Online Labs?

While we are on the subject of inherent strengths and weaknesses of various mediums (face-to-face, blended, online), what do you all think of lab courses? I had an interesting conversation with a veteran faculty member that left  me with  the following question:

Can substantial lab-based learning experiences be designed for online courses?


5 thoughts on “Online Labs?

  1. kgebauer

    I was just talking to someone who is pursuing a nursing degree and asked her if she was going to take any online classes before moving to Anchorage, to get a head start. She said no because it is too hard and not as good as doing it in person. She stated that she tried before, but dropped the class. The classes she could take online would be anatomy and physiology, and microbiology, which I am assuming have labs of some sort. It might be possible to have labs for an online course, but as to the quality of the learning experience I am not sure that it would be as good as a face-to-face lab experience. I think I will have to look into this further.

    1. Alda

      During iTeach, we were introduced to a model for a meteorology lab done via distance/online education. In that context, I think it worked. Students always have access to “weather” of some sort and the proper equipment was mailed to their location. Also, the weather data recording activities were low-risk in comparison to what could happen during an unsupervised chemistry experiment. One of the major objectives of a lab is to have students DO things and record the results. There are lots of projects that can be done safely alone and shared online, but the trick is to make sure that everyone has access to the same equipment and resources. The instructions for completing the “lab” have to be very clear and detailed since the instructor isn’t there to answer questions in person. I think that’s where some video demonstrations would be a great addition to the online content too. Students working independently at various remote sites don’t get the in-class benefit of watching others.

  2. lsowa

    I have spent a considerable amount of time on this issue, as I’m working with a faculty member at UAF who is transforming a freshman level introductory electrical engineering course to accommodate distance students. There is a physical lab component of the course, which requires substantial test equipment and soldering/building circuits. The current approach is to send out small, relatively inexpensive test kits that employ new technology which makes it possible to perform many of the same functions of larger, multi-thousand dollar equipment with a $100 kit. This model is more like the “hub and spoke” model, in that students will individually perform the experiments in a similar fashion to the original course design. This is still in the development phase.

    Just as with online courses, there are many ways to facilitate online labs: simulations, mailed test kits, remotely-controlled equipment. I personally believe the success of each of these measures is very specific to the content, and the desired learning outcomes. In-person, physical labs are not always highly effective at teaching the skills we are hoping to achieve through a lab, but they allow for hands-on experimentation and group work with that physical equipment more readily than online simulations. However, I have found some great online simulations in the physics arena that I incorporated into my Conceptual Physics course. When learning about Hooke’s Law, which basically states that elongation or compression of a spring is proportional to the force imparted on it (provided by a weight), students are able to manipulate the value for acceleration due to gravity. Differentiating between mass, which is constant everywhere, and weight, which is a force based upon the planet’s gravitational pull and thus can change based on where you are in the universe, can be a difficult concept to grasp. By allowing the value for gravity to change, which is only possible in a simulation, the students can see how the weight (and thus elongation of a spring) will change if they traveled to Jupiter, or the moon. So in this sense, the online simulation has an advantage. But, I do think this is very case specific.

    One of the learning outcomes for a laboratory course is learning how to manipulate the equipment. This is not easily achieved through a simulation… however, depending on the learning outcomes, eliminating problems due to equipment can make the conceptual learning more clear. But, how to acheive the learning associated with real-life equipment? Using pipetors, multimeters (which easily blow a fuse that physically needs to be replaced), balancing a scale. Can these be simulated? Sure, but will a student’s experience with the simulation translate to real life, when they use a real-life multimeter? It would be interesting to design a study to find out.

    Here’s a link to one set of online labs I’ve used in the past:

    1. Bob

      I didn’t ask about it last night but I wondered about the role of peer instruction in an online lab. Probably there are ways to do this. I suspect we would have to re-imagine the amount of time to get things done. I suspect it would be wise to create venues for multi-media, here thinking about video comments either as criticism or further evidence supporting the project.

      But, you are welcome to call me out since I’m just speculating here.

      1. Owen Post author

        I think video comments are a great idea. As bandwidth increases and as student capacity for creating their own video products increases – it makes sense that students could/will submit lab reports via video…or at least as a component? Students could then comment and assess one another’s work? I’m working on an oral intensive course design now where student presentations are posted via video and then assessed by their peers.


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