Successful Hands-on Labs for Online Classes

I chose the article by Reuter (2009) Online Versus in the Classroom: Student Success in a Hands-On Lab Class because of Owen’s question “Can substantial lab-based learning experiences be designed for online courses?’ As a high school Biology teacher, I have asked myself the same question. It is hard for me to envision the type of online lab that can produce the same results as a hands-on field based lab, such as a traditional water quality biomonitoring project. Is it possible to have students conduct meaningful lab activities on their own? Is there something lost when students are asked to independently perform lab activities? Reuter’s article has caused me to rethink my previous assumptions, and indicates that it is indeed possible to create labs for online courses that give students the same, if not better, understanding of the material than their on-campus counterparts. The cost savings and flexibility that online labs could provide for students and educational institutions would be very appealing.  Rueter asks if it is possible, particularly for general education science classes that target non-majors, to offer a “hands-on, lab-based course that provides the tactile experiences that enhance student understanding of scientific concepts?’

Reuter’s study was conducted using a course titled “Soils: Sustainable Ecosystems’ for an undergraduate class at Oregon State University. This was an entry level course that satisfied either the physical or biological science general education requirement. The study used 97 students and took place over two terms, across two years 2007-2008. Students were able to select the course format that they wished to participate in. Lab activities for online students required them to purchase a lab kit consisting of a “garden-style semiquantitative soil test kit’  along with common household materials. Hands-on labs primarily covered basic soil typing such as soil collection, coloring, texturing, bulk density, pH and nutrients, soil survey, and soil profile description (Reuter 2009). Detailed lab methods were given to students and accompanied by photographs and digital video. Students were required to complete each lab independently and photo-document their work. Assessments were the same for both groups, though course information was given in synchronous lecture format for students in the face-to-face classroom and online students were given readings to provide information. Reuters (2009) found “no difference in overall grade or lab assignment grades between course formats.’ However, he did find significant differences between pre and post assessments that tested knowledge and skills from the lecture and lab content of the course. Online students outperformed on-campus students in both cases and showed a “42% grade improvement from pre- to post- assessment; on-campus students had a 21% improvement’ (Reuter 2009).

I was surprised at the level of improvement found in the online classes. It is clear from this study that learning from independent, asynchronous labs is possible and can produce results that are at a minimum comparable to those found in synchronous on-campus lab activities. I have always thought that the collateral learning produced from a group lab activity would produce deeper meaning, however, Rueter’s results suggest that this is not necessarily true. Perhaps as Reuter (2009) suggests group work may allow work completion, but not necessarily retention of the knowledge needed to solve the problem independently when tested at a later time. I think that most educators would agree that retention is more important than mere completion.

Overall, I thought the study was well conducted, but could use further research and clarification in a few areas. One possible flaw to the research was a difference in age between the online and on-campus populations, (average age for the online class was 34 and 25 for the on-campus class). The author tested this possibility and found a weak correlation between overall grade results and the age of the student (R2 = 0.07)(Reuter 2009). This suggests that online students may have had greater background knowledge or experience in the area of soil science.The author also noted a difference in gender ratio (a higher female population in the online course) between the two groups, though he did not study this possible effect. Most interesting to me, was the idea that differences between the class settings might be a result of individual differences in the types of students drawn to online courses versus those that prefer to take on-campus classes. Reuter (2009) suggests that students that are successful in online classes need a greater level of maturity, time management, and ability to self-motivate and that these factors are greater measures of success than delivery mode. All three of these flaws could have been controlled by randomly assigning students to delivery method instead of allowing them to choose. While this study was not conclusive it opened up several questions for future research. Would students at the secondary level find the same success in online hands-on labs? Would strictly online labs give similar results?

Reuter, R. (2009). Online Versus in the Classroom: Student Success in a Hands-On Lab Class. American Journal of Distance Education, 23(3), 151—162. doi:10.1080/08923640903080620

5 thoughts on “Successful Hands-on Labs for Online Classes

  1. Lori

    Jenny, I enjoyed your review, particularly because the laboratory in question was a hands-on lab (rather than simulation) accomplished in an online course. Having read a fair amount of literature on the subject, I too have been surprised at the level of success with labs conducted through online courses. I wonder if part of the reason for the success is that typically in group lab sessions, one student will do the majority of the work while the other students follow along? I think your point about the maturity level and motivation of students who take online courses is a good one as well. It would also seem that labs that are very clearly defined would lend better to the independent, asynchronous format – but what about labs that are ill-defined in an effort to have the student devise an experiment or procedure rather than follow a set of steps? This type of lab seems as though it would be more difficult to conduct in an online setting – but it would be interesting to see some data.

  2. Bob

    Thanks for finding this article and sharing it. On a purely subjective criterion, I was happy to see how well this worked. Being saddled with a lab partner never was happy making for me in the few lab classes I took. To find some limited evidence or greater retention of content was satisfying as well. I am excited about the potential of this result. This is a basic level course — what are the implications for higher level lab work. Could it be done? Sciences that require a lab and specialized equipment do not seem suitable for this. However, why not for other field-based inquiries; ornithology, mammalian studies, even winter ecology? Perhaps a blended approach alternating solo field observation and sample collections and lab time testing samples or sharing observation results. For me this is pure speculation and beyond my personal experience, however, I think about the journals of various naturalists, Lewis and Clark, Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall and I am suspicious that treating a learners inquiry as a real inquiry an act of discovery, rather than a set of known problems and known results is more true to life. Here I start to think about Mazur’s criticism of our formation of problems as unnatural as very relevant.

    Minute 24 Mazur talks about the discrepancy between real problems and taught problems. I wonder how this changes our approach to lab/field sciences? Again I am way beyond my experience. However, I am intrigued.

  3. Owen

    Jenny, I’m glad you investigated this further and sounds like a well written article. At each point I had questions – about the age of the students in the online cohort, and then they did the test to see if age was a factor… all was revealing.
    This is a subject I continue to explore, myself.
    Bob, you raise some good points as well. Last year I went to the undergraduate research awards and the statewide winner performed research on red-backed voles (small rodent species) in his backyard. This is a normally overlooked species but he observed previously unknown behaviors that were actually broadly interesting to arctic ecology researchers. Real observations and real questions are so much more valuable than, as you say, “taught” problems. This is one of my objections to many primary-grade science fair projects.
    Very valuable inquiry!

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    This is a basic level course — what are the implications for higher level lab work. Could it be done? Sciences that require a lab and specialized equipment do not seem suitable for this. However, why not for other field-based inquiries; ornithology,


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