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Technologies for STEM learning

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

Developing programming problem-solving skills using individualised screencasts

Project leader(s): 
Sarah Mattingly

This project set out to investigate whether tutor feedback via video screencasts could help novice computing students develop skills in programming and in problem-solving, and whether creating such screencasts was feasible for tutors in the normal course of correspondence tuition. TM111 tutors provided short screencasts providing feedback on students' TMA answers, tailored to each individual's misconceptions, mistakes and areas for improvement.

The project was intended to address two main issues.

  1. Problem-solving is increasingly recognised as a key skill required of programmers (Loksa, Ko, Jernigan, Oleson, Mendez and Burnett, 2016). Yet novices often find problem-solving difficult, and educators find teaching problem-solving difficult, not least as different people may solve problems in different, but equally valid ways.  TM111 was the first OU computing module explicitly to embed teaching of problem-solving techniques. Still, some students struggle to develop successful problem-solving strategies, as evidenced by TMA results. This project explored how tutors might aid such students to become better programmers, more able to continue successfully through a computing-related degree, by providing them with audio-visual insight into how an experienced programmer (the tutor) would solve a problem, following the lines of the student's own initial thought processes.
  2. As the OU's introductory computing module TM111 is the first point at which novice programmers meet key programming concepts such as iteration and selection. These 'threshold' concepts are well-known areas of difficulty for novice programmers as has been found on predecessor computing courses such as TU100, and more widely (Rountree & Rountree, 2007). This project addressed students' misconceptions about such concepts.


Screencasting individual TMA feedback was found to be useful for students and viable in terms of time and effort for tutors in specific circumstances, notably where the screencast:

  • focusses on developing students' transferrable programming concepts and skills
  • exploits the visual aspects of code creation
  • is created for solutions where student has invested time and effort and got somewhere, that are somewhat correct but sub-optimal or wrong in some respect.

We found that whilst screencasting technologies themselves are freely available and easy to use, delivering screencasts to students is not straightforward due to file size and security concerns. The optimum delivery route currently seems to be YouTube; however, care must be taken to ensure screencasts are unlisted for privacy, and even so some tutors and students may have other concerns about using YouTube.  The development of a new eTMA system may offer additional options.

Related resources

Mattingly, S. (2020) Developing programming problem-solving skills using individualised screencasts. eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Sarah Mattingly poster

Developing responsive approaches to enhance personalized learning in selected LHCS modules

Project leader(s): 
Eleanor Crabb, Nick Chatterton and Kate Bradshaw

Personalized learning involves developing teaching strategies that allow students to learn in a way which is most effective for them. It requires educators to develop teaching materials using a range of styles, media and formats allowing students to choose approaches that suit their needs. Personalised learning has been shown to enhance student engagement and performance in a wide range of disciplines including science.

In many ways, the online distance learning modules developed at the Open University allow personalized learning to some degree: they use a range of formats and media, and students can study at their own pace. However, one element of personalised learning that is difficult to address effectively is responsive feedback and responsive teaching. This is particularly important to OU students as they have limited 1-2-1 contact with tutors and central academic staff.

An additional, technological, issue arises in the teaching of chemistry. Currently tutorials, and other ad-hoc teaching sessions, are delivered via either recorded Camtasia screencasts or Adobe Connect using PowerPoint. However, both these approaches lack flexibility, and in particular they limit the quality of “Chalk and Talk” teaching and this style is known to be particularly valued by students studying physical and organic chemistry. For example, it is difficult to hand drawn clear chemical structures or reaction mechanisms, and it is difficult to produce clear hand-written calculations. The current lack of flexibility severely limits the type of “on the hoof” responsive chemistry teaching that can be delivered.  

The aims of this project are:

  1. To investigate different technological and video solutions for the development of hand-written teaching assets that can be delivered in timely fashion in response to student queries.
  2. To produce hand written assets in response to student need
  3. Evaluate the success of the new teaching assets generated
  4. To produce an online best practice guide for other module teams in the OU.

Crabb, E., Chatterton, N. and Bradshaw, K. (2018) presentation