Achieving teaching excellence in biosciences – with OER

My week includes meetings at the University of Kingston, Open University and Bath University, largely talking about open education.

On Wednesday in Kingston, Dr Nick Freestone organised an event to explore Teaching Excellence Workshop advert (PDF). I liked his approach in having a mixed audience of staff and students, including those studying biosciences, pharmacy and other medical-related subjects. I think I’m so used to having to do a ‘hard sell’ about open education at times, I was not expecting at all the huge level of interest and enthusiasm that my presentation received.

I started off with a reflection back on my PhD dissertation which examined the secretory mechanisms of E. coli toxins. Some 15 years on, our knowledge has become more detailed but hasn’t really significantly advanced our understanding of gut secretion. It is sad to observe the global statistics on deaths caused by diarrhoeal disease remain little unchanged. One has to reflect on the global ‘business’ of scientific research, and some of my own students commented in a lecture recently on the inequalities relating to health and distribution of funding around the world. In my talk I wondered if science could be done in a different way, illustrated by the ‘BOBCAT‘ project in which a global task force of over 180 individuals worked together to advance the medical knowledge and clinical approaches to the management of Barrett’s Oesophagus.

Discussions around open education

I explored the idea of open and collaborative approaches to science, the sharing of data openly, and sharing open educational resources. It is clear this is an area of interest for this scientific community:

  1. We need to raise awareness of open education – it was new to many people at the event.
  2. Folk need some basic practical skills or to develop open literacies for searching, evaluating and understanding open educational resources.
  3. Folk need to understand Creative Commons licenses as a priority – many didn’t know the ‘CC’ logo.
  4. People seemed very keen to be sharing resources especially around laboratory or surgical techniques and skills.
  5. We need to define approaches to support all of the above – possibly through the professional bodies who sponsored the event.

Open education and teaching excellence

I talked about how involvement in open education links easily to teaching excellence through enhancing your professional development. The very nature of working in the open takes you ‘beyond’ your institution and encourages you to develop your professional networks. These are useful activities for you to create impact around what you do, and to disseminate your ideas, and examples of you doing this can provide evidence to support claims for awards and fellowship, for example part of the HEA UK Professional Standards Framework for higher education (UKPSF). Even better if the framework and some of the performance indicators we are increasingly embroiled in could be reworked to facilitate open pedagogies.

The process of participating in open education – whether it is sharing an open educational resource or sharing data openly, is a valuable learning experience. Lecturers who share OER always comment about how much more they understand about designing good quality materials, they gain knowledge about copyright and licensing, and also gain perspectives on the use of technology in teaching. OER reuse and creation should be part of every PGCertHE or similar courses that train all new university lecturers, and openness should be part of teaching excellence standards and ultimately the TEF framework as it evolves.

How better to demonstrate excellence – that your teaching materials and practices inspire and are reworked by others.


You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two?

In Higher Ed, one thing counts
Research funding, large amounts.
I’m afraid these don’t grow on trees,
You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two.

You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two,
If you want to fund a project or two.


The wonderful Ron Moody in Oliver Twist.








We were just mulling over in an #LTHEchat the lack of investment in the UK for educational, pedagogic, Higher Education – projects, research or innovation. Since the slash to the HE budgets and introduction of higher student fees, investment through the Higher Education Academy and Jisc predominantly – through no fault of their own – has fallen from £millions to £zero. Yes. £zero. Not £small amount. But absolutely no investment for small scale projects or pieces of research at all to develop teaching and digital innovation, or simply to follow important new lines of enquiry or answer important Higher Education questions.

Tweet Chat LTHE Chat

OK I’m all for not living lavishly, but the long-term impact of this lack of investment is going to be very far reaching. If I think of my own journey. I moved from industry to Nottingham University in 2004 and having no research track record from industry, I was up a creek without a paddle. Fortunately I discovered Flash Animation and started making learning objects for Nottingham University. This interest grew into wanting to evaluate the effectiveness of this. That is important right?

Moving onto De Montfort University and building up an interest in technology and open education, my funding profile looked OK up until 2012.

My entire research career started off with £5000. That supported five of us in the department to make some basic lab skills resources, share them on the web, write about it and go to conferences. The second piece of work looked at how to improve student writing and referencing through using Turnitin(R). It funded student and staff interviews, resulted in a publication and a few conference trips. I still talk about both these projects today.

Great oaks from little acorns right?

Great experience working with the HEA UK Bioscience folk. My first big externally funded open education project. VAL is still going strong today.

A significant leap for me into systematic research methodology. Have completed several reviews now and these have formed the basis of many undergraduate and postgraduate projects ever since. I run staff development workshops on systematic review now. Not bad from £3K.

This work led to my University Teaching Fellow Award. I became involved in staff mentoring and training in De Montfort at this point.

  • 2010. Jisc / HEA OER Phase 2, “Sickle cell open – SCOOTER”. £123,000. Principal Investigator.
  • 2011. Jisc Digitisation and Content Programme. Virtual microscope. Partner with the Open University. £5000.
  • 2011. Open University SCORE Fellowship, £16,640.
  • 2011. Jisc / HEA OER Phase 3, “Biology courses and OER”. £199,000. Principal Investigator.

Such a significant phase of my work. All projects still going strong. Built a strong network with the UK open education community (#ukoer) which is still alive, along with regular attendance at the UK Open Education Conference (#oer16), and four consecutive attendances at the US/Canada OpenEd Conference (#opened16), all from the research arising from this work.

These OER projects at De Montfort

  • Involved hundreds of staff and students
  • Built external collaborations with Leicester/Northampton hospitals
  • Enhanced staff and student understanding of intellectual property and copyright
  • Promoted and provided understanding of Creative Commons open licensing
  • Supported staff in using technology to build learning resources
  • Enhanced staff perspectives into learning design
  • Promoted discovery of teaching / research expertise on the internet
  • Provided lasting OER curations via WordPress blogs
  • Distributed OER to global communities using social media
  • I’m bored now. So much more.

Through this I became a National Teaching Fellow, mentored more fellows, sat on review panels and led more staff development. Students were involved in projects informally, through internships, through postgraduate projects and through employment as research assistants. Knowledge and research outputs were disseminated to the sector forming part of the Jisc OER Synthesis and Evaluation reports. I have had many conference presentations and papers relating to OER as a result of this work. I am now working to build open education practice in my third UK university. And with anyone else willing to listen.

  • 2012. Commonwealth Fellowship. “Health promotion games for sickle cell disease”. Collaboration with University of Ibadan, Nigeria, led by Faculty of Technology Professor Howell Istance. £25,000.
  • 2012. HEA Case Study. “How institutional culture can change to adopt open practices”. £2,000. Joint.

OK. Last two. The first was a Commonwealth Fellow from Nigeria who’d spotted our Sickle Cell project and wanted to produce a game to promote good health. The second was a very low-cost case study interviewing senior executive staff and completing our picture of student-staff and senior staff views on OER. These insights have been fundamental for implementation of these projects within our universities.

So without that £5K in 2008, and without working with amazing people within HEA and Jisc by which I learnt the craft of open education and a range of project management skills, I wouldn’t have achieved any of the rest. And I don’t mean that I’ve achieved grandiose promotional heights – I’m not a Professor or anything. I’ve been on the same salary scale for ten years. I mean, the impact I’ve had through working in open education, and more so, through working – or being invited to participate in:

  • Learning and teaching committees/leadership groups within universities
  • Contributing to learning and teaching / technology strategies for faculty/university
  • Mentoring/reviewing/panel selection for university teaching fellows/national teaching fellows
  • Mentoring/reviewing/panel selection for HEA UK Professional Standards Framework
  • Ad hoc staff development sessions, materials and workshops
  • Working with technologists
  • Working with library services around Creative Commons and open education
  • Nationally being on committees to support learning and teaching advocacy/practice
  • Committees to support digital learning

You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two.

So what I hear increasingly now is people self-funding, supporting old HEA or Jisc projects out of their own pocket, paying for their own conference attendance and probably more. This not just equates to folk being out of pocket, but working hours outside of their institutions.

That isn’t to say that some universities are investing in a ‘project’ type approach and in their staff, but this certainly isn’t the entire picture. Meanwhile, institutions and the sector – as the prospect of Teaching Excellence draws near and the Government want to support student choice, equality and all the other things they claim, they are going to have to think seriously how to do that. Of course the bigger problem is the skills and knowledge gap that is looming with the guts having been well and truly kicked out of anyone wishing to evaluate their teaching or digital practice, or develop a career dedicated to the development of educational research and academic development.

Rise up and take the power back

What a great start to the new year being invited to attend the MELSIG event at Nottingham Trent University to talk about DS106. MELSIG is an unfunded special interest group for those interested in media-enhanced-learning, and what is astonishing considering the group rely on the goodwill of UK universities to support their gatherings, that there have been around 26 or 27 in recent years. The theme of the event was DIGITAL STORYTELLING so it was clear it was going to be one magnificent collision of two like-minded communities, and it certainly was.

I was so thrilled that our #western106 cowboys giddy-up’d and participated in the special Robin Hood-themed Daily Create on Thursday 7th, and equally the #melsigntu crew joined in to congratulate the Daily Create on its 4th Birthday on Friday 8th. How better to help explain what DS106 is all about than getting folk to CREATE.


Make Art Dammit!

Michael Smith Flickr CC BY-2.0

The rising….

For the first time in a long time I was struck by a moment of optimism. I’ve worked in open education for ten years trying to inspire and inform the HE sector as a whole and also various institutions. Many like me work in our own time and self-finance meetings and conferences – I consider it my bit for charity. And here was an entirely new community – MELSIG – all reaching for similar goals. It dawned on me that we’ve got a great opportunity to start doing this together.

The communities….

#DS106 – pushing the boundaries of the possibilities of learning on the internet through digital storytelling

#MELSIG – pushing the boundaries and possibilities of educating through digital media

#OPENEDSIG – applying philosophies and principles of openness to enhance education opportunities and practices (special interest group of the Association of Learning Technology)

#UKOER – the open education community that grew from the HEFCE-funded UK OER programme – still exploring open practice, open educational resources and many involved in open courses and MOOCs

#OER16 – the UK open education conference community that extends beyond the annual event

#OPENED16 – the global open education conference community that extends well beyond the annual event

The common ground…

  • A common sense of wanting better education and fairer access to learning through digital media and open practice
  • Exceedingly giving communities willing to share ideas and support new participants in developing their own individual approaches
  • Self-governing through the looseness of connections offered by social media

But is that enough?

I feel like a pin-ball at times bouncing around these groups and I’m hearing the same thing. We need to RECLAIM – what and from who? We need to MAINSTREAM – what and how? There is an invisible enemy in the state / governments / institutions. We need ETHICAL COMMON GROUND – what are the parameters?

So I think we do have a clear opportunity to really reclaim the good quality education that students and open learners deserve – not the content delivery and assessment model that is the road we are being forced along because we can measure that present it in league tables. We all know we can offer something much better and more genuine, and dammit, just more exciting and engaging for those that wish to learn.

We can do it using the technology that is easy for us, the notion of sharing and repurposing openly licensed content into accessible formats is simply cheaper, but we are locked-in to IT systems and infrastructure in our own institutions.

I think our STICKING POINT is our view that we need to go back and influence our institutions to create a SECTOR to deliver this. What we see at the moment is educators and technologists and librarians working outside the boundaries of their colleges and universities – researching in their own time, self-financing, sharing materials and running open courses, and generally getting stuck into the education that they want but cannot deliver in their own place. Rather than going to our institutions, maybe we should make them come to us?

The idea?

How do we link as a MEGA-COMMUNITY of digital openness where we can work together to make education as we want to deliver it irresistible?

  • We can digitally connect but physical meeting is important – how about cross-community invites to events and conferences?
  • How about developing a shared mission – capture our overarching vision and put some loose goals in place?
  • Start to gather the evidence and research that shows our approaches are effective – we can share back to influence our institutional decision makers.
  • Think more politically and strategically to by-pass the institutions?



Rise up and take the power back
It’s time the fat cats had a heart attack

Open education update – Bristol University presentation

I’m very excited about talking to the Bristol University ‘pedagogy’ group about open education today. Here is a PDF of my slides:

SLIDES –> Open Education Update_VRolfe_5May15

The talk gave reference to a number of conference articles and papers, and the details of these are listed on my “talks and articles” page.

Links to the open education projects listed can be found under “open education“, including those I have participated in at Nottingham University and De Montfort.

Finally I made reference to the Open Education Conference (OER15) held in Cardiff this year. Videos of most of the presentations can be found via the conference web page.

Also I referred to Bronwyn Williams talking about ethics and the digital university at the SRHE event on 17th April 2015 (Methodology and Ethics for Researching the Digital University). You can find podcasts of Bronwyn’s talk which is absolutely a ‘must’ hear; just follow the links from this page.


BIS – haven’t you missed something?

Anyone reading the BIS report “International education: global growth and prosperity” (July 2013) may welcome some of the proposals within to support international students  including mentions of – introducing an effective loan repayment scheme, clarifying the visa system, and having better quality frameworks for them. Then, as with any education document these days , the report cannot take its first gasp of breath after hatching without mentioning MOOCs (massive open online courses), and they have 15 mentions in the document:

“and their (MOOC) global reach has opened up a new door to education. We need to make sure it is a door to our universities and colleges”.

The report goes on to talk about building the UK brand reputation around the world and seizing opportunities, and….hey, slow down, wait a minute? Haven’t most UK universities and many colleges been opening their doors for some years now through open education initiatives? How come these don’t get a single mention?

The world is embracing open education – MIT started sharing lectures on OpenCourseware over 10 years ago, and 81 governments and states have policies agreed or underway supporting open education for their people, so it shouldn’t be a hard sell as a means of promoting UK education? There is a common language there already and a common goal already toward global growth and prosperity built around open education.



So I’m quite surprised that the document – talking about opening doors – strengthening the use of technology in education – fails to mention the open education activity in the UK and how open educational resources (OERs) are impacting on learners and educators globally. I think they aren’t sexy because 1) they aren’t MOOCs and part of the current hype, 2) they don’t gather fancy education analytics and 3) really, if anyone is honest, the report and MOOCs are about commerce and not auturism.

The problem with OER is they are not closed behind a software platform like so they do not gather any education analytics to support them.  Because OER are open, and sit there on the web, they don’t collect and grow user email lists, which is enough to make any markeeter lick his own eyelids in excitement. Just because you can’t directly measure their economic impact, it doesn’t mean OER have no potential or indeed have not had any indirect financial impact downstream. What you measure is not important, what you can’t measure is, blah de bla.

International links from UK OER programme 

So I just thought I’d mention some innovations from the UK OER programme (Jisc HEA 2009 – 2012) that spring to my mind that have had international impact. This will absolutely not be an exhaustive list! Some of the examples below have had demonstrable financial impact (increased number of student enrolments to university; generation of research income). [For a comprehensive analysis of the UK OER activity read the following report by McGill, Falconer, Dempster, Littlejohn and Beetham (2013)].

Enhancing the UK reputation in English language teaching and learning?

The report talks about enhancing the UK’s reputation in English language teaching and learning? Two UK initiatives spring to mind share their language expertise and educational materials openly that could provide a springboard to enhancing our international reputation? The Language Box has OER in around 50 languages, including 300 or so resources to support English teaching. The resource is led by the Universities of Southampton and Portsmouth, and have had contributions from all over the UK. LORO, from the Open University contains around 50 English teaching OER, in addition to several other languages.

UK OER reaching global audiences on iTunes

The report refers to how technology can change educational delivery, and if we want to talk about massive, open and online there are plenty of OER examples. Several UK universities (Warwick, Open University and Oxford) share podcasts on iTuneU. Oxford iTunesU, notably, has had a huge impact – massive in fact, open – truly open and not locked behind passwords and podcasts are downloadable and might help with dodgy internet connections. Just a few points:

  • The podcasts have had over 20 million downloads from iTunes U.
  • There are well over 3000 academic speakers and expert contributors.
  • The global reach is across 185 countries including US and China.

Reaching global audiences on YouTube

Many universities have open education channels on YouTube. One that springs to mind is from University of Leicester YouTube Channel housing science resources and with a focus on genetics as part of their GENIE CETL (genetics education – Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) project. One video on bone marrow aspiration has had over 144,000 views! Is that viral? (Pun intended).

Global visitors to university websites

Talking about how technology can transform education, look no further than the University of Nottingham. They have a huge number of open education activities within their Open Nottingham programme. These include open source software (Xerte course builder; ROGO assessment and feedback platform). The School of Nursing have openly shared over 200 educational resources (reusable learning objects or RLOs –  not just simply filmed videos but carefully constructed and peer-reviewed narrated animations). These reach global healthcare audiences.

Translations of UK OER into Nigerian and Brazilian

OK so I’m promoting our own project here – SCOOTER – involving Professor Simon Dyson at De Montfort University. SCOOTER is growing and still shares educational resources to promote and support sickle cell and thalassaemia education. Professor Dyson’s “Guide to Schools” supports young people with sickle cell in education, and has been translated into four Nigerian languages, and other resources into Brazilian, Spanish and Portuguese.

What about the analytics? Well I can tell you from the Google Analytics embedded onto the SCOOTER webpages, his “Guide for Schools” has had around 1000 views, and SCOOTER receives visitors and comments from around the globe, notably Brazil as the third largest visitor after the UK and the US.

Boosting research collaborations?

Everyone involved in creating OER, and particularly when talking to public and private sector collaborators, will testify how developing mutually beneficial teaching/training materials is always a very fruitful conversation to have. OER is an excuse to talk and a vehicle for establishing collaborations, which is one of the goals of the BIS report. We had a research fellow from the Commonwealth Professional Fellowship scheme work on a sickle cell health promotion game; it has been evaluated in the UK and is currently being developed further for Nigerian audiences.

Also at De Montfort, the Midwifery Open Resources for Education, led by Jacqui Williams, has held discussions with Irish and Afghan educationalists to develop and share learning materials. Incidently, many of the 30 or so midwifery resources on the YouTube MOREOER Channel were created by students themselves as part of their university internships and the midwifery programme.

How to keep up with the global market?

“As the new global market takes shape, the UK needs to move quickly to secure a world leading position”.

The global education market is changing, but markets always change. Companies such as 3M fire products out into the market, and then run with the most successful. MOOCs are the latest innovation, and as new technology emerges, new generations of learners will want to use the next greatest thing. The essential thing here is to base opportunities around good pedagogy (our knowledge of education delivery and design), and to base direction around existing evidence and not just user data. (Do MOOCs help people learn better – who knows. Do lab skills OER help students learn and build confidence, yes!).

To grow our position we are well placed to build on our expertise in open education to support learning and teaching and build global collaborations, rather than just hitching a ride on a passing MOOCwagon.

MoocWagon“Cow Power” – Johnny & Angus Blog
(but I think it is a MOOCwagon really).

Final words (phew, you say).

“By using education to strengthen our relationships with partner countries and build a platform for many other activities to our mutual benefit”.

Those involved in open education already know this! A final example is a set of teaching materials “Fast Track Analyser” developed for undergraduate biomedical science students that double as training for scientists in the NHS. The benefits are mutual, and wide ranging.