Even college and university instructors open to the possibilities of online learning may worry that the in-person lab components of science courses are irreproducible in digital environments.
Norma Hollebeke, Manager of Network Programs and Services at Every Learner Everywhere, was one of those skeptics until her first encounter with virtual science labs 15 years ago. At that time, she was teaching science at Sinclair College when her dean asked her department to start putting classes online, something that felt improbable.
But Hollebeke was also intrigued. “Why is it that we as scientists encourage our students to go into the field of science — to be curious, inventive, put a man on the moon — but we don’t take that approach in our science courses?” she asks. “We are almost myopic, yet we expect students to learn to be innovative.”
She started to see the online course initiative as an opportunity to encourage students to use their curiosity in new ways.
Although lab kits were starting to become available in the marketplace, Sinclair College opted to build their own virtual lab in collaboration with designers and developers from their Distance Learning Department and with external professionals. To test if it worked, Sinclair emulated existing on-campus courses in virtual labs and then compared learning outcomes.
In some cases, the online students were doing better than their on-campus peers, and it may have been because failure is an option. A student can make a mistake in a virtual lab and do the experiment over again, whereas, in a 90-minute, once-a-week lab, there may be time for only one attempt at the experiment. That allows some emphasis to shift from why the experiment protocols aren’t working to the scientific knowledge that is the point of the experiment.
Online labs, experiments, simulations, and visualizations allow students to interact with and review biological processes, chemical reactions, and the laws of physics. For example, a student might manipulate the variables in an environmental science experiment to observe different results, or they might make multiple tries in a low-stakes dissection of a digital specimen. Another remote learning option is lab kits that include all the necessary supplies mailed directly to students.
Now Hollebeke is a strong advocate of online science courses. She sees three major benefits:
Syncing lectures and labs
In traditional classes students typically attend lecture three times a week and lab twice a week. But Hollebeke says lectures and labs often don’t synchronize. Students are attending lectures on a new concept while conducting experiments to practice last week’s concept — or worse, working on lab content for topics covered in next week’s lecture.
Putting science classes online enables instructors to align the theory with practice. Students are manipulating the relevant data or learning the critical thinking skills that go with a theory.
Keeping U.S. science competitive
Hollebeke says colleges and universities are struggling to graduate students, both majors and non-majors, with the knowledge and skills needed to keep the U.S. science and technology sectors competitive. She believes the U.S. needs another “Sputnik moment,” which must be nurtured first in classrooms.
This is where online education opened a door by expanding access to science education to many more people. “If we don’t jump through that door quickly enough, we’re not only going to slip, we’re going to slide quickly and lose any competitive edge we may have had,” Hollebeke says.
Closing the gap on equity
Online labs have become more familiar because of a global emergency. But they shouldn’t be thought of as only a substitute for a crisis situation.
Online labs are also an option to enhance and support campus-based courses. When students practice lab skills online, they’re not as intimidated when they go into the campus lab. This is especially important for students from school districts with fewer resources or who didn’t have summer and after-school enrichment activities that prioritized hands-on learning.
“The secondary ed context needs to be connected more directly to the higher ed expectations, and virtual labs add the reinforcement and support students need to make sure it’s equitable when they do get into the classroom,” Hollebeke says. “The lab kits do the same thing. You can pace yourself.”
Trends in virtual labs
During the pandemic, faculty were forced to go online and this gave people a chance to experience and warm up to the technology. Hollebeke feels many instructors discovered that online science courses weren’t what they expected. They witnessed students getting valuable learning out of the experience, and they discovered what they expected to be just “kitchen chemistry” could be innovative.
“You’re just getting to the same outcome using different paths,” Hollebeke says. “There are still going to be those who feel they need that ‘sage on the stage’ moment. But I think we’re going to see more of them using virtual labs as preparatory in a blended environment. Or they’ll have students work in the actual lab and then have them go practice a few more times in the virtual lab.”
Hollebeke also predicts that virtual labs will become more immersive as virtual reality and augmented reality technologies improve. “Instead of going to a tutorial center and having someone explain meiosis and mitosis to you again, you’ll put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and manipulate the cells yourself and watch how the chromosomes move,” she says.
Advice for instructors and administrators
The benefits of online science learning and how lab kits and virtual labs can enhance a student’s learning experience are becoming clearer, and “we just need to keep building our pool of champions,” Hollebeke says.
She wants administrators to understand that this technology will help infuse the next generation with the knowledge skills needed for the U.S. to keep its competitive edge. “Your school could be one of those that helps the U.S. climb to the top,” she says.
Hollebeke advises instructors to understand that there is no limit to what the students can learn. Even with safety restrictions and financial restrictions, if faculty members are inspired, curious, and “moonshot thinkers,” students can be unlimited in their learning.
“As science educators, we need to be willing to take that risk so that we don’t stop inspiring our students, and encouraging their achievements,” Hollebeke says. “The way we do that is by practicing that ourselves. If the students see that we are big thinkers, driven by curiosity, I think they would benefit from that the most.”
Is your institution working on blended models for science courses? Download Planning for a Blended Future: A Research-Driven Guide for Educators