A Comparative Study of Blended and Online Learning using the Virtual Microscope for Earth Sciences

Muirhead, David K.; Herodotou, Christothea; Aristeidou, Maria; Hole, M. J.; Kelley, Simon; Scanlon, Eileen and Duffy, M. (2017). A Comparative Study of Blended and Online Learning using the Virtual Microscope for Earth Sciences. In: Horizons in STEM Higher Education Conference: Making Connections and Sharing Pedagogy, 39 Jun - 30 June 2017, Heriot-Watt University, UK.


The Virtual Microscope for Earth Sciences (VMfES) was launched as a freely accessible 100 thin section collection of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic UK rocks in 2012 at www.virtualmicroscope.org . The samples can be explored by panning, zooming and rotating within a browser window and can thus be viewed on many desktop and mobile platforms. Since 2012 the VMfES has increased to over 1000 samples, including rocks from around the world, meteorites and a rapidly expanding Moon rock collection. Virtual Learning Environments are commonly utilized within Higher Education (Barajas & Owen, 2000; Weller, 2007; Lameras et al, 2012) with virtual microscopes (VMs) near-commonplace in the sector. Although the use of VMs in HE is dominated by life sciences, there is an emerging focus on such technologies in Earth science and material science. The largest group of users of the VMfES are undergraduate students studying Earth Materials, directed to the website as an integrated component of their microscope laboratory classes. Students are commonly given additional materials allowing them to supplement their recognition and identification skills. Previous studies have shown that students are generally satisfied with the use of VMs, but it is not yet known what teaching and learning conditions better support their use and lead to enhanced learning outcomes. The aim of this study was to evaluate the integration of the VM in both blended and online only learning conditions and draw conclusions about the factors that should be considered in teaching and learning using VMs. Data were collected from 11 semi-structured interviews with undergraduate and postgraduate students from two campus-based and one distance learning institution who were utilising the VM in 1) an integrated (blended) manner and 2) online only. The work revealed that the blended learning condition better caters for students' engagement and learning as a result of the systematic use of the VM in course design, complementary use with a physical microscope, and the provision of tutors' support and guidance.

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