“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.