Prior to 2020, many had never experienced a “virtual classroom.” This included students, teachers, and administrators alike. Of course, in 2020, many learners and educators were thrust into remote learning.
Since that point, school districts and institutions around the country have faced their own individual challenges and achieved their own unique successes as they’ve navigated the virtual learning environment. One area that has seen tremendous growth and innovation is that of the “virtual laboratory.”
Laboratory courses are a critical educational component for many subject areas. The most obvious is the natural sciences, including biology, chemistry, and physics. While lecture-based courses can more intuitively be delivered in an online format, doing the same for laboratory courses is more difficult given time, space, and equipment constraints.
With such a logistical challenge, many institutions, specifically those in higher education, have traditionally opposed the idea of an online laboratory. However, it’s important to understand that mere preference for in-person instructional delivery does not discount the potential value of alternative learning methods.
Instead, by shifting our mindset to be more inclusive of innovative instructional techniques, we can actually see that online laboratories can be a more effective tool when compared to the traditional laboratory setting. Specifically, students can enhance their likelihood of achieving success in the online laboratory by reflecting on several key points.
All courses have a set of objectives that must be achieved in order to be successful in that course. Laboratory courses also have a set of objectives, which often differ from those in the corresponding lecture course. For example, in a biology lecture course, you may learn how cells divide. In the corresponding laboratory course, you may learn to use a microscope to identify dividing cells.
Notice that in the laboratory course, the course objectives emphasize the use of a microscope, not the actual process by which cells divide. As long as you make a deliberate effort to keep in mind what you should be learning, you will increase the chances of achieving your objectives.
A major disadvantage of an in-person laboratory is that experiments are highly micromanaged. Students are continuously monitored and corrected, experiments are set up before the session, and students can sometimes mindlessly go through a series of experimental steps.
The benefit of a virtual laboratory is you’re free to move through activities at your own pace. There are no time limits, and no one is waiting behind you for a piece of equipment. This provides you the opportunity to take clear notes, thoroughly record your findings, and properly communicate with your instructor. All of these are keys to success in the online laboratory.
The most striking challenge with an online laboratory is access to equipment. For example, most students don’t have microscopes, electrical circuit parts, or hazardous chemicals at their disposal. And of course, full use of such materials requires supervision in order to ensure student safety. However, for the purposes of education, physical and virtual equipment are nearly equivalent.
Your role as a laboratory student is not necessarily to become an expert in the lab setting – that will happen in graduate school. Instead, your goal is to understand the “why” and “how” of an individual experiment. Fortunately, many online laboratory activities have ways to simulate experiments, ranging from manipulating individual molecules to monitoring the migration of entire species. In fact, when considering this perspective, the online laboratory may provide more opportunities than a physical lab space.
Remember, you are never in your education alone, and you have multiple resources at your disposal, including your instructor. As you’re going through your experiments, ask yourself questions such as:
- Why am I doing this step?
- What is the purpose of this experiment?
- How is this data being produced?
Be sure to consult your instructor if you’re unclear on any of the ideas. This is what they are there for.
Whether you’re taking a laboratory course out of interest, out of requirement, or just for fun, you want to make sure that you maximize your learning. Treat your laboratory courses with equal enthusiasm as your lecture-based courses, and understand that such courses will present their own challenges and benefits. Most importantly, know that, as an online learner, you have the world at your fingertips and can successfully achieve whatever educational goals you might have – even completing scientific experiments.
Bruce Maki is a neuroscientist, scholar, educator, and researcher interested in bettering the lives of others, and helping individuals achieve their ultimate educational and career goals. As a subject matter expert, Bruce helped create the TEL Biology and Biology Lab courses.