Two Open University projects which are at the cutting edge of educational technology and accessibility have been shortlisted for the Guardian University Awards 2018.
Using technology creatively
The OU has a long history of using technology to support its innovative teaching. Self-filmed video is now common in many online course materials. For instance, a volcanologist lecturer can record a video on their mobile phone at the summit of an active volcano, and upload it to their geophysics module website to bring the subject to life for students. But anyone with visual or hearing impairments might find video difficult, and be excluded from this resource.
A team of educational technologists and IT developers from the Open University, which has more disabled students than any other European university (over 23,000 in 2016/17), searched for a player which would deliver audio-visual content alongside the additional resources which help disabled people.
Highly accessible content
Having found nothing which would meet their requirements, the team from the OU developed their own player to address the needs of disabled people. Shortlisted in the Digital Innovation Award category, the Accessible Interactive Media Player (AIM) delivers highly accessible content across all modern web browsers and devices, with advanced features for accessibility. It has been available to every OU student, over 170,000 people, since late 2017. New navigation tools help students engage with the material, creating a more immersive learning experience and including features such as subtitles, interactive transcripts, in-video annotations and multi-lingual support.
Dr Steve Rycroft, Head of Learning and Teaching Environments, said: "This project was an amazing team effort, working with dedicated educational technologists in Learning and Teaching Innovation and IT, all really passionate about improving the student experience in our Virtual Learning Environment and creating new options to enhance the accessibility of our digital learning content."
An online approach to practical science work
For a distance-learning institution practical work could be a challenge, but the Internet of Laboratory Things, shortlisted in the Teaching Excellence Award category, has embedded an online approach to practical lab work for STEM students in to the OU curriculum.
The Internet of Laboratory Things project connects students to equipment for practical science tasks over the internet, available 24 hours a day. Students and teachers access the lab equipment via a web browser, through which they can view the instruments in both campus-based facilities, and the OU's Tenerife-based observatory. They can send real-time control commands, monitor performance and download data for analysis. The project links students up to over 100 pieces of equipment including programmable robots, chemistry tools, electron microscopes, optical telescopes, a remote controlled Mars Rover, a cloud chamber and a satellite ground station.
Research grade equipment
Used for over 17,000 hours of practical work for around 7,000 students last year, the facility can be accessed by anyone at any time, and for individual or group learning tasks. It gives students access to research grade instruments from their own homes. The project has built on other online tools for practical science teaching including the award-winning OpenSTEM Labs.
Making the Internet of Laboratory Things fully integrated is key. It has brought together student teams exploring the universe with optical telescopes from their personal computers; broadcast live-streamed studio labs giving tutor-led experiments directed by students through web-chat and voting widgets, and encouraged student interaction with micrometer-scale measurements using real-time electron microscopes through a web browser.
The winners will be announced at a ceremony in London on 24 April 2018.
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