“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

– George Bernard Shaw

This is part 1 of a 2-part series.  In part 2, I share 54 resources that will give you thousands of lab activities to choose from.  First, we deal with the WHAT and the WHY.  Then, we conquer the HOW.

Can You Really Create a Good Lab Experience in Online Courses?

One of the biggest issues I have seen when I consult with new online science teachers (and a few seasoned veterans) is that they want to fill their courses with information when they should be focusing on application.  They try to fill their courses with sizzle, but their students are looking for the steak.

The lab portion of an online science course is the perfect place to start if you want to craft a learning experience that:

  • Drastically increases student engagement
  • Improves how your students feel about your online course while helping them perform better at the same time
  • Helps your students to see the value in what they are learning and how it applies to the real world

I have spent the past five years tinkering with different online virtual lab experiences until I landed on this setup.  Student feedback, teaching awards, course evaluations, test scores, and my AMPLE gut all say that I am on the right track.

Let’s deal with the “why not?” before I show you the why.

But You CAN’T Teach THAT Online!!!

Lab issues are the main sticking point for a lot of science teachers that do not believe in online courses.  I have heard all of the concerns more times than I can count.

Whenever I address these concerns, I like to start by asking a straightforward question that cuts to the heart of the matter:

“What do your students need to know?”

Do we love onsite labs because we enjoyed them when we were students?  That is not a justification for requiring them in our courses.  A lot of lab activities are training exercises that teach you technical steps.  Where is the value in that unless your students genuinely need to know those steps?

I don’t teach the way I was taught.  I don’t even teach the way that I enjoy learning.  My job is to teach the way that works the best for my students.  And there are lots of ways to learn and apply the concepts in a science course that don’t require attending an onsite lab.

Let me use three common objections to prove my point:

1.  “How do students take Microbiology without using a microscope?”

I have no problem with the fact that my online students never touch a microscope in my class because 99% of them will never touch a microscope in their career either.

First, online courses are not for every student and every situation.  They are probably not right for a student that is heading down a career path that requires a lot of microscopy experience. Second, my job as their online teacher is to bridge that gap as well as I can. I have created an 11-part video series about the use and care of the microscope. I also have them use a virtual microscope from the University of Delaware or the University of Washington. They also have a Histology project that uses a microscope image database from the University of Minnesota or the University of Michigan. Some students even make their own microscope as part of a hands-on project.  I feel like this is as close as I can get my online students to the microscope without sending them one in the mail.

Bonus Tip:  This is also the content that I use when my onsite students miss a microscopy (or histology) lab.  It helps them get caught up without requiring me to set up the lab multiple times.  I use my virtual resources to create makeup assignments for almost every onsite lab.

 

2.  “How do students take Anatomy & Physiology without dissecting anything?”

I have done my best to create a suitable alternative to dissections as well. I use videos and virtual dissection tools to give them all of the knowledge they would get from a dissection without handing them a scalpel.

My job is not to teach my students how to complete lab activities.  It is to prepare them for their future careers.  I primarily work with Nursing students.  I believe that my virtual labs are more than adequate unless I have a student that is planning on becoming a professional fetal pig dissector.

Bonus Tip:  These types of resources are also very valuable for your onsite classes as well.  They allow you to have an option for students that miss a dissection lab or choose not to participate for ethical or religious reasons. 

3.  “How do students take Microbiology without working with microbes?”

The short answer is, they don’t.

You can cover a lot of material in online Microbiology courses with simulations and case studies.  But I do see a ton of value in adding hands-on activities that involve working directly with microorganisms.  And this is much easier than it sounds since microbes are literally everywhere.

Here are just a few ways that I get students working with “bugs” as part of their online lab experience.

  • I have my online students make and pour their own nutrient agar plates.  Some students that know their way around the kitchen even like to make their own nutrient agar.  Students use these plates to complete up to 6 different experiments.
  • Students complete 1 or 2 yeast fermentation labs (depending on the length of the online course).
  • I have some students complete a simple hand-washing lab with their children that doesn’t require much prep at all.
  • Some students complete a composting activity while others create and run their own gel electrophoresis experiment.

I love teaching online and I know that it can be a powerful way to reach, and teach, students.  I don’t let naysayers tell me what I CAN’T do in my online courses.  I have no doubt that I can craft a meaningful learning experience for my students whether I am standing in front of them or not.  My online students are just as active and engaged as my onsite ones.  And they never have to get out of their pajamas to do it!

Make sure you check out part 2 of this series if you think I am cherry picking a couple of examples.  I share 54 resources that will give you literally thousands of options.  With a mixture of technology and ingenuity, you can create a powerful lab experience for your online students.

How To Decide What Kind of Virtual Lab to Create?

There are a lot of different ways to create an online lab experience, and just as many tools to help you do it.  Some options are free.  Some cost over $200.  Some options are hands-on.  Some rely exclusively on computer simulations.  So, how do you decide?

I feel like we are at a fork in the road.  One path leads us to a future full of adaptive learning technology, VR headsets, and classes with a Hollywood feel (and a Hollywood price tag).  The other path doesn’t have the bells and whistles, but is full of free, or cheap, OER materials that allow more students to access an education without drowning in debt.

Your job is to choose the path that is right for your students.  This might be a difficult choice for you and your situation, but it was a pretty easy one for me to make.

Most of my students are nontraditional students.  They have jobs.  They have children.  They have responsibilities.  They are much more concerned about putting food on the table than getting the top of the line online lab experience.  I decided to create my own virtual lab experience so I could focus on striking a balance between quality and cost.

I build my labs by using a combination of free online simulations, case studies, and hands-on lab activities that students do at home with supplies that they can buy from Walmart or Amazon.  They are not perfect, but this setup saves each student an average of $162 a semester.  I am super proud of the fact that I have already saved students over $23,000.

Here is How I Introduce the Virtual Lab Experience to My Students:

Lab activities are a KEY part of this course even though we do not meet face-to-face.  I have done my best to put together a series of lab activities that:

  • Deepen your understanding of the concepts in this class
  • Help you apply what you are learning
  • Involve you in your learning by having you complete hands-on activities
  • Give you the flexibility to choose activities that interest you (and skip the topics that you have already mastered)
  • Give you the flexibility to skip activities focused on concepts and/or skills you have already mastered.
  • Save you money by eliminating the need for a $250 lab kit

It is crucial that you understand that some of these labs will be time-consuming.  In a Face-to-Face course, you would spend 2 hours every week in a lab.  I try to make it very similar for my online courses.  Do your best to stay on top of your labs, and feel free to work ahead.  It is way better to get ahead than it is to get behind.

I am fine with you working on your hands-on lab activities with a partner, but it is not required.  Reach out to me in advance if you plan on working with a classmate so I can lay out my rules for group work.

The layout for your lab activities is as follows:

You will complete:

  • 6 case studies (out of 15 options)
  • 6 hands-on lab activities (out of 19 options)
  • 8 computer simulation labs (out of 20 options)

Here is a video walkthrough of the virtual lab experience that I have created for you: (Add your video here if you make one)

Virtual Lab Simulations:

Technology is changing how we teach and how our students learn.  I am excited to see how we can reach more students, and teach them more content, through the use of virtual lab simulations.

Simulations make interactive, authentic, meaningful learning opportunities possible.  Students can learn from 3-D experiences that bring the course content to life.  We have the power to open up new worlds to our online students without asking them to leave the safety and comfort of their living room.

Benefits of Virtual Lab Simulations:

1.  Simulations shorten the learning curve: 

Virtual simulations allow students to apply what they are learning in a real-world setting long before they ever could in the actual real world.

2.  Simulations open doors:

Students can perform experiments on equipment they would never get access to in an onsite lab class.

Labster’s tagline says it all:  “A million-dollar lab, one click away.”

3.  Simulations are safe:

The biggest safety concern with lab simulations would be carpal tunnel syndrome.  You can have students complete activities that they would never be able to perform on their own safely.

4.  Students get more chances: 

Students have the time and ability to try again if they make a mistake.  This is not always the case in onsite labs.  A mistake 30 minutes into an onsite lab period may make it impossible to start over.  My online students just hit reset and get back to work.

Not to mention, blowing up a lab simulation is much less harmful than in the real world.

5.  Students can jump to the good stuff:

Students can fast forward, rewind, and skip around.

You don’t get to do part of a microbiology lab in an onsite course.  The Petri dishes won’t pour themselves, and we can’t fast forward a 36 hour incubation time.  Simulations allow you to jump straight to the important stuff.

6.  You get to respawn if you die:

If you are anywhere near my age, you have died somewhere on the Oregon trail at least 1000 times.  Cholera and Typhoid Fever aren’t near as forgiving in the real world.

Virtual Lab Simulation Best Practices:

1.  Make content, not technology, the focus:

Shiny things only help as long as there is real substance behind it.  Respect your students time (and cognitive load) by making sure that they understand why each simulation is important.  The safest way to do this is to tie them directly to a learning objective on the syllabus.  I also like to give them an example of why it fits into their course of study.

Ask yourself, “Is this the best way to teach this content, or is it just the prettiest?” or “What can I do with this simulation that I can’t do without it?” 

2.  Make sure you give the students something to do before, during, or after the simulation:

I like to ramp up online student engagement by coupling each simulation with an extension activity.  There doesn’t always have to be a right or wrong answer.  Just get your students thinking about what they were exposed to in the lab simulation.  You will find the reflection questions that I use below.

Ask yourself, “How can I make sure my students understand the purpose of this activity? or “How will they be able to apply this knowledge in the real world?”

Bonus Tip:  Devoting an online discussion board to virtual lab topics is another great way to extend the learning beyond the simulation.

3.  Find ways to connect the simulation to the rest of the course content:

Simulations should supplement, not replace, other instructional modes.  I have already used my launch pads, lecture content videos, and reading assignments to expose students to a topic before I set them loose on a simulation.

Tying simulations to the rest of the content also helps students make valuable connections between what they are learning and why they need to be learning it.

Ask yourself, “Where does this simulation fit with the rest of my course materials?  If you can’t find a connection, make one.

Potential Drawbacks and Concerns with Virtual Lab Simulations:

1.  Time Management Concerns: 

One big mistake I made when I first started teaching online was underestimating how much time it would take for students to work through activities online.  Some virtual lab simulations take 45 minutes to replace what may take a student 20 minutes to complete in an onsite lab.

The reverse can also be true.  Some simulations jump right into the good stuff and are almost too short.  Look for the Goldilocks simulations that are just right.

2.  Cost Concerns: 

There are a lot of free virtual simulation options, but a lot of the best ones are going to pretty pricey.  You have to weigh cost and quality when you decide what you will use in your virtual labs.

3.  Technological Concerns: 

Are you finding simulations that are accessible to your students?  What will the death of Flash in 2020 do to your favorite simulations?  Pay attention to these types of things if you want to create a great lab experience for your online students.

Bonus:  Borrow My Virtual Lab Simulation Introduction:

Technology is making it possible to experience a lot of the same things that you would in a Face-to-Face lab.  I have compiled the best lab simulations that I can find without you needing to purchase extra lab resources.  

You will complete 8 of these 20 lab simulation activities.  There are 4 required activities, and you can choose the other 4 from 16 options.

  • Lab Simulation Activity 1 and 2 are due by the end of Week 2
  • Lab Simulation Activity 3 and 4 are due by the end of Week 5
  • Lab Simulation Activity 5 and 6 are due by the end of Week 10
  • Lab Simulation Activity 7 and 8 are due by the end of Week 16

For each lab you will need to submit a document with the following information:

    1. Purpose: What was the purpose or goal of the lab? What were you trying to figure out?
    2. Background information: 3-4 sentences giving some background into the topic.
    3. Data: A description of any data collected while you were completing the lab activity.
    4. Analysis: Answer any questions that are included in the lab/simulation.
    5. Conclusion: 2-3 sentences about how the activity and information can be applied to the world around you…Why is it important? How can you apply the knowledge?

It is required that you send me a couple of screenshots (or take pictures of your screen with your phone) so that I have evidence that you completed the activities. There will be a minimum of a 10-point deduction if I do not receive these pictures as part of your submission.

Hands-On “Kitchen Science” labs:

“Well done is better than well said.”

I cannot remember where I first heard this quote, but I find myself reflecting on it a lot when I design a new learning experience for my online students.

I believe that the addition of hands-on activities to my online courses is the best thing I have done for my students other than creating H.E.L.P Teaching Videos for them.  They also help overcome faculty resistance to online education by having the students physically “do” some of the labs rather than just rely on the lab manual, videos, and computer simulations.

Hands-on lab activities make online courses the best of both worlds, where students can get the benefit of the type of learning that occurs in face-to-face labs with the freedom that comes with the online learning environment.

Benefits of Hands-On Lab Activities:

1.  Online students get out of their chairs and get to “do” something: 

I think it is very important to give online students multiple ways to interact with the material.

I was concerned that there would be some pushback when I started adding hands-on activities, but the response has been almost 100% positive.  Many students have mentioned that they learned more by doing hands-on activities than anything else in their online course.

2.  Online students get to involve their family and friends in their learning:

The response from nontraditional students with young children has been the most positive of all.  They have LOVED getting to work on these projects with their kids.

A student emailed me this fortuitous message about her experience with the hands-on labs while I was in the middle of writing this article:

“Can I just say, these labs are so much fun! My kids have a blast helping me with them and learning about Microbiology too. It has already been such a memorable experience, something I wouldn’t have been able to share with them if I was taking this class on campus.”

Here is my reply:

This made my day!  I love hearing that.  We want our kids to do what we SAY, but we know they will do what we DO.  You are showing your kids that learning is important and can be fun.  I hope that message, and the memories, stick with you all for a long time :).

I am sure I have received at least 20 emails just like this one.  I know without a doubt that I made the right choice by adding these types of labs into my online courses.  Now my students get to experience the same feelings that I do when I work on fun science projects with Oliver:

3.  You can expose your online students to a wider variety of experiences than you can with simulations alone:

Here is a list of some of the hands-on activities that my online students complete.  It is not a complete list, but it will get your creative juices flowing:

  • DNA Extraction Lab
  • Build a Functional Heart Valve
  • Lung Function Testing
  • Build a Functioning nephron
  • Simulated Urine Testing
  • Bone Structure Lab
  • Build a Microscope
  • Fermentation Lab
  • Soda Bottle Inner Ear
  • Gel Electrophoresis
  • Build a Compost Box
  • Functional Movement Screening

If activities like these won’t improve the online lab experience then I don’t know what will.

Hands-On Lab Activity Best Practices:

1.  Make the supply list SUPER easy to find:

The first two questions your students will have are, “What do I need?” and “How much time with this take?”  Create a document called Time and Materials for each hands-on lab activity that answers this question before they even need to ask.  

2.  Show your students the value:

The third question most students ask is, “Why do I have to do this?”

The best way to answer this question is to connect each hands-on lab activity to the real world.  A good example from my courses involves an egg protein denaturing lab.  At first glance, students may wonder why “playing” with eggs in their kitchen is worth their time.  I show them that it is valuable by connecting it to homeostasis, organ failure, and a story about how my grandmother passed away due to lactic acidosis.  Then they stop wondering why it matters and we dive right in.

3.  Show your students that you are saving them money:

The only complaint that I have ever received about hands-on labs had to do with the cost.  This is why I tell them up front how much money I am saving them.  Try to keep the overall cost at $50 or less.  Compare that to the $200-250 lab kits that are on the market.  Voila!

4.  Safety first:

Don’t ask students to do anything that puts them at risk.  Err on the side of caution when choosing labs for your students.  Include step-by-step directions for each experiment (via instructional videos or detailed, illustrated handouts).  Warn them of any steps that could lead to trouble.  

Potential Drawbacks and Concerns with Hands-On Lab Activities:

1.  Cost Concerns:  

I am very cost-conscious when I ask students to complete a lab activity.  I am a huge fan of giving student choices in online courses.  I like to give students at least five options to choose from for each lab assignment.  Many of the labs can be done with supplies that would be in a well-stocked kitchen.

Some activities require more supplies, but they are never forced to choose the activities that would cost more or require tools.  I try to make it so there is always at least one option for every assignment that would cost less than 5$.

2.  Time Concerns for the Instructor: 

I don’t see this as a real drawback, but I think it is important to mention that it will take a lot more time to grade (and provide substantive feedback) for these assignments than most other assignment types.  Consider it an investment in the student-teacher relationship.

3.  Group Work Concerns:  

I do think that collaboration is an important part of the lab experience.  But, I don’t feel comfortable forcing online students to work on physical lab assignments in groups.  I haven’t figure out how to get a student in Las Vegas and a student in Florida in the same room just yet.

I make it clear that students can work together, and that it is encouraged, but it is never required.  I save the collaboration and interactivity for the lab discussion boards and case study labs.

Bonus:  Borrow My Hands-On Kitchen Science Introduction:

 

“Telling isn’t teaching, and listening isn’t learning.”  This is the quote that I keep on my desk so I can constantly remind myself that I need to find ways to involve you in your learning for you to truly understand the concepts.  These lab activities are a great way to do that.  Yes, you will need to purchase some supplies.  I try to incorporate labs that you can either do with things you already have around your home or spend just a few dollars to get what you need.  I do my best to keep the total cost of lab supplies under $50.00.  I also want you to keep in mind that I have combined multiple lab activities into the course so that you don’t need to purchase a $160 lab manual or a $250 lab kit.  I am not costing you money.  I am saving you money!

You will complete 6 of these 19 lab activities.  There are 3 required activities, and you can choose the other 3 hands-on lab activities from 16 options.

 

  • Hands-on Lab Activity 1 is due by the end of Week 3
  • Hands-on Lab Activity 2 is due by the end of Week 5
  • Hands-on Lab Activity 3 is due by the end of Week 8
  • Hands-on Lab Activity 4 is due by the end of Week 10
  • Hands-on Lab Activity 5 is due by the end of Week 11
  • Hands-on Lab Activity 6 is due by the end of Week 13

For each lab you will need to submit a document with the following information:

    1. Purpose: What was the purpose or goal of the lab? What were you trying to figure out?
    2. Background information: 3-4 sentences giving some background into the topic.
    3. Data: A description of any data collected while you were completing the lab activity.
    4. Analysis: Answer any questions that are included in the lab/simulation
    5. Conclusion: 2-3 sentences about how the activity and information can be applied to the world around you…Why is it important? How can you apply the knowledge?

You are required to take pictures so that I can see your progress during the lab.  I do not need a lot of pictures, but you should take a picture of all the supplies prior to starting and at least 1 picture of the finished activity.  Most students send 3-4 pictures with each lab.  You will not receive credit for these lab activities if you do not submit pictures.

Case Study Labs:

Hands-on without “minds-on” doesn’t help.  Sometimes getting our online students thinking is more important than getting them doing.

I do feel like case studies can make a great addition to any online lab experience.  According to America’s Lab Report from the National Research Council, “Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

As a matter of fact, I usually schedule 2-3 lab sessions a semester for completing case studies in my onsite classes as well.

Benefits of Case Study Labs:

1. Case studies throw your students in the deep end before they are ready:

My students can use case studies to diagnose and treat patients long before I would ever trust them with my life.  They will be working on a Tuberculosis ward one week, helping a stroke victim the next, and working with a victim of a shark attack the next.   

2. Case studies scaffold learning:

My son Oliver used a balance bike and training wheels before I ever sent him pedaling down the road on his own.  The beauty of case studies is that your students only have to figure out part of the story.  It is up to you to ramp up the difficulty as your students prove they are ready.

3.  Case studies lower the stakes:

Training students that may have to save my life someday is an interesting experience.  Thankfully the last time I was in the hospital, I saw an “A” student when I woke up from surgery. 

Medical professionals are going to make mistakes.  That’s why they call it practice.  Case studies allow my students to make some of their mistakes BEFORE it really counts, and before I need them to save me.

Case Study Lab Best Practices:

1.  Choose wisely:

Find real-world case studies that matter to your students.  Choose case studies that they can take with them as they progress through their education or into their careers.  For example, students are excited to leave my online Microbiology course with an antibiotic stewardship program that they could implement in their workplace on day one.

2.  Make your students become a part of the case study:

Can you find a way to extend a case study by asking your students to become the subject?  My favorite example is from my online Nutrition course.  After I have my students complete a diet analysis case study, I then have them complete a project where they analyze their own diet.

3.  Get your students in on the act: 

Consider having your online students create some of their own case studies at the end of the course.  My online Microbiology students are good at this.  Each student submits a case study AND completes an anonymous case study that a classmate has submitted.

Bonus tip:  Save the best student submissions to use in future semesters.

Potential Drawbacks and Concerns with Case Study Labs:

1.  Submission Quality Concerns: 

Students don’t always take case studies seriously enough to get the full benefit.  My favorite solutions for this is to add mini case studies to my exams and add a case study analysis as part of a discussion board thread.

2.  Plagiarism and Cheating Concerns:

Students are really good at using Google.  The chances are that some of them will find your case study answers online.  Here is how I deal with that issue:

  • You can have your students handwrite their responses.  At least they have to go through the work of writing them rather than clicking copy and paste.
  • Make your own case studies, or use case studies that former students have created.

3.  Cost Concerns: 

Most of the best case studies that I have found are from the National Center For Case Study Teaching in Science.  You can use their case studies for free, but it will cost $25.00 per year to access the teaching notes and answer keys.  Well worth it in my opinion.

Bonus:  Borrow My Case Study Lab Introduction:

Case Studies are one of my absolute favorite teaching tools!  They allow you to build on what you have learned in this class while forcing you to learn and apply new things in a way that should leave you better prepared for your future.

I am a firm believer that you learn more when you get to focus on things that interest you.  You are required to complete 6 case studies in this course, but you get to choose your own adventure from 19 options.

Due Dates:

  • Case Study 1 is due by the end of Week 4.  You get to choose from 3 options
  • Case Study 2 is due by the end of Week 6.  You get to choose from 3 options
  • Case Study 3 is due by the end of Week 12. You get to choose from 3 options
  • Case Study 4 is due by the end of Week 14. You get to choose from 3 options
  • Case Study 5 is due by the end of Week 15. You get to choose from 4 options
  • Case Study 6 is due by the end of Week 16. You get to choose from 3 options

Feel free to work on these case studies in advance.  I find that they are more effective if you work on them after you have some understanding of the topic, but I am much more interested in WHAT you learn than WHEN you learn it.  And don’t worry about perfection.  I want to see effort and evidence of learning more than perfection.

What does the Online Virtual Lab of the Future Look Like?

This is definitely not my area of expertise.  I am rotted pretty firmly in the present.  While I don’t know what the virtual lab of the future will look like, I am certain that they are here to stay.  As an example, there is now a fully online biology degree at ASU that was built around virtual reality simulations.

Virtual and mixed reality simulations even made an appearance on the top 10 list of medical innovations for 2019 from the Cleveland Clinic:

Here is some extra reading that you will find valuable if you are keeping an eye on the future:

  • Here is a great series of articles from eLearning Industry about how augmented reality is already impacting education.
  • Here is a piece from EdTech Magazine about how augmented and virtual reality are helping K-12 students learn biology in new and exciting ways.
  • Here is an example of a successful on-site high fidelity simulation UW Health and UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
  • Oxford Medical Simulations is a company that I am keeping an eye on that is creating virtual patient simulations that look super cool.

On a personal note, I hope that the future of virtual simulations involve a lot more cool games like the urine simulator that I recently played with Oliver at The Kirby Science Discovery Center in Sioux Falls, SD:

Final Thoughts:

I hope that I have shown you that you can create a powerful lab experience that inspires, empowers, and engages your online students while striking a balance between cost and quality.  Check out part 2 of this series if you are looking for the resources you will need to build your own online virtual lab.

I want to hear from you.  Feel free to:

  • Leave a comment below.  I will personally reply to each one
  • Tag me @GrowGrayMatter on Twitter or LinkedIn to move the discussion to my favorite social media channels
  • Send me a message through the contact form on the bottom of the About page

Crush it!

Dr. O

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