Open fellowship with the OER Research Hub

I started at the OER Research Hub as part of my open fellowship on 20 January and spent two and a half weeks with the group within the Institute of Education Technology. I am now back in Cape Town at Siyavula, as we continue with our research into looking at the impact of our OER on educators in South Africa. So far, my fellowship with the OERRH has been extremely beneficial and a wonderful learning and sharing experience. Following are some of the highlights from this experience so far.

The Open University’s expertise and experience


As the Open University has been doing distance and then online learning for the past 40 years, there is a wealth of expertise and experience to draw on. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about how the OU works, as it is quite unique, and also what we can take back to Siyavula. I was able to meet with a variety of departments and institutes which helped me obtain different perspectives of online learning, everything from attracting potential students through various media channels, to the creation and delivery of courses and materials to the research that has gone into student interaction, teaching and pedagogy.

I particularly enjoyed chatting to various people within the Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS) and being able to compare how each of us creates and delivers content. I like the way LTS has customised Oxygen XML editor to be able to cut and paste from Word templates, which the course producers use to author their content. This enables content producers to work in an environment that they are familiar with, so that technical details do not become a barrier to their content production. Various staff at the LTS were also very interested in the way we at Siyavula have used LaTeX for the layout of our content and I was able to explain and elaborate on our processes. Have a look at our Thunderbolt Kids resources – the pdfs are all styled and laid out in LaTeX!

My first attempt at answering the question, which is recognised as being partially correct.
My first attempt at answering the question, which is recognised as being partially correct.
My second attempt is a more complete sentence, and the feedback also provides the model solution.
My second attempt is a more complete sentence, and the feedback also provides the model solution.

I met with Phil Butcher from the eAssessment team and found this discussion very enjoyable and insightful. As the OU delivers all of its courses online, and students are dotted all over the world, they have invested a significant amount of work into generating their assessment platform and tools to make it easy to use and beneficial for students and tutors as well as course creators. Have a look at some of the examples on Moodle and OpenMark. All the tools and question formats are open source. Of particular interest to me and us at Siyavula are the free text response type questions which also allow for multiple attempts and give feedback which allows for learning, and not just assessment, as seen here on the left.

I was also able to demonstrate our online practice and assessment service at Siyavula, called Intelligent Practice, which draws on machine learning to ensure learners are pushed to their optimum level and ultimately, practice intelligently.

The OERRH and IET’s research and innovation

I really found the Institute of Education Technology to be an exciting place to be. The IET is at the heart of the OU’s research and innovation in pedagogy and the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning, as well as researching the importance and impact of openness in education. The research taking place and the experience to draw on within the IET was a highlight for me and an opportunity to reflect on what we do at Siyavula and how it fits into what is happening globally.

I found the range of past and present research projects that have come out of IET to be really encouraging and inspiring. For example, it was interesting discussing OpenLearn (the OU’s free, online courses) and FutureLearn (MOOCs from leading UK and international universities) with Patrick McAndrew and how these services support and compliment the OU’s activities, as well as how OpenLearn and the various BBC productions act as a marketing tools for prospective students.


2Before coming to the OU, I came across the OpenScience Laboratory online, and wanted to find out more about this project. I was able to meet with some of the team and learn about the online, virtual lab and how it is intended for use by teachers and learners around the world. I think this is a fantastic resource and would like to promote its use in South African schools to break down the barrier of restricting classroom walls, or limited resources, allowing learners to delve into a science laboratory and start exploring and learning by using real data and images.

A view of an artery through the virtual microscope.
A view of an artery through the virtual microscope.

Secondly, I got a demo of another project linked to the OpenScience Laboratory called Nquire. I found this very exciting as it supports and encourages young people to be scientists by enabling them to take part in genuine scientific practice using the online open science laboratory. The project aims to design and develop a set of open source tools and software enabling you to design and run science inquiries at school, at home, or outdoors on mobile devices. I hope that we at Siyavula will be able to draw on this tool in the future to perhaps create our own local versions of investigations and be able to share these with South African teachers to use in their classrooms.

ispot_logoiSpot is another project which has come out of IET. I first came across iSpot in South Africa when researching simple citizen science activities that teachers could do with their learners to include in our Gr 7-9 Natural Sciences workbooks. So, it was great to see the institute where the project originated and learn about how it has been used in the UK.

To me, these projects highlight the huge impact that open source tools and technology can have in the field of participatory and citizen science, drawing in people from all ages to experience the thrill of curiosity and discovery! As I am passionate about science education, within open education, I am constantly looking for ways in which to make the science for school learners engaging, exciting, challenging and rewarding. I think the tools offered by the OpenScience Laboratory and Nquire will be some that we can draw on in the future to build out our content, make it more interactive and create a stimulating, online learning environment for young scientists.

Getting a "different perspective" on open with the OERRH team :)
Getting a “different perspective” on open with the OERRH team 🙂

Lastly, a highlight for me about the OER Research Hub was the diversity of the people and collaborators working on the project. The team members at the OU have a wide range of skills and backgrounds, from philosophy to computer science to arts education, which all combine in a unique way to give a dynamic, thought-provoking group of people. I really enjoyed discussing the various research that they are doing. I especially enjoyed learning about TESS-India and how the resources have to be localised and adapted to 6 states and 4 languages, within one country so that they have their intended impact. I was also able to chat to Bea de los Arcos about her OER Research Hub work with Vital Signs from the Gulf of Maine. I found this very applicable as it would be worthwhile, and have a large impact, to do something similar in a South African context where scientists and teachers pair up to map invasive species, allowing learners to contribute to real scientific research and scientists benefit from the large data collection. Need to chat to the citizen science projects at the University of Cape Town about this!

How school learners get involved in research by helping scientists in the Gulf of Maine gather data on various species through the Vital Signs programme (Image CC-BY Vital Signs)
How school learners get involved in research by helping scientists in the Gulf of Maine gather data on various species through the Vital Signs programme (Image CC-BY Vital Signs)

The OU’s accessibility programme

Something which I was not expecting, but found it to be a real highlight in my fellowship, was learning about the OU’s accessibility programme. This includes optimising the OU’s websites and various platforms to make them as easy to navigate as possible, especially websites such as OpenLearn which are open to the public and need to be user friendly. and, more specifically, looking at how to make courses and resources accessible to students and staff with disabilities. I had a tour of the Jennie Lee Research Laboratories, run by the IET, which is where they do all their user experience testing. The facilities are very impressive, from the various observation and recording labs, gaming rooms, eye tracking devices and accessibility software and hardware. This experience was definitely food for thought on how we at Siyavula need to look at our content and resources in the future to increase access by taking into account learners with disabilities. This will help to make our resources even more ‘open’!

The research going forward

Below is a short video clip from my interview with Beck Pitt whilst at the OERRH on my fellowship. Other clips from the interview are available on the OERRH Youtube site.

We have had the Educator Survey open to participation for the past 6 weeks and it will be closing soon. Then we will start analysing the results to see what interesting findings and conclusions there are to make from the aggregated responses.

Building a global picture of OER impact.
Building a global picture of OER impact.

Anyone from the OER community can tell the world about their OER work by adding evidence, projects and policies to the map. Find out how you can contribute to the OER Impact Map.

I am really looking forward to the ‘Research tool kit’ that the OERRH is putting together as well as taking part in the course on ‘Research into Open Education’. At Siyavula, I am interested in doing continuous assessment and research into the impact of our work. The fellowship has helped enormously to provide a foundation for this going forward so that we can continue to add to the evidence around OER and build a greater understanding worldwide, specifically adding the perspective from a developing country. In my opinion, this is where OER has the potential to make the most significant and meaningful impact.

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