Teaching Science the Virtual Way


BioLab by Amy CC BY 2.0

As our education system experiences greater pressure to get more done with less (equipment, teachers…), science teachers may begin considering the use of online labs to partially or completely fulfill the laboratory requirement. Online science labs are not created equal. There is a difference between a virtual lab and a simulation. The earliest online lab activities were predominantly virtual, in that they mimicked an actual lab experience by providing minimal interaction and feeding participants the data. Simulations, often but not always created by computers running algorithms, provide a more realistic, hands-on feel to an online lab (Keller, 2008). Both have their place in science education.

It’s not just K-12 that may be feeling the pinch. Universities are turning to virtual labs to help relieve the backlog of students needing to take introductory science courses that have a hefty lab component (Rivera, 2014). Running extra sections of labs costs money, in terms of both personnel and wear and tear on lab equipment. If students can get the same experience at home, why shouldn’t they?

That to me really is the sticking point. Are students getting the same experience that they would in a hands-on lab? I don’t think so. Virtual labs are great for many things, including reinforcing concepts learned in class, learning the names and functions of various equipment (especially if your own lab doesn’t own a fancy spectrophotometer or gel electrophoresis setup) and being able to safely explore questions like “What will happen if I mix this and this?” During this week’s Virtual Lab seminar, our group reviewed some fantastic virtual lab/simulation lab websites that ranged in difficulty of both content and user interface. But with all of them I feel that there is a sense of isolation; one of the things I think students enjoy the most about hands-on labs is the chance to talk to each other and help figure things out together. This is missing from online lab work.

It is not always possible, especially if your class is 100% online, to blend hands-on with virtual labs. But my experience this past semester with a blended approach in Biology 067 (Biology 12) (1/2 of our labs face-to-face, 1/2 online) has been very satisfying. Students seem to like that they have some time ‘off’ to work on their online lab on their schedule, but appreciate being able to handle real equipment, such as preparing a microscope slide and viewing your own cells. There are some issues with marking of online work, as students don’t always ‘get it’ (again, probably because they are working in isolation) and the labs tend to take a bit longer to mark. But I think a solution to this may be to provide a preamble for each online lab that discusses the major concepts and helps direct students to some of the observations they will be making. I’m sure I could put together a list of FAQs based on the labs I have marked.

Will virtual labs ever go away? I don’t think so. But I don’t think they will ever completely replace the real thing.



Keller, H. (2008, May 5). Science Labs: Virtual Versus Simulated. THE Journal. Retrieved from http://thejournal.com/Articles/2008/05/05/Science-Labs-Virtual-Versus-Simulated.aspx?Page=1

Rivera, C. (2014, November 15). For some students, virtual labs replace hands-on science experiments. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-college-labs-20141115-story.html

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