Category Archives: Outreach and Education

Open education: a creative approach to learning and teaching

By Vivien Rolfe, Associate Head of Department, UWE Bristol, UK, @vivienrolfe

A longer version of this article originally appeared in our magazine, Physiology News.

Open education, a means of widening access to education and materials, is not a new idea. Universities and teaching institutions have been inviting the public through their doors for centuries, and in more recent times ‘open’ universities have further championed the widening of access to formal education.

Open education was a dominant philosophy and practice in the 1970s. Unstructured curricula fostered creativity and supported diversity in learning, and knowledge was shared beyond the institution. The present reiteration of open education has similar underpinning ideals: providing an education system that shares, and is more inclusive and equitable.


Open education – from content to practice

The relationship between shared open educational resources (OERs) and emerging open education practices is a hot topic of debate. Great work within schools, colleges and universities has clearly emerged through either the generation of openly licensed content (a good starting point), or the development of open practice and pedagogy.

A widely accepted framework for practice development is David Wiley’s ‘5 R’s’ (Wiley, 2014).  They stand for Retain (you control what happens to the resources you share) through to Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute. This, in my experience, is a useful concept for teachers who aspire to develop their open practice

Open practice can extend the utility of our academic work within our institution, and even beyond the walls of our universities to a wider community of learners. In the UK, some notable examples include the University of Lincoln ‘Student as Producer’ project where students engaged as co-creators of open content, and the open photography course #Phonar at the University of Coventry which invited public collaboration and led to students working with professional communities as part of their learning.


Much of the UK activity stemmed from the 2009 – 2012 HEFCE-funded Open Educational Resource programme. Over 85 projects spanned most subject disciplines, and were seminal in building the community of open practitioners that thrives today by bringing them together in an annual conference organised by the Association of Learning Technology (#OERXX). I have reported the reach and impact of the OERs produced by these projects, and of using web marketing techniques to share content online (Rolfe, 2016).

Open practice for life science practicals

My recent work has explored open pedagogies in an attempt to address challenges facing laboratory practical teaching. Practicals are timetabled laboratory events, and it is well documented that teaching staff and technical teams struggle to address the gaps between school and university in terms of laboratory experience, for an ever-increasing number of students (Coward and Gray, 2014). Student criticisms include no buzz, repetitive nature and lack of social engagement (Wilson, Adams and Arkle, 2008).


So in my experience, what are some of the benefits and challenges of open educational practises in practicals?

Open education projects at De Montfort University included OERs on laboratory skills. Still accessible today via the project website and YouTube, these relatively low quality materials by today’s standards, were popular with students and boosted their confidence before entering the laboratory for the first time: “[Virtual Analytical Laboratory] has been very useful in easing my nerves before lab sessions” (Biomedical Science student, Rolfe, 2009). These resources were then embedded within the timetable with students working through workbooks prior to entering the lab. Soon, students were creating video of their own laboratory work and sharing these either informally with each other through social media, or as part of the project website. The laboratory technical teams also created resources in areas they thought students particularly struggled with. One of the benefits cited by staff was they needed to spend less time repeating basic instructions as students had an overview of the fundamental skills.

Other applications of open education included students accessing resources by QR codes at different workstations to introduce them to different techniques, which helped to cater for large student numbers in the lab in a more effective way. Students were also engaged in producing multiple-choice assessment questions, later shared as OERs accompanying resources on the project website.


Longer term, open education led to changes to the learning culture itself, with students taking control and implementing their own ideas, such as photographing histology images using iPhones for sharing as OER on the Google service Picasa, and later a Facebook discussion group. Some of the lasting impact of this work is the cross-university interest it generated – for example technology and arts students becoming interested in science projects, and the OER being available globally to support informal and formal learning, providing new insights and perspectives for students (Rolfe, 2016).

As more evidence is gathered as to the benefits and uses of OER and open practices, a new theoretical basis for open practical pedagogies may emerge. What is important is that we continue to openly share our case studies of teaching practice to build a fuller picture. That way, larger communities of teachers can grow and benefit:

“It has changed my practice in terms of whenever I’m doing anything I think how could this be an OER or how could it supplement what I’m doing”. (Microbiology lecturer).

Read the full-length version of this article in our magazine, Physiology News.


Coward, K., and Gray, J. V., 2014. Audit of Practical Work Undertaken Accessed 12 May 2017].

Rolfe, V., 2009. Development of a Virtual Analytical Laboratory (VAL) multimedia resource to support student transition to laboratory science at university. HEA Bioscience Case Study. pp. 1-5.

Rolfe, V., 2016.  Web Strategies for the Curation and Discovery of Open Educational Resources. Open Praxis, 8(4). [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wiley, D., 2014. The Access Compromise and the 5th R. [online] [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wilson, J., Adams, D. J. and Arkle, S., 2008. 1st Year Practicals–their role in developing future Bioscientists. Leeds, the Higher education Academy Centre for Bioscience. [online] [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wikipedia, women, and science

Every second, 6000 people across the world access Wikipedia. The opportunity to reach humans of the world is enormous. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many eminent scientists, especially eminent female scientists, don’t have pages!

Melissa Highton is on a mission to fix this. Her first step was bringing together a group of students and librarians for an Edit-a-thon to update the page of the first female students matriculated in the UK, who started studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. They’re known as the Edinburgh Seven.

Not only do Edit-a-thons provide information for the world, the Edinburgh Seven serve as role models for current students studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Melissa shines light on Wikipedia being skewed towards men, and also on structural inequalities that lead to so few women having pages. Women are often written out of history; they are the wives of famous someones who get recognised instead, they get lost in records because they change their last name, or they juggle raising a family, meaning they don’t work for as long or publish as much.


Having a forum to talk openly and transparently about these inequalities is one of the steps to closing the gap. Our event for Physiology Friday 2017 did just that, and we hope participants will continue the conversation. Listen to Melissa’s talk here.


10 Epic Physiology Cakes

It’s that time of year again! Great British Bake-Off time Bio-Bodies Bake-Off time! To celebrate the return of the baking season, staff at The Physiological Society have been reminiscing about past entries to our annual hunger-inducing competition. From muscle to kidneys, representing health or disease, grossly graphic or detailed to the molecular level, check out our 10 favourites, in no particular order. If you haven’t quite decided what area of physiology you would like to cover in this year’s competition, these delicious treats might give you some inspiration!

  1. Operation Indigestion: Stomacake, by Anousha Chandran, Kujani Wanniarachchi, Susannah Watson and Anna Higgins

Rosie 1

Rosie Waterton, our Governance Manager, admits to having limited physiology knowledge, but confesses to a somewhat higher than average level of cake eating experience. “This cake is probably my favourite,” she explains. “There is something darkly ironic about demonstrating indigestion through something so delicious and tempting! I also just love a good pun.”

  1. Anatomy of the Face, by Sophia Rothewell

Rosie couldn’t help picking a second choice when she saw Anatomy of the Face. She was struck by its uncanny resemblance to a Game of Thrones white walker…. only colourful.



  1. Not Kidneying Around, by Carlotta Meyer


Jen Brammer, our Membership Engagement Manager, another pun fan, loved this delicious masterpiece, Not Kidneying Around. Whilst unsure about the anatomical accuracy, she did enjoy debating whether the appendages were pickled onions or grapes!

  1. Upper Leg, by Jack Croft

Bobby Harrop, our summer intern and a keen cyclist, was immediately struck when seeing the cake titled Upper Leg.

Jack Croft Biobakes_Bobby

He commented: “when cycling, I rely heavily on the input of my upper legs and I was fascinated to see this submission highlighting the complexity of the Rectus Femoris and Vastus muscle group whilst including real detail in the muscular tone. Plus in terms of parts of the body to eat, muscle is probably the most appetising as it is mostly protein!”

  1. The Effects of Drug Abuse on the Human Body, by Amy Yang

Anisha Tailor, our Outreach Officer, has probably spent the most time browsing through the #Biobakes entries. Each year, she develops a minor obsession with the hashtag and eagerly awaits the first entry!


“I think my favourite cake of all time has to be the one titled The Effects of Drug Abuse on the Human Body. It was a bit of a shock to find it in my inbox at first, but it became one of my firm favourites of 2016: it’s visceral, yet educational, although perhaps not very appetising”.

  1. Guts, by the students from Tiverton High School


Hannah Woolley, Editorial Assistant, spent far too long deciding which one was her favourite. She finally decided she liked this one the most because it looked gross.  “It’s a compliment! I particularly liked the attention to detail that went into the blood splatter.”

  1. A Tasty Great Cake, by Katie Pennington


Daïmona Kounde, our Communications Officer, loves picking yummy cake photos for our social media. “I have a soft spot for the DNA-themed cakes,” she says. “My favourite, A Tasty Great Cake, is not just beautiful and colourful, but it also has the A, T, C and G bases paired correctly, with a colour key to boot. The ‘base necessities’ pun in the cake description was just… icing on the cake (sorry)!”

  1. Synapse, by Nicola Armstrong

Angela Breslin, our Education Manager, has been following the BioBakes competition ever since it started, and continues to be amazed by the high standard of entries each year.

“It’s a difficult choice but if I had to choose just one, it would be the cake titled simply Synapse, for the sheer amount of detail and the elegant way in which it shows how an action potential travels between nerves – somehow managing to show physiology in a single snapshot. It’s also a beautiful bake!”


  1. Louis’s Lungs, by Louis Christofi


Samantha Chan, Events & Marketing Officer, has tried baking different cakes and biscuits in the past, but has never attempted a BioBakes cake. Sadly, staff aren’t allowed to enter, so she will just have to make do with all your entries – or make some cakes for the office! Her favourite was Louis’s Lungs, which shows the structure of the lungs.

  1. Your baking masterpiece!

We can’t wait to be amazed by this year’s entries. Maybe yours will make it to our next round of favourites! If you’re still a bit stuck for ideas for BioBakes 2017, browse our Twitter hashtag #Biobakes, read about one of our previous winners, or take a look at our 2014, 2015 and 2016 Facebook albums!

All you’ve got left to do is bake! For full terms and conditions visit our competition page. Entries are due in by 5pm, Friday 6 October, and photos must include the #Biobakes photo entry form to be considered.