Online labs evolve

Enhancing instruction, improving access and saving costs through digital lab experiences

Students learning to investigate aircraft accidents can sift through the debris of simulated crashes on eight acres of land at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s campus in Prescott, Ariz.

Last month, the institution, which has 150 locations around the world, launched a virtual version of the lab. While not meant to replace the real-life lab, it may offer remote students a more extensive experience of simulated accidents, its designers say.

Students can remotely follow the activity in the cockpit before the crash, investigate the debris field at the scene of the accident and interview witnesses from the plane and on the ground. Going beyond the crash itself, students can evaluate emergency response and also conduct three-dimensional examinations to identify how parts of the aircraft may have failed.

“It allows students to witness a crash from the cockpit, and then also from outside of the cockpit,” says Becky Vasquez, chief technology officer for Embry-Riddle Worldwide. “The different views are there, which is a unique experience.”

Embry-Riddle’s online offering is representative of the continued evolution in higher education of virtual and remote science labs that are allowing distance learners to do a wider range of “hands-on” work. In virtual labs, students use software and, often, some inexpensive equipment at home to do their work. Remote labs allow students to connect to and manipulate actual instruments—such as advanced microscopes—located on campus.

Not only are institutions expanding their reach and finding cost-savings in adding online labs, instructors are finding new ways to use the digital experience to enhance instruction.

Video-gaming elements

Embry-Riddle’s new lab is being used by online students taking a graduate-level accident investigation course in the Master of Aeronautical Science program. Students study every phase of a crash and, says Ken Witcher, dean of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Worldwide, the online lab may offer a more comprehensive experience.

“If we went to the actual existing crash lab down at our Prescott campus, and we walked around the aircraft accident scene, you could see all the results of that accident and how it damaged the aircraft,” Witcher says. “But with this virtual environment, a student gets to witness all the procedures leading up and through the accident.”

The lab could be used for a variety of other courses, such as those where students learn how different parts of aircraft function. The lab also is integrated with the university’s LMS, can be accessed from mobile devices and also downloaded for offline use.

And Embry-Riddle’s development partner, Unity, brought high-quality graphics and video-gaming elements to the crash lab—which means students move up through levels of the course by solving problems and demonstrating certain skills.

“The gamification of education is about supporting persistence, helping students get comfortable with risk taking, helping them pay attention to detail and problem-solve in unique ways,” she says. “They can keep putting into play what they’ve learned … until they feel like they’ve mastered it in a way that’s very satisfying.”

The next virtual lab in development is a robotics lab in which students will fly and design unmanned aircraft. Witcher says he envisions a gaming element that would allow students to compete to find lost hikers or to spot wildfires.

“We are really on the verge of being able to completely change the kind of things that we can do in an online, distributed global model based on what we’re learning from this crash lab,” he says.

Online engineering

Arizona State University this fall began offering a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering to online students. The program, which has about 200 students enrolled, is a blend of hardware, computer-aided design (CAD) software and simulated lab work, says Stephen Phillips, a professor of electrical engineering.

“We have the entire program available online—for engineering programs, that’s quite rare,” says Phillips, also director of the School of Electrical Computer and Energy Engineering. “Our primary motivation in offering the entire program online is to increase the access.”

Among the reasons the program is possible are low-cost hardware kits that students purchase. Students can build and test circuits with the kits. When these circuits are plugged into a computer, students use software to take measurements on a simulated oscilloscope.A real oscilloscope could cost hundreds of dollars, Phillips adds.

The CAD software, which is similar to what is used by major chip manufacturers, allows students to design and test more intricate circuits than the ones that can be built with the hardware kits, Phillips says.

All of the online courses are taught by Arizona State faculty and the exams also are the same as those given on campus. The majority of the online engineering students are not first-time, full-time freshmen, and many have attended college previously. Some are trying to finish an engineering program that was interrupted by a job or military service, Philips says.

“Some of the students feel that the online delivery is actually better for them because they can follow material at a time that’s convenient for them, and they can go back and easily review things they may not have understood,” he says. “Our system is set up so we can see that, so we know which portions of our material the students are viewing multiple times—which tells us that maybe we can do better in that area.”

Still hands-on

Henderson Community College’s online students aren’t missing out on hands-on lab experiments. In fact, they’re dissecting real sheep hearts and testing bacteria at home, and filing their lab reports and taking assessments through their learning management system. Students of the Kentucky institution also file photos of their experiments so progress can be tracked, says Cathy Hunt, a biology professor who uses the online labs for three of her courses.

The labs are an ideal mix of hands-on and virtual. Students still get their hands dirty with real experiments but also experience the independence that comes from online learning. “It’s very, very interactive—I feel like I have the best of both worlds,” Hunt says.

The hearts, bacteria, safety equipment and other materials come in kits produced by eScience Labs.

“Everything is exactly what they would use if they are in a lab,” Hunt says.

Hunt downloads her lab activities into the courses in Blackboard’s LMS. The activities include video demonstrations and instructive illustrations. And to prevent students from having to buy microscopes, Hunt uses a biology lab from Pearson that contains a virtual microscope.

Hunt also says she’s “constantly online” responding to students’ questions.

“In order to create a satisfying, online lab experience, I’ve finally been able to pull in actual hands-on activities where students perform the labs and they get the results,” Hunt says. “I’m also able to pull in virtual experiences to support that, and also to keep them from having to make large purchases, like a microscope.”

Remote equipment

Schools also are partnering to give more students remote access to expensive lab equipment. The North American Network for Science Lab Online, or NANSLO, has a lab in the Denver area and another in British Columbia that provide access to community colleges in their regions and as far away as Alaska.

The organization, part of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, is now developing a third lab in Great Falls, Mont., to serve another three institutions in neighboring states.

Using a mix of software and hardware, students in chemistry, physics and biology courses are able to remotely control microscopes, spectrometers and a piece of equipment known as an air track, says Sue Schmidt, NANSLO’s project coordinator.

“Basically, the students are doing exactly what they would do in a science lab,” Schmidt says. “They’re collecting real data, they’re looking at real slides and they are manipulating the equipment.”

The organization also is working with the Consortium for Healthcare Education Online to develop 12 new lab activities that will utilize NANSLO’s hubs. The labs will be part of associate’s and certificate-level courses for students studying to become medical assistants, lab technicians or therapists, or to qualify for positions in other so-called “allied health care” fields.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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