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.

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.


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.

Online learning and distance education are alive and well in Argentina

Traditional dance and costumes

Traditional dance and costumes

RUEDA (Red Universitaria de Educación a Distancia d’Argentina) is a network of 42 public universities across Argentina.

This week I attended their sixth annual international conference on distance education at the National University of Cuyo in Mendoza, close to the Andes in one of the world’s major wine regions.

Distance education in Argentina

Distance and online education has been growing rapidly in Argentina since 1997. Until then, government regulations had severely limited credit-based university distance education.

There are many similarities between Canada and Argentina. Both have very large land masses with a relatively small population (Argentina’s population is roughly 40 million), with some areas of very high density (especially the Buenos Aires region, with nearly one third of the population) and the rest of the population scattered over a very large area. Distance education therefore seems intuitively a sensible solution.

Because of language challenges (no habla espanyol), I was unable to talk to as many people at the conference as I would have liked, but here are some of the main institutions offering distance education programs (my apologies to those that I have missed – any corrections welcome):

  • Universidad de Quilmes (near Buenos Aires) and the Universidad de Buenos Aires: both these universities have several thousand distance education students
  • The National University of Patagonia Austral, which covers a huge, sparsely populated area stretching as far as Tierra del Fuego
  • The University of the Air Force, which started as a purely military university, but whose student body is now nearly 90% non-military; the Army also has a large distance education operation.

Most of the RUEDA members use primarily online learning for distance education, with Moodle as their learning management system.

Of particular interest, the Universidad de Buenos Aires Department of Physics is planning to start using remote labs next academic year as part of its distance teaching program (contact: Mg. Ema Elena Aveleyra:

The conference

There were almost 300 participants from across Argentina.

The conference focused on the impact of the convergence of technology on education. The international speakers were:

  • Dr. Dolors Reig, a freelance professor and consultant in social media from Catalonia, Spain, and the author of a highly influential Spanish language blog, El Caparazón, who spoke on the theme of how knowledge is constructed in a digital world (?Como conocemos hoy?)
  • Dr. Nelson Pretto, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil, and a specialist in education, communication and culture, who spoke on the theme of how to select, design and develop an educational environment with digital technologies
  • myself, who spoke on the theme of how institutions should respond to emerging challenges in education in times of convergence of technology. I focused particularly on the challenge of effectively managing learning technologies. If you want a copy of my slides (in English), send me an e-mail: and I will send you an invitation to download the slides via Dropbox.

There were many parallel sessions, where papers were presented and the main themes of the conference were discussed. Unfortunately I was unable to benefit from these because of my lack of Spanish.

Los Remolinos: a group of university music professors provide a carnival atmosphere at the conference

Los Remolinos: a group of university music professors provide a carnival atmosphere at the conference

Overall impression

It is perhaps not surprising that a conference in Argentina would include not only the usual social events such as a wine reception and dinner, but also music and dancing.

There was a tremendous camaraderie and sense of energy and enthusiasm among the participants, a phenomenon I have noticed elsewhere when distance educators from different institutions get together.

There was also an interesting concern to integrate technology with teaching in an ‘Argentinian’ way that respected the national culture and values. Hence there was some concern about ‘international’ developments such as MOOCs that have a mainly North American and ‘proselytizing’ perspective (we know what’s good for you, and it’s us).

I have merely touched on what is going on in online and distance education in Argentina, but connections have been made, and I hope to follow up on this. In the meantime, any further information on distance education from you, the readers of this blog (and I know now that are are quite a few in Argentina), will be most welcome.

Lastly, if you are a betting person and are interested in soccer, I’d put my money on Argentina for the World Cup in 2014. They were very impressive against Peru on Friday, even without Lionel Messi and several other star players, and they will not be far from home in Brazil.

Can you teach lab science via remote labs?

Colorado Community College's remote lab: in the background is an air-track for physics, in the middle a spectrometer for chemistry and in the foreground a microscope for biology

Contact North (2013) The Colorado Community College System Sudbury ON: Contact North

Contact North has been developing a series of posts on institutions that are ‘game-changers’ in online learning. The latest describes the Colorado Community College System’s use of remote labs for teaching experimental science in first year college physics, chemistry and biology courses.

Remote labs are different from simulations in that students conduct experiments in real time by controlling lab equipment from their computer desktop. Through the use of video cameras (which a student can control remotely), students can observe the experimental conditions in real time, control the equipment from their desktop, and download the data from the experiments to their computers during the experiment. There is usually a lab technician present who helps set up the equipment, but students are responsible for operating the equipment, collecting data, and interpreting the results.

Student’s computer screen: top right is what the student sees through the microscope, bottom right are control buttons for the microscope image, and top left are control buttons for moving the microscope in different directions

In the Colorado Community College system, all 13 colleges have a common first and second year science curriculum. The remote labs currently constitute about 10% of the experimental work required but could grow to as much as 30-50% as more equipment and more experiments are added. There is a booking system and students can usually complete an experiment in 30 minutes. Currently there are approximately 50 students doing physics experiments this way, 100 doing chemistry, and 200 doing biology experiments per semester. Most of these students require foundational science courses in order to take professional programs in health or similar fields. For students taking first year science courses online, the rest of the experiments are done using home kits.

The advantage of the remote labs is that students can work together in real time, if remotely, and can access more expensive or higher quality equipment (such as more powerful microscopes) than they could get in a home kit or even in a small college’s physical lab.

The project has received major funding within the USA, but the main costs in developing the web-based software to operate the equipment and to design the student interface has now been done, enabling more equipment and more experiments to be added at a much lower cost. The project is now intending to expand further remote lab nodes in British Columbia and Montana and these nodes will serve students in other states such as Alaska and Wyoming.

Are remote labs ‘real’ science?

The remote labs were originally developed by instructors in two small colleges in British Columbia, North Island College and the College of the Rockies. However, in BC, science instructors in the colleges are not using the remote labs, and in Colorado, the universities have not yet accepted remote-lab online science courses for credit transfer.

Thus ‘mainline’ science instructors are questioning whether experiments conducted remotely are ‘real’ science. Having personally observed the remote experiments being conducted, I am surprised by this. Students can see and do as much if not more than they would conducting the same experiment in a physical lab. Perhaps even more importantly, major breakthroughs in science, such as the Mars Rover and the Hadron Collider at CERN, depend essentially on remote control and sensing. Furthermore, the existing remote experiments constitute less than 10% of the experimental curriculum, far too small an amount to raise objections about credit transfer or articulation, especially since these students are not going on to become research scientists.

The objections of science instructors to remotely controlled labs reminds me of how the teaching of laboratory science was invented. In the 1860s neither Oxford nor Cambridge University were willing to teach empirical science. Thomas Huxley therefore developed a program at the Royal School of Mines (a constituent college of what is now Imperial College, of the University of London) to teach school-teachers how to teach science, including how to design laboratories for teaching experimental science to school children, a method that is still used today, both in schools and universities. Science teaching today is (ironically) not God-given but an artifact created in the context of the 19th century. Remote labs are not something less than ‘real science’, but an extension of basic scientific method to the context of today. Get with it, scientists.