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

Comments

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.

More developments in online labs

Embry-Riddle's crash simulation

Embry-Riddle’s crash simulation

Zalaznik, M. (2014) Online labs evolve University Business, May

What’s happening

This article reports on the following developments in online labs:

  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has created an online ‘crash lab’ for students taking a Master of Aeronautical Science program. Through the online lab, students can examine ‘all the procedures leading up and through [an] accident.’ The lab, developed in partnership with Unity, uses high quality graphics and elements of video-gaming, to develop a range of skills. The next project will be to develop a virtual robotics lab where students will design and fly unmanned aircraft
  • Arizona State University is offering a fully online Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering for approximately 200 students. Students will use low cost hardware kits that enable them to build and test circuits, in conjunction with software on their computers that enable measurements to be made on a simulated oscilloscope. Online students take the same exams as the students on campus. The online program is taken mainly by older, more experienced students.
  • Henderson Community College, Kentucky, combines home kits and real materials such as  sheep hearts and bacteria with a learning management system to do experiments remotely. The kits are produced by eScience Labs and Pearson provides a biology lab  that contains a virtual microscope
  • The NANSLO project, which was reported in detail here: Can you teach lab science via remote labs?

Why is the use of online labs increasing?

The article suggests the following reasons for the growth of online labs:

  • a shortage of real lab equipment and facilities, especially for general science students
  • online labs require fewer instructors and can make greater use f teaching assistants
  • its most suitable for non-science majors who don’t need to know how to run a lab or how to operate all the equipment in a lab
  • online labs give more leeway to design their own experiments
  • students can make and learn from mistakes in virtual labs
  • online labs are being used in conjunction with on campus facilities, enabling more productive use of limited physical resources.

Resources

The article provides a very useful set of links to these projects.

 

A new approach to online lab classes from the University of South Carolina

 Histology USC

Adams, S. and Duvall, B. (2014) Designing, building and supporting online lab courses, University Business, February 4

This article is a summary of a presentation made at the University Business conference last June. It describes how two biology professors at the University of South Carolina, Roger Sawyer and Robert Ogilvie, developed an online course on histology that was built around students being able to drill down into images of the cell at various levels through the use of a large repository of digitized slides of cells, accompanied by a voice over narrative:

Using Adobe Presenter to create the slides and WebMic to record the audio, Sawyer and Ogilvie built lectures, grouped slides together and developed quizzes. The program offered the flexibility for faculty to record and post content right from their desktops. With each set of slides, students can move ‘bit by bit,’ drilling deep down into a cell, reading the accompanying information, and listening to a narrative as they go. Since the self-paced content requires large files, it is hosted offline via Screencast (by TechSmith).

This was partly driven by space limitations in USC’s physical labs, and partly by increasing demand for students with health sciences qualifications. This approach has enabled the course to jump from 70 enrollments a year to 350. At the same time, student performance for the online students is the same as for the on-campus students, and over 90% of students rate the course highly on a number of variables.

One reason for the success of this approach is that the two professors worked closely with instructional designers and the university’s media services department. The team developed their own tool for recording audio over the slides (webMic), using ‘off-the-shelf’ apps, rather than programming from scratch.

There is a video recording of the presentation available here, which is worth watching because as well as describing the histology project, it also looks how online learning is being integrated into physical labs at USC, and the impact on room design. In other words, students and faculty need online access not only from home and office, but also while in the lab.

Big developments in e-books

Eisenberg, A. (2011) Making Science leap from the Page, New York Times, December 17

At last: an e-book designed to exploit digitality! This is a report of a new biology textbook published by Macmillan, the publishers of the ‘august journal’ Nature. It is available only online, sells for $49 for permanent ownership, and includes audio and video clips, short quizzes, dynamic graphics and other forms of interaction for the learner. (I wonder if it allows for online annotation using tools such as Highlighter?). It is designed to run on any digital device. The book though does not appear to be available yet (for the latest, go to: http://www.nature.com/nature_education/interactive_textbooks).I’ve requested a copy for a full review on this web site.

The New York Times article also discusses two digital books for mathematics, one based on Wolfram Alpha/Mathematica and one on calculus.

Molecular Workbench receives $2.5 million from Google

© The Concord Consortium

The Molecular Workbench (MW) software:

  • Is a modeling tool for designing and conducting computational experiments across science.
  • Provides an authoring system for instructional designers to create and publish model and simulation-based curriculum materials.
  • Delivers an interactive learning environment that supports science inquiry
  • Is free and open-source.

Google announced today that it will award $2.5 million to the Concord Consortium (a nonprofit educational research and development organization based in Concord, Massachusetts.). This grant will allow their award-winning Molecular Workbench software and curriculum ‘to scale to reach millions and will pave the way for groundbreaking, deeply digital curricula that serve as an innovative model for the “textbook of tomorrow.“‘

The grant from Google will enable students to use browser-based devices will be able to use Molecular Workbench to study the science of atoms and molecules by experimenting with sophisticated computational models and collect real-time data via probes and sensors. These activities will provide examples of next-generation, deeply digital curricula.

The Molecular Workbench is well worth a look. I played around with it for quite a while. The interface and software is still a little clunky, but should improve considerably with the extra funding. This is an interesting example of web-based, dynamic open content.