When I studied at university I was acutely aware from speaking to my peers that our educational experiences were in many cases dramatically different. I remember cruising through lecture courses whilst my friends next to me would be sat there grinding their teeth in confused terror and I also remembered the moment I gave up on electrochemistry for good*. I found it so confusing that I was better off concentrating on aceing all the other questions rather than trying to get my head round a topic I realised I didn’t properly understand even at A-level.

This wasn’t my teachers’ fault. In fact the reason I studied Chemistry was largely down to the outstanding teachers I had. From a teacher’s perspective, I look back and see the strengths and weaknesses of my own A-level specification. Whilst it gave me a vastly better grounding in the interactions of EM radiation and matter than some, the time devoted to electrochemistry wasn’t as large as others and going into the first year thermodynamics course having never heard of free energy before turned out to be quite daunting.

Across the country, students are getting widely varying experiences of concepts that are utterly fundamental to their further studies. So I wondered what small step I might be able to take to address this situation.

 

I decided I wanted to make some Open Educational Resouces to address knowledge gaps in key areas of weakness highlighted by David Read‘s transition document or areas where students have identified difficulties or misconceptions in the past. These resources could be deployed to any VLE and linked in with course materials already present. Having identified areas of weakness in their subject knowledge, students could be directed to the relevant resource before attending a lecture so that they were better prepared to take on new material instead of struggling to understand the core concepts.

My (maybe a little too ambitious?) ideas for these would be that they …

  • would cover A-level material relevant to the resource at a level that was equal to the highest level covered by any KS5 specification
  • act as a bridging resouce to introduce new ideas that were likely to come up next
  • highlight areas of weakness in models used at KS5 where relevant (at KS3 we go to great lengths as teachers to identify the uses of models and get students to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses but higher up in school, the pressures of exams leave little time for this and students often interpret what they are taught as gospel which can result in the traditional “you lied to us” response later)
  • could eventually be used in schools to support teaching of tricky concepts or as supplementary resources for the gifted and talented
  • could be used at any institution

My position as teacher fellow has given me the time to produce some of these resources as well as the access to university staff who are experts in the area.

In the early stages of forming an idea, I shared my thoughts with Alom Shaha as I knew he had aspirations for a similar resource for Physics students and in my head, I had a video teaching resource in mind. I think our shared belief had come from seeing OER initiatives like MIT’s Open CourseWare and we thought “anyone in the world can tune in to a lecture at one of the most renowned science institutions on the planet at zero cost – why doesn’t something like this exist for school students?“. I suppose for a multitude of reasons school-level material lends itself less well to a totally passive medium like video and to be honest …. I don’t think many of my lessons would be suitable for viewing on YouTube warts and all!

When I joined Bath, the rather awesome e-learning team were immensely helpful. I shared some of my thoughts with Andy Ramsden. Having read Andy’s blog, I was aware that the Bath had been trying out some e-learning authoring tools which had the advantage of producing a package that could sit in a VLE with mixed media and could be interactive. Students are increasingly used to seeing high quality content on their VLEs of a similar nature (one such example is the resources on www.yteach.co.uk) so I thought this might be worth investigating.

 

It so happened that one of the biggest projects to produce an OER that had occurred recently was the Academic Skills Writing Course which had been run by the Chemsitry Librarian, Linda Humphreys.  This was written in “eXe“, an open source XHTML editor designed for producing OERs. The project was not without its difficulties, and required a daunting investment of time from the people who were involved. The screenshots here show (in the background) how the main moodle site is set up and (in the foreground) an example of one of the eXe packages. The formatting options appear quite limited, you needed to have different media on its own specific page and the team seems to have faced many other difficulties along the way. This is a feeling I now know only too well!

When I spoke to Linda, they had just acquired a licence for Articulate and seemed a lot more positive about this as a product. It runs as a module in PowerPoint so in theory ought to be able to produce more visually appealing content.

I realised what I needed to do was to try visualising what I wanted my project to look like first and then see what programmes allowed me to achieve that, rather than letting a program dictate in any large part what my product would look like, So I set about making a storyboard …

 

Meanwhile, I was talking to Julian Prior about another open source XHTML editor that looked a lot more promising called Xerte and more specifically (as my scripting abilities are rather limited) we were looking at Xerte Online Toolkits (XOT) which effectively acts as “xerte for dummies”! As you can see, XOT looks a bit nicer straight out of the box – you can have background images and it was designed with accessibility in mind so the user can easily change the colour scheme, font size, volume etc. to make it easier to interact with the product.

Limitations quickly raised their heads though and I found that it wasn’t able to do what I needed to do to realise the project I had visualised. This screenshot is of the best looking page I made with the others a hash of misaligned LaTeX scripts and a nightmare of incompatible flash stages etc. I’m not knocking Xerte by any means – I think it’s got a lot more mileage than eXe and it’s still being updated. It’s also still being supported by an excellent team at Nottingham – questions on the mailing list are answered in a flash (no pun intended!). For someone who has little flash scripting experience through and who wants to use a lot of formulae and formatting – I realised it wasn’t going to cut the mustard. Here is an example of the sort of resource that XOT will produce if you’re a little less ambitious than me!

It was around this time, I looked back at the LabSkills resource on the Bristol Chemistry DLM as an example that was closer to what I wanted to achieve. I was aware that I didn’t have the financial resources to produce anything like this but I did by now recognise the formatting on the resource and realised it had been made mostly in Articulate (with the use of a lot of bespoke flash objects) so I thought I’d give Articulate a go. I should point out that whilst Articulate is a LOT better than Xerte, it is also infinitely more expensive (!) and is chock full of its own annoying little bugs.

About six weeks later, having experienced some of the frustration Linda’s team had to deal with, I have now been able to release an alpha version of 3 of the first resources (from a batch of 4 – I hope the last will be ready next week) made with Articulate. My experience over the last week in particular has been akin to a cartoon in which some poor soul is left plugging ever multiplying leaks in a dyke with fingers and toes!

After many late nights sat in front of a screen tearing my hair out in frustration with uncooperative software and many iterations these resources are likely to be riddled with errors so I’m hoping for lots of feedback from staff and students. David Read has already been really helpful (thanks mate) and I’m really grateful for Paul Wyatt’s input as well as Ian Williams’ supportive pragmatism!

So … what’s next? Well there’s one more resource in this batch and then I’m not really sure. It’s not a pain I’m keen to inflict on myself again but there are other resources I had promised myself I would do (for instance, given where I started this posting, it might be appropriate to produce one on electrochemistry!) so we shall see. In the meantime, once I’ve had feedback from staff and students here, I’ll make v0.3 and release it to my school to see what the students make of it there. After that, I’m happy to release a wider beta (v1) that can be used in institutions across the country where there are teacher fellows who can return feedback. Then v2 will be ready to be released to the rest of the world under a creative commons licence so that anyone can use it or adapt it to suit their students.

Hit me back in the comments if you have any thoughts or suggestions or if you’d like to get involved.

If you’re looking for other OERs already out there a good place to start is http://www.jorum.ac.uk/ and thanks to Skills for Scientists who pointed me in the direction their resource bank (which features some familiar faces!)

*incidentally once I started teaching I needed to go back and get my head round electrochemistry … once you get the basics and start seeing the patterns it’s awesome! I wish I had had it explained to me using Jim Clark’s method (which I will no doubt borrow if I ever do a resource for electrochem!).

 

Edited to add: Check out the Discover Maths resource available here