Lab teaching could be revolutionised by switch to online

Advocates for virtual labs finding chance to show cost and equity benefits of online experimentation

August 24, 2020
Scientists with webcam heads
Source: Getty

The Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating a long-sought overhaul of the undergraduate lab experience, spurring the adoption of online simulators that may make science teaching more equitable, efficient and effective.

The coronavirus arrived at a moment when some educators were already trying to make the case that one of the classic hands-on college experiences − the science lab − might actually benefit from virtual accompaniment.

The advantages, advocates argue, include the fact that typical lab courses are expensive and therefore exclusive, can be too focused on rote skills and do not leave enough time for individual and collaborative exploration.

“One of our major challenges” to reform, said Robert Lue, a professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, “is that the notion of doing labs has been kind of rolling almost blindly for decades now”.

The timing of the pandemic may be proving especially fortuitous in Professor Lue’s case. In January, just before the world came to learn of Covid-19 and close down in response, he announced the start of LabXchange, a free online set of virtual lab experiences.

The platform, with financing led by the Amgen Foundation, quickly swelled to nearly 1 million teachers and students using it worldwide, with about half at the postsecondary level.

Professor Lue describes LabXchange, with its offerings in fields that include chemistry and various life sciences, as “kind of the lab version of flipping the classroom”. That means students grow competent with the online simulators before coming to class to test out and apply their abilities.

Others have been pursuing similar ideas − and seeing promise. They include Dominique Durand, professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, who for five years has been creating online adaptations of his master’s-level courses.

His projects, such as creating virtual models of the circuitry that can amplify the signal of an electrocardiogram, have helped him better identify the actual purpose of lab work.

“It turns out, it’s not really so much about hands-on,” he said. “It’s more about solving problems − how do you teach problem-solving skills?”

That has also been the realisation of Martin Storksdieck, a professor of education at Oregon State University. As director of OSU’s STEM Research Center, Professor Storksdieck has concluded that instructors often have not considered the specific values that labs deliver.

The in-person lab experience is important, he said, but for reasons that may not even be recognised by teachers, such as the human and emotional responses to noises and smells encountered in a lab.

At the same time, Professor Storksdieck said, other key educational benefits − such as giving students the room to wander rather than being handed detailed “recipes” to make and steps to follow − can be incorporated or overlooked in either a real or virtual environment.

The online option, however, can often be done at a lower cost, allowing its use by more students at universities and beyond, and affording the students greater freedom to overcome mistakes through repeated attempts.

Yet not all in higher education are convinced, especially in a complicated environment where online education has long been disparaged, leaving institutions now fearing severe financial consequences from Covid if they cannot quickly resume the in-person experience typically associated with college.

Many US university leaders have been at pains to emphasise the safety procedures they are planning for the autumn semester, while describing most online alternatives as a disappointment to be avoided.

They include Robert Robbins, president of the University of Arizona, who hosted a briefing on his reopening plans in which he hoped his students aren’t “relegated” by the virus to online worlds, and cited science labs as an especially compelling attraction.

“I keep using the example over and over: I don’t know how you do organic chemistry online; I don’t know how you do gross anatomy dissection online,” Dr Robbins said. “So, some of these classes, I think it’s imperative to have some face-to-face activity.”

Others are more open to developing virtual versions of lab classes, especially during the pandemic, but don’t see a major long-term role for them.

The move to online labs at the end of the spring semester had some benefits, said Heather Lewandowski, professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. One chief example, Professor Lewandowski said, was the increased realisation among some faculty that students did better when the disarray thrown up by the virus forced them to make more decisions on their own.

Science faculty had grown too prescriptive in their approaches, and “the pandemic broke that mould in some cases”, she said.

But virtual labs are not a long-term solution, Professor Lewandowski added. “It’s going to be a stopgap method,” she said. “Once we’re back in person, remote labs, I predict, will go away almost entirely − people miss the in-person experience.”

Professors Lue and Durand both agree that the in-person experience will remain an essential tool but see it as an expanding complement to virtual methods.

And while studying dissections often works better in computer simulations, Professor Durand acknowledged that Dr Robbins was correct to note that some courses, such as organic chemistry, appear especially difficult to adapt.

“But only,” he said, “because nobody has figured out how to do it yet.”


Print headline: Are digital experiments here to stay?

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Reader's comments (3)

Some physical skills have to be mastered in person, but a lot of lab work can be conducted virtually with a good simulation... indeed you can allow students to do things you couldn't allow them to do in 'real life' - they can work with simulated poisons, infective agents or explosives quite safely. They can also do simulated experiments that would be too costly to set up for an entire class, and have access to resources that are plain impossible - take a look inside a nuclear reactor without getting irradiated, for example.
I agree that labs can be less than useful when they are used to "illustrate" some theoretical concept by slavishly following a set of instructions. I don't think it that often doesn't illustrate the concept well. But actaully the ability to follow instructions is valuable in it self. Labs are most effective when they are teaching and practicing the fine motor skills and practical intuition needed to execute an experiment. The aim of our first two years of labs is that a student can work into their dissertation in the third year and have the confidence that when they design their experiments they will be able to pick up the required protocols and be able to execute them successfully even if they've never seen that protocol before. Like any physical skill, be it playing an instrument or taking part in a sport, you can just be told it, and expect to be good at it immediately. You need to practice, week in week out for an extended period of time.
In Physics, we emphasize the essential partnership between theory and experiment. Experiments tell you what happens in the real world, and not what your theory tells you ought to happen. Practicals teach students that there are many ways to skin a cat, but that some are better than others; that instruments always have errors, even if they have a lot of digits on the display; and that the world often appears at first *not* to behave as your theory tells you it ought -- because you forgot to add in the effect of atmospheric pressure and temperature on the period of Kater's pendulum for example. What we don't do is 'train' students to use particular bits of kit -- we are at University and not a technical college. The minute you start "experimenting" with a simulation, you are no long experimenting in any meaningful way -- you are simply probing the quality of the simulation, and more pertinently, the beliefs of the programmers as to how the world ought to behave.