Font Size

HOME > No.28, Feb. 2022 > Feature Story : DX of Education and Research in Computer Science

DX of Education and Research in Computer Science

Hitoshi Goto

Hitoshi Goto

Universities have not been spared the serious impact of the pandemic. In early April 2020, right before the start of the new semester, Toyohashi University of Technology decided to close the school due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Preparations were made to implement remote teaching from May 15. The person appointed to lead this effort was Professor Hitoshi Goto of the Information and Media Center, head of the Center for IT-Based Education. We have asked him to reflect on his struggles as a center head during the COVID-19 pandemic and about cutting-edge research in his area of expertise that is computer molecular simulations.

Interview and report by Madoka Tainaka

The Center for IT-Based Education that became a COVID-19 countermeasures office

In April 2020 the Center for IT-Based Education was established as an independent entity, separate from the Information and Media Center, with Professor Goto being appointed as its head. The decision to close down the school came more or less at the same times as his appointment, so the center immediately had to deal with the impact of COVID-19.

Professor Goto looks back on their activities over the last two years, saying "The timing was horrendous. The plan was for the center to prepare and advance online teaching and e-learning as well as the digitization and digital transformation (DX) of education, but we were given no time to draw up a vision as were immediately in firefighting mode as a COVID-19 countermeasures office. Nevertheless, I think one major advantage was that we could speed up the engagement with IT of teachers and students through the pandemic."

We were just fumbling in the dark in the beginning. The first thing Professor Goto did ahead of the one-month preparation for the start of remote teaching was to find people. He invited two teachers with expertise in system development in the information field, as well as quickly recruiting five research assistants (RA) from among the student body. Together with his staff, he quickly completed a new students' handbook for connecting and receiving remote teaching and a teachers' handbook for developing remote teaching materials.

They also provided undergraduate students with an online programming learning tool for beginners called CodeMonkey during the one month the school was closed. Although only half of the undergraduate students actually used the tool, it was popular among those who had never studied programming before.

Another question was what system to use for on-demand teaching.
"In the beginning, we were thinking about expanding and using Moodle, which was used by some professors in the information field. Yet, because of the many functions of Moodle, it also places a heavy burden on the servers and school network, so we deemed that 1,500 lectures would be too much and switched to Google Classroom. The functionality is simpler than Moodle, but I think we avoided a lot of confusion since it can be used intuitively."

Thus, in May 2020, they started with on-demand teaching based on lecture materials to reduce the burden on the network, which allowed them to begin remote teaching without any major problems.

Supporting the teachers and students through detailed responses

At the same time, to respond to the inevitable teething troubles of a brand new initiative, there was a need for detailed followup support.
In addition to lending out laptop computers and Wi-Fi routers to faculty and students who said they did not have their own computer, did not have the necessary performance, did not have a camera, or did not have a network environment, they also worked hard to strengthen the campus network and ensure information security. Moreover, they made sure that no students were excluded from online teaching by identifying those unable to access the course system and Google Classroom and providing individual support.

"In the case of our school, many students live in dormitories and apartments near the university, so we were confident that they could help each other out in their labs, but the same conditions did not apply for new students. To help them with getting used to this new initiative, we carefully created a handbook in the form of an FAQ and kept updating the information as we ran into new issues. So in effect we became like a helpdesk to support students and teachers."

The University's Efforts and Future Reforms in the Age of Wiz/After-Corona (Online Symposium)
The University's Efforts and Future Reforms in the Age of Wiz/After-Corona (Online Symposium)

After about one year, they started seeing some issues with remote teaching. On-demand teaching where materials are distributed and you can repeatedly watch lectures when you want was generally liked by students, but opinions were divided when it came to the availability of materials and whether teachers followup in their audio or videos and actively communicate through the chat and other means. Many students also felt a heavier burden as more assignments were issued because of the lack of teaching in real time. At the same time, teachers pretty much had no choice but to issue essays and other assignments since it is difficult to know the situation and responses of students remotely or check how well they understand the content.

Luckily, experiments needed for training courses could be carried out as focused lectures during the summer and afterward when the pandemic situation had somewhat abated.
"My regret is about overseas students. We found a way to make it possible for them to attend lectures online, but many eventually gave up on coming to Japan. It's still difficult for overseas students to come, so this is a point where we want to ask for the government to make improvements, to support our role as a school that promotes global learning."

Education DX through the pandemic

Two-way online teaching using video meeting systems like Google Meet became more common in 2021, while more than half of lectures are conducted in person now that the pandemic has settled a bit. However, Professor Goto strongly believes that we must not stop the flow towards the digitization of education that was accelerated by the pandemic.

"In the future, we want to implement so-called high-flex online teaching, where materials are distributed in advance and classes are recorded as they are provided in person and online at the same time, and then made available on-demand. It's through initiatives like this that we want to speed up education DX, which was the initial aim of the Center for IT-Based Education."

Something that Professor Goto has his eyes on with regard to this is learning record data (logs). He says that he wants to accumulate and analyze learning logs to provide better followup to the respective students.

"We know that students who are forced to drop credits, take a break from school, or drop out stop coming to class an average of six weeks prior. We want to create systems for providing suitable care when finding early signs in learning logs. We are also thinking about how to realize IT-based active learning that boosts student learning."

Furthermore, as the core of the "Mathematical Data Science and AI Education Program" promoted by the government, which has been the mission of the IT Education Center since its inception, the center will be responsible for training data scientists. We plan to apply for the program to be recognized by MEXT at the end of 2021, and we aim to have more than half of students at the university enrolled in the future.

Generating innovative results through research DX

Professor Goto predicts that DX is also likely to accelerate in the world of research, which in his case means the field of computational chemistry. In particular, he thinks that innovative results will come from the merging of AI with observational technologies and computer science.

"When I was at Hokkaido University, I conducted research like elucidating the structure of organic molecules through computations and predicting their properties, working under Professor Eiji Osawa, who is known for predicting the existence of the fullerene molecule in 1970. When he moved to this university in 1990, I followed him to Toyohashi. Since then, for the past 30 years, I have been working on developing molecular simulations and analytical support systems. During this time, I have witnessed the remarkable progress of computational chemistry from its early days to the present.

At present, vaccine development and drug discovery wouldn't be possible without computer science. I think it will be used in all kinds of fields in the future, both in the humanities and the sciences."

Epitope search for antibody’s antigen‐binding sequence on the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Binding sites for (a) SGIST, (b) LDYYY, (c) YYEAR
Epitope search for antibody’s antigen‐binding sequence on the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Binding sites for (a) SGIST, (b) LDYYY, (c) YYEAR

He has recently been involved in research on soft crystals, which are organic molecules that change shape when force is added from outside and then change back when that force is removed. This research made the first discovery of organic molecules with a hyperelastic property and the findings were published in an international journal together with top-level researchers in Japan and abroad.

Professor Goto outlines the prospects, saying "Computational chemistry can be applied in various ways. To date, we have been focusing on basic research. I hope that we can conduct applied research that leads to antibody design and vaccine development through structural analysis of viral spike proteins and so forth."

Professor Goto's efforts are likely to expand even further, using computer science as a tool for DX not only in education but also in research.

Reporter's Note

Professor Goto's research is not just computational chemistry but also extends to chemoinformatics utilizing machine learning. Machine learning is used to predict properties from the composition and three-dimensional structure of materials, and these learning machines are highly versatile so that they can be applied in a variety of fields. One of them is predicting the market price of vegetables produced in plant factories.

Vegetable market price forecasting.
Vegetable market price forecasting.

Professor Goto says, "If you input weather data, production area information, and market prices into the learning machine, it can accurately predict prices. We are already working to commercialize this together with a startup that has distribution channels to supermarkets."

Computer science is an academic discipline indispensable to DX in education and research as well as to society as a whole. It is clear that people like Professor Goto, who can complement their research expertise with their skills in computation and AI, will become ever more essential in the future.

Share this story

Researcher Profile

Hitoshi Goto

Hitoshi Goto

Hitoshi Goto received PhD degree in 1993 from Hokkaido University. He started his career at Toyohashi University of Technology as an assistant professor in 1996 and has been worked as a professor since 2020.
His research interests are in computational chemistry and chemoinformatics for organic compounds and materials. Recently, he has been working on research such as price forecasts in the vegetable market and vegetable growth forecasts in plant factories by applying the machine learning methods cultivated in chemoinformatics.

Reporter Profile

Madoka Tainaka

Madoka Tainaka is a freelance editor, writer and interpreter. She graduated in Law from Chuo University, Japan. She served as a chief editor of "Nature Interface" magazine, a committee for the promotion of Information and Science Technology at MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).