As part of the OU’s 50th anniversary next year I’m going to be giving a lecture on aspects of open education. As well as the obvious, I think there are means of opening up education that get overlooked or forgotten in the new interpretations.
An example of such is virtual, or remote field trips and laboratory work. At the OU we have an assortment of such approaches, including the OpenStem labs, a virtual microscope, and fieldcasts. This latter activity is the focus of this post. We have always conducted residential schools, but these are increasingly costly and difficult for students to attend, and there can be issues around accessibility. So the team of Philip Wheeler, Julia Cooke and Kadmiel Maseyk. As they state, their challenge was “How do we convey the interest, excitement and challenges of finding things out in the field when students are miles away?”.
Virtual field trips is one answer, for example the OU have developed a Virtual Skiddaw app. Another approach is a solution that involved broadcasting live from aa field trip with academics, and splitting this across different segments. The students at home could then devise hypotheses and interact with the academics on site, engaging in real time discovery. Philip puts it like this “We separated the key pedagogic element of fieldwork (essentially learning alongside students in an inherently variable/uncertain environment) from the actual physical act of being outside. Retaining the former was important, the latter less so.”
The technology set-up wasn’t without issues, and it took someone with the expertise of Trevor Collins to pull all the bits together. But the tech is at a stage where we can do this, at high quality (rather than just one person on their iPhone), without needing to call in the BBC and break the bank. That makes it a much more viable option for a range of courses. With about 80 students in each session, the feedback was almost universally positive, students found it interesting, fun, valuable to their studies and felt like they were genuinely involved.
As well as being a neat, practical, beneficial application of technology, the reason I like this approach is that it reminds us that ‘open education’ is not always about licences. These field trips aren’t ‘open’ in the sense that anyone could join them (they are available to registered students on the course). But they are definitely about opening up the experience of field trips, and more significantly the engagement with scientific process. I think sometimes these very real and powerful applications of what openness in education means get overlooked in the more content focused, silicon valley flavoured interpretations.