Daniel Branan is the lab director of the North American Network of Science Labs Online, a partnership among postsecondary institutions in the U.S. and Canada. To achieve its mission of helping low-income students achieve science-based careers, NANSLO relies on openness — open-source software enables remote web control of lab equipment and the courseware developed to support online lab experiments carries a Creative Commons license.
“Having this project openly licensed takes the stress off of all of us,” Daniel says. “It sets the stage nicely so that everyone knows that everything will be open for sharing. That lowers a lot of barriers.” The result: opportunities for science education that were previously beyond the reach of many students.
A pioneering group of science educators is using open source software and Creative Commons–licensed courses to allow students to robotically control lab equipment and conduct scientific experiments online. Their ingenuity is increasing access to high-quality educational experiences for online science students.
The North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) is a collaborative partnership among postsecondary institutions in the U.S. and Canada. The collaborative’s open approach offers enormous opportunities for students, faculty, and participating educational institutions. Open-source software enables remote web control of lab equipment and the courseware developed to support online lab experiments carries a Creative Commons license.
“Open licensing has made it easier to get partnerships on the road,” said Albert Balbon, Supervisor of Distributed Learning, North Island College, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, and one of the NANSLO leadership team. “There are no roadblocks to us sharing, and nothing stopping other institutions from joining us and feeling more a part of the overall project.”
Daniel Branan, from the Colorado Community College System and NANSLO Lab Director, agrees. “Having this project openly licensed as an upfront condition takes the stress off of all of us. It sets the stage nicely so that everyone knows that everything will be open for sharing. That lowers a lot of barriers.”
Lowering barriers is especially important when your mission explicitly addresses the need to engage “low-income, first generation college students who are at risk of failing from completing their degrees or pursuing science-based careers due to challenges such as work and family obligations or living in rural areas that limit their access to traditional classes.”
A persistent barrier for low-income, first-generation college students has been cost. “One of the main benefits of open licensing is that we don’t have to pass any costs for licensing content to students,” said Albert. While some of the software is proprietary, all of the curriculum and code written by NANSLO to enable remote access to their servers is open and free.
According to Daniel, “All of the curriculum that references remote lab activities is licensed with a Creative Commons CC BY license. While we write it for our labs, it provides useful content that anyone can use for free.”
These same financial benefits extend to host institutions. NANSLO makes access to scientific instruments like spectrometers and sophisticated telescopes possible without each institution needing to invest in their own. Faculty similarly benefit because they can run labs on equipment that might not be available in their own classrooms, and according to Albert, “they don’t have as much curriculum development to do on their part, and we’ll keep the courseware up to date for technology they are using.” Because this courseware is CC-licensed, they not only can use it, but adapt it to fit the needs of their own students and their own teaching style.
Another advantage of the inclusive nature of NANSLO collaborative is the work of discipline panels. Representatives from each of the participating institutions decide together which are the best labs to develop. Previous similar efforts that did not utilize open licensing and collaborative decision making lacked the inclusive nature that this design has accomplished.
As impressive as the direct benefits to students, faculty, and participating institutions are now, Albert and Daniel light up when discussing the potential. “I’m looking at the possibilities for delivering science labs to high school and elementary classrooms, even to home schooled students,” said Albert. “Another area that I’ve thought about for many years is using the technology for people with disabilities who would not be able to accomplish these experiments in a traditional science lab.”
Daniel has his sights set a little further from home. “We don’t have any grant funding for this now, but can you imagine moving into international educational areas where they might not have access to some of this equipment? Once you are on the web, you have the potential to reach anyone anywhere where they have a computer and internet connection.”
NANSLO has harnessed the power of open source software and CC-licensed content to lower the cost, increase the accessibility, and ensure the quality of remote science labs and online science classes. By removing barriers, they have created opportunities for science education previously beyond the reach of many students.
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Daniel Branan (Team Open) was written by David Kindler for Creative Commons. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The illustration of Daniel Branan was created by Luke Surl. To the extent possible under the law, Luke Surl has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights under the CC0 Public Domain Declaration.