Practicals by post

Phil ParkerAs some of you may know apart from my ‘day’ job at Leicester University I am also an associate lecturer for the Open University. At a staff development day for the science faculty in region 5 (East midlands) on Saturday, we heard about the OU past and future.

Phil Parker, staff tutor, retired earlier this year and he came along to join us for his third leaving do. This enabled us to have an upgraded lunch and a very amusing half hour listening to some of the highlights of his three-decade involvement with the OU. Starting as an OU student in 1973, he brought in the microscope with with he was issued for a second level course and told of the two massive crates of equipment and chemicals that were sent out to students in those days. The OU was a ‘University of the air‘, for everyone and the idealism of those early days of social justice and social mobility shone through in the materials and the lavish supplies and course materials development. It felt to me like the early pioneers wanted to provide the ‘university experience’ at home, and so when it came to practical work, they simply shipped out a lab in a box.

BA handbook OU

As time has progressed and courses have evolved, a series of experiments that can be done at home, using common household items has been incorporated into courses and the main laboratory practicals continued in residential schools. Residentials have been losing money and seem to be no longer sustainable as a model for the practical element of OU degrees. An alternative model is currently under progress and we heard from Sarah Davis about one of the second level practical modules currently being designed for a February 2012start. It was fascinating to see how the curriculum team had started to put this module together.

This 30 credit second level module will offer practical work for all natural science degrees including, chemistry, physics, biology, geology and environmental sciences. There will be four 50 hour blocks (worth 5 credits each) to take from February to October. These will be offered on a 6 week cycle, and students will choose from one of four or five blocks offered in that cycle. The practical blocks are assessed by a half TMA (tutor marked assignment). Students will assemble a skills portfolio (2.5 credits) describing and showing evidence for the various learning outcomes of the practical module and complete an end of module exam (7.5 credits). Several blocks will be offered in each 6 week cycle, some may be repeated over the whole module, others may be offered only once.

The blocks will be made up of short residentials (3 days) with field work, home experiments, multimedia online simulations and some remote experiments. The interactive online experiments allow students to set their own parameters and record data from experiments (see P A Hatherly et al 2009 Eur. J. Phys. 30 751 doi: 10.1088/0143-0807/30/4/008). I’ve used one of these myself , the interactive spectrophotometer, which is excellent and a great replacement for what is a very fiddly experimental set up. Remote experiments will include things like monitoring biological oxygen demand on a variety of water samples in an OU lab using computer controlled monitors. A group of students will work together to decide when they will take readings and how to interpret the data they get. Other potential experiments include the use of citizen science projects such as the Open Air Lab where students can carry out investigations of local pond ecology. The use of iCMAs (interactive computer marked assessments) prior to the short residentials will help engage the students with the materials and experiments or field work on offer to get the most from the shorter time away.

Students will probably be free to choose which blocks to take but there may be suggested pathways for certain subjects, or some may be pre-requesites for higher level modules.

The over arching aim is to encourage a multi-disciplinary approach, group work, remote working through computers and collaborative engagement online. These are all skills that the modern researcher needs. As supportive of the OU as I am, I’m not convinced that any natural science degree completed by distance learning could ever provide an equivalent practical experience to a campus-based one. The hours that our students at Leicester spend in the lab always out numbered those that the OU provided. In a recent PedR meeting we decided that the threshold concept for a science degree might be the practice of the science method. I think that OU students will learn just as much about the scientific method through these new modules. as they did in one week residentials, perhaps even more, given that these modules will last much longer and allow them to practice and apply their skills of formulating hypotheses, testing and interpreting them over several months. They will also enable those students with child care difficulties, shift workers and disabilities to tackle some experiments that otherwise would have been beyond their reach.

It is an interesting approach that is trying hard to provide a sustainable solution for very large numbers of students (250,000 current students), it would be interesting to see if there are any elements of this that we could investigate using at Leicester, given the increasing pressure on lab space we are facing (with our 250!).





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