Virtual vs Physical Labs

One emerging or disruptive innovation in education right now is Virtual Labs. I just completed a seminar on Virtual Labs and wanted to capture my thoughts here.

Virtual labs create opportunity to:

  • Play – it is safe to mix, try, combine online in a way that it is not possible for students to do in real life (as explosions can be very bad). Curiosity can be satisfied safely virtually
  • Practice – students can review what they need to do in a lab through an online lab. This gives them confidence in their abilities. A procedure, especially those requiring expensive or rare chemicals, can be repeated many-time virtually so students feel prepared to do it in person.
  • Participate – not all students have access to a lab or lab materials. Virtual labs can allow these students to have a lab when previously they may not have. Also, in the case of very expensive lab equipment, students can book time in a physical lab for the experiment to be conducted. The experiment is performed and the results are reported back in real time.

Virtual Labs also have some challenges:

  • Replacement – some cash strapped schools may see virtual labs as a way to replace costly laboratories. Virtual labs serve a different purpose than physical labs. If possible, the experience of hands-on learning should be remain. Mixing two chemicals together and feeling an exothermic reaction is different than mixing two chemicals online and seeing a thermometer change temperatures.
  • Access – most virtual labs require reliable broadband. In many parts of the province this can be difficult. While virtual labs can permit many students to experiment and participate without requiring a physical lab, without reliable internet, participation is still difficult.

In my teaching practice I do have some virtual labs. The reason that my colleague, Charlene Stewart, and I started to have some virtual labs (about half) in our blended Biology is limited class time. As our lab only permits 12 students and our classes are double that, we would have to use two days a week for all our students to participate, severely limiting our face-to-face class time.

One challenge we had in implementing virtual labs was prep time. It takes quite a long time to fully prepare labs so they are suitable for the grade/students. There are a lot of great sites with prepared virtual labs ( but they still need to found, tried & altered. Last semester when we were implementing the shift to half the labs being virtual, we were lucky if the labs were ready to go more than three days before the students attempted them. Having dedicated development time would really have removed much anxiety around implementation.

The results so far? There have been a few ‘hiccups’ but overall I am glad that we have changed from just physical labs to half & half. Students seem to learn from them, perhaps because they can take as long as they need to do them and can work when they feel like it, not when they are told to. Having only virtual labs would not permit the skills development that students need. By using both virtual and physical labs, students get the best of both worlds. They get the benefits of virtual labs while are still are in the physical lab enough that they can practice the lab skills that they need to continue on in Sciences.

Further Readings:

2 thoughts on “Virtual vs Physical Labs

  • February 6, 2015 at 9:52 am

    Good summary of the pros and cons of virtual labs. I worry a bit about education in the future completing replacing face to face labs with virtual labs. I completely agree that experiencing labs through your senses is far different than only receiving visual (computer graphic) information. The concepts would be the same, but I’m not sure if it would be the same deep learning.

    I had (maybe on purpose) forgotten about the time required to make the virtual labs workable for a specific group of students. I think that is an important point – even though many of the virtual labs are designed as stand-alone activities, they still need some tweaking to make them fit with what you expect of your students. Many also require pre-lab work, whether an introduction to the concept or a preview of the activity. This may actually take up more class time than if you did a face-to-face lab, as in the lab you can quickly answer questions as they come up, but with an online lab you have to try to address questions you think the students will have. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • February 6, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    I think you must be blocking the time requirements! I agree that you have to address what questions a students must have. I guess that would make the second time they are run a bit better as changes can be made based on past experience. Kinda like Cohort 1 influenced how our cohort was run!


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