July 19, 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.

Innovation in teaching in Ontario universities


Council of Ontario Universities (2012) Beyond the sage on the stage: innovative and effective teaching and learning in Ontario universities Toronto ON: COU

This document provides an overview and analysis of innovative teaching practices in Ontario’s 24 universities:

There are many examples of innovative and effective teaching and learning strategies at Ontario universities, some of which will be shared here. The examples set out in this document reflect both practices that are well-established in many universities, and those that are evolving. 

With regard to online learning and the use of learning technologies, the document lists the following examples (this is a selection of what I found the most interesting – for example, I don’t find the use of clickers innovative):

  • Video recording: 

Carleton University: Robert Burk’s General Chemistry course (700 students): lectures, tutorials and other course materials are broadcast via cable television, webcast, video on demand, iTunes and a course website, combined with personal e-mails to every student. The materials are the most downloaded items from Carleton University; some have been downloaded almost 250,000 times in two years. A full third of his students never set foot in his lecture hall, yet their grades are identical to the two-thirds who are studying on campus. For an example, see: Making Nylon

  • Hybrid learning: 

Lakehead University: Dr. Glenna Knutson: the Masters in Public Health, designed initially to serve the needs of public health professionals across northwestern Ontario, uses WebCT and media streaming to ensure that distance students, who make up three-quarters of the class, can participate fully. In addition to taking part in large and small group discussions during class, they can use the technology platform to work with classmates outside of class time, preparing projects and presentations. To further accommodate the professional and family commitments of students, the program provides the option of completing it in six terms, or even 12, to make it more flexible.

  • Digital entrepreneurs: 

Ryerson University: The Digital Media Zone is a business incubator that supports digital entrepreneurs with business knowledge, resources and, above all, space to work and collaborate. It was the brainchild of President Sheldon Levy, who saw the need for universities to go beyond helping students find jobs. DMZ also focuses on helping students create the jobs and companies of the future. Since its launch in 2010, it has grown to accommodate some 200 innovators, spawning more than 40 companies and creating over 400 jobs in the process

University of Waterloo: the  VeloCity Mobile and Media incubator residence is the world’s first student residence designed to enable budding entrepreneurs to work with like-minded colleagues on mobile communications and digital media. It is a “dorm-cubator” for top students who want to turn their bright ideas in web, mobile and digital media applications into successful businesses. The value of companies created by VeloCity alumni is estimated to be about $50 million based on initial feedback from over 200 alumni who have lived in VeloCity. Participation in this program builds a supportive community that helps students succeed. Outcomes measured are not grades, but rather the success that students have both personally and professionally, by engaging in the business world outside of the institution. VeloCity incorporates peer mentorship and connects students  to the world of global start-up hubs (Waterloo, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, New York, San Francisco). Students learn how to manage risks, focus their skills and decide if building their own company is something they want to do after they graduate or even while they are still at the undergraduate level.

  • Universal Instructional Design

Trent University: The Transcribe Your Class project is an example of how the benefits of Universal Instructional Design modifications to a course can extend to all the students in a course, beyond students who have a learning disability. Through this project students with disabilities attending post-secondary education and National Disability Organizations use advanced Speech-Recognition Technology to improve access to information. Lectures are first recorded as webcasts through a software program, Panopto 7, and then transcribed. The transcriptions are integrated into a multimedia platform, which includes audio, video and presentation slides. The transcribed text is also searchable within the Panopto platform. At present, six first-year courses are included in this project. Prior to the implementation of the Transcribe Your Class project, students who required an accommodation for speech-to-text transcriptions worked with the Disability Services Office to have lectures recorded using digital audio recorders, and then paid a commercial firm to have them transcribed. The Transcribe Your Class project means that the instructor can automatically record lectures with a touch of a button. The recordings are uploaded immediately after the lecture and sent to IBM for speech-to-text recognition. The transcribed lectures are available to students within 48-96 hours of the original recording. This  is a significant improvement over the typical five-day turnaround time for edited transcripts through commercial services. The transcripts are made available to all students enrolled in the course.

  • E-portfolios

University of Guelph: E-portfolio use is incorporated throughout the Bachelor of Arts and Science Program. The basic function of the e-portfolio is to serve as a repository where students can compile their course work, writing and other material, including material from internships and other types of placements. E-portfolios enable students to engage in a process of reflection about the knowledge and skills they have acquired in their program of studies, and provide students with a useful tool for making connections about what they are learning.Both faculty and students report that they get to know each other better through“About Me” pages that are constructed in e-portfolio. Senior students may develop personalized e-portfolios to showcase their education and skills to prospective employers, and for applications to post-graduate programs.

Wilfred Laurier University: Kimberley Barber of the Faculty of Music has initiated an e-portfolio for her first-year voice performance students. Throughout the first term, students complete weekly e-portfolio presentations, including logs of their practice sessions and reflections on that practice, and their performances to help them evaluate their strengths and areas for improvement. They are also encouraged to upload digitized files of their performances to the e-portfolio system so that, over the course of their four-year program, they will be able to review their work and see their own progress. Student self-evaluation and critique are essential in the development of musical skills for both performance and education; early results have shown it to be a very useful pedagogy. E-portfolios also enable students to assess their entire university education holistically. This system is an efficient method for both compiling work and exchanging assignments and information between professors and students. There is no need for the exchange of paper documents, and students can receive feedback quickly from their professor and/or peers.

For another 40 examples of innovative teaching in Ontario universities and colleges, see: Pockets of Innovation from Contact North


First, kudos to COU for showing that there is much more going on in Ontario universities than just boring lectures. Having examples of the ways campus-based institutions are integrating technology is always very useful.

Second, what does ‘innovative teaching’ really mean? Certainly, for those instructors who have developed these approaches, it will certainly be innovative. However, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Don’t get me going on clickers, for example. They are about as innovative as a caveman waving his club. For many readers of this blog, the reaction to some of these examples is likely to be a shrug of the shoulders; for some, it may reinforce your own ideas of where your teaching should go; for others it will, I hope, provide a spark that will lead to your own innovation in teaching.

Third, there were many other examples in this document of innovative teaching that did not involve any technology. They were about different pedagogical approaches (e.g. inquiry-based learning, applied and practical learning, and new ways of providing professional development.) This reinforces my view that just using technology is not innovative, even if the technology is new. It has to do something different and better, in terms of teaching and learning.

Just a couple of negative points. First, where were the formal evaluations of these projects? This is more an institutional responsibility. Innovations in teaching should be independently evaluated, and if successful, efforts should be made to spread the innovation beyond the innovator. Second, what is the institution’s overall strategy for supporting innovation? The COU says, as a body representing universities, that it supports innovation in teaching on principle, but moving beyond individual pockets of innovation to a culture of innovation across an institution needs more than a pat on the head as a strategy. Developing a strategy for innovation is a responsibility of senior academic management.

Nevertheless, it is good to see universities not only responding to the need for innovation in teaching and learning, but also letting everyone know what they are doing. We can all learn something from this document.

Teaching science via remote control

Stacey, P. (2011) Teaching science online Musings on the Ed Tech Frontier, October 6

This is a fascinating article about using remote web-based science labs for teaching high school and first year post-secondary science online.

Instead of simulating a lab or providing a lab kit for the distance education student to use at home, the Remote Web-based Science Lab allows students to perform experiments by remotely controlling real lab equipment over the Internet.

This reports on a major collaborative effort between Canadian and US universities and colleges, driven partly by the need for more science graduates and more access to laboratory methods. The article is extremely informative about the challenges and potential of teaching science online, with great online links and diagrams.

It also has some interesting observations about developing collaborative science open educational resources (which these science labs will be) and integrating them into existing curricula.

Required reading for anyone interested in teaching science or engineering online.


I really hope this project is successful and convincing. There is tremendous need for more science and engineering students worldwide and especially in developing countries access to modern labs is almost possible for many potential students.

The trick is to be clear as to what learning outcomes can and cannot be taught remotely. Increasingly real applications in engineering, medicine and science depend on remote operation, for safety and access reasons, so for such skills this kind of remote lab work will fit well. Also, many years ago, the Open University Science Foundation course team sat down and disaggregated the whole of the first year science curriculum, determining which skills needed to be taught hands-on through home experiment kits, what could be taught abstractly, through text, and what required demonstration only (to be delivered by television). This left a small component of the curriculum that needed to be taught through summer school at conventional university labs.

This suggest the need to be flexible, to look at more than one solution, but remote controlled labs have the potential to scale and to cover some core learning outcomes in science and engineering.

A gradual move to open-source textbooks

Rosenhall, L. (2010) Internet, cost spur textbook revolt Sacramento Bee, December 6

For those of you who don’t get the Sacramento Bee newspaper (you dont?!), this is an excellent article on the gradual move to open-source textbooks, and it also contains a short segment about ChemWiki. Lots of useful facts in this article about costs of textbooks.

Just damned good teaching

Kolowich, S. (2009) Professors of the Year Inside Higher Education, November 19

This article has nothing to do with e-learning, but it does discuss effective teaching practice, especially in chemistry. This approach could be used in hybrid or even fully online learning.