueller, M.Sc.
Leibniz-Institut DSMZ
+49 531 2616300
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Scientists are closing in on why the universe exists

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Particle astrophysicist Benjamin Tam hopes his work will help us understand a question. A very big one.

“The big question that we are trying to answer with this research is how the universe was formed,” said Tam, who is finishing his PhD at Queen’s University.

“What is the origin of the universe?”

And to answer that question, he and dozens of fellow scientists and engineers are conducting a multi-million dollar experiment two kilometres below the surface of the Canadian Shield in a repurposed mine near Sudbury, Ontario.

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Ten thousand light-sensitive cameras send data to scientists watching for evidence of a neutrino bumping into another particle. (Tom Howell/CBC)

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) is already famous for an earlier experiment that revealed how neutrinos ‘oscillate’ between different versions of themselves as they travel here from the sun.

This finding proved a vital point: the mass of a neutrino cannot be zero. The experiment’s lead scientist, Arthur McDonald, shared the Nobel Prize in 2015 for this discovery.

The neutrino is commonly known as the ‘ghost particle.’ Trillions upon trillions of them emanate from the sun every second. To humans, they are imperceptible except through highly specialized detection technology that alerts us to their presence.

Neutrinos were first hypothesized in the early 20th century to explain why certain important physics equations consistently produced what looked like the wrong answers. In 1956, they were proven to exist.

A digital image of a sphere that is blue and transparent with lines all over.
The neutrino detector is at the heart of the SNO+ experiment. An acrylic sphere containing ‘scintillator’ liquid is suspended inside a larger water-filled globe studded with 10,000 light-sensitive cameras. (Submitted by SNOLOAB)

Tam and his fellow researchers are now homing in on the biggest remaining mystery about these tiny particles.

Nobody knows what happens when two neutrinos collide. If it can be shown that they sometimes zap each other out of existence, scientists could conclude that a neutrino acts as its own ‘antiparticle’.

Such a conclusion would explain how an imbalance arose between matter and anti-matter, thus clarifying the current existence of all the matter in the universe.

It would also offer some relief to those hoping to describe the physical world using a model that does not imply none of us should be here.

A screengrab of two scientists wearing white hard hat helmets, clear googles and blue safety suits standing on either side of CBC producer holding a microphone. All three people are laughing.
IDEAS producer Tom Howell (centre) joins research scientist Erica Caden (left) and Benjamin Tam on a video call from their underground lab. (Screengrab: Nicola Luksic)

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

Benjamin Tam is a PhD student in Particle Astrophysics at Queen’s University.

Eve Vavagiakis is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physics Department at Cornell University. She’s the author of a children’s book, I’m A Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe.

Blaire Flynn is the senior education and outreach officer at SNOLAB.

Erica Caden is a research scientist at SNOLAB. Among her duties she is the detector manager for SNO+, responsible for keeping things running day to day.


*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of an on-going series, IDEAS from the Trenches, some stories are below.

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