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OU faculty and student in white lab coats looking at lab results

Teaching Virtual Labs and Field Work

Mon Jun 8, 2020 at 07:30 AM

While lab courses are highly specialized and different than one another, 2020 put faculty who teach all labs into a similar circle of challenges: how to facilitate these hands-on assessment experiences partially or completely online. Perhaps the good news is that the fields and professions our students are preparing for are facing the same challenges. 

Chemistry instructor Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh reflected on how remote teaching has forced faculty to reconsider the relevance of the lab: “... we've had to come to terms with why we teach the labs we do, whether those labs promote learning in the ways that they are currently taught, and what would happen if they were moved permanently online.”

Even as conditions may have improved to allow some on-campus or on-site experiences, some students may still need a virtual option, and we should prepare for rapidly moving online as needed. This teaching tip offers ways to consider virtual modes of traditionally location-based work, along with helpful resources on what faculty have been doing in their disciplines.

Virtual Lab and Field Work Considerations

Deconstruct and reconstruct what field work is.

To decide how to reapproach labs, it’s helpful to breakdown what a lab looks like in your course specifically. These prompting questions might help:

  • What is the core work and learning outcomes? How do these contribute to the discipline’s values?
  • What role does collaboration play, if any?
  • Will you need added faculty support?
  • Is there a student dress code necessary?
  • What materials and data are needed?
  • How will the students obtain the supplies?
  • How are labs paced with other learning activities?
  • How will the lab be graded? Will a grading checklist be helpful?

Looking at the lab in its smaller components may help direct bigger decisions about what a lab looks like during a pandemic. You may see while materials are difficult to put online, collaborative elements may be easier to facilitate online. Can students achieve learning goals by observing the process of physically collecting data, and then analyze the output online? What skills will students pick up in future courses?

Explore highly various options.

Running the full gamut of options, from the easiest to imagine to those that require more stretching, will help you make informed decisions and provide flexible options for future semesters, should some students have to remain off campus. One option may rise to the top as the clear best way to achieve the learning outcomes, or you may find that two options can be equally good and offered with little extra work if developed simultaneously, saving potential extra work down the line. You will likely find multiple options within these categories.

Explore interactive tools in Moodle with instructional designers.

e-LIS instructional designers have begun working with faculty on simulation activities through the H5P tool available in Moodle (see e-LIS’ one-on-one appointments.) H5P offers dozens of interactive learning activities, including these that e-LIS has highlighted. See the H5P Instructional Guides in e-LIS’ Help Library.

  • Lab demo with an H5P Interactive Video with embedded quiz questions (for retention) or follow up questions related to work students would complete and turn in at the in-person lab.
  • H5P Branching Scenario with embedded media. For example, "what's the first step of this lab/procedure?" with 4 incorrect options and 1 correct one represented by text, photos, or video and then students get feedback on their decision with a result.
  • H5P 360 Virtual Tour or regular photos with interactive hotspots for a more exploratory experience

Similar labs in a virtual environment.

Your discipline’s professional organizations are likely putting together resources for potential virtual labs. This compilation of virtual lab programs spans different disciplines may prove helpful. Also search for professional magazines or journals in which research has been done on the use of virtual programs to make sure these programs have the staying power that will make the investment of time and money worthwhile. 

Like these lab programs, publishers also have robust virtual simulation programs for a variety of situations and populations. In nursing, a virtual simulation can be used to replace face-to-face simulation and clinical time, as well as provide an arena for exercising clinical reasoning, information sharing and critical thinking. Additionally, virtual simulations support scenario repetition with the goals of enhancing content mastery and building confidence for care provisions.

Use hands-on kits.

While kits have a cost involved, there are some options for sending students kits of the actual materials that allow them to manipulate objects similar to what they might have done on campus. Exploring these options increases access for students with limited technology access, and for specific labs that have challenges to virtual options. Kapila Castoldi, adjunct associate professor of physics at Oakland University, has used hands-on labs in pre-pandemic years with success, so she brought them back into use for the Winter 2020 semester. See her description of implementing hands-on labs, including student comments.

The bookstore will supply lab kits based on supply needs. Lab kits can be shipped to the students home depending on COVID campus restrictions. A cost may be applied for shipping, also based on COVID campus restrictions.

Have students analyze lab data.

In summer 2020, Kapila Castoldi had her students analyze pre-existing data for a more cost-effective option. “The idea behind these labs is to analyze the results obtained by various groups (10-15 or even 20 groups) as a whole,” said Castoldi. “This way we can study if the experiment is affected by systematic errors, and/or to study the overall distribution of the measurements of a particular variable obtained by the various groups.” See some examples of labs Castoldi has conducted online.

Alternative assessments different than past labs.

The alternative assessments section of OU’s Examination and Assessment Guide offers options for handwritten activities, performances, and more. What role can case studies, video recordings, work samples, and other learning activities play in either complementing or replacing current learning activities? 

Follow how the field and profession are working in remote spaces.

We are concerned that students will miss out on important hands-on skills integral to the field or a profession. It may help to pay attention to how these fields have had to change their work during this pandemic: Medical experts have leaned into telemedicine more than ever. Therapists have facilitated appointments online. Music lessons are continuing through web conferences. K-12 teachers are teaching online in a way they likely never anticipated, and this skill will be important for future teacher candidates. Other fields are working together to figure out how work can be disseminated to require as little physical contact as possible. Can our labs prepare professionals for future pandemics, for more equitable services, for more diverse teams, and for more creative work flow? This challenge may be an opportunity to develop other practical skills, such as how to determine the safest ways to conduct research, run tests, and care for clients.

Additional Reading and Resources

University of Minnesota offer several guides to teaching specific lab courses (Google Docs), which include recordings, resources, and advice from faculty who teach these types of courses. 

  • Studio courses
  • Media production
  • Engineering labs
  • Programming
  • Science labs
  • Community Partnerships
  • Fabrication Shops and Maker Spaces
  • Field Experiences and Internships in Business and Science
  • Music, Performance, Movement

Dr. Jaime Hannans talked on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast about using virtual simulations and extended reality in nursing education. Listen, browse the transcript, and see the resources and simulation programs listed. See also nursing-related simulations: Shadow Health, Nurse Think, and vSim for Nursing.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NCView all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.