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Reflecting on Visual Culture and Virtual Science

by Ronald Macintyre (OEPS project)

On the face of things this post is all about the links to the report and a paper presented at #OER15 on a pilot we conducted on the use of the OU developed Wolfson funded platform OpenScienceLab within Scottish Secondary Schools. The pilot looked at how a range of virtual experiments developed by the OU which, thanks to the Wolfson Foundation funding, have been released openly (82 at present) would work in the school classroom. We found they did work, that materials developed for self directed distance learners were effective in the classroom if properly contextualised, you can find the report here: Open Science Case Study . The most obvious thing to do in a post is to provide the reader with a summary of the report, and perhaps some informal insights into the process. Instead I thought I would take a complete departure and use this post to reflect on things largely absent from those texts, thoughts and reflections on the nature of virtual experiments and simulations and educational practice, questions that tend to arise when walking the dog along the shore below my house, when I am away from my own portal to the “outside world”.

Sir William Herschel's forty-foot telescope at slough.  Source:

Sir William Herschel’s forty-foot telescope at slough. Image source:

Observation is a key component of the process of scientific enquiry, science progress’s through empirical observation, at least in normative accounts anyway. One need only reflect on the importance of the magnifying lens, think of Herschel, whose status owes a great deal to his ability to manufacture powerful telescopes. As science “progressed” we shift from the eye itself as a data collection tool to representing things we cannot “see”. Geographers have often been very good at exploring what it means to move from the observational science based on what has been observed to representations of physical phenomena, the map itself being the first thing that comes to mind. But geographers have long understood that like Jorge Luis Borges famous short story of the map maker who seeks a 1:1 representation, the map is not the territory. It is an interpretation, and what is encoded within that representation tells us not just about the physical phenomena but also about the social and cultural aspects. The touchstone for a lot of this work is at the OU – Gillian Rose, see a recent article here. Just as things are encoded within images so the viewer’s perspective also changes. We can look back at the painting from the Medici period and see one thing, we probably have a sense that others see something different. We might argue that there is a “Period Eye” , and the meaning of images appears to change over time and between places while the image stays the same.

Why am I talking about art, why am I talking about the interpretive space between the viewer and the image. Perhaps it is because I am not sure how far apart Art and Science are, both seek to make sense to interpret, uncover and make visible the world, and both arise from and are embedded in social and cultural practices. Kuhn’s  work on the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” highlights the social and cultural embedded nature of scientific enquiry, in particular his work on paradigm shifts shows the relationship between empirical observations and the acceptance of scientific theories is not straightforward. More recent work on Post Normal Science attempts to make visible the relationships between scientific enquiry, the public and private sector influence on science, and how science operates in the world.

This blog is not the place to explore all these threads, all I am suggesting is that visualising scientific data it not neutral and is itself a creative endeavour. Here, rather than a cartographers pen and considerations of the link between colonialism and representation, or analogue circuits, representations of science today are materialised, are visualised through streams of computer code, it is the code that collapses the space between the physical phenomena and the eye as it represents it on screen. We treat this code and these representations are somehow neutral as without agency. But these codes are political, economic, social and cultural, they are created by people and as educators we need to think carefully about the implications of this for our own practice. In particular as the work of these codes transduce the classroom, as the reach into and reconfigure the educational space, we need to be mindful of how they operate, what and how they represent, and the assumptions they make. Perhaps there is an interpretative space here, one that may be important for our understanding of how open educational resources work in for and through educational practice.

When we release these learning resources freely and openly we free them from their original referent, our own teaching practice, our ways of knowing and seeing the world into a range of other possibilities, into a range of interpretive spaces. We might think we have de-contextualised them, or even provided sufficient guidance on use practices to allow them to be used in different contexts, but traces of the social context in which they were created are left behind, within the structure of the resource assumptions about knowledge, and even within the code itself. These can make the interpretive space hard to traverse. The educational technology communities focus on interoperability attempts to make visible the assumptions hidden in the code. However, it is important to note as well as considering “does it work across platforms”, we also need to look at what else is hidden within the resources. I think we possibly need to look carefully at the materials themselves, we need to look at our own ways of seeing and what we might learn from disciplines more clearly focussed on the visual, what is encoded in visual representations, the partiality and contextual nature of knowing and how in designing for the open we account for the interpretive space between the object and the viewer.   When and how we choose to represent the unobservable or at a distance, we do so through familiar tropes, through common visual metaphors, we do so in ways that are meaningful to us, these are inscribed deeply and we ought to consider how this changes in different contexts.

I want to acknowledge the partiality of the account, in part it’s a whistle stop tour of my bookshelves, in parts is a mash up of ideas I have meant to “write up”. However, I do feel there is something to hold into here. We plan a phase 2 pilot in the Greater Glasgow area, we are looking at developing a purposeful sample which reflect a diverse range of school contexts. It is my sense as we move forward with our OpenScienceLab pilots acknowledging there is an interpretive space to be crossed within open educational practice will be important for our understanding of how to teach science, in particular as we move from science physically done to the representation of phenomena and virtual science.

OER15 OEPS developing OER with partners

By Anna Page (OEPS project)

The conference theme for OER15 was Mainstreaming Open Education. The OER movement is coming of age; however awareness of the benefits of OER and open educational practice is still patchy or non-existent in education and beyond the sector. As Cable Green explained in his keynote at the opening of the conference the OER movement still has a lot of OER infrastructure work to do to reduce barriers to education, transform teaching and learning and enable open practices so that OER can truly realise its potential.

OEPS poster at OER15

OEPS poster at OER15

Origins of OEPS

The overriding theme of the OEPS project is the use of OER at large scale to help transitions between the different parts of education and to widen participation, particularly with learners and creators of OER who are not in the traditional bounds of the academy. Our poster gave a snapshot view of this which Pete Cannell explored in more detail during his presentation. In his talk at OER15 Pete explored the origins of OEPS. It stemmed from the Scottish Government policy of encouraging educational institutions to work together with outside partners for mutual benefit. From 2007 onwards partners started asking the OU about OpenLearn and free resources for learners, which excited their interest in producing OER of their specialist materials. However in almost every case revisiting them a few months later revealed they had made little progress because they didn’t know how to go about creating good engaging OER without support. These partnerships which the OU in Scotland pursued brought skills and knowledge from outside the academy and resulted, in some instances, in the co-creation of material with professionals and students. These weren’t large scale initiatives and compared to the wealth of resources the OU was making available on OpenLearn, small individual resources produced with partners was big news to the partners in their contexts, especially when the materials produced went on to influence other sister organisations.

OEPS poster for OER15

OEPS poster for OER15

Open Practice Partnerships

A major strand of the OEPS project involves supporting over 40 partners as they explore OER and OEP, the barriers they face and the good practice they can share. Pete highlighted working with Union Learning Reps (who act as intermediaries between learners and organisations but are often poorly resourced), Parkinsons UK, who have some good hardcopy materials for their face to face accredited workshops but cannot deliver these on scale and the Glasgow University Wellcome Trust funded ‘End of Life care’ programme which has a large community online but no mechanism for sharing the material that people really need in a structured way. He also talked about working with Lomond and Trossachs National Parks, their work with SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) and the dissemination model which OEPS is helping them develop. Partners are very enthusiastic, and bring context, skills and knowledge which is really valuable.

Open Badges

Pete mentioned that the OEPS project is investigating the use of Open Badges. There are already five badges associated with the project (attached to materials hosted on OpenLearn Works, some of which have been developed in partnership between the OU in Scotland and various caring organisations), with more planned in the near future.

OEPS online hub

An online hub for open education practice is being developed as part of the project with the primary focus being on guidance, exemplars and communities rather than creating another repository of OER, though the hub will have a search function which helps users find good OER for their needs by searching many repositories. Pete explained that the hub will sit on top of OpenLearn Works, an OER sandbox and repository site where anyone can create OER. OpenLearn Works was developed by The Open University to complement its OpenLearn site and the OEPS project is inspiring further developments including better user guidance for the site.

Science OER in schools

OER15 OpenScience lab pilot in schools

OER15 OpenScience lab pilot in schools

In the other presentation from the OEPS project (Open Science happens somewhere: exploring the use of Science OER in schools), Dave Edwards explained how, following discussions with Education Scotland, some OpenScience lab resources had been brought into two classrooms in rural Scotland, in a pilot to explore the extent to which these online experiment tools could help overcome some of the very real problems faced by small rural secondary schools when delivering the Science curriculum. For these schools their remoteness means that visiting local universities is impractical, their budgets for lab equipment and materials are constrained and access to the internet is often interrupted because of telecoms infrastructure problems. Additional constraints also included the desire for the pupils to be able to access materials online from home computers but that in some cases no home computer was available.

Following discussions with the teachers about the OpenScience lab tools, it became apparent that the tools in themselves were not sufficient in a secondary school context. The teachers, who knew the curriculum and the capabilities of their pupils, needed wrap-around materials to help prepare the pupils for the tasks, which would give the pupils a different perspective during revision of the topics they had previously covered in class. The pilot team used existing OU OER to prepare this material and it was uploaded to OpenLearn Works behind a password, as a couple of the images used had not been cleared for open use in the short timescale available.

The project team visited the two schools when the resources were being used to observe how the pupils and teachers reacted to the materials. For the Polymerase Chain Reaction experiment, the pupils worked through the preparatory materials, ran the experiments, collected and interpreted data, discussed their interpretations with their teachers and tried ideas out. For the Analysing pesticides in the environment using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the series of lessons involved the pupils in revising concepts of structural formulae and valencies, learning about mass spectrometry, developing their own hypothesis about how pesticides might be distributed in a tidal bay, devising a sampling plan, collecting data, matching spectra to library data, calculating concentrations and interpreting the results. In both topics these were sophisticated experiments and complex tasks.

Dave reported that feedback from the pupils showed that they saw this as a ‘normal way to learn’ (though they didn’t always like online learning, as Ronald Macintyre mentioned in tweet during OER15), it was convenient, they gained an understanding about experimental work and the equipment, it generated plenty of discussion and they were able to access it from home. It seems from this small pilot free open experiments can be made more accessible to pupils by wrapping them in a VLE-based learning journey.

Open Scotland declaration

There was also a session (Common Ground – an overview of the open education landscape in Scotland), run by Lorna Campbell, about the Open Scotland Declaration which unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend because of parallel session clashes. The OEPS project is working with Open Scotland to develop a strategy for wider buy-in of the Open Scotland Declaration in the longer term; the OEPS project funded the second draft of the declaration.

OER16: Open Culture will be held in Scotland during April 2016, with Lorna Campbell (CETIS, University of Bolton) and Melissa Highton (University of Edinburgh) as co-chairs. The conference themes will offer plenty of opportunity for the Opening Educational Practices in Scotland project to share progress, findings, experiences and good open practices being developed in partnership across Scotland.

OEPS poster at OER15

OEPS poster for OER15

OEPS poster for OER15

PDF of A3_OER15_oeps_poster

At the OER15 conference in Cardiff on 14th and 15th April the OEPS project is presenting a couple of short papers and a poster.  The poster (736) shows the intersection between the various project strands.  This is accompanied by a short presentation and paper on the project (696).  In addition a small pilot project exploring the use of openly licenced content in secondary schools in the West Highlands of Scotland during December 2014 is reported on in a short paper and presentation (726) which is also affiliated with the OEPS project.

You can find the OEPS project contributions (abstracts and full papers) to OER15 on the OER15 website:

Promise of OER – Opening Educational Practices in Scotland – poster

Opening Educational Practices in Scotland – short paper

Open Science happens somewhere: exploring the use of Science OER in schools – short paper

OEPS weekly update – 6 March 2015

This is the first of what we plan to be weekly updates on the project’s partnership and outreach activity. Normally we’ll cover the last five days but this time we thought we’d include the previous week too!

In the week beginning 23 February we had a number of discussions about using open educational materials to support democratic participation in Scottish society. We’ll be pursuing these in the coming months. Pete Cannell had an initial meeting with the Poverty Alliance and joined a discussion organised by Scottish Union Learning where we shared ideas about the development of Open Learning Champions with project workers from some of the main unions in Scotland. We also hosted the regular meeting of the OEPS Steering group where we reported on the progress of the project to date, including the plans for the OEPS hub website. A written report will be published on this blog shortly.

Ronald was putting the finishing touches to a report on the work we have been doing with rural schools in the Highlands using OER and OpenScienceLab, in part prompted by the upcoming deadline for OER15 where we are presenting on Wed the 15th of April, and partly so that we can assess what worked within the pilot and look at the next steps.

Ronald was also at the Scottish Union Learn Everyday Skills conference running a workshop to explore how we might encourage digital participation through and for education, it was a very insightful event and we learnt a great deal about how to support Union Learning organisers. It was a rich conversation and you can find more at the twitter hashtag #sules15

This week Pete met with the E-Learning Alliance and Pete and Ronald started discussions on how to produce an OER version of gender equality materials produced by the Teacher Education in Malawi project. Pete’s also developed a draft of a workshop and materials to support the development of Open Learning Champions which we will revise and refine following feedback from all those involved.

Looking ahead we have preparations to make around a series of workshops in Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, where we will be running a series of events in communities throughout the park using an enterprise OER Rural Entrepreneurship Scotland to structure a series of sessions exploring some of the complex problems facing remote and rural communities

Preparations for the OEPS Advisory forum on the 19th March are well in hand and we are looking forward to welcoming everyone who has signed up for this free event. We have space for a few more people to join us, so if you haven’t already booked your place, please register via Eventbrite. You can choose 2 of the 4 afternoon workshops to participate in as well as the project update and the keynote by Professor Laura Czerniewicz in the morning. For more information including workshop descriptions and the programme for the day, please read the Advisory Forum 2 blog post.