Project Background

“…a transformative change in the delivery of microscopy training for Irish geoscience students.”

Learning to independently identify and classify minerals and rocks, interpret their textures, and explain their origin, requires well-developed skills in optical microscopy. These skills take time and significant effort to acquire.

Skills development is encouraged by formative and summative assessments throughout a four-year degree programme. However, due to resource limitations, most undergraduate students can only gain access to specialised microscopes for 2-4 hours per week. First year students, due to larger class numbers (>140 students), may not be exposed to microscope work at all while students in large classes end up sharing equipment.

The development of the Virtual Microscope for Earth Sciences (VMfES) as an Open Educational Resource by The Open University has introduced a step change in teaching and learning for Earth Sciences students by broadening student access, anytime, anywhere, to world-class rock collections that are currently held in museums and universities around the world.

In Ireland, to date, formative and summative assessment, using petrological microscopes, has been restricted to face-to-face class time. If introduced, the VMfES will provide Irish students with an effective tool to examine rock thin sections (slides) with flexible 24/7 access. In module evaluations students continuously request additional access to microscopes to supplement their timetabled classes. In focus groups students say that using the microscope to investigate and interpret rock/fossil evidence is the most important technique they deploy.

The VMfES provides 24/7 access with and the usual issues relating to time required for practical setup are eliminated. This is particularly relevant to the use an availability of the VMfES for revision work.

The VMfES allows and facilitates peer group discussion. Attention of the group can be drawn to any features by specifying the coordinates associated with any digitised slide set. The VMfES offers consistently high quality study material; there are no issues with poor/damaged thin sections or broken microscopes.

There is therefore a clear student need that would be effectively addressed through the development of teaching and learning resources that fully exploit the virtual microscope environment. After the initial period of development of hardware and software, and roll-out of the UK VMfES, the Open University have recognised the potential to expand the teaching utility of the resource. This is dependant upon the provision and distribution of appropriate e-tutorials and e-assessments. Thus, the opportunity has arisen where we in Ireland can collaboratively design and develop dedicated digital teaching and learning activities and resources that optimise the use of the VMfES as a teaching and learning tool.

This proposal will see all national third level geoscience units come together in close collaboration with the Open University, UK, to develop for the first time a suite of dedicated digital virtual microscope teaching resources for undergraduate students. To our knowledge, this is the first effort of its kind world-wide. We further believe, that in addition to increasing the efficiency and enhancing the overall learning experience, these new resources will greatly facilitate peer and group learning opportunities for undergraduate students.

This will be a transformative change in the delivery of microscopy training for Irish geoscience students. This use of digital technology to foster teaching and learning innovation is central to this proposal.

The Irish third level geoscience community primarily consists of four academic units based in UCC, NUIG, UCD and TCD, each unit offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the geosciences. There exists a well-established track record of inter-institutional cooperation between these units most especially relating to research activities. This project provides an incentive and opportunity to extend that cooperation to research led teaching and learning activities. An annual conference, the Irish Geological Research Meeting (IGRM), brings together geoscientists and related disciplines to discuss geological research taking place in Ireland and further supports this national cooperation. It is also an ideal and very effective forum for geoscience teachers to discuss teaching and learning methodologies and strategies.

Most recently, this consortium of Irish Geoscience Schools succeeded in establishing the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geoscience (iCRAG) funded by Science Foundation Ireland with additional support from industry partners. This initiative promoted and strengthened cooperation between the institutions and provides a secure 6-year bedrock (2015 – 2020) for future collaboration. The current proposal articulates a clear willingness to cooperate nationally in building digital capacity in teaching and learning to benefit undergraduate students.

The current UK VMfES represents over ten years of development and significant financial investment by the Open University. In 2013/14, the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science (FEMS) at TCD awarded the Department of Geology €10,000 to begin a pilot using the UK VMfES. This resulted in the digitization of 12 rock specimens of the 2nd year Microscopy module (GL2206, taken by 145 students). TCD decided to make this small collection publicly available (here).

In 2014, Prof. Simon Kelley (OU) was invited to give a lecture to the FEMS Digital Learning Research Group, explaining how the resource can be used for effective engagement of students. Simon presented statistical data to show how digital microscopy equals and sometimes outperforms conventional training in practical examination. In response to very positive student feedback and examination results, TCD Geology was awarded a further €10,000 in 2014/15 to expand the UK VMfES collection. This now permits academic staff to use the UK VMfES also in more advanced third-year modules. According to the anonymous statistics, the level of engagement of students from TCD was highest of all universities currently participating in the UK VMfES project. Academic staff at TCD are excited to share their experience with their colleagues across Ireland.

By collaborating with the OU the whole Irish Geosciences sector will get the benefit of the cloud based infrastructure, thin section digitisation facility and browser based system that allows scientific manipulation and investigation of the very large data files that are needed for simulation of a traditional petrological microscope. The OU will work with the project management team to add to their database of open access digitised specimens. These resources represent over one £1,000,000 of investment by the Open University. Due to its sophistication, it is possible with this software to develop and hone petrography skills on a tablet or a smart phone even with modest data bandwidth. In return, the OU believe they will benefit from the international collaboration and expertise that course designers have built up in face-to-face teaching in the Irish institutions.

The project focus initially will be to document and identify the main teaching and learning priorities relating to optical microscopy for each of the participating units. Material will be selected for digitisation from each of the unit’s teaching collections.


The new resources will subsequently be assessed using on-going student and tutor feedback from each of the participating units. Analysis from this feedback will help fine-tune/improve the first iteration of the teaching resources. The final months of the project will focus on dissemination of the newly developed resources to the wider international geoscience community (European Geophysical Union conference paper) and engagement with other disciplines that utilise microscopy in their undergraduate teaching curricula.

Developing Digital Teaching & Learning Resources for the Virtual Microscope