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

This week has been such a whirlwind. Even though I was (happily) assigned to one seminar I felt like someone at the dessert table looking over wanting to taste that one over there too! The end result was me dipping in and out of other seminars, sometimes getting caught up in a particular conversation, and trying to remember to come back and check in with the posts in my seminar. In the process I feel that I have absorbed so much information that there is a mash-up going on in my head.

How does sustained or disruptive innovation fit with my philosophy? I believe that learning is more than memorizing. Emerging technology I might choose to use in the classroom needs to encourage deeper learning. While I think there are uses for tools that ‘drill and kill’ concepts, there is so much information in the world outside the bricks and mortar that I want students to figure out how to access, absorb, and process this information. The sustaining models (e.g. flipped classroom) seem to still be teacher-centred instruction, although I could see setting up project-based learning in this format. For example, when it is a group of students turn to rotate into a computer lab, they could conduct research on a specific topic which could then be brought to the next station (perhaps discussion group).

I like the flexibility of some of the disruptive models, such as a la carte or enriched virtual. What bothers me a little though is how easy it would be to become isolated from your peers. Students have often said that collaborative work (not group work but discussion) is one of the best ways for them to learn. If students are all working on different courses or are at different points in the same course it becomes challenging to have this discourse.

It is important for me to have a teacher presence with my students. This doesn’t mean that I have to be in charge, but any model I use would need to have some way for me to communicate with my students and help them feel comfortable interacting with me and other learners. This would differ depending upon the group of learners I am working with; some groups of adults need to have the face to face interaction with the instructor to help with ‘becoming a student’. Others would be fine with a once a week required class and completing the rest of the work online.

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how to set up online content to effectively run some of the models. For example, in an individual rotation each student follows a set schedule either designed by an algorithm or a teacher. This to me says I would either need to subscribe to a provider of some sort for the learning analytics, or I need to be sure to have enough time built into my day to assess each individual and be on top of their personal plan. I do this in a minor fashion for my literacy math class, and even though I only have 16 students this can consume large parts of my week. After lurking in the gamification seminar, I think I need to explore this topic a bit further. Gamification seems like it may be a way to provide personalization for this particular group of students while keeping them engaged.

I feel like I’ve learned so much during the past year and a half. I remember that at one point I had to state my philosophy of education, but I actually had to go back to that document to remember what it was! Some things have changed, but the essence is still the same. My philosophy is tied to my beliefs about teaching, my identity and what I think my role or purpose is as an instructor. Teaching is so much more to me than trying to pour information into an often unwilling student. I’m so much happier when I see students making connections on their own, or bringing current events to the classroom just because they thought it was interesting and connected with something we were learning. Simply memorizing facts that are quickly forgotten is not how I want my students to remember their time with me in the classroom.

One of the things I love the most about being a teacher is connecting with the students. Teacher presence is an important consideration for me; even as I move to teaching more online I still want to maintain that connection and encourage students to connect with each other. I definitely want to move from teacher content to student created content, whether in my face to face classroom or online. Learning is so much more meaningful when you have to work a little to get it.

With perhaps an overabundance of cloud tools and emerging technologies available, it’s important to continually reflect upon the ‘why’ of what you are doing. Does your choice support your educational philosophy? Will it benefit the students? Or is it simply the newest toy that all the cool kids have?