Biology Courses – the Vancouver Experience


It has been an amazing few days at the OpenEd12 conference in Vancouver, and the Biology Courses team presented a paper questioning whether open education initiatives and activities were truly open for business? From their experience of working in open education and sharing university learning materials to global audiences, the paper – written by Phil Tubman and Viv Rolfe – described many examples of open educational resources (OERs) that were not always easily accessible for use, to the point of some OERs being unusable altogether because they were published using software that was now obsolete, or simply didn’t include instructions for use.

With a few simple considerations, such as publishing OERs in a variety of formats and file types, those sharing OERs could ensure that their materials were widely used – and not just be open for business, but also be accessible to users with diverse learning styles who might require the information in different forms. On our biology courses website, we try and do just that, sharing OER in a variety of file types so users can chose what best suits them.

Vancouver, British Columbia

Vancouver, British Columbia. (CC BY)

OpenEd Conference Highlights

It was interesting to contrast the different cultural views of what open education actually means to people? Open Education in the UK (UKOER) is driven by the joy and plain common sense of sharing learning resources across higher education communities. In the US, activities seem more focused and universities are increasingly using open text books to ease the financial burden that students face. Several commercial companies talked about reduced-cost books and courses for students.

Another hot topic is teaching on-line on a massive scale also known as the MOOC (massively on-line open course). MOOCs aren’t new in internet circles  although they haven’t been applied to university settings until recently. The educational benefits of large-scale courses to learners and organisations are yet to be seen.

A highlight for the biology courses team were discussions with colleagues from Europe about setting up a science and technology open education network. Even within open education, there is still much duplication of ideas and effort, and building a community of people with shared interests has to be the way forward. So look out for Open STEM Europe, and we hope to participate in a European funding bid next year!

Off-Piste Conference Highlights

It was amazing to visit Vancouver and I’ve never come away from a conference having met so many interesting people, all keen to stay in touch and work together. But OK, down to the highlight, the delegates included a very talented group of musicians who entertained the conference diners on a boat trip around Vancouver harbour, and I was lucky enough to be invited to play. I know “Autumn Leaves” would have been more appropriate, but here is “Summertime” instead.



So here ends this particular stretch of project funding from the JISC/HEA, and as always, it has been a cherished experience working with them. Biology Courses is linking in to National and European initiatives, and work at De Montfort University will include establishing a “Centre for Open Education”. But let me recover from my jet lag first.


Biology Courses in Las Vegas Day 1

Biology Courses in Vegas!

I can hardly believe I’m here and what a contrast to the peace of the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire where you are occasionally disturbed only by the clip clop of horses hooves. Here you are continually disturbed by erupting volcanoes, fireworks and the rattle of slot machines 24-7. I have already lost track of what is night or day. There are continual crowds of people but the great thing about the Venetian Hotel is that it is full of Italian music and Louis Prima on a permanent loop…..”Angelina, the waitress at the pizzaria”. Fantastic.

Biology Courses Vegas Trip

The Venetian Hotel is based on something between The Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. There is marble everywhere, fountains in the foyer and, and wall and ceiling frescoes copied from Michelangelo;s work that go on forever. Or are they murals? I wouldn’t dare call them that. My hotel room is larger than my entire house, with two plasma televisions and gold plated taps in the bathroom! The hotel the size of a small town. But I could get used to it if I had to! And restaurants, bars and shops open 24 hours a day, I could certainly get used to that.

La Venetian Hotel

The hotel is better than your average Holiday Inn I guess. It contains two theatres, a Madame Taussards, art gallery, a golf course and three swimming pools including one beach. Oh and I think there are two nightclubs and numerous casinos. Did I say it was like a small town, well actually, it is more like a small city, in fact I think already has more attractions than Nottingham. And yes it does have a river running through it with gondola rides.

Last night I spoke to a lovely Italian gentleman who for $400 a month rents an apartment with swimming pool which is both considerably cheaper and larger than my rented property back home. Would I swap places, well I’d give it some serious thought.

Post by Viv

Science teaching resources at the Annual STEM Conference

In April the Biology Courses team talked about their science teaching resources and open education projects at three conferences in the UK.

The first was the first Higher Education Academy Annual STEM Conference in support of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. This was held at Imperial College, London, on 12-13th April 2012.

The team had one full presentation and one poster to talk about the “biology courses” project and how it is working with external collaborators to produce high-quality and exciting science teaching resources to benefit student education. The materials include patient case studies, laboratory data and images, all of which weren’t openly available for us to use in our teaching before this project started. The best bit is we can package these materials up into open educational resources (OER) and then share them around the world.

In the talk which lasted 30 minutes Dr Viv Rolfe explained how the project has established a number of local links for example with hospitals, the police and private sector companies. These relationships are mutually beneficial – yes, we get interesting learning materials and our external contacts get training materials for use with their own staff. For example, histology OER that we can use on our Biomedical Science and Medical Science degree programmes are also useful to trainee bioscientists in the hospital laboratories.

You’d have thought that setting up these partnerships would be a time consuming process? In fact, where I did imagine long discussions sorting out copyright and ownership of the materials, the individuals and their teams immediately understood the whole philosophy behind open education, and were more than happy to share their photographs, data and other materials under a Creative Commons License. Clearly, we look at every item very carefully to ensure that any patient data is confidential, and every photograph or video that may contain identifiable information is either not released, or we gain the permissions from those people photographed to use their picture for our project.

What has been interesting in working with local contacts are the unexpected benefits. Talking about open education has led to discussions about research, shared teaching and how we can work together at post-graduate level on masters programmes and sharing PhD students. You might therefore ask why haven’t universities done this before? Well we have of course. We collaborate externally all the time, but before the open education projects, discussions were hardly ever about sharing teaching and learning ideas. Unless you had funding or were established in a research field, you probably wouldn’t have had a reason to go knocking on people’s doors. So open education for me and the “Biology Courses” team has created a buzz in the local Leicester community and with local employers.

To view the slides on involving external partners in generating science teaching resources from the STEM conference, go to Slideshare: