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Technologies for STEM learning

Implementing quantum mechanics visualisation tools in a distance learning context

Project leader(s): 
Calum MacCormick

The aim of the project is to analyse a trial run of some carefully selected quantum mechanics visualisation tools within the 19J presentation of SM358, and to use the analysis to inform the development of the level 3 physics curriculum.

As a mathematically abstract and profoundly counter-intuitive subject, quantum mechanics (QM) is notoriously difficult to learn - and teach. One successful approach to improving QM teaching is to include lab-class based visualisation activities which allow students to better understand the abstract and counter-intuitive concepts of QM. Of course, the OU is not a classroom based university, so adapting these modern methods to the OU may not be straightforward.

The OU’s SM358 quantum physics course is now 12 years old. SM358 has always received very good student feedback (>90% positive), but in recent years a small decline in student satisfaction has been noticed. It is hypothesised that the changing expectations of our evolving student population is driving this trend. An objective of the new QM course will be to improve student engagement, learning outcomes and satisfaction by using the latest QM visualisation tools.

A notable development at St Andrews is the QuVis quantum visualisation project ( which has also been adopted by the IOP as their recommended QM library.

Our plan is to offer three QuVis activities in parallel with the existing course materials, and to ask the students using QuVis to answer conceptual questions and record their impressions on the activities in a questionnaire. Student participation in the trial is voluntary. We are looking to see what challenges/difficulties arise when QuVis are employed outside of a classroom, and therefore what additional support is required.

QM is not the only mathematically abstract, conceptually challenging STEM subject and so the integration of visualisation tools into our teaching is of wide interest both within and beyond the Open University.

Using technology-enabled learning networks to drive module improvements in STEM

Project leader(s): 
Lesley Boyd and Rob Janes

This project provides one way to answer the need to close the feedback loop between OU tutors and campus-based teams, to develop a joint understanding of teaching and learning design challenges, and to put tutors as close as possible to the development of solutions.

This project used a ‘learning network’ approach as a collaborative and inclusive action-oriented problem identification and problem-solving process in Level 2 Chemistry, S215. The project built on and consolidated a previous eSTEeM project on identifying and addressing conceptual misunderstandings or ‘Tricky Topics’ in three OU modules. It is a collaboration between the STEM faculty (School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences), and Lesley Boyd who is undertaking a PhD on collaborative action research using ‘learning networks’ within the OU, for equitable and inclusive problem solving and integration of views from tutors, module teams and students. This means that it provides a process for scholarship researching with, embracing the expertise and experience of tutors, staff tutors, module teams and students, as opposed to more traditional academic researching on or researching for.

In the first project, S215 tutors identified a series of Tricky Topics1 and the tutors went on to design and implement a series of 4 intervention videos. However, concerns were raised by tutors about whether Tricky Topics alone got to the ‘root cause’ of the complex, interrelated and somewhat intractable issues facing the module. These included:

  • pace and volume of material, and students falling behind
  • student preparedness
  • overall study time spent including whether studying online or offline
  • opportunities for consolidation or practice of concepts.

Student preparedness was felt by tutors to be getting progressively worse year on year, in what was already a packed and conceptually challenging curriculum. Learning design mapping data indicated that several Blocks contained more student workload than was appropriate and exceeded current OU guidelines. Learning design analytics visualisations indicated low VLE engagement overall, in an online only module. Thus, the analytics added to qualitative feedback from tutors that pace and volume of material and student preparedness remained significant and ongoing challenges.

The tutors, staff tutor and module team participated in an unfolding collaborative inquiry process hosted in a separate VLE site, or learning network, where all the project data, discussion forums and online workshops could be held in one place, and visible to everyone. The purpose was to interpret the analytics, collaboratively reflect on joint experiences and insights, and decide on improvement action.

As a result, as series of ‘signposting’ materials were developed by a tutor for five Blocks identified by tutors and students as ‘pressure points’. The signposts were promoted to students via Real Time Student Feedback (RTSF) questionnaires in the Study Planner. This communicated to students that the module team were aware of and investigating the workload issue and provided reassurance to students who may have been falling behind. Thus, targeted practical and emotional support was provided to those students requiring it.  

Signposts have been evaluated very positively by students. Tutors considered the project to be a ‘welcome collaborative process’ in which ‘key improvements were made, for students, based directly on the project reflection and solutions put forward’. Project data formed a backbone of evidence for the module Mid Life Review, to chart the development road forward for the module. The project thus contributed to the development of the module as a whole. It is envisioned that the lessons and evidence from the project will be integrated into the forthcoming module re-write (beginning 2021-22).

The entire process was facilitated by Lesley working in conjunction with Rob, and simultaneously conceptualised using Grounded Theory Method (GTM) as part of the PhD work. This has resulted in a new conceptual framework called ULTIMATE – Using Learning Technology in Making Action-based Transformative Enhancements. The ULTIMATE framework will guide teams through a structured but flexible collaborative action research-based process, which is designed to inclusively identify and address issues in complex learning design and delivery challenges. It can also be applied to other contexts and challenging scenarios which may be spread across geographical and functional boundaries.

ULTIMATE could thus assist module teams who are facing uncertain or indeterminate learning design and delivery situations and would like to encourage and embrace the collaborative integration of insights from their tutors, students, module team and other stakeholders, whilst embracing supporting data.

Related resources

Boyd, L. and Janes, R. (2021) Using technology-enabled learning networks to drive module improvements in STEM. eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Boyd, L. and Janes, R. ULTIMATE framework (Excel)

Boyd, L., 2019. Using Technology-Enabled Learning Networks to Drive Module Improvements in the UK Open University. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2019(1), p.16. DOI:

Boyd, L., Janes, R. and Olney, T. (2019) Using technology-enabled learning networks to drive module improvements in STEM. Presentation at the 8th eSTEeM Annual Conference, 8-9 May 2019, The Open University. (PPT)

Boyd, L., Leach, C., Janes, R. and Olney, T. (2019) The search for collaborative improvements: using learning networks and learning analytics to drive module improvements in STEM at the Open University. Presentation at the Horizons in STEM HE Conference, 3-4 July 2019, Kingston University London. (PPT)

Boyd, L. and Janes R. (2018) eSTEeM induction presentation

1 See here for a Badged Open Course developed by the OU and hosted on OpenLearn, on Teaching and learning tricky topics, as a practice-based application of Threshold Concepts theory (Meyer and Land, 2006).

Use of augmented reality in a second level human biology module: benefits and challenges

Project leader(s): 
Karen New
  • This project explored the use of a vision-based augmented reality (AR) application (Heart App), which has been developed by the Open University, specifically for a second level Human Biology module (SK299). 
  • Through multiple methodologies, including web survey, questionnaires, focus-groups and interview, this project aimed to explore student and practitioner experiences and perceptions relating to potential benefits and challenges associated with this Heart App.
  • Findings indicate that although most students reported finding the Heart App easy to install on their device(s), a number experienced some difficulty, and as a result of this project, the student instructions are being improved for the next presentation of the module. 
  • The results also suggest that there is some uncertainty with regards to whether students understand the nature of augmented reality.  As a result of this project, the initial user interface on Open Science Laboratory is going to be changed, to make it clearer for students the best devices to use, how to download the Heart App, and what to expect in terms of output during use.  
  • Students reported that they valued being in control of the pace of their learning.  They also commented positively on the ability to visualise aspects of the heart; students indicated that being able to manipulate and visualise structures consolidated their learning from the text.
  • However, it is important to acknowledge that just over one-fifth of the combined email survey respondents (students on 18J and 17J presentations) felt that the Heart App did not aid their understanding of the anatomy/physiology of the heart, with some 17% of respondents overall finding the 3D heart too complex to interpret.  Although the reasons behind this result are difficult to unpick, it may be related to technological/practicalities of use, and hence improved support around use of the Heart App may help students on future presentations.
  • The majority of students found the Heart App was fun to use (approx. 58% of non-nursing students, 65% nursing students), and over three quarters of respondents wanted to see AR used more often to support their learning, a finding which supports experiences in the wider literature on the use of AR in education.  However, approx. 45% reported that they preferred learning about the heart using the text, 2Dimages and videos on the module website.   Again, this finding may be tied to technological issues; however, this finding also reinforces the need for a mixed media approach when supporting student learning in an online environment.  Students are not a homogenous group, and different educational approaches and tools may suit different students.
  • Most practitioners responded positively towards the Heart App; reporting that overall, the Heart App was a good use of student time and that it aided understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the heart.

Related resources

New, K. (2020) Use of augmented reality in a second level human biology module: benefits and challenges. eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Karen New presentation