It’s not just a case of creating a set of clever applications; it’s about creating an underlying supporting structure and establishing a world of experts. The whole social dynamic and the buzz of being part of a larger scientific enterprise are key ingredients.
Professor Stephen Swithenby
Innovation in teaching, learning and assessment was the focus of Science Omega.com
’s recent conversation with Professor Mike Sharples
from the Institute of Educational Technology. If there is one initiative which exemplifies the forward-looking approach described by Professor Sharples, it is the Open University’s Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory.
With the help of a £1 million grant from The Wolfson Foundation, a charitable trust which aims to ‘support excellence’ mainly through funding for infrastructure projects, the OpenScience Laboratory is being developed as an international virtual hub for practical science education.
The lab will utilise the latest advances in technology and pedagogy to provide a teaching and research facility available not just to Open University (OU) students and staff, but to as many people as possible worldwide. There are four main aspects to the project: remote access to observatories and laboratories; virtual laboratories and instruments; online field investigations; and citizen science.
I asked Professor Steve Swithenby, director of the OU’s eSTEeM centre and co-director of the evolving OpenScience Laboratory, why the time now seems to be ripe for a project of this kind.
"You tend to find that, if you have a good idea, you can recognise it because other people are doing similar things."
It is not just rapid advances in technology that have inspired the laboratory, which brings together many existing initiatives but also goes above and beyond assembling a ‘folder of applications’. Professor Swithenby outlined the fundamental shifts in the practice of science and scientific research that have enabled and even encouraged a transition to the virtual medium as far as education is concerned.
"At one time, being a scientist very definitely meant putting on a white coat, going into a laboratory and fiddling with meters and glassware," he said. "If you walk around a research lab now, the large majority of people will be looking at screens. Many instruments are controlled through computers and actuating motors rather than direct physical manipulation. Once it’s played through a screen it really doesn’t matter whether you are a yard away, a mile away or a thousand miles away. The screen is the reality; it’s the working interface.
"The nature of being a scientist – the way in which one operates as a scientist – has fundamentally changed. It seems reasonable that this should be reflected in the way that we teach people."
While there are obvious advantages to online or remote access to instruments and laboratories – especially considering the lack of resources and funds to establish physical facilities in many parts of the world – Professor Swithenby acknowledged that it is important to recognise the balance which exists between practical science and virtual science.
Certain disciplines and areas of research remain where a hands-on approach is still applicable, for example in synthetic chemistry. However, the number of areas where direct physical manipulation is required is relatively limited nowadays, and so ideas continue to spring up which push the boundaries of what is possible with new technology and global lines of communication.
There is no black-and-white distinction or rule that says a pupil’s or a student’s imagination cannot be sparked in virtual reality as well as physical reality, Professor Swithenby was keen to emphasise.
"You can show kids of any age something that might seem relatively mundane to you as a professional scientist, and they are wowed. Although great excitement can be derived from being physically present, such ‘aha’ moments are possible online too."
He gave the Out There, In Here
project, which links groups ‘out there’ doing fieldwork with corresponding groups in a home base, as an example, saying:
"Many of our students have commented that it is actually more exciting being in the home base than being in the field, because it’s like being in mission control while your minions are sent out to gather the data."
The ambition of the OpenScience Laboratory lies in its form and structure as much as in its content. Far from being simply a collection of instruments or applications, the aim is to augment the use of existing technology and techniques via a kind of professional social network. The idea is to establish the virtual equivalent of the communal ‘home lab’ experience that conventional students or postgraduates would have at a university or higher education institution.
"We wanted to create a space where people can come together to work on individual or collaborative projects," Professor Swithenby stated. "It’s not just a case of creating a set of clever applications; it’s about creating an underlying supporting structure and establishing a world of experts. The whole social dynamic and the buzz of being part of a larger scientific enterprise are key ingredients."
The Open University obviously has considerable experience in teaching and learning from a distance, and so some contributory aspects of the laboratory project are already relatively well-developed. The virtual microscope for earth sciences
is one example of an application that has covered significant ground in recent years and which the OU are looking to push in new directions – or further dimensions, with the advent of 3D microscopy. The virtual microscope for pathology and histology
is also under development.
"You can now go to our virtual microscopes and interrogate a slide with all the interactive functionality of a physical microscope," Professor Swithenby enthused. "The great part is that you can gain access to all the best collections in the world, and you can get all the best quality slides, whether it’s rock from the Moon or a rare infection from Central America.
"All of these specimens can be made instantly available to any student, anywhere in the world. Not only that, but we’ll be building in authoring facilities so that if somebody has a collection they want to use with their students they can incorporate it. The facility will then gradually become a world microscopy collection with not just a teaching but a research function."
Remote control of instruments and observatories, for astronomy for instance, provides access to real data for from real equipment.
"We are commissioning a radio telescope to go with the two optical telescopes that are already operational. There you’ll book your viewing time and get your data by driving the observatory remotely, as you would with any other standard central facility."
In a similar vein, virtual experiments that can be controlled by students are being created using data captured from real experiments under all possible experimental conditions. The data is stored so that students can replay it in real time while monitoring and controlling the conditions. These are not just physical or chemical experiments, as Professor Swithenby pointed out.
"The virtual lab rat is an exciting development. Real data has been recorded from a large number of laboratory animals under different feeding and living conditions, so the researcher can go to their virtual animal house and experiment on those rats under those conditions. The data played back is the real data relevant to the rats you’ve picked up. This obviously has some ethical advantages, and it’s not simulated; this is real data with all its messiness and confusions."
The effort to bring people together in and through scientific enquiry can take place on an unprecedented scale with the use of interactive modern technology and social networking. Research and teaching can be effectively linked with public engagement.
"We are trying to break down the barriers between people who are labelled as scientists or science students and people actually doing science," as Professor Swithenby put it.
The growth in popularity of citizen science is reflected by initiatives such as iSpot
– a means to identify natural phenomena which encourages participatory learning via social networking – and the project which has been christened ‘Treezilla’.
"Treezilla is the monster map of trees and the idea is based on the totally ludicrous aspiration of mapping every tree on the planet. We obviously can’t do this, but we can make a start."
A commitment has been made to ensure that at least 20 per cent of the lab’s materials and content is open access, but the ambition is to make as much as possible freely available to students, teachers and practitioners of science the world over. According to Professor Swithenby, the only caveat is that the OpenScience Laboratory cannot continue to rely on funding from generous charities, but must become self-sufficient if it is to be a success.
"We have to be able to operate and so we will need at some point to derive some revenue from it. We continue to work on what that model will be. It’s effectively a not-for-profit enterprise, but to exist it has to be not-for-loss either."