How do you create a free resource for a top-drawer client like BP? Sophie Bessemer reports
BP screenshot 1BP: 'pushing the boundaries of creativity and interactivity'Mention the phrase ‘sponsored educational resource’ to some educators and you’ll be met with a barrage of arguments about the commercialisation of the classroom, inappropriate branding, and using teachers as an unpaid sales force.

While you can always find poor examples, the great majority of sponsored resources, undergo just the same rigorous research, development and testing regime as any educational publisher-created ones. And, as a bonus, the sponsored resource will generally be free to schools.

So, how do we go about creating a sponsored educational resource that conforms to the principles of high-quality free resources, providing sound and curriculum-appropriate learning outcomes, while fulfilling the requirements of the commercial or charitable organisation that has paid for the resource? (See also "Slaves to the system – principles of a free resource" and its teacher checklist for evaluating resources.)

BP Educational Service – a case study for resource development

One of the companies in the UK with a longstanding commitment to education over several decades is BP. BP has a wide range of educational partnerships and programmes, including the BP Educational Service website for schools.

At EdComs we have been working with BP for more than five years to create high-quality educational resources for primary and secondary schools that fit the needs of teachers and learners in the UK, while also pushing the boundaries of creativity and interactivity. In 2006 BP was the first to bring out a Carbon Footprint Toolkit specifically aimed at schools. This award-winning resource continues to be highly regarded by teachers, as do BP’s other resources for primary and secondary schools (there are approximately 24,000 registered users on the BP Educational Service website using these resources today).

Developing a new resource

BP screen 2Last year, one of our most successful resources was BP's Science Skills, a resource for 11 to 16-year-olds (linked to National Curriculum key stages 3 and 4, and Scottish Curriculum for Excellence levels 3 and 4). The end product is a model of blended learning, using video, downloadable PDFs/worksheets, online quizzes and interactive experiments to help learners develop and practise their science skills through a range of real-life scientific challenges.

We can say with confidence that this resource fits the curriculum, is easy and clear for teachers and students to use, and provides a unique learning opportunity that is both stimulating and entertaining – but that’s only thanks to the benefit of a stringent 15 months of development.

Edcoms brainstormingBrainstorming with secondary teachersAt the very beginning of the development process, before we did any scoping, we went straight to our audience – secondary school teachers – to ask them for their opinions. In a discussion group, a member of the EdComs research team grilled eight secondary teachers about what they wanted from a new BP resource and where they saw the gaps.

A few expected requests were suggested - simplicity, interactivity, flexibility, clear curriculum links, differentiation, little planning required. But the two standout findings that also emerged were that teachers wanted the resource to develop skills rather than knowledge and be based on real-life examples.

Curriculum topics using BP's insight

Armed with this insight we sat down with our experienced science author and brainstormed some ideas. The approach we took was to look at the real-life scientific areas that BP’s own business is focused around and find out which ones best fit the curriculum (as well as being the most interesting to the age group). We also felt that the inclusion of video in the resource would enable us to include interviews with BP scientists and footage of the science in action. To increase motivation for students we came up with the concept of a presenter scientist who introduced and set the tasks and challenges for the students (see video at

So, working with the author, we drew up a list of 12 topics that matched both BP and the curriculum and then presented these back to BP and to our panel of teacher reviewers. Their task was to narrow the topics down to a top six, the client assessing which were most suitable for their own business, the teachers, which best fitted their curriculum.

We eventually came to an agreed six topics from which to create our six challenges and could then map out what the structure for each challenge would be and the skills to be developed. As many of the challenges were to take place inside industrial plants or to involve heating or changing the structure of compounds in a way incompatible with classroom practice, we decided to simulate these activities with an online laboratory. Here, where the interactive experiments were to take place, proved to be without doubt the most complex part of each challenge.

At this stage, we were ready to let the author start fleshing out the six challenges and writing the text for the resource, ensuring that overall the key skills required in science by 11 to 16-year-olds would be addressed, such as planning an investigation, working with variables and analysing the results.

At the same time, our film team was sent out on the road to film BP scientists in their own work environment and to research other suitable footage that would help students understand the topics in question. They also began filming our Science Skills presenter.

Design development

Screenshot BP 2One of the hallmarks of a BP Educational Service resource is not just that it’s educationally sound, but that it looks appealing and engaging to students. So our role is to marry teachers’ and students’ opinions on the design that works best, with the client’s. In this we always pay particular attention to issues of branding; keeping it at the minimum appropriate level, without making any attempt to conceal it. It seems to us only ethical to be transparent and open about the originating sponsor of an educational resource going into schools. 

Inevitably the design for Science Skills went through several iterations before reaching a final version, each time, being reviewed by our teachers (and their students) and the client.

Design 1

Screen BP 4

Here we introduced the laboratory feel, the presenter-led approach, visual navigation including photos along the bottom, and a fairly subtle BP logo.

Design 2

Screen BP 5

Here, you’ll notice more greens and yellows to the design which both increased the visual appeal to engage students and also helped to consolidate the impression that this is a BP resource. There’s also been some work on fonts, and a clarity of navigation to Home, Teachers’ notes and Links.

Design 3

The finished design for Step 1 is the result of much further testing with a moving prototype of the resource and one on one usability sessions with teachers and students. From this we improved the navigation, structure and usability, particularly around issues to do with signposting – letting teachers and students know how far along in each challenge they were, where they had just come from and where to go next. 

Technical development and testing

Concurrent with design development, we also worked on the technical and structural elements of the resource, particularly in the online laboratories used for the interactive experiments for each challenge.  We started with a static prototype – a wireframe for the interactive experiment to help nail down functionality.

As we received input from testers in usability sessions along the way, this prototype became increasingly functional, and interactive, to reflect the finished result. The examples that follow are from the ‘Speeding up a reaction’ challenge where students are given the task of finding the optimum pressure and temperature at which ethanoic acid can be created from carbon monoxide and methanol.

Prototype A for the online experiments (Speeding up a reaction)

Screen BP 7

Basic static wireframes for internal testing with EdComs members of staff before going out to teachers and students.

Prototype B (Speeding up a reaction)

Screen BP 8

Prototype B has much more functionality built in with lots of ‘moving parts’ and a more intuitive interface. For example, in response to feedback on Prototype A the distinction between the input variables that students are required to change, and the resulting output has been made much clearer. At this stage, we ran one-on-one usability sessions with teachers and students.

Prototype C – final design (Speeding up a reaction)

The final design now has clear ways in and out of the experiment, the data recording function has been automated to avoid repetition, and all headers and errors come up appropriately to guide and assist the student through the experiment when needed.

Teachers’ notes and testing

After prototyping, user testing, and client and teacher review, the remaining development time was dedicated to bug testing, proofreading and creating the teachers’ notes. In line with pedagogic guidelines, teacher notes for all our resources are written on the assumption that the resource will be used with a mixed-ability class, so they include advice on differentiation, risk assessments and extension activities.

Development for Science Skills began in August 2009. We launched it to schools in October 2010. If you haven’t already come across it, I strongly recommend you have a look at it and I’d love to know what you think.

Please do make any comments, suggestions and recommendations for improvements – after all, we’ve already started work on BP’s resources for 2012.

More information

BP Educational Service website is
To view all EdComs free resources and opportunities for teachers go to   
See also "Slaves to the system – principles of a free resource" and its teacher checklist for evaluating resources, and "EdComs sets out resources 'free lunch' for teachers" about the new website.

Sophie BessemerSophie Bessemer is head of digital communications at EdComs. She has more than 10 years’ experience creating and delivering to teachers free educational resources.