The virtual lab advantage in higher ed

Increasing course availability, lowering costs, improving functionality

The growing availability of custom and commercial software applications allows colleges and universities to transform classroom laboratory experiences into virtual equivalents that offer advantages over their physical precursors.

This change is gradually evolving at higher ed institutions across the nation and the globe. For example, New Mexico State University has made virtual science labs available online for anyone to access.

And at my institution, The College of Westchester in White Plains, New York, networking students use TestOut virtual laboratory software to gain simulated “hands-on” experience configuring and connecting network components in a small office, eliminating the need for a costly physical lab space.

A major driver of the digital shift is the steady growth of online degree programs; moving from face-to-face delivery to the web can require the transition to virtual labs. Colleges that offer the same degree programs in class and online are required, for purposes of accreditation, to deliver the same fundamental content in both formats, and this includes requisite laboratory experiences.

Developing digital lab equipment and specimens can require significant investments in new technologies. Fortunately, moving some types of lab work to a virtual space is easier and less costly than developing custom software solutions.

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology can improve access to and use of software-based labs. And the explosive growth of wireless learning on tablets and smartphones has ushered in an exciting era of low-cost apps.

There are many other benefits that come with the move to virtual lab environments. As Charles Mutigwe, lecturer at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, noted in a presentation at last year’s UBTech conference, they include reduced costs and fewer lab administration headaches. Virtual labs can also be set up quickly and allow instructors to focus on content rather than on technology, he said.

Here’s what this technology looks like in practice.

Software solutions

For decades, traditional campus-based computer labs have provided a wide variety of software—anything from simple tax programs for accounting classes to more complex SQL Server database applications for information technology students. When courses that require such software are moved online, students still need access.

Some applications, such as the widely used Microsoft Office productivity suite or Quickbooks, can be purchased and installed on students’ home computers or other devices. But the process can quickly become complicated when programs require complex, server-based installations that may not be practical to run on a personal device.

Today’s maturing VDI technology can overcome several of these shortcomings. With the bulk of the processing done in the cloud, users can access a full Windows desktop from any browser. The virtual lab software is fast and simple to set up and use, eliminating many of the challenges of configuring and supporting the software on computers, whether they’re on or off campus.

Fast and flexible

Institutions can run VDI solutions in their own internal private cloud or in secure, hosted cloud environments, such as Amazon’s popular AWS platform or Microsoft’s Azure.

Implementing a private cloud can easily require a six-figure investment in hardware and software. Alternatively, hosting VDI on a “public,” hosted cloud service can save money and speed startup times. Public cloud services can also offer flexibility when it comes to meeting space requirements, since space can be expanded dynamically as requirements grow

At UMass Amherst, Mutigwe uses a low-cost, public-cloud solution from Vlabsystems. Students in his graduate MBA course “Business Intelligence & Analytics” can install a virtual client and be up and running with powerful database querying and analysis applications from SAP and Oracle in just minutes.

Room to experiment (and break things)

In the natural sciences, we have seen the development of virtual equivalents to traditional “wet” labs. And the benefit goes beyond teaching and learning. California State University campuses, for example, have reduced the demand for laboratory facilities and decreased costs.

Robert Desharnais, professor of biology at California State University, Los Angeles, has been involved in the redesign of a general education biology course to use web-based software. Applications like FlyLab enable students to learn the principles of genetic inheritance by designing matings between female and male fruit flies carrying one or more genetic mutations.

Conducting these labs virtually allows students to run the experiments much more efficiently, since they don’t have to worry about using a lot of consumables or breaking equipment. And, they can often run the experiments at a much faster pace than is possible in the natural world. Failures in a real world laboratory can be very time-consuming, whereas virtual labs allow for multiple runs of an experiment in a shorter period.

Every California State student must complete a science course with a lab to meet general education requirements. These courses have typically been in high demand due to limited space, but adding virtual labs has allowed the system to enroll many more students in these required courses.

Enrollment in “General Education Biology” on the Los Angeles campus increased from 455 students in the 2012-13 academic year to 1,139 students in 2013-14. In the case of the first biology courses transitioned to virtual labs, students who have participated in the course in a hybrid model (meeting every other week) have also experienced improved outcomes, with an increase in average grades and a decrease in repeats of the course.

While there are many upsides to online virtual labs, the technology can pose some challenges. Students use different combinations of computing platforms, operating systems and web browsers. These occasionally lead to technical glitches that can frustrate students who are trying to complete their assignments.

Desharnais advises giving students a place to go if they’re experiencing problems. “At Cal State LA, we used graduate assistants to staff a drop-in help center where students could get technical assistance or guidance working through the assignments,” he says.

His institution’s work may soon translate into good news for other universities. Many of the virtual labs were developed in partnership with Pearson Education. Pearson is stepping away from the relationship, and California State will make many of its labs available to other universities at no charge.

Inexpensive virtual labs at your fingertips

Another exciting development in the world of virtual labs is the increasing availability of low-cost or free smartphones and web apps. Here are a few examples:

  • Emantras publishes several virtual dissection apps best suited for tablets. The Frog Dissection app has won numerous awards and is available for iOS and Android platforms. Emantras also sells a Rat Dissection app.
  • THIX’s “CHEMIST” was designated a “Best Science-based App” by Macworld. It provides students “an entire virtual chemistry lab.”
  • Virtual Bacterial ID Lab from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a free iPad app, teaches the science and techniques used to identify different types of bacteria based on their DNA sequences.

On the web, providers such as SAS Curriculum Pathways offer free labs, like the Seasons app that lets students explore the earth’s motion and learn what causes the changing seasons.

Kelly Walsh, CIO of The College of Westchester in New York, is a UBTech conference speaker. He writes the “Emerging Ed Tech” blog.

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