September 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.

MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer


This week I spent three days at the MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium) conference in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the theme: ‘Realizing the Dream: Education Becoming Available to All. Will the World take Advantage?’.

Because there is so much information that I would like to share, I am dividing this into two posts. This post will focus mainly on the activities reported from around the world, although many of these projects are related to or supported by MIT faculty and staff volunteers.

My second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic, will focus on what MIT is doing to support technology-enabled learning, mainly at home.

But first some words about the conference.


The Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) is an MIT-managed international initiative that began in 2001 and is operated by a growing team of MIT faculty, student and staff volunteers. 

The mission of the LINC project is: With today’s computer and telecommunications technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth or wealth of parents.

LINC was the brain-child of Richard Larson, Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.

The conference

LINC 2013 was the sixth conference on this theme organized by MIT. It presented a range of topics, technologies and strategies for technology-enabled learning for developing countries, and raised a number of questions about the implementation of learning technologies within developing countries. There were over 300 participants from 49 countries.

The conference was supported by MIT, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Fujitsu, enabling many participants from developing countries to be supported in their travel and accommodation.

I report below just a selection of the many sessions around the theme of technology-supported education in or for developing countries, and I apologize that for space reasons, I can’t give a full report on all the sessions.


The conference started with a session on four perspectives on MOOCs, with four speakers making short 20 minute presentations followed by a Q&A panel with the four speakers fielding questions from the audience. I was one of the speakers in this session, and because the session deserves a whole report on its own, I discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Sufficient here to say that Sir John Daniel made a point reinforced by speakers in other sections that open and virtual universities have been delivering mass credit-based open learning in developing countries for many decades before MOOCs arrived.

The state of technology-enabled education around the world

The future direction of virtual universities

John Daniel’s point was picked up in this session, when Presidents/Rectors from Tec de Monterrey’s Virtual University in Mexico, the African Virtual University, and the Virtual University of Pakistan described the activities of their institutions. In each case, these projects are reaching very large numbers of students in their own countries or region (around 100,000 each), but each institution has its own sets of challenges as well, especially in reaching the very poor or disadvantaged. However, each of these institutions seems to have a sustainable funding base which promises well for the future.

Bakary Diallo, Rector, African Virtual University

Reaching poor young men in Latin America

Fernando Reimers, the Director of the International Education Policy Program at Harvard, discussed the challenges that youth face in developing countries, particularly adolescent boys and young men, who are turned off by traditional teaching methods that neither fit their learning styles nor prepare them for the skills and knowledge needed in today’s workforce. He pointed out that less than 1% of the poorest 10% in Brazil have Internet access. (Similarly, in Mexico, less than 5% of socio-economic groups C, D and E currently have Internet access, and these three groups constitute almost two-thirds of the population.)

National educational policies and educational reform

Robin Horn discussed a World Bank project, SABER, which stands for A Systems Approach to Better Educational Results. The World Bank has found that often educational reform initiatives fail to gain traction in many countries because they do not align with existing government policies (or put another way, without changing policies, the reforms will not gain traction.) By looking at countries that have successful educational outcomes, and comparing their policies with the policies in other developing countries, it is hoped to identify barriers to educational reform. One example is telecommunications policies. An over-regulated, government controlled access to bandwidths can lead to high Internet costs due to lack of competition, whereas loose or unregulated government policies allow for competition resulting in both increased access and lower Internet costs (Canadian government: please note). Mike Trucano at the World Bank is identifying policies that appear to facilitate or inhibit the application of learning technologies in developing countries and this will be added to SABER in the near future.

The SABER website is packed full of data and analysis and makes fascinating reading for policy aficionados, and certainly my experience is that in all countries (not just developing countries) government policies do have a major influence on innovation and change in education. However, at the same time, ‘top-down’ strategies for increasing the use of learning technologies rarely work (South Korea may be an example of this – see below). In other words, government policies can foster or inhibit educational reform, but the reforms themselves will often have to come from or be supported by those close to the action, the teachers, parents and other stakeholders who will gain most from the changes.

Reaching the poor through educational TV in Brazil

Lúcia Araújo, the CEO of Canal Futura, an educational television network in Brazil, described the extensive use of ‘open source’ educational television and support materials that are being used by teachers throughout Brazil to support their classroom teaching. The programs are freely accessible through public television stations throughout Brazil, and almost 100% of homes in Brazil have access to television, a reminder that in many countries there are still better alternatives than the Internet to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged.

Online universities in Korea and SE Asia

Okwha Lee from Chungbuk National University in South Korea gave an overview of national educational technology developments in South Korea. In terms of sheer scale of online learning South Korea is one of the world’s leaders, with 21 cyber or online universities alone serving over 100,000 Korean students. The South Korean government plays a heavy hand in financing and managing national educational technology initiatives, through KERIS (the Korean Education and Research Information Service), and some of its centralization of data collection and top-down policies have provoked both hunger strikes and a national teachers’ strikes. South Korea has also invested in the ASEAN cyber university, which will include students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mynmar, with plans to extend it later to other ASEAN countries. Initially students will access programs through local e-learning centres.

Using Intranets to lower the cost of online learning in Africa

Cliff Missen, Director of the WiderNet Project and eGranary, gave a fascinating talk based around access to online learning in Africa. The WiderNet Project is a nonprofit organization, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that is dedicated to improving digital communications to all communities and individuals around the world in need of educational resources, knowledge, and training. Cliff Missen’s focus was on the high cost of Internet access for learners in developing countries, pointing out that while mobile phones are widespread in Africa, they operate on very narrow bandwidths. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Programs requiring extensive bandwidth, such as video lectures, are therefore prohibitively expensive for most Africans.

The WiderNet solution is the development of local Intranets linked to an extensive local library of open educational resources, the e-Granary project. The eGranary Digital Library — “The Internet in a Box” — is an off-line information store that provides instant access to over 30 million Internet resources to institutions lacking adequate Internet access. Through a process of copying web sites (with permission) and delivering them to partner institutions in developing countries, this digital library delivers instant access to a wide variety of educational resources including video, audio, books, journals, and Web sites. This means setting up local servers and terminals, and even building a small wireless station to cover the surrounding community, but not necessarily linked into the wider Internet. This cuts down substantially on the cost of accessing digital educational resources.

MIT BLOSSOMS: Math and Science Video Lessons for High School Classes

This project has developed over 60 short videos to enrich science and math high school lessons, all freely available to teachers as streaming video and Internet downloads and as DVDs and videotapes. The videos are made in short sections, with stopping points for student and teacher activities built into the videos and supported by the teachers’ guide to each video

What makes this program particularly interesting is that many of the videos have been developed in developing countries, through partnerships between MIT and local schools and teachers, and with local presenters, often from high schools themselves. The videos are of high quality, both in terms of content, which is guaranteed by oversight from MIT professors, and in production quality. There is a strong emphasis in relating science and math to everyday life. For examples see: How Mosquitoes Fly in Rain (made in the USA) and Pythagoras and the Juice Seller (made in Jordan).

As a result, these videos are also being increasingly used by schools in the USA as well as by schools in developing countries. Although some of the programs are made in the native language of the country where they are made, they are also provided with English sub-titles or with also a voice-over version. By developing programs with local teachers, programs can be fully integrated within the national curriculum, and MIT BLOSSOMS team has also shown how each video relates to individual US state curricula.

What MIT is doing in technology-enabled learning

This session focused on MIT’s other activities in technology-enabled learning. I will discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Parallel sessions

In addition to the above plenary sessions there were also 72 presentations, each of roughly ten minutes, in parallel sessions. I cannot possibly report on them all, but I will report on two that I found really interesting .

Taylor’s University, a private university in Malaysia, is using the iPad for teaching foundational engineering. The iPads are used to access  iBooks and electronic study materials that have been specially developed by the School of Engineering to support and enhance the students’ learning. Many of the animations and applications were specially developed by final year undergraduate students, working with their professor, Mushtak Al-Atabi. There is a video on YouTube that includes a good demonstration of how the iPad is used.

The second was presented by Ahmed Ibrahim in behalf of a team of researchers from McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada. They investgated through interviews “sources of knowledge” for students entering a gateway science course. The found that the most common source of ‘physics’ knowledge for the students is the teacher, followed by the textbook and other sources such as the Internet – what the researchers called testimony. Few students used deduction, induction or experimentation as means to ‘verify’ their knowledge. Thus the students did not feel empowered to be able to generate valid physics knowledge by themselves and  they have to turn to experts for it. In other words students are taught about science, rather than doing science, in high schools. They concluded that instructors need to use instructional methods, and activities that promote deeper learning, more conceptual knowledge construction, and more sophisticated epistemological beliefs. In other words, stay away from information transmission and focus on activities that encourage scientific thinking. Although this is a general finding (and based on a very small sample), it is significant for what I have to say in my next post about MOOCs and teaching science.


This was one of the most interesting conferences I have been to for a long time. It brought together practitioners in using technology-enabled learning, primarily in science, math and engineering, from a wide range of countries. As a result there was a wide range of approaches, from the highly ‘engineering-based’ approach of MIT with a focus on advanced or new technologies such as MOOCs, to practitioners tackling the challenges of lack of access to or the high cost of the Internet in many developing countries.

In particular, Internet access remains a major challenge, even in newly emerging countries with dynamic economies, such as Brazil, Mexico, and India, especially for reaching beyond the relatively wealthy middle classes. Even in economically advanced countries such as Canada, wideband access, needed for video-lecture based MOOCs for instance, is problematic for many disadvantaged groups such as the urban poor or for remote aboriginal reserves.

I was therefore interested to see that non-Internet based technologies such as radio, broadcast television or DVDs are still immensely valuable technologies for reaching the poor and disadvantaged in developing countries, as are Internet-linked local learning centres and/or Intranets.

Lastly, despite nearly 80 years of aid to developing countries, finding technology-enabled solutions to increasing access to education that are long-term and sustainable remains a challenge, especially when the aid is generated and organized from developed countries such as the USA and Canada. Local partnerships, cultural adaptation, use of appropriate, low-cost technologies, teacher education, and institutional and government policy changes are all needed if technology transfer is to work.

However, there is clear evidence from this conference that in many developing or economically emerging countries, there are local individuals and institutions finding local and appropriate ways to use technology to support learning. It will often start in the more affluent schools or in universities, but as the Internet gradually widens its spread, it begins to filter down to lower income groups as well. Indeed, in some areas, such as mobile learning in Africa, there is innovation and development taking place that exceeds anything in the developed world, in terms of originality and spread amongst the poor and disadvantaged.

The MIT group behind LINC has done a great service in providing a means for participants from both developed and developing countries to share experience and knowledge in this area.


A short critique of the Khan Academy

Bean, E. (2012) Wrath of Khan?: Deconstructing the online learning academy Detroit Web 2.0 Examiner, March 12

Eric Bean is an educator who has signed up as a coach/volunteer for the Khan Academy. The Khan Academy has a library of over 3,000 videos covering everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, and history and 315 practice exercises, all free. The focus is mainly on k-12, supporting home schooling or providing additional support for students outside (and sometimes inside) school.

Bean has a number of criticisms from the point of view of a ‘coach’. (Interesting use of language here by the Khan Academy: why not teacher or tutor or instructor? Is there a difference in Salman Khan’s mind, and if so, what is it?) Bean’s main criticism is that the interface and navigation for coaches is poor, especially compared to the student interface.

I have another criticism. As someone who struggles with math, the Khan Academy would seem perfect for me. My problem though is I don’t know where to begin. Just jumping at random into a video suddenly makes me aware that I need lots of prior knowledge before I can understand this video, but there’s no help on that. Also, where’s the feedback? If I still don’t understand after watching the video several times and doing the exercises, what do I do?

Both Bean’s criticism and my confusion are clear indications of the value of good learning design, and the need for structure and management in learning. As a resource that can be embedded within such a managed structure, I can see that the Khan videos can be very useful. Also they will be invaluable for a student who has gone to a lesson in school and not really understood it, so long as he/she can find a video and recognize that it deals with the problem he/she is struggling with. The videos may also provide help to instructors who themselves are a little shaky in the topic (and there are plenty of those in math and physics teaching). And having available dynamic audio-visual teaching materials on demand for free is great.

However, with a little more effort, the Khan Academy could be so much more. Providing a coherent route through the material would be an enormous help. (This could also be said of iTunes U, incidentally, which is a mess in terms of organization of material). Connecting me to a ‘live’ coach or volunteer would also be helpful. I get the feeling that both the Khan Academy and i Tunes U are more about supply and ‘push’ of resources, rather than looking at the service from both the learner’s and the instructor’s viewpoint. Do I hear the word ‘instructional designer’? Where is learning theory in all this? It’s as if 100 years of research on learning has just gone down the toilet.

So, please don’t argue that the Khan Academy or ITunes U are alternatives to conventional education; both are valuable collections of content that still need to be incorporated within a broader structure that supports learning. Unfortunately their success – in terms of use – shows how often that supporting structure is lacking or insufficient for many learners.



Pedagogical roles for video in online learning

This video is taken from OpenLearn's free Maths unit ` Modelling with first order differential equations `. The full unit is available for free at

The underuse of video in post-secondary online learning

Video is not being used enough in online learning in post-secondary education. When used it is often an afterthought or an ‘extra’, rather than an integral part of the design, or is used merely to replicate a classroom lecture, rather than exploiting the unique characteristics of video.

Many universities and colleges for many years before the advent of the Internet had audio-visual production facilities. With the possible exception of medicine and related health areas, they were generally poorly used, with the focus often being on replicating lectures through video or audio conferencing, rather than creating videos that provided a different role from a lecture. One reason was the high cost of the equipment: cameras, editing facilities, and the time it took to make a professional product. However, in recent years the cost of making video has dropped dramatically, particularly regarding equipment, although high quality production sill requires professionally trained production staff.


Why is video underused?

One can speculate on the reasons for the low use of video in higher education teaching, despite the much lower cost:

  • university education is primarily about abstraction, and text is considered more appropriate for abstraction, general principles, and meta-knowledge
  • it is too expensive or too much work for faculty
  • instructors’ experience of higher education is primarily text-based so they are not aware of the potential of video for teaching

I should make it clear I don’t agree with the first two reasons, but they are ones I have heard used by instructors when video has been suggested. Ironically it should be noted that Socrates (as represented by Plato) disapproved of writing (and hence text) as ‘false knowledge’; in Socrates’ view, ‘true’ knowledge could be acquired only through oral communication, and in particular dialogue. It is hard to let go of previous experience when faced with new media.


Video on the Internet

One of the many unique features of the Internet is that it incorporates multiple media forms such as text, still graphics, audio, video, animation and simulations. Each of these media forms enable knowledge to be represented in different ways, and perhaps more importantly, enable different forms of interaction with learners. Despite the obvious importance of this, there is very little research about the relationship between different media formats and online learning on which to base design decisions.

If anyone knows of research focused on the role of different media within the Internet for teaching, I’d be pleased to hear about it.


Researching the unique characteristics of video

In the meantime, I am going to draw on some pretty old research that my research team and I did when at the British Open University, where courses were deliberately designed with print, audio (both in the form of broadcast radio and specially designed audio cassettes), and video (mainly broadcast television).

The broadcast programs were made by the BBC, whose producers had degrees in the subject matter  that they were making programs for, as well as being trained as broadcast producers with a focus on exploiting the strengths of the media in which they were working.

At the same time, my research team not only interviewed faculty and BBC producers, but also conducted interviews and focus groups with students about how they made use of the media within their studies. From this research, we developed guidelines for the Open University’s Broadcast and Audio-Visual Sub-Committee based on the advantages of television and audio over printed text and home experiment kits. The list was first published in Bates (1984), and reproduced in Bates (2005).



1.         To demonstrate experiments or experimental situations, particularly:

(a)         where equipment or phenomena to be observed are large, microscopic, expensive, inaccessible, dangerous or difficult to observe without special equipment (thanks to Clint Lalonde for directing me to the video example)

(b)         where the experimental design is complex

(c)         where the measurement of experimental behaviour is not easily reduced to a single scale or dimension (e.g. human behaviour)

(d)         where the experimental behaviour may be influenced by uncontrollable but observable variables

2.         To illustrate principles involving dynamic change or movement

3.         To illustrate abstract principles through the use of specially constructed physical models

4.         To illustrate principles involving three-dimensional space

5.         To use animated, slow-motion, or speeded-up video to demonstrate changes over time

6.         To teach certain advanced scientific or technological concepts (such as theories of relativity or quantum physics) without students having to master highly advanced mathematical techniques, through the use of models and/or animation

7.         To substitute for a field visit, to:

(a)         provide students with an accurate, comprehensive visual picture of the site, in order to place their study in context

(b)         to demonstrate the relationship between different elements of the system being viewed (e.g. production processes, ecological balance)

(c)         to assist students to differentiate between different classes or categories of phenomena in situ

(d)          to observe differences in scale and process between laboratory and mass-production techniques

8.         To bring students primary resource or case-study material, i.e. recording of naturally occurring events which, through editing and selection, demonstrate or illustrate principles covered elsewhere in the course. This may be used in several ways:

(a)         to enable students to recognize naturally occurring phenomena or classifications (e.g. teaching strategies, mental disorders, classroom behaviour) in context

(b)         to enable students to analyse a situation, using principles covered elsewhere in the course; or to test students ability to analyse phenomena in context

(c)         to demonstrate ways in which abstract principles or concepts developed elsewhere in the course have been applied to real-world problems

9.         To demonstrate decision-making processes:

(a)         by recording the decision-making process as it occurs

(b)         by dramatization

(c)         by simulation or role-playing

10.         To change student attitudes:

(a)         by presenting material in a novel or unfamiliar perspective

(b)         by presenting material in a dramatized form, enabling students to identify with someone with a different perspective

11.         To demonstrate methods or techniques of performance (e.g. mechanical skills such as stripping and re-assembling a carburetor)

12.         To interpret artistic performance (e.g. drama, spoken poetry, movies, paintings, sculpture, or other works of art)

13.         To analyse through a combination of sounds and graphics the structure of music

14.         To teach sketching, drawing or painting techniques

15.         To demonstrate the way in which instruments or tools can be used; to demonstrate the skills of craftsmen

16.         To record and archive events that are crucial to the course, but which may disappear or be destroyed in the near future (e.g. Internet reportage of the Arab Spring)

17.         To demonstrate practical activities to be carried out later by students

18.         To synthesize, summarize or condense contextually and media rich information relevant to the course.

It should be noted that such applications would normally include some text, still graphics and probably an audio commentary within the video, and the video would usually be linked to other media, such as text in web pages.

The video at the start of this post could be considered an example of application (2) –  To illustrate principles involving dynamic change or movement, but might also fit other applications.


A challenge

I started to provide links from each application to actual examples on the web, but in some cases, I did not have the subject knowledge to be sure that the example really worked. So the challenge is:

Can you provide a link to an open educational resource that would be in your view an excellent example of any of the above applications of video?

Here are some criteria I will be applying for inclusion:

  • the example is well produced (clear camera work, good presenter, clear audio)
  • it is short and to the point
  • it demonstrates clearly a particular topic or subject and links it to what the student is intended to learn.

I have to say that most of the examples I found on the Internet do NOT meet all three of these criteria! The video highlighted at the start of this post does, but then it is produced for the Open University. Can university in-house media departments meet this standard? I believe that some do, but I need examples!

Once chosen, I will add the link with an acknowledgement to whoever provides me with the link. In the meantime, I will look for my own examples.

My second set of questions is perhaps more of a challenge:

This list was developed initially from broadcast television.

How well do these functions apply to the use of video on the Internet? 

Are there other educational applications of video on the Internet that are not on this list?

Let’s make this an opportunity for upgrading the extent and the quality of video in online learning.



Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables (out of print – try a good library)

Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge


Models for Selecting and Using Media and Technology: 6


This post is no. 6 in the series. The others are:

  1. The challenge,
  2. A (very) brief history of educational technology,
  3. Broadcast or communicative?
  4. Synchronous or asynchronous?
  5. Media or technology?
  6. Pedagogical roles for video in online learning
  7. Pedagogical roles for audio in online learning

Rice University develops free online physics textbooks

Smith, M. (2010) Why Pay for Intro Textbooks? Inside Higher Education, February 7

Rice University, using the Connexions platform, is offering online Introductory Physics textbooks for free, through the non-profit publisher OpenStax College.

The books are peer reviewed, and could save students up to US$90 million a year in the USA, if they are adopted by university and college instructors. In the next five years, OpenStax hopes to have free books for 20 of the most common college courses, across a range of subjects.


Will this revolutionize the textbook industry? It will depend on a number of factors:

  • the ‘absolute’ quality of the textbooks – are they instructionally well designed books with good physics?
  • the ‘perceived’ quality of the textbooks – will instructors accept open access publishing?
  • whether a sustainable business model can be developed. The cost of hiring the content experts and editing was covered by grants from at least four major US foundations. ‘Accessories’ to the main text books can also be purchased by students. But is this a sustainable business model? Only time will tell.
  • if successful, will this limit the range of textbooks for some subjects, and thus reduce choice for instructors and students – or will it have the opposite affect?

In the meantime, this is definitely a good day for physics students.