July 20, 2018

Open and remote labs from the UK Open University

The Open University’s remote access electron microscope set-up

On my recent visit to the UK Open University, I had the privilege of a guided tour of the Open University’s remote labs. These allow students to log on from anywhere and conduct experiments remotely. The tour was courtesy of Professor Nick Braithwaite, Associate Dean (Academic Excellence), Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.

Note that remote labs are somewhat different from simulated online experiments, where students interact by entering data or clicking and dragging on screen items. With remote labs, the equipment being operated is real, with the students actually controlling the equipment in real time as well as recording and interpreting data. 

The OpenScience Laboratory

The OpenScience Laboratory is a means of conducting authentic and rigorous investigations using real data and is globally available. It is an initiative of the Open University and the Wolfson Foundation. It includes:

  • Remote Experiments
  • Virtual instruments and interactive screen experiments
  • Online field investigations
  • 3D Immersive environments
  • Citizen Science
  • Research and development 

There are altogether more than 50 self-contained open educational resource modules in experimental science, in the OpenScience Laboratory, each taking somewhere between one to three hours of study to complete.

As an example, there is an experiment to identify what causes variation in species of heather on English moorland. It is a combination of an online video recorded on site in English moorland and guided student activities, such as taking simulated measurements and calculating and interpreting data. The video is divided in to 23 parts, showing how measurements are made in the field, how to calculate slope, water flow, and organic soil depth, and how to take simulated measurements, to test the hypothesis that different types of heather are associated with different levels of slope in moorlands. This took me a couple of hours to complete.

The heather hypothesis

The OpenSTEM labs

The Open STEM Labs are part of the OpenScience Laboratory project.

The OpenSTEM Labs connect students to state-of-the-art instrumentation and equipment for practical enquiries over the internet, where distance is no barrier and where access to equipment is available 24 hours a day.

Students and teachers access the equipment via a web browser through which they can view the experiment, send real-time control commands, monitor real-time performance and download data for subsequent analysis. Using remotely accessible hardware for laboratory and exploratory studies, ranging from electronics to chemical synthesis and from microscopes to telescopes, students are able to access the various instruments and other remote controlled resources virtually anytime from anywhere with an internet connection.

The new facilities are available to students studying Open University modules and may be available by subscription to other institutions of higher education.

Figure 1 below indicates the relationship between the Open Science Labs, OpenSTEM Labs and remote labs.

The Open University’s remote labs

Below are links to some of the diverse range of equipment available. Simply click on a link and this will take you to that experiment’s landing page, as seen by the OU’s students. Here you will then be able to access the equipment. Please note that you may have to book a session if all pieces of that equipment are being used by others. If you do book a session you should enter the experiment through the booking system at the allotted time. This will take you straight through to the equipment. (Not all these are currently operational at any one time and you may need to register first to get access).

The OU also has scanning electron microscopes, an auto-titrator, and a radio telescope available on request from those with direct experience of these curriculum areas. Please email OpenSTEM to arrange access and further briefing.

A student’s desktop view of the eye of a fly seen through the OU’s electron microscope. The student can manipulate the electron microscope to get different degrees of magnitude.

Many of the remote lab experiments are part of the Open University’s MSc in Space Science and Technology.  This includes student remote control of a model ‘Mars Rover’ operated in a mock-up of the surface of Mars.

The OU’s model of the Mars Rover


The Open University has added a new set of quality online resources in experimental science and technology to those currently offered by, among others:

I would welcome suggestions for other sources for high quality OER in experimental science and technology..

However, many more are still needed. We are still a long way from being able to build an entire high quality experimental science or technology curriculum with open educational resources. As well as increasing quantity, we need better quality resources that enable student activity and engagement, that include clearly understandable instructions, and that result in a high level of scientific inquiry. The Open University resources meet these standards, but not all other OER in this field do. Also there are issues of scalability. One needs enough students to justify the investment in software, production and equipment, especially for remote labs and quality simulations. Sharing of resources between institutions, and between departments within institutions, is therefore highly desirable.

Thus there is still a long way to go in this field, but progress is being made. If you teach science or engineering I recommend you look carefully at the Open University’s resources. It may stimulate you not only to integrate some of these resources into your own teaching, but also to create new resources for everyone.

A future vision for OER and online learning

For each chapter of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am developing imaginary but hopefully realistic scenarios. In this scenario, developed as a closing to my chapter on ‘Modes of Delivery and Open Education’, I look at how modularization could lead both a wider range of access to credit courses and more open use of learning materials.


Figure 10.1 The Hart River, Yukon. Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC

Figure 10.1.F The Hart River, Yukon.
Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC


Research faculty in the Faculties of Land Management and Forestry at the (mythical) University of Western Canada developed over a number of years a range of ‘learning artefacts’, digital graphics, computer models and simulations about watershed management, partly as a consequence of research conducted by faculty, and partly to generate support and funding for further research.

At a faculty meeting several years ago, after a somewhat heated discussion, faculty members voted to make these resources openly available for re-use for educational purposes under a Creative Commons license that requires attribution and prevents commercial use without specific written permission from the copyright holders, who in this case are the faculty responsible for developing the artefacts. What swayed the vote is that the majority of the faculty actively involved in the research wanted to make these resources more widely available. The agencies responsible for funding the work that lead to the development of the artefacts (mainly national research councils) welcomed the move to makes these artefacts more widely available as open educational resources.

Initially, the researchers just put the graphics and simulations up on the research group’s web site. It was left to individual faculty members to decide whether to use these resources in their teaching. Over time, faculty started to introduce these resources into a range of on-campus undergraduate and graduate courses.

After a while, though, word seemed to get out about these OER. The research faculty began to receive e-mails and phone calls from other researchers around the world. It became clear that there was a network or community of researchers in this field who were creating digital materials as a result of their research, and it made sense to share and re-use materials from other sites. This eventually led to an international web ‘portal’ of learning artefacts on watershed management.

The researchers also started to get calls from a range of different agencies, from government ministries or departments of environment, local environmental groups, First Nations/aboriginal bands, and, occasionally, major mining or resource extraction companies, leading to some major consultancy work for the faculty in the department. At the same time, the faculty were able to attract further research funding from non-governmental agencies such as the Nature Conservancy and some ecological groups, as well as from their traditional funding source, the national research councils, to develop more OER.

By this time, instructors had access to a fairly large amount of OER. There were already two fourth and fifth level fully online courses built around the OER that were being offered successfully to undergraduate and graduate students.

A proposal was therefore put forward to create initially a fully online post-graduate certificate program on watershed management, built around existing OER, in partnership with a university in the USA and another one in Sierra Leone. This certificate program was to be self-funding from tuition fees, with the tuition fees for the 25 Sierra Leone students to be initially covered by an international aid agency. The Dean, after a period of hard negotiation, persuaded the university administration that the tuition fees from the certificate program should go directly to the two Faculties whose staff were teaching the program.From these funds, the departments would hire additional tenured faculty to teach or backfill for the certificate, and the Faculties would pay 25 per cent of the tuition revenues to the university as overheads.

This decision was made somewhat easier by a fairly substantial grant from Foreign Affairs Canada to make the certificate program available in English and French to Canadian mining and resource extraction companies with contracts and partnerships in African countries.

Although the certificate program was very successful in attracting students from North America, Europe and New Zealand, it was not taken up very well in Africa beyond the partnership with the university in Sierra Leone, although there was a lot of interest in the OER and the issues raised in the certificate courses. After two years of running the certificate, then, the Faculties made two major decisions:

  • another three courses and a research project would be added to the certificate courses, and this would be offered as a fully cost recoverable online master in land and water systems. This would attract greater participation from managers and professionals in African countries in particular, and provide a recognised qualification that many of the certificate students were requesting
  • drawing on the large network of external experts now involved one way or another with the researchers, the university would offer a series of MOOCs on watershed management issues, with volunteer experts from outside the university being invited to participate and provide leadership in the MOOCs. The MOOCs would be able to draw on the existing OER.

Five years later, the following outcomes were recorded by the Dean of one of the faculties at an international conference on sustainability:

  • the online master’s program had doubled the total number of graduate students across the two faculties
  • the master’s program was fully cost-recoverable from tuition fees
  • there were 120 graduates a year from the master’s program
  • the degree completion rate was 64 per cent
  • six new tenured faculty has been hired, plus another six post-doctoral research faculty
  • several thousand students had registered and paid for at least one course in the certificate or master’s program, of which 45 per cent were from outside Canada
  • over 100,000 students had taken the MOOCs, almost half from developing countries
  • there were now over 1,000 hours of OER on watershed management available and downloaded many times across the world, attracting more students and revenue to the university
  • the university was now internationally recognised as a world leader in watershed management.

Although this scenario is purely a figment of my imagination, it is influenced by real and exciting work, much of which was developed as open access materials from the start, at the University of British Columbia:

Over to you

1. Does this strike you as a realistic scenario?

2. How useful are scenarios like this for thinking about the future? Could you use similar kinds of scenarios in your program planning or for faculty development, for instance?

3, If you have used scenarios for online learning in similar ways, would you be willing to share one?

4. Most of the elements of this scenario already exist at UBC. What I have done though is bring things together from different parts of the university into an integrated single scenario. What could be done within institutions to make this cross-disciplinary transfer of ideas and strategies easier to achieve? (It should be noted that UBC already has a Flexible Learning initiative, including a strategy team within the Provost’s office, which should help with this.)


Just one more post to wrap up the chapter on Modes of Delivery and Open Education: the key takeaways from this chapter.



Managing dairy farming with mobile devices in Kenya


© Kenya Forests 2010

Kahumbu, S. and Kithika, C. (2010) iCow: Transforming Animal Husbandry in Kenya e-Learning Africa 2011 Newsletter, No. 2, December 15

Young technology entrepreneurs led by Sue Kahumbu and Charles Kithika have developed a pioneering voice-based mobile phone application called “iCow” that helps farmers to manage the breeding cycles of their dairy cows.The application handles dairy cow nutrition up to calving day, using prompts by the mobile phones now widespread in Kenya, even used by illiterate farmers. The pilot project won the “Apps4Africa” contest organised by the U.S. State Department and three African partner organisations.

SAIDE newletter on open and distance education in Africa

The South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE) has published its latest newsletter. Two articles caught my eye.

Mhlanga, E. (2010) SOFIE (Strengthening Open and Flexible Learning for Increased Education) Project Findings SAIDE Newsletter, Vol. 16, No. 2

The aim of this study was to increase access to education and learning for young people affected by HIV and AIDS in Malawi and Lesotho by developing, trialing and evaluating an expanded model of schooling which used open, distance and flexible learning (ODFL) to complement conventional schooling. The key design is the development of ‘circles of support’ that provide learning materials and teacher support for students who miss classes because of the need to care for family with HIV/AIDS. Although these are only preliminary results, the findings indicate that the intervention was successful, leading to less drop-out from school, and improved academic performance. (Note: this is not e-learning but print based support).

Preston, D. and Moore, A. (2010) The Use of Open Education Resources at the University of Malawi SAIDE Newsletter, Vol. 16, No. 2

During 2009 the University of Malawi (UNIMA) embarked on two OER projects, one at the Kamuzu College of Nursing and the second at the Bunda College of Agriculture. These projects were co-funded by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and facilitated jointly by SAIDE’s OER Africa Initiative and the International Association for Digital Publications (IADP).

At Kamuzu College of Nursing an interface was designed to hold the digital resources together in a manner that promoted the use of Problem-based Learning. This courseware is licensed under a creative commons licence and is freely-available on the OER Africa website.

At the Bunda College of Agriculture, the Language and Communication for Development Department decided to develop a textbook to address problems of staff and students not having access to the same set of textbooks despite their Communications Skills classes being a core course for all first year students. Secondly, students could not always access the recommended readings as the College Library did not have, or had an insufficient number of the texts. The 102 page Communication Skills textbook, which was created exclusively from OER, was released in early-2010 and has been offered back to the OER community. It is available from both the Bunda College website and the OER Africa website.

Again it is early days and immediate results for both the OER projects have been somewhat mixed but with promise for the future.

Also in this issue, the launch of the  African Health OER Network was announced. The network provides a platform for African health academics to freely access and share educational materials as well as to debate key issues around the future of health education for healthcare workers in Africa. The aim of the network is to share and circulate health-related educational materials by building links to existing resources (e.g., programmes, modules, courses), which authors have shared under a Creative Commons licence.

New educational software for mobile learning in developing countries

Commonwealth of Learning (2010) LIVES: Mobile phones for learning Connections February, Vol. 15, No. 1

In a blog posting in December (2009), I wrote that a priority for e-learning for 2010 was the development of educational applications for mobile learning, particularly for developing countries. Well, the Commonwealth of Learning and the University of British Columbia were ahead of me.

This article describes a partnership between CoL and UBC’s Network and Internet Computing Lab to develop a system that delivers learning via mobile phones. Learning Through Interactive Voice Educational Systems (LIVES) is an educational software system that offers audio lessons to multiple users over mobile telephone networks. The system is designed so that there is no cost to the end user, if they already have a mobile phone.

Filed testing will be done with CoL’s Lifelong Learning for Farmers‘ project in India.