The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
Existing studies about the design of the Virtual Microscope (VM) detail the technical specifications of the microscope such as improving the client response time when requesting an image and portability across computer platforms (Çatalyürek et al., 2003; Fereira et al., 1997) and report on developments such as graphical annotation of slides, addition of hypertext links (Whalley et al., 2011), HTML with panning, zooming, 'share' button for embedding into external sites, and meta-data for each specimen (www.virtualmicroscope.org/content/welcome-virtual-microscope-earth-sciences). In addition, evaluation studies compared students’ impressions of physical versus VM (e.g., Kumar et al., 2004), rated students’ level of satisfaction and captured learning outcomes (e.g., Brown et al., 2016) and compared the pedagogical integration of the VM in blended and online settings (Herodotou et al., 2019).
Limited studies (Rehatschek & Hye, 2011) have examined the design of the VM with students and identified usability and learning issues students may face when interacting with it, and subsequently improved its design. In line with that, in our previous study funded by eSTEeM (Herodotou et al., 2019; Herodotou et al., in press), we examined the integration of the VM in Open University (OU) online courses and blended courses at a campus-based university. A significant finding was the students’ need for ongoing support and guidance when using the tool that can confirm or correct their interpretations of slides and clarify any misconceptions. This finding suggested that the current design of the VM could be further improved to effectively support or guide students’ understanding.
In this second study funded by eSTEeM, we evaluated a new, more improved version of the VM. The aim of this study was to identify what kind of support would better scaffold students’ learning and understanding with the VM. This support would either come from a tutor providing help to students while they are using the VM (synchronously) or a detailed written guide (the “workbook”) designed to support the use of the new version of the VM. A better understanding of the students’ interactions with the new VM could contribute to more effective and evidence-based learning provision, improve the design of certain features of the tool, and enhance students’ learning experience.