Contributor Charles Choi
One weakness of Monica Mogilewsky’s online science education was a lack of hands-on experience. “A class that didn’t work well was on environmental impact assessment, which was about how to monitor the industrial and agricultural human impact on different ecosystems,” Mogilewsky says. “Learning from home, I didn’t have access to a lab, so how things worked all became very abstract. So those kind of classes fell flat, and I don’t feel I got as much as I would in a traditional classroom setting.”
Online programmes are increasingly trying to compensate for this weakness with hands-on experience. “In one of our courses, we ship the materials to students for them to build circuit boards, and they upload video of them building them,” Chip Paucek, CEO of educational technology company 2U in New York says. “In another example, students who want a masters of science in midwifery from Georgetown University don’t deliver virtual babies – we arrange placements in their local areas.”
Lori Grant is currently at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies studying to be a midwife via their online course. She has been able to work with under-served populations across Arizona. “This is not uncommon for clinical rotations in health fields, but what is uncommon is to reunite weekly with my cohort of students and to learn from them at their clinical sites that vary from birth centers in California and Washington to labor wards in Pennsylvania and Florida,” says Grant. “I am able to hear how the Midwest manages a certain condition and compare that to my current practice. What better way to share knowledge.”
A number of companies now offer lab classes for online courses. For instance, eScience Labs in Sheridan, Colorado, provides lab experiences for online undergraduate science courses, including kits they ship directly to students for them to perform experiments at home, complete with manuals, animations, video tutorials and other materials that help students use the kits. The price of the lab is comparable to what students would have to pay for lab manuals and materials.
Another startup, New York City-based Late Nite Labs, creates virtual lab environments students can access from their computers. “We dubbed ourselves a flight simulator for science,” says vice president of business development, Harris Goodman. “We offer more than 100 chemistry, biology, microbiology and physics labs, focusing on interesting experiments that hook students.” (Late Nite Labs is owned by Macmillan, which also owns Nature and Scientific American.)
Students using Late Nite Labs not only have online access to lab manuals and assignments, but “for less than the cost of a textbook, students have access to an unlimited supply of virtual equipment, chemicals, specimens and anything else they’d find in a lab,” says Goodman. “You can have virtual access to really expensive hardware and materials. You can also have a lot of fun with the lab with chemical reactions that are explosive. Students get a little chuckle from it, sure, but they also learn about lab safety.”
“I did once accidentally toss a Bunsen burner into the recycling bin in the virtual lab,” says Laura Chen, an undergraduate pharmacy major at University of Buffalo who took a virtual cell biology lab produced by Late Nite Labs. “The virtual lab warned me that if I was in an actual lab, I would have to be more careful about certain things. I thought that was fun.”
Students can access Late Nite Labs’ products whenever they want. “What wet lab is open 24-7, and allows you to redo an experiment a thousand times until you get it?” Goodman asks. They also offer 24-7 email support with a live person to walk students through any problems they are having with our products, and phone support from 8am to 10pm.
Faculty can tailor any of Late Nite Labs’ offerings to fit their courses. “We also track what students do, and we provide that data to faculty so they can learn how students are doing,” Goodman says.
Online science labs are increasingly appealing to schools that do not have the money, space, or faculty to devote to expanding lab facilities, says Nicolas Benedict, founder, president and CEO of eScience Labs. “By putting introductory-level lab courses online with kits, it leaves more brick-and-mortar space for more advanced courses that really need those lab facilities,” he explained.
Chen took the virtual lab because it was not requisite in her major to take the traditional version. “The virtual lab is less time-consuming than a traditional lab,” she says. “For instance, in the traditional lab, sometimes you have to wait maybe 12 hours for a process to take place, and my roommate, who took the traditional lab, had to wait all that time, while I only had to wait a few minutes and it was done.”
Although students taking an online science course with a lab lose the experience of collaborating with lab partners, “faculty actually like that aspect – they know students are really doing experiments themselves, and you don’t get a situation where you have four students in a group where one student does the work and the other three watch,” Benedict says. In terms of lab partners, he adds “something we do hear quite a bit is of working mums [on the courses] who do our experiments with their middle-school or high-school children and it being a great experience for all of them, which is quite heartwarming.”
There are limits to what students can learn from virtual labs and lab kits. “Do you want a surgeon who has never practiced on someone? No,” Benedict says. “And we don’t send cadavers to homes. But you can you start out by dissecting a pig at home.” For more advanced classes requiring traditional lab experiences, schools that offer online science courses may also hybrid experiences where students can visit lab facilities to perform experiments, Goodman says.
“I did like the virtual lab, but it was not exactly the same as working in a traditional lab,” Chen says. “If I was working on an experiment virtually, I don’t think I would be as careful as I would doing the actual experiment. I would prefer working hands-on in a traditional lab, but the virtual lab was not as bad as I thought it would be at first.”
But like any educational system, there are flaws. Next time, we’re exploring the biggest challenges facing online education.