A robotic telescope for university-level distance teaching

  • Ulrich Kolb The Open University
  • Marcus Brodeur The Open University
  • Nicholas Braithwaite The Open University
  • Shailey Minocha The Open University


We present aspects of the deployment of a remotely operable telescope for teaching practical science to distance learning undergraduate students. We briefly describe the technical realisation of the facility, PIRATE, in Mallorca and elaborate on how it is embedded in the Open University curriculum. The PIRATE teaching activities were studied as part of a wider research project into the importance of realism, sociability and metafunctionality for the effectiveness of virtual and remote laboratories in teaching practical science. We find that students accept virtual experiments (e.g.\ a telescope simulator) when they deliver genuine, ``messy'' data, clarify how they differ from a realistic portrayal, and are flagged as training tools. A robotic telescope is accepted in place of on-site practical work when realistic activities are included, the internet connection is stable, and when there is at least one live video feed. The robotic telescope activity should include group work and facilitate social modes of learning. Virtual experiments, though normally considered as asynchronous tools, should also include social interaction. To improve student engagement and learning outcomes a greater situational awareness for the robotic telescope setting should be devised. We conclude this report with a short account of the current status of PIRATE after its relocation from Mallorca to Tenerife and its integration into the OpenScience Observatories.