Hands on Science Labs for Online Students- We can do that!

“How do you provide an authentic laboratory experience for science students in online education?” the associate dean asked me during our new staff orientation.  Knowing that this was a very common question posed by science faculty, I paused for a moment before mentioning the only answer I knew at the time, that there were a number of computer programs and websites available that would simulate various science laboratory experiments. The associate dean listened politely then said, “Those do have some value, but it still isn’t the same as a real lab experience.”  Recognizing that the dean was right and not knowing any better, I let the point drop and we moved on to other topics.

Fast-forward a year later and now I would say the associate dean is only partially right.  Here is why. For introductory online science courses there are options to use:

  1. Home kitchen labs which make use of everyday materials found in your kitchen to conduct simple experiments that still provide the hands-on experience.  These experiments are limited to what students can find in a kitchen and must remain relatively safe to conduct in a home setting.
  2. Commercial lab kits which can be sent directly to a student and contain everything students need to safely conduct a number of laboratory experiments just as they might in a regular face-to-face on campus lab course.  These kits offer the ability to do more than kitchen labs, but are still limited to experiments that can be done safely in a home setting.
  3. Remote controlled robot based labs where students from off-site control robots which manipulate the experiment materials in an on-site laboratory.  This type of lab allows students to participate in slightly more complex and hazardous experiments without needing to be on campus. This type of remote lab costs more then the other two options and can sometimes require additional training in how to use the robots.

If you were paying attention, you may have noticed what I described is for introductory science courses.  At this time, there are not yet great solutions available for the more complex and advanced scientific experiments conducted in upper level laboratory courses.  Virtual reality tools hold some promise to eventually be a possible solution; however, they need to become more affordable and realistic before they will be a viable solution.

So where does this leave us?  If you are a science faculty who is interested in developing an online science course, but has been stuck on the laboratory component, come talk to us here in the Office of Distance Education.  As this article has demonstrated, there are solutions available.  We are eager to work with you to find the right mix of laboratory options among those listed here and other possibilities to develop an online laboratory course that does provide an authentic laboratory experience for science students.



Three Alternatives to PowerPoint

Whether you’re preparing for your next lecture, or presenting your most recent assignment to your classmates, there is a good chance that you are going to to want to prepare a slideshow. PowerPoint has become a staple in presentation software, and it’s not hard to see why. The program is fairly easy to use, widely available, and has enough tools to make your presentation as simple or complex as you please. There is no doubt that PowerPoint will get the job done, however using the same software over and over again can grow boring. Here are three alternatives to PowerPoint that you can consider the next time you need put together a presentation:



  1. Prezi

Prezi is a webtool that can be used to create dynamic presentations. I like to think of it more as a journey than a slideshow. You create a “big picture” which serves as the first “slide”. This gives the audience a sneak peek of what the presentation will be about, and the progression it will take. You can then zoom into certain spots of the picture to highlight key points. Unlike a traditional slideshow, you can choose to make the presentation linear, circular, or something entirely different. Prezi provides a host of pre-made templates, or you can start with a blank canvas and create something new. Prezis can be shared with other people by providing them with a link. You can also embed Prezi presentations directly into a webpage, blog post, or discussion board. Basic features of Prezi are free, but users have access to more with a monthly subscription. Check out the video (created by the Prezi Team) below to learn the basics of Prezi.



  1. Google Slides

Google Slides is a web-based application available through Google Drive. Although Google Slides has a very similar setup to PowerPoint, I like the fact that it is integrated to Google Drive (Check out this post where I talk about some of the things I like about Google Drive). You can create slideshows utilizing most of the same features found in PowerPoint, and Google Drive makes collaborating and sharing a cinch. Working on a group presentation? You can give editing power to members of your group. Presentations can be shared by providing the audience with a link, or you can embed the presentation in an online medium of your choosing. The Google Slides app can be installed on your computer, tablet, or smartphone for free, making it easy for you to edit on the go. Learn how to get started with Google Slides here.



  1. Haiku Deck

Haiku Deck provides you the essentials needed to create a sleek and simple slideshow. Have you ever sat through a presentation where the presenter just reads a bunch of words verbatim off of their slides? Annoying, right? Haiku Deck discourages their users from doing this by providing layout options that work best with clear, succinct points. One resource available in this tool, which I really enjoy, is access to a library of royalty-free photos that you can incorporate in your presentation. It takes away the hassle of scouring the web for images. Haiku Deck also allows users to create graphs and charts with ease. Like Prezi and Google Slides, Haiku Deck presentations can be shared by providing your audience with a link, or they can be embedded to your blog, course, website, etc. Users can create three presentations for free, or an unlimited number of presentations for a monthly fee. Explore the Haiku Deck Gallery here.