Developing an Online or Remote Teaching Laboratory
Moving labs from the bench to a remote learning environment has its own set of challenges for instructors and for students. This document maps out a three-step process – Identify Learning Objectives, Decide on a Delivery Strategy, and Set a Lab Format – and the options available in each of those steps.
Identify Learning Objectives for the Lab
What do you want students to learn in the lab?
- Apply or understand a particular methodology or technique?
- Become familiar with collecting quantitative and/or qualitative data?
- Gain analytical skills like correctly performing data and statistical analyses?
- Interpret results?
- Apply theory to real-life situations using a case study?
- Learn to communicate scientific information either in written and/or verbal forms?
Clearly-defined learning objectives for the lab (which connect to or complement the learning objectives for the unit and for the course) will help you make good choices about its structure.
Be sure to communicate, whenever possible, these learning objectives and expectations of the lab to your students.
During the early development phase, you may want to consider using a storyboard or an outline to map out all requirements, resources and tools needed for each lab session. This storyboard can serve as a guide when you begin to build the content and structure of the lab. Outlining how each lab session will proceed from start to finish, and how any planned activities and assessments will be incorporated is invaluable to the development process. Also, by mapping out the lab, it can allow for collaboration to take place during development between you, your lab demonstrator, and the Trent Online team, should you require access to additional resources, support, tools or expertise.
Decide on a Delivery Strategy
Choose an approach – synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid – that aligns with the learning objectives, help the students be successful, and remains equitable (i.e., giving everyone a chance to do well and learn from the experiment). That is a tricky balance to find, but a necessary one. How will the remote lab advance students’ knowledge? How does the lab help them access or develop skills and ideas that align with the course’s learning outcomes? To what extent is the learning in the lab accessible to people with various learning, technical, location or financial needs?
Here is a brief outline of the different delivery strategies.
Synchronous lab delivery has some clear advantages. So, try to make use of them and be sure that synchronous lab sessions emphasize collaboration and discussion. This approach requires students and instructors to be together to conduct the lab at a scheduled time (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams).
Consider using Zoom breakout rooms where students work in smaller groups to conduct the lab exercises synchronously. This aligns well with how students learn in a face-to-face teaching science lab. The ability to communicate will likely improve engagement and participation in these activities. When students need to work collaboratively, students often feel better supported and their time in a synchronous session is more valued. During these Zoom breakout rooms, a member of the teaching team can drop into each room to ensure that students are progressing well through the activity.
Include knowledge-check questions throughout the lab session (i.e., Zoom polls). For example, you could ask questions after conducting a ‘pre-lab talk’ to verify that students can recall and understand the key points or instructions about the upcoming lab; or you could ask questions after students have completed part of the experiment or after making observations to confirm that the major points were identified. The purpose here is to identify any conceptual or experimental misunderstandings from the lab session to allow the instructor to address and discuss these issues in real-time with the class.
Also, synchronous sessions could incorporate a live panel, virtual Q&A opportunities, or a lab game experience with polls (e.g., class votes on options for ‘what if’s’ type scenarios).
Be mindful that some students may have accessibility issues (e.g., technical, internet, time-zone) participating in a synchronous lab. You should also offer these lab sessions with an asynchronous option.
Asynchronous lab delivery has clear benefits (which can be amplified) and obvious drawbacks (which can be mitigated. The benefit of asynchronous labs is that they are tremendously convenient for students, and they are able to carry out the lab while also managing their other responsibilities. The drawback, as you might suspect is that this delivery strategy lacks instructor and peer support. This method of delivery requires student learning to be self-directed, which in some instances, can result in students electing not to participate unless there is an assessment linked to the lab activity.
To compensate for that potentially missing connection OR to make sure students get the help they need, consider providing a method for students to discuss the lab content (e.g., discussion boards, Teams Chat, VoiceThread etc.).
Also consider incorporating self-assessment knowledge-check questions throughout the asynchronous lab, where the tools themselves could provide instantaneous feedback to help direct student learning. For example, a video that is part of the asynchronous lab could incorporate questions/comments at various points throughout. This can be achieved using Yuja Quizzes or by adding annotations or questions to your video using resources like H5P or articulate360. Participation can be encouraged by incorporating low-stake assessments into these asynchronous labs.
It’s also possible that your lab section includes both synchronous and asynchronous components. For example, some lab activities could be presented to students asynchronously to allow them time to absorb and understand the material, then the class can convene synchronously to analyze or discuss the material to further advance their learning.
Select a Lab Format
Learning objectives (for the course, for the module) are always important – and especially so at this stage. If a hands-on experience is important, for example, for the module or for the course, you might choose a lab kit or a kitchen lab. The different formats emphasize a particular set of skills that students can acquire and refine.
One more note: when selecting lab resources and/or tools to incorporate into your lab session, never use technology for technology's sake; it must always be connected to the learning objectives of the lab and add value to student learning.
Simulations attempt to recreate the lab environment digitally. Using virtual simulations, students can explore the lab, learn to operate equipment and tools while performing procedures in a safe and repeatable way.
There are many online simulation tools available. Some are Open Education Resources (OERs), whereas others either cost the institution, department and/or students for subscriptions or licences. Be mindful of the costs associated with these resources when deciding to utilize these in your online lab. If access to these simulations requires students to purchase access to these resources, this may make the lab inequitable.
Be sure to evaluate the simulations before assigning them. As you do so, here are some questions to consider:
- Is their inclusion in-line with the learning objectives for the lab session?
- Are they easy to navigate?
- Do they accurately depict the lab experience?
Consider exploring methodology or laboratory equipment that in a traditional student lab would not be feasible due to lack of access to equipment/materials, costs, complexity etc.
The instructor could show the students the simulation as a pre-lab demonstration to familiarize students with the method, then allow students to work through these independently while answering questions at various stages of the simulation.
Demonstrations / Instructional Videos
To adequately meet your specific learning objectives, it may be necessary to prepare your own instructional and/or demonstration videos that best represent the student experience at Trent University. Although for many common experiments and methodologies, OERs are readily available that could be utilized.
These videos would likely be watched asynchronously by the students.
When recording your instructional videos, you may want to consider adding a voice-over afterwards explaining what is happening during the experiment. Consider adding questions throughout the video using Yuja Quizzes or adapt your video to become an interactive activity (e.g., H5P, Articulate360) with embedded questions and annotations.
For some students, experimentation could be performed at home using a lab kit. These kits can provide students with everything needed to perform the experiment at home. However, for clarity, a demonstration or instructional video will likely be needed to ensure that students are performing the experiment correctly and safely. Although these kits generally only contain safe materials, any time experimentation is performed at home, without direct supervision, there are always potential safety risks. Also, be mindful that generally, these kits are quite costly.
Items needed to illustrate a scientific concept are readily available to students at home or are common and inexpensive to purchase at local stores. When selecting at-home experiments, be sure to only suggest safe materials and procedures. An instructional video will be necessary to show students how to perform this experimentation correctly and safely. Like with Lab Kits, when experiments are performed without direct supervision, there are always potential safety risks
In some science fields, like biology and environmental science, there may be an opportunity for students to go outside, make observations and collect data using a set of defined instructions. An instructional video would be helpful to show students what tasks they are required to complete while exploring nature.
Also remember that these formats might be usefully combined; you might, for example, record an instructional video – an example to follow – for students who are doing their own fieldwork.
The following are suggestions of other means to present or to complement the delivery of the laboratory component to students beyond lab simulations, experimentation, or demonstrations.
Analytical Skills Development
A data set that is either collected by or provided to the students is used to develop good analytical skills. Teaching the tools of how best to collect or analyze data or perform statistics analyzes is integral to the scientific process.
Provide students with examples of both qualitative and quantitative data to show how these might be evaluated differently.
In all cases, allow the results to provide an opportunity for discussion and data interpretation as the student learns to arrive at reasonable conclusions. Students could also learn to support their ideas by finding appropriate references and cite these correctly when communicating their results and ideas.
This approach gives more opportunity to continue building on the content learned by a simulation or demonstrations and provides students with more opportunity for feedback and development as scientists or researchers.
If students are collecting data from an experiment or fieldwork that will be added to a centralized class data set, consider using a Microsoft Form to collect this information. The creation of a Microsoft Form allows the data to readily be compiled into a sharable spreadsheet. This approach will simplify the data submission process for the students, and data sharing for the instructor.
Some lab sessions could be centred around communication, for example, how to prepare a scientific paper, presentation and/or poster. Students could compare these different methods of communication in the context of the experiment or case study analysis that was performed in a previous lab session.
Tutorial-based Activity or Module
Adapt a lab session to an activity or module, whereby students are directed through a series of steps, with each building upon the previous directive to assist with the development of logical thought processes. This tutorial-based approach can assist with developing problem-based skills and offer an applied approach to learning.
Students are presented with a ‘real’ life scenario that they review, develop a hypothesis, and make predictions to allow them to practice applying the scientific method. The entire class, or small groups, could discuss their ideas to support each other. By using a case study, knowledge from the classroom can be directly applied to real situations.
Live Group Activity
Students work in groups (e.g., Zoom breakout rooms) to solve a problem. For example, a case study may require students to formulate a question then suggest possible experimental design strategies that could be used to answer this question, thereby developing problem-solving skills.
Alternatively, students could be presented with an experiment, and they are to identify any procedural flaws and suggest lab design improvements.
Consider using a mixed structure for the lab component in your course. Not all lab sessions within a course with a laboratory component must be modelled the same. Including a mix of formats may entice the student to be engaged and participate while learning a variety of skills.
For example, one lab session could utilize a simulation, then a follow-up lab session could build upon that knowledge by further developing analytical skills and discussion, or another lab session could be centred around communication. This model of differing focus could form the basis of the lab being comprised of a series of mini-projects, rather than a series of individual labs.
This mixed approach gives more opportunity to continue building on the content learned by a simulation or demonstrations and provides students with more opportunity for feedback and development as scientists or researchers.
Written by: Susan Yates
Edited by: Joel Baetz
Last Updated: December 17, 2020